Ah, the elusive travel question: how do you find cheap flights?
I realize that there is a plethora of travel advice attempting to address just this, but seeing as it remains one of your most frequently asked questions I wanted to write about how I find the flights that I do (on a writer’s budget, no less!)
For the first time in recent memory, the availability of inexpensive flights (particularly from the expensive city in which I live!) continues to surprise and delight me! When I think back to what I used to pay for certain routes (i.e. SFO >> London, which I will be flying next week!) I am amazed at how much more manageable it has become to fly, particularly to Asia and Europe.
Even if you aren’t based in a city with a major aviation hub, there are more deals than ever (random as they may be.) What does this mean, exactly? ….We should all be traveling more!
So, how do I search for flights, and when do I book? I use a combination of different travel sites and flight search tools. Often I’ll keep my eyes on a route for a bit before I book, and I use alerts to strike when the iron/prices are hot. I flew to Paris for $220 (one-way) last year, for Pete’s sake!
The following tools are what I use most often:
The Flight Deal :: My most utilized source of flight deals. I love their daily emails.
Airfare Watchdog :: Tracks routes and sends alerts. Great for keeping an eye on multiple routes.
Google Flights :: What I use most to search for flights. You can also set alerts, and I love the calendar feature.
Secret Flying :: Less useful overall but worth watching for occasional exceptionally good deals.
Exit Fares :: If you’re really into staying on top of flight deals (guilty,) here’s another daily email that’s worth subscribing to.
Rome2Rio :: I use this for comparing all transportation options from one place to another (also presents flight price data.)
Other available tools I use less frequently, but other travelers swear by:
Of course I also use miles (though I’m certainly no expert travel hacker) to book flights for free by consolidating all my expenses on the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. This popular card is a no-brainer for me because I essentially only spend money on food and travel, both of which earn 3x the rewards. Before I used this card, I also used the Capital One Venture card. Although the rewards aren’t as great, I liked it because I could simply charge any travel purchase and then retroactively erase the charge with points earned.
I keep track of my points using Award Wallet — which is great because it alerts me when miles are about to expire — and good ol’ Google spreadsheets. If you’re in the points game at all, you’ll want to read The Points Guy.
Though I’m not personally using them regularly there are a few apps you can use for flight price tracking:
I’ve also learned a lot about cheap flights from Nomadic Matt, specifically the chapter in his book Travel the World in $50 a Day.
A few more of my best tips…
- No matter how you find the flight, try to book directly with the airline. I’m not a fan of booking through a third-party like Expedia or Orbitz, as I’ve had too many bad customer service experiences (such as being told I would receive miles on a discounted ticket and then not being able to receive them.) Also keep in mind that some airlines do not show up on searches like Google Flights (i.e. Southwest) so you will want to try a few different searches at a minimum before you book something.
- Always, always expand your search to nearby airports. If looking only at LAX, you may miss an incredible deal into Long Beach or Burbank that may be worth the extra trouble. If you only search for Heathrow, you are limiting yourself from the options at the other five London airports (use LON or NYC instead of LGW or JFK for example, to see all airport options in a city.) Many flight search sites will allow you to explore two options and present the best price. For example, I can see the best of my two home airports in searches when typed as such: SFO, OAK. So many times I’ve saved money by expanding my search out of SFO by leaving from Oakland, and I still almost always forget to include the option!
- If you’re on the fence, know that airlines often adjust prices on Tuesdays. I published this post on a Tuesday, and I also booked a flight I had been watching that went down in price this day! Also, be sure to clear your cookies if the flight price goes up in a short amount of time since you last looked…
- If you find an absolute steal of a flight, do not hesitate to book. Too many times I’ve lost out on ridiculously inexpensive mistake fares, or even just waited a day and seen the price of a route I needed go up. I never like to lock in a flight without having other travel plans lined up, but this has cost me so much more over time. This is just a small urging from me to consider the opportunity cost, even if you have to cancel the ticket, of what you may miss out on by overthinking instead of pressing ‘book.’ (especially on those really, really good deals.) You also legally have a 24-hour window to cancel the ticket (without fees) when booked in the United States, so you’ll have that window to consider it further. Sometimes you truly do have to ‘book the ticket and just go.’ You’ll figure it out once you have the flight in place!
Happy and safe travels, friends! See you in the skies.
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