Updated with the best hacks and tools!
Have you ever wanted to go somewhere and ended up not going because just getting there is way too expensive? I have.
But those days are now over - you have no excuses for not finding the best possible deal. Here is a bunch of great tips to buy cheap flight tickets.
By the end of this post, you'll be able to get the cheapest airfare out there!
1. Go Incognito and Cover your Tracks
Cookies you can’t eat
Have you ever noticed that the more you research a flight, the more the price goes up? Well, you’re not crazy - it’s a fact. Don’t kid yourself: marketers are more sophisticated than ever and they’re out to get you - with cookies.
Navigate in private mode
Try doing this instead: make sure you’re browsing in incognito/private mode. This will open a new window, which will allow you to browse privately. Here’s how to do it depending on the browser you’re using:
Google Chrome or Safari: hit the command/control + shift + N keys
Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer: hit the command/control + shift + P keys
2. Make the most of the best flight search engines
What are flight search engines?
They are like Google for flights (actually, Google Flights is one of them). These search engines use unique algorithms and process tons of data that allow them to present you with a multitude of options for the flight you’re looking for: different airlines, departure and arrival times, itinerary, and of course, prices. They are your best tool to buy cheap flight tickets.
These websites (or apps) then redirect you to another external page from where you can book your ticket: it can be an online travel agency (OTA) or the airline’s page for instance.
What are the best flight search engines?
It depends on your criteria, but you’re most likely searching for the lowest prices. In this case, I highly recommend Skyscanner: it often gives you the cheapest flights and is more transparent on prices than a lot of other flight search engines. That means that the fare they display for a given flight is in most cases the final price you will pay. On the contrary, Expedia often forgets to include additional fees that appear only once you’re actually booking your ticket.
Skyscanner also has this great option that I will detail further below, which lets you look at prices for a given flights over a whole month.
Momondo is also a good alternative, although usually slightly less performant in terms of prices. Make sure that your flight search engine includes budget airlines as well: that’s why you should consider completing your search with JetRadar. Google Flights doesn’t have my preference when it comes to prices, but it’s also a nice tool that will let you compare flights quickly.
Keep in mind that none of the flight search engines above can boast to offer the best prices for every flight every time. That’s why you should combine several of them, along with a few other awesome tools I’ll tell you about below (spoiler: Hopper is a great app which is meant to help you determine when is the best time to buy).
Another great flight search engine is the Matrix Airfare Search. As wikiHow explains, this tool is just like inception for search engines: it digs into other airfare search engines, which makes it one of the best. The interface isn’t sexy but the mechanic is perfectly oiled!
3. Stay flexible with your flight dates
“It’s cheaper to fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday”: While the assumption can be verified to some extent, taking it for granted would be missing the point. These days are cheaper to fly because there is less demand. That means that if for your flight, there is less demand on a Friday, your airfare might still be cheaper than any other day of the week.
“Fridays and Sundays are the most expensive days to fly”: Here again, this assumption is generally true because that’s when most people fly.
When is the best time to fly?
The more people want to travel the same date, the more expensive the ticket will be: it’s supply and demand, and I wish my economics professor was here to see me now. Тry to beat the crowd - if you’re planning on flying on a weekend or a major holiday, either book early or be flexible. Sometimes booking a flight a day later or a day earlier might save you a couple of hundred of euros. Flexibility is one of the keys to finding cheap airfares.
The best choice is often to fly by night. Take a red-eye flight: people don’t like to fly during the night so tickets for flights departing late are likely to offer reduced prices. That’s one of my 20 airport tips to make your trip easier. An alternative is to fly during lunch time since people don’t want to skip this meal. But the impact on prices isn’t as strong as for red-eye flights.
Use Skyscanner to look at prices over a whole month when searching for your flight. Here’s how to do it exactly:
Step #1: Open Skyscanner in Private Mode (see Tip 1)
Step #2: Tick “One Way” (let’s find the cheapest way to fly, so do so even if you’re flying round-trip)
Step #3: Select your departure (“from”) and arrival (“to”) cities
Step #4: Click on “Depart” and select “Whole Month” instead of a date.
Step #5: Select either the month when you want to fly, or, if you’re really flexible, “cheapest month”
I recommend that you also check out Hopper: this great app lets you track the best times to fly by following the price variations.
4. Book your flight early… but not too early
Other untrue assumptions
“Book on a Tuesday around 3 p.m Eastern Time”: FareCompare advise to book at this time because release their weekly sales on Monday evening or early on Tuesday, so competitive airlines will adjust to the lowest price by mid-afternoon. While it’s rather true for the US, the rule doesn’t apply to Europe and again, it’s more a question of when people book.
“Last-minute tickets are always cheaper”: That is a very risky bet. You can indeed wait and pray the airline will have something interesting for you - but don’t bet your holidays on this alone. The same goes for going to the airport at the last minute hoping that the airline will have empty seats and that you’ll make a bargain. Nothing guarantees that the fares will be cheaper.
When to book your flight
If you’re too early, you’re sure to pass on the best prices: the cheapest flights are never offered more than 4 months ahead of the departure. Booking anywhere between 6 and 8 weeks before your flight is somewhat optimal: the closer to D-day, the more expensive the ticket will be, especially within 14 days of your flight.
If you’re traveling internationally, you might want to book even earlier than that: 3 months in advance is usually ideal.
Hopper also lets you know when to buy the cheapest ticket and make sure you score the lowest fare. In addition, you can set an alert on Skyscanner: they will send you the price variations of the flight you’re interested in. Be warned though: it can get spammy. The experts at FareCompare also recommend this.
4. Consider alternative paths
Longer but cheaper
A friend of mine was flying to Merida, Mexico recently. She was looking for a direct flight from Paris to Cancun, but she couldn’t see the prices - the tears in her eyes because of the outrageous prices were making it difficult to see the screen. Instead of taking this easy-but-way-too-expensive option, she opted for the let’s-fly-longer-but-cheaper one: she’s going from Nantes, France to Madrid, Spain - then to Frankfurt, Germany, and Montreal, Canada before her last connection to Cancun, Mexico.
Guess how much she saved? Оver €500. That was a huge money saver.
If you’re looking for cheaper ways to fly, you might want to try an alternative option to the direct route. If you’re not in a hurry, you can even enjoy a couple of days in your connecting city!
Use Kiwi.com for your long-haul flights: they find cheaper alternative itineraries to direct flights, including budget airlines (see my next tip). You can also create an alert for the route you’re looking into.
Make sure that you have enough time to take your connecting flight. Airports all have what is called a Minimum Connection Time (MCT): it’s the minimum amount of time that you need between two flights.
Know that if you miss your connection because your previous flight was delayed, you might be entitled to compensation - but keep in mind that it will work only if you purchase the tickets together, under the same booking number.
5. Fly budget airlines
What are budget airlines
If you’re ready to sacrifice a bit of legroom, the onboard entertainment or a meal, then budget airlines will probably become your best friends. There are plenty of cheap airlines that will operate the flight for cheaper fares at the expense of some comfort and options that would normally be included in the fare of bigger airlines. Here are a few of them:
Europe: Ryanair, easyJet, Wizz Air, Vueling, Wow Air, Norwegian Air, Aer Lingus
US & Canada: Frontier, Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines (although Southwest, Jetblue, Porter and Air Transat are usually cheap as well and operate more flights)
Asia: Air Asia, Tiger Air, Jetstar, Eastar
Thriftynomads have referenced a more detailed list here but these are the ones I’d recommend following (see next tip) because they also offer interesting deals on a regular basis. Wikipedia also has its own list of low-cost airlines complete for the rest of the world, but not all of them actually sell cheap flight tickets.
A word of advice before you do: don’t forget to check-in online and print your boarding pass. Some of these airlines will charge you a hefty fee if you haven’t done your homework. You should also make sure you respect the carry-on baggage allowance. Before leaving, double-check the location of the airport: some budget airlines depart from smaller, unknown airports.
You can also include nearby airports in your search: a flight from the closest and most obvious airport can be more expensive (because of higher taxes very often) than one at a nearby airport. For instance, flights to and from Paris-Beauvais are usually way less expensive than those from Orly and Charles-de-Gaulle. The trick might require you to make some extra effort to get there but you can save money in the process, guaranteed by me! Travel Zoo recommends the same for the US.
6. Follow a few airlines
Social media pages and newsletters
Many airlines are posting discount deals on Facebook. Discounts on cheap flights often expire fast but if you come across one that suits your travel envies, you’ll be glad you liked that page!
I also subscribe to the newsletter of the airlines I regularly fly with. I know how spammy it can get, so here’s what I do: I organize my Gmail mailbox in a way that all emails from airlines and online travel agent will go to the same folder.
Even if you’re using flight search engines (as you should), be sure to take a quick look at the airline’s website for the cheap fare you found: they sometimes have special discounts and temporary sales.
7. Find a cheap place according to your budget
Don’t care about the destination
The holidays are coming and you want to find cheap tickets to match your budget, but don’t know about the destination? A few flight search engines such as Skyscanner now let you set a departing city and date range but no destination: this way, you get prices for destinations you might not have thought of! The results will automatically be sorted by price. Here’s how it goes:
Step #1: Open Skyscanner in Private Mode (see Tip 1)
Step #2: Tick “One Way” (let’s find the cheapest way to fly, so do so even if you’re flying round-trip)
Step #3: Select your departure (“from”) but don’t fill the arrival (“to”)
Step #4: Check the suggested destinations by country
See? I can go to Italy from Sofia, Bulgaria for 13€, in the middle of the summer, searching only 15 days before departure!
That trip to Barcelona is tempting…
8. Research local airlines
I’m not talking about the cheap budget airlines above which are referenced in a few flight search engines, but some local ones that fly only less popular routes. If you’re flying domestically especially, it’s worth googling around for small airlines that could take you places you didn’t think of.
The folks at Thriftynomad found this great hack when they were in Argentina: heading to Patagonia, they came across LADE Air, operated by military pilots. The airfare was “crazy cheap”, as they put it.
9. Subscribe to a frequent flyer program
The more you travel, the more advantages you get
Most airlines have their own loyalty programs, which is a win-win for both sides: it encourages you to book your flights with them more often, and you’re rewarded for it, usually with “points”. The specifics of each loyalty program depend on the airline but they usually allow you to get advantageous fares once you’ve traveled a certain distance.
As I explained in my airport tips, the best frequent flyer program is the one of the airlines you most fly with: Delta has a great reward program, but if you’re never flying with them, it makes no sense to subscribe!
If you’re a student planning your Erasmus trip or just your next holiday, you should know that there are a lot of discounts on airfares. Several websites are also dedicated to helping students in booking their cheap flights: STA travel can help you find some really sweet deals! Ryanair also announced they were now offering a 15% discount on all flights as well as a free check-in luggage to students starting from mid-August 2017.
10. Stick to Economy… but still look at the rest
Economy is cheaper, there is no denying it, except if there has been a problem with the airline’s website (see next hack). Once again, you might not have as much room for your legs as you’d like to, nor the tasty meal onboard. But your wallet thanks you in advance.
Yet, don’t exclude the Premiere Class right away: for sometimes a few additional bucks, you’ll get the best privileges. It happens when the airline hasn’t sold many of their higher-class tickets, typically during periods where business travelers don’t fly like the summer or Christmas, as Skyscanner suggests.
11. Be on the lookout for airline error fares
Airlines are pretty big and sometimes they make mistakes when publishing their airfares, which is a golden opportunity for you, and before you ask - yes, it is perfectly legal and it is binding. It happens when there is a system bug, a glitch with the currency conversion or simply a human error. All that matters is that you can benefit from it.
You can use websites such as AirFare Watchdog or Secret Flying, that reference all these pricing errors in the same place. It’s not impossible to find an 80% discount on flight tickets using this simple trick. Don't wait, go for it!
12. Ask for a refund if prices go down after you’ve bought yours
Keep track of prices even after the purchase
“Oh man, I bought my ticket 120€ and now it’s only 90€…”. Sounds familiar? You can ask the airline for a refund - each has its own policy on the matter, but you might get the difference back or you can cancel your ticket within 24h and get a full refund. In any case, it doesn't hurt to ask for a compensation when you see that the price has gone down.
However, as Nomadic Matt pointed out, it’s not worth spending too much time tracking prices fluctuations and being stuck in buyer’s remorse. And when you see a hot fare, jump on it! It’s unlikely that the fare will go lower in the future if there is a discount now.
Yapta can even track the flights you purchased a ticket for and send you an alert when prices drop. Keep in mind that there’s no guarantee you can get your money back though.
13. Buy a package
Most flight search engines now allow you to book a hotel, a car, and additional services along with your cheap plane ticket. Obviously, don’t rent a car if you don’t need one for your trip, or a hotel if you’d rather go with Couchsurfing to be closer to the locals. But if you need those services, it’s often cheaper to book them with your flight ticket as discounts are provided in the package.
Consider contacting a travel agent. They won’t always have the best ticket prices but they have access to special fares. Especially if you have a long layover, it’s worth doing your research and ask them if they can beat the price you found. They can find ways to better spend your time than staying at the airport.
14. Risky hacks
Pay in another currency
Exchange rates vary greatly from one currency to another. You can sometimes choose the one you want to pay with and select a cheaper rate.
But it’s critical that your card won’t add transaction fees. If these get into the balance, you might end up with a more expensive ticket in the end!
Book a hidden city flight
This tip consists of booking a flight connecting in the city you want to go to and not take the connection. Why would you want to do that? Because it is sometimes cheaper than flying directly there.
The problems you might run into however might turn you away from the dark path: you should do this only with a carry-on luggage, not a checked-in one, because the latter may go all the way to the final destination. It’s also possible that you won’t be let off the plane.
Warning: doing so is wrong, but if you do opt for a hidden-city flight and the airline notices that you didn’t take your connecting flight, say that you fell asleep at the airport during the connection.
Again, be aware of the risks and keep in mind that it might be problematic for the airline since they might have to delay the flight.
Should you experience delay, cancellation or denied boarding with your flight, you might be entitled to up to 600€ in compensation. Don’t hesitate to try our Compensation Calculator and find out if you’re eligible!
Do you have your own proprietary technique of finding ultra-cheap flight tickets? Share it with us - we like to take our team on vacation too!
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See you around, traveler!
Need a summary of the best tips to buy cheap flight tickets? I got you covered