The biggest expense of travel is undoubtedly transportation. For short trips flights often represent half of my total cost. On longer journeys, this one-time cost can be reduced significantly by staying longer in one place, but I tend to get restless and hop country to country whenever I can find a cheap fare.
While I will share some tips I use to find good deals, I’m going to be honest upfront – there is no magic bullet. I’m not going to waste your time linking to a bunch of BS websites where deals are few and far between. I’m not going to tell you that it’s “so easy to find great flight deals” because it simply is not. Airlines are watching each others prices constantly and adjusting theirs to stay in sync with the competition.
As I have been talking to people about my travels, I am often asked about finding cheap flights. Even though many of the things I do to find good fares seem like second-nature to me, it is amazing how many people are not aware of these simple tricks to find a great deal online. So with this being said, I will share real, practical advice to finding flight deals online that you can start using today.
I always start any search at Google Flights. Though Google Flights doesn’t always have every possible fare out there (read on to find them all), it gives a great overview of different airlines that fly a certain route. Google Flights also has an excellent map feature built-in and integrated with Google Maps so I can actually see where I am flying and look at fares to nearby airports all on one map. This is a huge help to locate deals at nearby airports or when just browsing generally for cheap flights if I’m open to going anywhere. When I was recently in Madagascar, I wanted to fly onwards to Africa and I used Google Flights to find out where I fly to the mainland for cheap. At this time I was pretty open to flying anywhere and I ended up visiting Ethiopia.
After checking out Google Maps to get a general overview of flight routes, I run a few searches using SkyScanner to find interesting deals. SkyScanner is essentially the mother of all flight search engines. Everything is on there, and they will concoct wild itineraries to make it from A to B in the cheapest way possible. Search engines like Google Flights often have a threshold of how complicated or terrible a flight can be. When the flights are weird, they won’t show it. SkyScanner, however, will go there and show you all options. I often use SkyScanner to find bizarre connections using different airlines to save me quite a lot of cash.
Another great feature I like about SkyScanner is the ability to search a specific country or “everywhere” as the destination. Say I wanted to go to Italy, rather than search Florence or Rome, I can just punch in Italy and find out that the cheapest route is to Pisa instead. Now I get an extra stop in Pisa and can then take the train to my next destination. Furthermore with the “everywhere” function, I can just punch in the dates I am available to travel and see where I can go listed by price. This is an awesome feature when beginning to plan a trip. Do you really care if you go to Indonesia, Thailand, or Vietnam? They’re all awesome so just punch in the dates and find out who has the best deal.
My only suggestion on SkyScanner is to be careful where you buy the flight from. Usually SkyScanner suggests legit third party websites like Expedia or Orbitz selling a certain fare, but sometimes they recommend really sketchy travel sites out of Europe offering fares that are too good to be true. If in question, just Google the sight reputation to see if they are legit.
Southwest (for US travel)
I’m not sure why, but for some reason Southwest avoids being indexed by the flight search engines. I always like to check the fares on their website before purchasing any domestic ticket in the United States to see if I can find a better deal. Southwest is a budget airline, but they are known for having the best customer service in the airline industry. Seating is first-come first-serve, so make sure to check into your flight 24 hours ahead online to be at the front of the line. I often set a calendar reminder in my phone 24:15 hours before my flight departs to check-in online.
Air Asia (For SE Asia and India)
AirAsia has got some of the cheapest fares in the world, and as long as you understand the terms and conditions, I’ve found them to be quite pleasant. Whenever I travel in SE Asia, I always make a point to check the fares on Air Asia because I have found some of the deals of a lifetime on their site. I wouldn’t have flown to Mauritius without them. I don’t know how they do it, but pretty much all flights on Air Asia seem to cost 75% less than a similar distance flight in the United States. Everything from checked bag to food is a la carte on this airline though.
Even though AirAsia technically has a 7kg bag weight limit for carry-on, I’ve found this is rarely enforced. The only times I’ve ever had issues with bag weight is when checking in to the actual counter. AirAsia now has an app that allows you to get boarding passes on your phone completely bypassing the traditional check-in booths. This is great because pretty much no one will weigh your bag after this point unless it looks super heavy at the gate. One time in India, I had to check-in in person because I couldn’t get online to get my boarding pass. The lady at the counter was ruthless about the weight. I was not about to give in to her on principle so I went to the bathroom and put on all my clothes and filled my pockets with possessions just to spite her. I made it to 7.1 kg and she let me through.
Air Asia also frequently has sales with significant discounts from the regular fares. The best way to find these sales is to sign-up for their mailing list or download the app to receive sale push notifications. Usually I think most airline sales are essentially just marketing ploys, but AirAsia actually offers real discounts. I wouldn’t recommend their sales if I thought they were fake.
Points Aren’t That Great
I’m a member of United’s Star Alliance, and while I have been happy with their program, I am not always looking to jump on Star Alliance partner airlines just to rack up points. I only fly these airlines when the price is comparable to another flight offered. I am not shy to flying a new airline if the savings are significantly cheaper. Even though points are great, cash is always better.
I always travel with a backpack only. I think this should go without saying, but it would be foolish to travel with a large suitcase unless you absolutely have to. The amount of money I have saved not checking bags can easily add up to thousands of dollars. Airlines are looking to make an extra buck wherever they can. They offer too good to be true fares, then nail customers with insane bag fees (looking at you WOW Airlines). The best way to save money on flights is simply to just do carry-on.
Lastly, I think the best way to find a good fare is to be open to travel on any date. Some of the cheapest fares are offered on Tuesday-Thursdays and Saturdays. I will always try to travel on these days if given a choice. What I like about SkyScanner and Google Flights is that you can view flight prices to various destinations using a monthly calendar. If I am able to be flexible, I choose to travel on a cheaper date.