Besides saving money on your accommodation, learning how to find cheap flights will help you to reduce your other big travel expense.
Thankfully, there are strategies and tips we can apply so we don’t have to pay top dollar!
It’s hard to believe but when Caz and I first started traveling in 1997 our only option was to visit our local travel agent and book our flights via them. These days, we have flight search engines and the ability to book online with the airlines which has opened up a whole new world of choice.
When searching for cheap flights, the cheapest fare is only part of reducing the cost and if you’re traveling with a young family like we do, it’s often about BEST VALUE rather than the lowest fare.
Back when we were solo travelers or traveling as a couple, we’d happily rough it on budget airlines and deal with late night stopovers and budget facilities. However, with two young kids our needs and priorities have changed.
If it’s a long haul flight, we prefer to get to our destination as quickly and as painlessly as possible, with the most amount of comfort and facilities our budget allows!
And if it’s your one-and-only dream trip for the year, and it’s a short vacation period you have, I recommend you pay the little bit extra for a premium airline and fly direct too!
The journey is not always half the fun. Know your priorities, comfort levels and budget and make an informed decision – sometimes a bit of sanity is worth the extra cost.
If you are traveling solo or as a couple, you can probably deal better with an extra stop-over and off flying times.
Flexibility is most important when you’re looking for cheap flights. If you are locked into fixed travel dates, or you can only fly on weekends or during popular holiday periods, it’s going to be more of a challenge in finding cheap flights, but not impossible.
21 Tips for Finding Cheap Flights
1. Start searching as early as possible
Airlines generally release tickets 11 months in advance. Once you know your destination start searching and continue to check at least once per week.
Flight prices are live and fluctuate constantly due to supply and demand, so have a price in mind YOU are comfortable paying and be ready to jump on it.
Sure, there are last-minute deals that might beat what you’ve already paid, but that’s not guaranteed. If you want to play the game of waiting for a bargain, you’re better off NOT having a fixed destination in mind. More on that down below.
2. When is the best time to BUY your ticket?
There really is no hard and fast rule. However, there are some general trends to be aware of.
Peak season and holiday weekends will have the most demand, so expect higher prices. You can, however, stack the odds in your favor by buying at a certain time.
A study by CheapAir who analyzed 560 million flight searches, found an optimal time to buy was on average 7 weeks in advance (for domestic flights). Others have suggested a sweet spot of between 3-7 weeks in advance.
The WORST time was within 14 days of flying, or too far in advance, more than 5 months.
For international flights, Cheap Air found the sweet spot is 11-12 weeks prior to departure. As for which day of the week to buy on, they suggest no particular day was better than the other and buying on a Tuesday and Wednesday was somewhat of an urban legend.
3. What is the best DAY to fly?
It might not matter when you buy your tickets, but cheap flights can certainly be found depending on the DAY you choose to fly!
The consensus is that it’s best to FLY OUT on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. These are typical off-peak days with airlines carrying fewer business travelers, usually meaning lower fares and a surplus of seats. You also have a better chance of grabbing frequent flyer seats on these days (which we love).
Fridays and Sundays are usually the most expensive days to fly.
And don’t get confused with the idea that buying a ticket on a certain day will result in lower airfare. That’s a separate thing to the day you actually fly!
It has been suggested to try these combinations:
- Domestic: depart Saturday, return on a Monday.
- International: depart Tuesday, return on a Wednesday.
4. Be flexible with your flight dates
The best tactic for finding cheap flights is to be FLEXIBLE with your travel dates. Give yourself the best chance by searching a couple of days, or even weeks, either side of your preferred departure date.
If you are locked into exact dates, it will be more challenging to get the best deal.
5. Adjust your time of day for flying
If you can’t change the date of your flight, play around with the time of day you choose to fly, which can change the price dramatically.
Flying at unpopular hours, such as the red-eye or early in the AM instead of late morning through afternoon, increases your chance of getting the best deal. Most of the time, the cheapest flights leave either very early in the morning or late at night.
6. Identify the cheapest payment method.
Recently I got stung with a $94 fee for booking flights using my credit card, which I now avoid on cheap domestic flights.
In Australia, Qantas lets you pay using BPAY from a debit account, and Jetstar and Virgin through the POLi system which is also a direct debit payment from your chosen bank account.
I still use my credit card however when purchasing the more expensive international flights to gain those credit card member benefits and frequent flyer points, and for added consumer protection.
7. Check alternate airports
If there is more than one airport near your origin or final destination, check them both. The more options you have in terms of airports and travel dates, the more likely you will be to finding cheap flights.
Ensure you know where the airport is situated in relation to your accommodation and before you book your tickets. We messed up once and discovered I was flying into an airport much further away from the city centre. It cost me extra to pay for a bus into the city centre and a lot more in time than simply flying direct to the main airport.
8. Fly where the deals are
Instead of choosing a destination and then spending days or weeks trying to find a flight deal, considering flying to where the cheap flights already are!
Choose a destination you can comfortably afford and one you’ll enjoy. Use a flight search engine like Skyscanner that lets you type in your departure city and search for a list of cheap flights to anywhere in the world. If you are flexible with where you want to go, these are handy tools and fun to play around with.
Keep reading for detailed tips on how to do this down below in our “How to search for deals” section.
9. Consider round trip tickets
Even if you are only flying one way, sometimes they are so expensive that the round trip ticket is actually cheaper. Just forfeit the return leg portion. We have done this from Sydney to LA. Crazy, but it happens.
10. Use different airlines
For domestic flights within Australia, it’s often cheaper for us to use different airlines and book two separate one-way flights. For example, we have flown Jetstar Airways in one direction and Virgin Australia for the return.
Do your research and factor in online booking costs. If you do two separate airlines, you may be paying two online booking costs.
11. Avoid holiday periods
Obvious I know. But try not to fly up to 7 days before or after a major holiday period. However, certain strategies such as flying on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day (when the flight attendants are extra nice) or even on September 11 can save you a penny.
And we’ve all heard of the term “tourist season”.
Europe in the summer is peak tourist season. Consider visiting in the off-months instead. Sure the weather might be a bit cooler, but the prices for flights (and accommodation) will be lower, and there will be less people lined up at popular attractions.
Just make sure all the tourist sites and accommodation providers are open in those “down” months.
12. Consider a longer layover
Flights with longer layovers usually have lower price tags.
One advantage of the Expedia flight search is that you can plan for longer stopovers on the same ticket.
13. Join a frequent flyer program
Why not? These programs are free to join and you can earn points towards cheaper fares, upgrades, and free companion tickets.
And many programs are created for airline partnerships where they’ll recognize and honor each others’ miles – such as the Qantas / Emirates partnership.
We have benefited greatly from our Qantas membership. When we were living in Raleigh, North Carolina we had to attend a family wedding in Cape Town. I (Craig) had accumulated enough points to fly return trip from North Carolina → Atlanta → London → Johannesburg → Cape Town and return!
Whilst I had to pay a couple hundred dollars in taxes and fly a longer route, saving over $2,500 was well worth it.
Frequent flyer programs mostly accrue by miles. So even if you don’t travel very often, taking just one long haul flight will add to your points balance.
If you have a premium status, such as Gold or Silver, you usually gain access to the airline lounges even if you’re flying economy. You also get priority check-in, priority security, and priority boarding.
If you only travel once or twice a year it’s probably best for you to use a flight search engine to get your best flight deal. (recommendations below)
However, if you are a frequent flyer, paying a little extra for flights by staying loyal to a premium airline or alliance such as OneWorld could be your best long-term bet for getting flight perks.
For an extensive list of frequent flyer programs click here.
Want to turn your frequent flyer points into free or cheap flights but don’t know where to start?
Abroaders turns frequent flyer points into flights at a fraction of the cost of buying a ticket. Before you buy a flight, send Abroaders your travel plans for free and see if you have enough points. Click here to learn more.
Disclaimer – We’re affiliates of Abroaders, which means we’ll earn a small commission (at no extra coast to you) should they help you snag a deal. We’re friends with the founders and know, like and trust their service
14. Sign Up for an Airline Affiliated Credit Card
If you are using a credit card, why not accumulate frequent flyer points? The best cards and benefits depend on which country you live in and what cards you have access to.
In Australia, we use a Commonwealth Bank American Express Card which gives us two Qantas points for every dollar spent.
We use this card to pay all our travel expenses, business costs, plus everyday living expenses and bills. This does take discipline. Make sure you don’t accrue interest by paying it off in full each month (very important).
And don’t forget to shop at member stores that are affiliated with the airlines. By shopping at these preferred stores you will also accumulate points. Our credit card program is linked to our phone bill company and supermarket chain.
For USA residents check out this credit card list by The Points Guy.
For Australian residents check out the list of cards here.
15. Sign up for Email Notifications
The best airfare sales can go largely unannounced. Sign up for your favourite airline e-newsletter as promotional fairs and discount codes reserved only for email subscribers can save you money. You can also be notified of last minute cheap flights.
16. Use Your Age or Student Status
If you’re a student or under 26 years old, ask about student discounts at STA Travel. STA Travel’s Exclusive Tickets can save you money.
17. Be careful of refundable tickets
It really depends on risk. If you’re taking a short trip and haven’t paid a fortune for it, don’t worry about purchasing refundable tickets or trip cancellation insurance.
However, if you’ve made a significant investment and face a high risk of cancellation, such as traveling during peak hurricane season or you have a potential medical condition, refundable tickets and trip cancellation insurance is a good idea!
18. Avoid fees
Most airlines are charging for everything these days, and if you have 2 bags or more, expect to be charged for it. Try to keep all your luggage within one bag per person, and make sure your luggage is not over-sized.
Alternatively, look for airlines that don’t charge fees, and some airlines will waive bag fees for frequent flyers or members of its credit-card program.
If you do need to check baggage, paying for it in advance is much cheaper than doing it at the airport. Check with each airline before booking so you can make an informed decision. For US based airlines check out this chart which displays all the fees compiled by Smarter Traveler.
19. Which seat is best?
It might not save you money, but it can save your sanity, especially if you’re traveling with kids or gadgets.
Seatguru shows you the best and worst seats on the plane, user comments, and photos. Find out the pitch of the seats, if they have powerpoints, personal TV screens, bassinets for infants and if baby changing facilities are available.
20. Consider a mileage run
Some people do what is called a “mileage run” if they are close to obtaining elite status for a whole year with a particular airline.
They basically find a cheap flight to anywhere and take that flight whether it be just a day trip or a weekend away. The cheap cost of the flight is seen as a small sacrifice to pay if the extra miles accrued allows them elite status for a whole year.
21. Delete your cookies/history
Some websites store your search data and will increase the price of the flights if they know the specific flights you are looking for. So when you come back a second time you are pinged as being more ready to buy and so are likely to be offered higher prices than you originally saw.
Clear your cookies or load each site in a new incognito browser window.
How to Search for Cheap Flights
When searching for cheap flights online we always start with these trusted websites listed below. Some of them you may already know, and we hope you find the tips useful and save you money and time in searching.
We always start with Skyscanner, it’s one of our favourite booking sites. In fact, we just booked our two most recent flights to Sydney via their search engine.
Skyscanner is a flight comparison site that is simple to use and fast. It searches millions of flights on over a thousand airlines, including budget carriers, and once you’ve found your flight on Skyscanner you are taken to the airline or agency to make your booking (no middlemen) or extra fees added.
You can filter your search results based on:
- number of stops
- departure times
- airlines you like and dislike
You can get price alerts every 24 hours and if you’re not set on using a particular airline, browse through all the different carriers you can choose.
Know your destination, but not your date?
Thinking of flying from New York to London this year but not sure when is the best time? Skyscanner allows you to see prices for tomorrow, in a week, in a month or the cheapest month. The website will tell you the cheapest dates to fly.
You can also type in a country name to search cheap fares from all cities within that country.
Simply click on the calendar in the Depart field and a drop down box will appear:
You can see in the screenshot below July 13th was the cheapest day to depart and August 12th cheapest day to return.
Go “EVERYWHERE” feature
One handy feature of Skyscanner I like is it allows you to type in the word Everywhere in the “To” box. This helps you to select the cheapest destination from your point of origin. Or you can also just leave the “To” box blank.
If you’re not fussed on your destination and just want to get out of town this is a fun tool.
Let’s use the departure point of New York as an example:
- in the FROM field type in your departure city.
- in the TO field leave it blank (or type in “Everywhere”)
- in the DEPART and RETURN section Skyscanner lets you see up to a week, a month or even a year of fares at a time.
- Click on the calendar icon for a drop down. Great if your travel dates are flexible.
You can see that the cheapest flight from New York is to Canada, then all the way down to China.
Want to check flight deals within the USA departing from New York? Simply type in United States in the “To” box:
I like those features. Skyscanner allows you to find the cheapest flights without having to enter specific destinations, making it a great resource for finding cheap flights for your next getaway.
Note: Sometimes Skyscanner quotes you one price and when you go through to book you are quoted with a much higher price. That can be frustrating.
Another metasearch site we like to check is Kayak. It feels like it has been around forever (which might count for something) and it’s simple to use and compares hundreds of sites in a comprehensive, fast and intuitive display. Once you find what you want, they give you choices where to book.
As mentioned flexibility can result in dramatically lower fares so you want to fly when others are not. On Kayak select the flexible dates option. You can search +/- 3 days either side of your preferred date, flexible for a month and add nearby airports and other filters.
Two cool filters I like is the Fee Calculator and how you can filter via Carriers or Alliance. And they also have a predictive chart which shows how likely it is that flight prices will either increase or decrease in the next 7 days.
Want to go ANYWHERE?
The Kayak Explore tool is another fun way to search for flights to anywhere by simply typing in your departure city. You can then filter by:
- day, month or season
- which country or continent
- flight duration
- and activities like beach, ski or golf.
Once you hit explore you’ll instantly see a map with all the destinations listed. This tool is a great way to find the right place to go with a specific budget. Below is a screen shot with New York as an example departure point:
It’s a simple interface and being able to see a number of days each side of a given search date is handy for spotting those cheaper fares.
We’ve found some nice deals on Hipmunk, and booked a recent flight from Perth to Sydney via this site.
At first glance, their unique search display takes a bit of getting used to, but it makes it easy to visually compare results and departure/arrival times to choose what’s best for you.
You can sort your search by:
- Takeoff time
- Landing time
And filter by:
- Number of stops
4. Google Flights
Google needs no introduction. But maybe you haven’t been introduced to the Google Flights search engine yet?
As we continue to mention, flexibility around the dates and times you fly is key to finding your cheapest flight. Thankfully, Google Flights makes it easy to identify the cheapest date for your desired flight.
I had to fly my dad up from Sydney to the Gold Coast and their simple calender display shows the various price options for each day.
Caz turns 40 in October and she’s always wanted to live out the female version of the Hangover movie in Vegas with her friends. Looking on Google flights you can easily see the various price points for Economy, Premium, Business and First Class for a flight from Sydney to LA in October.
I’m sure she’d love to do it in style in First Class, but OUCH!
Another metasearch site, Momondo is a global search site that checks the leading travel sites including low cost carriers.
When you do a search it tells you which flight is the cheapest, quickest and what it believes to be “the best“. And you can refine your search using all the typical filters and get fare alerts.
I like how it automatically adds the graph across the top displaying the price estimates for each day within your date range, like this Sydney to Los Angeles search, but when I clicked on different days and hit search again the prices didn’t reflect those on the graph, meaning those prices could be old.
So the site may not be that ideal for those who want to play around with flexible dates.
6. Go direct to the airlines
After you have used the flight search engines suggested above and found cheap flights for your desired destination and dates, go direct to that airline’s own website and see if you can get it for cheaper.
Many airlines have lower fares only available on their own site.
No flight search engine is perfect and not all airlines, especially low-cost carriers appear on every search engine. For example, Southwest in the US don’t allow themselves to appear.
These Low-Cost carriers (LCC) try to keep costs down by not paying a booking commission to search sites. And they can neglect to show many of the more obscure airlines.
Remember, if you DON’T book a flight direct with an airline and book through a third-party instead, be prepared to pay fees if you need to change flight dates or times, or even worse need to cancel your flight.
And don’t forget to compare hidden airline surcharges like baggage fees and specialty taxes. Different airlines charge differently and some of these search tools don’t always show those costs – you might think you’ve found cheap flights, but these extras add up!
Play around with those search engines, try to be flexible on dates and times of the day you fly, and keep checking prices regularly.
But at the end of the day, have a price in mind you are comfortable paying and don’t be afraid to hit the buy button!
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