How to Score Cheap Flights

Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

Recently, I received an email alerting me to cheap flights to Mexico in 2021. One of the toughest parts about having to cancel so many of our travel plans in 2020 is that there’s not a lot to look forward to.

Now we can look forward to 5 weeks next fall in one of our favorite destinations. I jumped at the opportunity to book four direct round-trip flights with flexible dates plus one checked bag, all for under $200 per person.

While I wouldn’t advise traveling during a pandemic, I’m confident that both my wife and I will be vaccinated by then, as will a good percentage of the populace. Hopefully, our children will have the opportunity to receive their shots between not and then, as well.

I’ve waited some time to write a comprehensive post on how one can score cheap flights like I often do, and then I came across this incredibly thorough post from Kris, the Frugal Tourist, and she gave me permission to share it with you all. This post was originally published on Your Money Geek.

 

How to Score Cheap Flights

 

Throughout 2020, we witnessed how COVID-19 viciously battered all aspects of travel. Canceled flights, empty hotels, and anxiously masked tourists are now considered the new normal. Suffice to say, we live in unprecedented times.

As airlines teeter on the edge of collapse, terrified passengers continue to avoid travel altogether. As a consequence, the industry appears to be on a downward spiral with no end in sight. Thankfully, one thing seemed to have escaped the wrath of this invisible enemy – cheap airfare.

Before the arrival of this pandemic, flight deal hunters needed to tirelessly comb through the deepest recesses of the web to find the cheapest airfares available. Due to diminishing demand, compounded by travel restrictions, we see airlines and online travel agencies competing tooth and nail for a small percentage of travelers brave enough to weather the risk of this pandemic.

It is not only effortless to find great deals, but we are also witnessing price wars between online travel agencies and airline companies, resulting in more deeply-discounted fares favorable for the frugal tourist.

This blog post will go over some strategies for finding these fantastic airfares and discuss tactics on how you can avoid paying a sizable portion of your plane ticket—the more cash you save, the more resources you will have available for your vacation.

Without further ado, here are the top ways & strategies for finding the cheapest available airfare.

 

cheap-flights

 

Top 3 Travel Search Engines

 

Advancements in technology have made searching for cheap airfare effortlessly simple and straightforward. You can book travel to virtually every corner of the globe at a click of a button. Gone were the days of manually entering individual destinations and different dates. Frantically checking the web every day to score a deal is no longer necessary. Thanks to travel search engines!

Without a doubt, these travel websites have made life simpler for even the most casual tourist. But, it is still quite easy to feel overwhelmed. Many travel search engines regularly battle for our attention. And not knowing when a deal is good enough adds on to the mental burden. Quite frankly, it can be exhausting overthinking whether the airfare you got was the best one available.

This section will simplify the search process by narrowing down my recommendations to the three best travel search engines out there. All three are consistently highly regarded by budget travelers. These travel search engines are Momondo, Skyscanner, and Google Flights. Run your searches on these three websites, and sign up for their free alerts to increase your chances of seizing the best deal.

 

Momondo

Momondo is one of the best online tools for finding cheap airfare out there. This search engine sifts through the entire web and ensures that no stone is left unturned. Momondo even tracks obscure Online Travel Agencies (OTA) and relatively unknown budget airlines to grasp the best possible deal available. If you want deeply-discounted airfares, this should be your first stop.

Momondo also has an “Explore” option if you want ideas on where to fly cheaply. Type your home airport, enter “Anywhere” in the destination box (or a specific region, like South America), select a preferred date, or type “Anytime,” and wait for it to generate the cheapest flights at the most affordable times from your home airport.

 

 

Skyscanner

Skyscanner still provides a fantastic jumping-off point when searching for incredible deals, even though it sometimes skips some lesser-known OTAs from its searches. It also has an app that is quite intuitive and easy to navigate.

Like Momondo, this perennial traveler favorite also gives the option to search for affordable destinations from your home airport. Enter your departure city, type “Everywhere” in destination, and select “Cheapest Month.”

Just make sure to compare your results with Momondo to ensure you are snatching the best fare. Eight out of 10 times, Momondo’s airfare will come out cheaper by a few dollars.

 

skyscanner search

Google Flights

This powerful search engine allows for tons of customization, including pricing, flexible dates, and the ability to enter multiple airport codes or entire regions in the “Where From” and “Where to” search boxes.

In the example below, I searched for a flight from San Francisco to any destination in Europe. I customized the search by setting the ticket price (no more than $550) and the flexible time frame (within the next six months). It generated a map that seamlessly compared airfares to various cities within the same region.

 

google-flights

 

The search revealed a $91 ticket from SFO-LGW (London Gatwick) on February 2021. If you have plans to go to Edinburgh ($467) or any point in Europe, you can purchase this ticket, stay in London for a few nights to explore the city, and then take one of the daily high-speed trains to Edinburgh or Paris. Or fly using a budget airline to Tel Aviv ($350), Lisbon ($371), or St. Petersburg ($472).

 

google-flights-results

 

Alternatively, there is also a $184 ticket from San Francisco to Rome in September that you can use as a springboard to fly to Dubrovnik, Croatia ($470) or Malta ($473), effectively saving you over $250. That also allows you to stay in Rome for as long as you want (free stop-over!) to check out its magnificent artistic treasures and phenomenal archaeological sites on a budget.

In short, utilize Google Flights to identify cheaper nearby airports if flying direct is substantially more expensive. Doing so does not only save money, but it also allows you to add another city to your itinerary.

Despite its terrific features, Google Flights’ search engine is not as comprehensive as the other two. It only searches airlines and well-established OTAs (Orbitz, Expedia, etc.), therefore missing out on the budget selections. Even so, it is still a brilliant tool in identifying when and where it is the cheapest to fly. Just remember to always compare your results with Momondo and Skyscanner.

 

 

Pro Tip: Check the Airline Website Directly

If you have a simple itinerary involving no more than two carriers, I will write down the airlines’ names recommended by the search engines and then head out to their respective websites to run an identical search. That may yield a slightly lower price. Moreover, booking directly with the airline also provides extra protection as they ordinarily have customer-friendly refund policies when they cancel a flight or change the schedule significantly.

If your search on a specific airline website did not result in a cheaper airfare, go back to the search engine that churned out the best ticket and closes the deal. Just be mindful that any changes or cancellations using an OTA may result in a voucher that expires instead of a full refund. Although some OTAs have started offering refunds, the process can still be a lengthy ordeal. For added protection, I’d consider purchasing travel insurance.

 

Mistake Fares

 

If you prefer to relax and let others do the legwork for you, it is possible to subscribe to travel websites that devote their every waking hour scavenging for cheap flights and mistake fares online.

These websites have dedicated employees that closely monitor various travel search engines for dirt cheap plane tickets. Newsletters get immediately sent out to their subscribers when these deals get uncovered, so they don’t miss out on these fantastic deals.

Curious about these error fares? They usually are the result of computer glitches that happen every so often.

Since these flights are cheaper than cheap, you need to pounce the moment the deal enters your inbox as they ordinarily disappear at the speed of light. My suggestion is to book them quickly. After all, you have 24 hours to cancel these bookings anyway.

Some of these platforms require paid subscriptions, so my strategy is to sign up for the free ones.

  1. Airfare Watchdog– FREE
  2. Secret Flying– FREE
  3. The Flight Deal– FREE
  4. TravelPirates – FREE
  5. Scott’s Cheap Flights – FREE / PAID OPTION
  6. Thrifty Traveller– PAID

 

Other Strategies to Save More Money on Airfare

 

Know When to Fly

Flying during holidays, special events, and long weekends will be incredibly pricier than flying all other times. Departing very early in the morning or taking a red-eye flight is relatively cheaper than flying during the day.

Consider booking during off-peak periods for significant savings. Another tip is to fly the day after a holiday or during the holiday itself, but never before.

 

Know When to Book

Sadly, there is no secret formula as to when is the right time to book. Ticket prices seem to be primarily driven by demand. The more passengers are interested in flying on a specific route on a particular day, the more expensive the fares become.

My only suggestion is not to wait until the last minute. If there is one thing that’s certain about airfare, it becomes unreasonably unaffordable if you purchase closer to the departure date.

The opposite is not recommended, either. Booking way in advance, say 10-11 months out, may not yield the best prices either. Unless you are travel hacking, then booking 11 months out for those award seats is the way to go. I will talk about travel hacking later in this post.

In any case, using an incognito/private browser while searching can potentially save you a few dollars as well.

 

Add a Free Stopover if Flying Direct is More Expensive

If vacation time is not a concern, searching in Google Flights can help you identify alternative cheaper airports near your final destination. Instead of flying direct to your original intended city, you can opt to fly to these nearby airports to save some cash.

Flying to these inexpensive airports also provides the traveler an opportunity to tack on a free stopover. That is similar to the London and Rome examples above. Feel free to stay as long as you want in these more affordable hubs before continuing to the last leg of your trip, either via train or a budget airline.

For example, add a stop-over in Madrid for a few days if Barcelona’s ticket costs at least $200 more. Besides the fact that the train between these two cities costs less than the airfare difference, you also get to spend some time in another city.

And, since Google Flights provides a bird’ s-eye view map of any region, this also gives the curious traveler a chance to select lesser-known destinations that you may not have considered at the onset. You do not only get to save, but you also get the opportunity to explore uncrowded off-the-beaten-path locations.

 

Depart or Arrive in a Nearby Airport

Depart or arrive at a nearby airport. For example, substantial metropolitan areas such as NYC, Los Angeles, London, and my home airport, San Francisco, are located near three international airports. Make sure you run your flights across all possible options.

 

Some Airlnes Offer Free Stopovers

Certain airlines offer irresistible free stop-over promotions to entice tourists to visit their home country. IcelandAir is one of the most generous as it allows passengers to stop-over in the country for up to 7 days before embarking to your final destination.

A few years back, on a trip to Norway, I purchased a $350 airfare from Seattle to Bergen on IcelandAir that gave me a week-long stop-over in Iceland. I was so thrilled to get to visit two countries for the price of one! Icelandair flies to almost all the major cities in Europe, so definitely consider it when you’re planning a vacation to that region.

 

[PoF: I’ve done a multi-day stopover in Reykjavik on three separate trips to Europe on IcelandAir over a 20-year span. I highly recommend it!]

 

Utilize the “Explore” Option

You got bitten by the travel bug but don’t know where to go? Do not worry; let the search engine roll the dice and decide for you.

My top recommended search engines all have the “explore” option, which is the perfect solution for travelers who are undecided about their next destination. It is a money-saver to start with a blank slate.

Enter your departure city and type “everywhere” or “anywhere” in the destination field, fill out your preferred dates, and let them point you to your next frugal vacation.

In a nutshell, being flexible with your dates and destination is the secret formula to finding the cheapest airfare around.

 

One-Way Versus Round-Trip

Booking round-trip almost always yields cheaper airfares than booking two separate one-ways, but this trend is changing, so always compare how much two separate one-ways and one round-trip flight cost.

On some rare occasions, booking round-trip tickets also come out cheaper even if you only need to fly one-way. When this happens, pick the cheapest round-trip ticket, fly, then ditch your return flight after you’ve reached your final destination.

 

Use the Multi-City Feature

Familiarize yourself with the multi-city function when searching for cheap airfare. Feel free to combine multiple flights into one multi-city search to save money if you have several flights lined up at the same time.

For example, SFO – LAX (Sept 4), LAX – SFO (Sept 9), SFO – SEA (Sep 20), SEA- LAX (Oct 1). However, always remember to compare the fares of the multi-city search with one-way and round-trip queries.

 

Book Open-Jaw

Open-Jaw bookings may yield cheaper airfare compared to two one-ways. Open-Jaw flights are similar to round-trip flights except that the airports may be different on each leg.

There are three variations: Destination Open-Jaw where there are two destinations (SFO – Rome / Venice – SFO), Origin Open-Jaw where the flight will return to another city other than where the passenger came from (SFO-Rome / Rome-LAX), and a Double Open-Jaw where all the cities changed (SFO-Rome / Milan-LAX).

Booking open-jaw saves you valuable time from backtracking and can save you some money if an alternative flight is cheaper than a typical round-trip flight.

You would need to use a multi-city search for open-jaws. But again, do not forget to compare the cost between 2 separate one-ways and one open-jaw booking.

 

Book for One Person

If traveling with a group of friends, try to book individual tickets instead of booking for all. It is not uncommon that ticket prices will be lower if booked individually.

Periodically, airlines offer different fares for the same flight, depending on demand. So, booking ahead can capture those “saver” fares – you would want to be the early bird that catches the worm.

Are you traveling as a couple or a family? Try to book one person at a time and see what this approach churns out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

 

24-Hour Cancellation

Although it involves a little bit of effort, I try to maximize the 24-hour free cancellation window. Essentially, after I book cheap airfares, I keep on monitoring the various travel websites in the next 24 hours in case something more inexpensive surfaces.

If I find a better deal within the window period, I cancel the original booking for free and book the new one. Even if it is conceivable to keep on repeating this process indefinitely, I do not recommend it.

This practice can be a time guzzler, so I only suggest changing your ticket once for 24 hours to save time and energy.

 

Pay With Local Currency

Compare paying in USD and the local currency.

When I booked a domestic flight between Santiago & Punta Arenas, Chile, on a recent trip to Patagonia, it yielded a $450 airfare since I was signed up as paying in USD. When I selected my country, like Chile, and chose to pay using local currency, the airfare went down to $150.

Don’t forget to use a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees when making these “international” bookings.

 

Fly Budget Airlines

Budget airlines in certain regions are a dime a dozen, so I cannot list them all out here. A great springboard would be to search at Momondo as that engine appears to capture fares from a wide range of budget airlines.

A word of caution, though, please read the fine print thoroughly. Airlines tack on hidden fees to these inexpensive tickets all the time. Landing a cheap airfare on a budget airline does not always mean it is inherently cheap. Be prepared to sit in the middle seat and use only a carry-on if you want to avoid paying for these extras.

Sometimes, it is less costly to pay for services upfront versus paying at the last minute. Case in point, since I failed to pre-purchase a piece of check-in luggage with Vietjet, a budget airline in Vietnam, I had to shell out $75 at the airport. Had I paid for that luggage upon booking, it would have only cost me $25. Oh, well.

Bottom line, consider paying if you think you will need some of these services when it is time to fly. Trust me. It will save you more than a handful of change.

 

 

Tactics to Earn Free or Partially Free Flights

 

Vounteer Your Seat

If you have a lot of flexibility and time, I suggest giving up your seat whenever they ask for volunteers. Holidays and long weekends are the prime time for these goldmines.

U.S. flights typically offer a guaranteed seat on the next flight plus a voucher for a future flight. The amount varies, but the highest I’ve received was $1,000. European airlines will pay you cash instantly by depositing money to your debit or credit card at the gate.

 

Write The Airline

If your trip was less than what you expected or you’ve encountered inconveniences along the way, you can always reach out to customer service and share your grievance.

I’ve written about delayed/lost luggage, flight delays, missed connections, canceled flights, dysfunctional inflight entertainment systems, involuntary downgrades such as getting assigned to a middle seat when I pre-paid for the aisle, etc. They typically compensate with a voucher that can be used towards your next flight.

Flight interruptions due to natural causes such as inclement weather are generally not eligible for compensation, but it would not hurt to try.

 

Travel Rewards

Almost all of my flights the past decade or so were redeemed using travel points accrued from generous credit card sign-up bonuses. I’ve leveraged this strategy to fly on premium cabins that I otherwise couldn’t afford. The next section is dedicated to an overview of this lucrative money-saving travel strategy.

 

 

 

Travel Rewards

 

Anyone remotely interested in travel should be at least familiar with how travel rewards work as they has the potential of saving anyone an enormous amount of money. I see it as the perfect union of frugality and travel.

Every major airline or hotel brand has its loyalty program, and loyalists naturally get rewarded with free flights and hotel stays. Free travel is attained after reaching a certain number of points, usually dependent on the redemption cost. Case in point, an inexpensive 50-minute regional flight on coach will require significantly fewer points than a Trans-Pacific flight on business class.

Back in the day, the only way to accumulate these “loyalty” or “frequent flier” points is by consistently flying with these airlines or staying in these hotels. But that is just now a thing of the past. Currently, anyone can earn these frequent flier points by travel hacking.

Simply put, travel hacking is the art of applying for specific travel credit cards to earn generous sign-up bonuses that can be ultimately redeemed for free flights and luxurious hotel stays.

Simply put, it is by far the best strategy to save money on airfare!

Whether you are a novice or an expert traveler, I highly recommend dabbling in travel rewards as it allowed me to see places I would never have imagined visiting in this lifetime for a fraction of the price.

 

Chase Ink Business Cash

$750 cash back with a $7,500 spend in 3 months
PoF Summary

The Chase Ink Business Cash offers 5% back on up to $25,000 spent on cell and landline service, internet, cable TV, and at office supply stores. 2% back at gas stations & 1% back on all else. No annual fee.

Chase Ink Business Unlimited

$750 cash back with a $7,500 spend in 3 months
PoF Summary

The Chase Ink Business Unlimited offers a flat 1.5% cash back on all purchases. 0% introductory APR for 12 months. No annual fee.

 

Final Thoughts

 

As the famous quote asserts, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”

On the flip side, travel also has the potential to make anyone poorer. If we are not careful about our travel spending habits, it can certainly burn a hole in our wallets.

Navigating the multiple options available out there can be daunting, so I hope that the frugal strategies I’ve outlined in this post can assist you in confidently purchasing cheap airfare so you will avoid breaking the bank.

The more money we save, the more money we can divert to our travel funds, so we do not go broke when we return from our vacations. After all, traveling should never create a financial burden on anyone.

I hope that this post has also encouraged you to learn more about travel hacking so you can eventually accumulate travel reward points and redeem them to fly for free shortly.

Lastly, I wish that this post has propelled you closer to the vacation of your dreams, as I can’t wait for you to embark on that journey!

What destinations are on your bucket list?

 


 

Though this article is travel-related, this is by no means a recommendation to travel at this very moment. Should you decide to move forward in purchasing a plane ticket, please be mindful of the current health guidelines being enforced by airlines and hotels. Even though the risk of contracting COVID19 could not be eliminated unless you isolate yourself entirely, traveling does substantially increase the likelihood of infection, so travel only when you can tolerate this risk. Furthermore, quarantine requirements and travel restrictions are all fluid, so make sure that your destination does allow you to enter without requiring you to stay indoors for longer than your entire vacation.

Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

 

7 thoughts on “How to Score Cheap Flights”

  1. Wow, this is a really comprehensive guide!

    My wife is usually the one who books our tickets, and it’s usually many months in advance when we’ve both coordinated schedules and requested the time off at work. And then we’re trying to coordinate trips with extended family to very specific locations that everyone can agree on. All these constraints tend to jack up the ticket prices for us.

    It looks like flexibility in all these things can really make a difference in price!

    Reply
  2. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  3. Happy Thanksgiving Leif & family.! This is a great guide and I definitely learned a few things. If you can be flexible, there can be lots of good deals to be found. We are planning to go to Europe next summer, hopefully it’s OK to travel then and we can find some cheap tickets.

    Reply

Leave a Comment