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Finding Cheap Flights: Tips and Tricks for Do-it-Yourself Travel

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  • Post last modified:May 10, 2021

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Methods for finding cheap flights have changed dramatically since we booked our first international flights over 20 years ago. With the ease and access of the Internet, today’s travelers can find their own travel deals without the need of a travel agent.

Now, there are definitely good reasons to use an agent. However, as this is about do-it-yourself travel, we’re not going to get into the benefits here. Though, it is worth noting, finding your own cheap flights takes time. Lots of it.

Honestly, we enjoy the thrill of the hunt. We happily search for hours, days, even weeks looking for the price we want it. If you have the time and patience for finding your own cheap flights, it can be fun and rewarding.

Here we share our favorite tips, tricks, and secrets for finding the best deals. There’s a lot to remember. So, you may want to bookmark this page to help with your next flight search.

Finding Cheap Flights Pinterest Image

Being flexible is the number one rule in finding cheap flights. The more rigid you are, the less likely you are to find good deals.

It’s best to be flexible on your destination and your dates, but at least be flexible on one of them. Even being flexible by a day or two can save hundreds on air fares.

Let’s look at this example. Say we wanted to go to Zion National Park for 7 days in August. St. George Regional Airport (SGU) is the closest at an hour’s drive.

It costs $427 to fly Sunday 8/1, but only $369 to fly on Sunday 8/15. If we waited until Tuesday 8/17, we can get the month’s lowest price at $341.

Finding cheap flights in August St George Flight

To take this example one step further. To get to SGU we would need two layovers, which we don’t want. So, let’s look at Las Vegas, which is 2.5 hours’ drive away from Zion but is a much busier hub. Here we can find non-stop flights for $256 on the Sunday and $206 on the Tuesday. A little flexibility really pays off.

Finding cheap flights to Vegas in August

Use Incognito or Privacy Viewing

There are arguments that say searching in incognito mode is outdated and there’s no evidence this helps. Let me explain the theory, and why we still do this.

The theory is, when you search for flights, airlines track you with cookies. Airlines then raise their prices when you search the same flight multiple times. In other words, they create a false sense of urgency as every time you check the prices they keep going up.

Airlines say they don’t do this and there’s little evidence they still do. However, we had this happen to us years ago.

We were searching a major US carrier for a flight. We then searched a comparison site and got the same price. When we went back to the US carrier the price slightly increased. After another search, it went up again. Getting frustrated, we cleared everything and used a different browser. This time we got the original price.

Now we do it both ways. On one browser we log into sites where we have a loyalty membership. On another browser we use Private Browsing. Sometimes there’s a small difference in price, but often it’s hard to tell why.

Book Within the Sweet Spot

Which do you think is better, booking a year ahead or a week ahead? It doesn’t matter, neither will get you the best price.

According to CheapAir’s 2019 study, the sweet spot for finding cheap US domestic flights falls between three weeks to four months before travel. We usually find the best flights between four to six weeks, so this aligns really well.

They even take the study a step further by looking at the best day to book for each travel season.

  • 94 days in advance for winter
  • 84 days in advance for spring
  • 99 days in advance for summer
  • 69 days in advance in fall

Though it’s useful to keep these timelines in mind, don’t forget they are averages. They are not specific to the flight you want to book. The sweet spot is as dynamic as flight prices themselves and will change by carrier, time of year, and route.

We usually start our search at about the 100-day mark, and book by 35 days before travel. However, the minute we find what we believe is a good deal, we book it. Remember, waiting on “the best price” is a bit like gambling, there’s no guarantee.

Oh, and we don’t want to leave you hanging. Though you’re unlikely to get the best price a year ahead of time, booking at last minute is even worse. These last-minute fares are targeted towards price insensitive business travelers. Last minute fares have less restrictions, and therefore less discounts.

Don't Book Like a Business Traveler

Airlines know business travelers are willing to pay more for their tickets, while leisure travelers are the most price sensitive. To help leisure travelers get the best ticket values, airlines add heavy restrictions onto discount fares.

Understanding the typical purchasing habits of business travelers helps leisure travelers avoid full fares.

Leading on from our last point, business travelers typically book at last minute. This is why it’s so hard finding cheap flights the closer the flight gets.

Business travelers fly most on Mondays and Fridays. Sometimes they leave on Sundays, but typically they travel on Mondays. However, leisure travelers fly most on Sundays, which is why it’s the busiest day. Business travelers want to be back before the weekend, so fly home on Thursdays and Fridays.

When you understand these travel patterns it’s not surprising Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are the cheapest days to fly.

Not specific to business travelers, but nobody likes to fly early mornings or late nights. Therefore, finding cheap flights for off-peak hours is easiest.

Also, business travelers usually only spend a few days and rarely stay the weekend at their destination. Airlines add a requirement for a weekend stay or a minimum number of nights at the destination to get the discount fare. This is very common on international flights and one of the reasons round trips are often cheaper.

Business travelers need flexibility. They will often book one-way fares or tickets with no change fees. Non-flexible tickets are almost always cheaper.

Consider Budget Carriers

Our absolute favorite airline in the world is EasyJet. It may surprise you that our favorite carrier does not offer a luxury experience. What they do offer are cheap flights at convenient times, from convenient airports. As their business model is efficiency, they rarely run late. Plus, their airplanes are some of the newest, in order to minimize fuel consumption. 

Good budget airlines minimize the fluff to give you a basic air taxi service at the lowest possible prices.

We love this. For us, the flight is a means to an end. We’d much rather spend our money on experiences at our destination, than paying more to get there.

Admittedly, the price differences between North American based budget carriers and major carriers are not nearly as impressive as they are in Europe. Though there are still great deals to be had.

However, not all budget carriers are equal. Some have more leg room, and some nickel-and-dime you for every little thing, even printing tickets at the airport. Be sure to work out the full price for the flight before you book.

One drawback to budget airlines is they rarely fly into the most expensive airports. This could mean landing at an airport further away from your destination city. Check this before booking as it may cost you more in ground transportation.

Don't Follow the Masses

Not surprisingly, airline ticket prices rise and fall with demand. The more people headed to a destination at one time, the more those tickets typically cost.

This doesn’t mean popular airports are more expensive, like New York or Los Angeles. It has more to do with increases in normal passenger traffic. Actually, it is usually cheaper to fly into a large hub or large city, than a small airport. For example, Las Vegas rather than St. George Regional Airport, as in our example above.

Consider when others will be traveling to your desired destination. This is not when you’ll find cheap flights.

Seasonal travel, holidays, and special events, like festivals drive up prices. For example, flight prices to Florida are highest for Spring Break and summer. This is because students are out of school and families can travel. It’s not surprising January and September are the cheapest months to fly to Florida.

Traveling in the shoulder seasons can save a small fortune in air fares.

However, here are some examples of where we took advantage of large events and festivals to get great flight deals.

Fly the Opposite Way

We were living in the UK during William and Catherine’s Royal Wedding. London was packing full of people coming to see the special event. This left a lot of half-empty flights leaving London. As we weren’t interested in the event (sorry Royal fans) we snagged dirt cheap flights to Greece. Yay us!

Be Creative

We love to travel for festivals. The challenge is that these flights often command the highest prices. This is where that flexibility, a little creativity, and road trips come into play.

For Munich’s Oktoberfest, we flew into Salzburg, Austria a week before the event. The flights were a quarter of the price than flying to Munich. From there, we rented a car and enjoyed a trip through the Austrian Alps before making our way to Oktoberfest.

We did the same thing for the Las Fallas festival in Valencia. Flying into Valencia was out of our price range, but Madrid was only £50 per person. I miss EasyJet so much; you have no idea. Anyway, we waited a few days after the festival ended to leave Valencia. This helped us grab £50 flights on the return trip as well.

Giant papermache woman holding sun in Las Fallas Festival, Valencia, Spain
Large paper mache woman at Valencia's Las Fallas Festival

Use Comparison Sites and Cross-Check Obsessively

Every veteran travel junkie, like us, has their own favorite flight comparison sites. This is because no search site has all the functionality we want, but each site gives us something the others don’t. Here are our four favorites.

Skyscanner - The Best Way to Find Cheap Flights

Hands down our favorite is Skyscanner. We have used this site for finding cheap flights since at least 2007.

Skyscanner is our favorite because it has three functions hard to find elsewhere.

  1. Search Everywhere – Normally you need a destination to search flights. With Skyscanner, put in the airport you want to fly from, and use “Everywhere” as the destination. It will return the cheapest destinations available from your airport. This is where being flexible on your destination pays off.
  2. Search Whole Month – You can search for the cheapest month, or for the cheapest day within a set month to find the cheapest flights.
  3. Includes Budget Carriers – Many search comparison websites don’t include budget airlines. When we use Skyscanner we know we are seeing everyone’s price.

Other Flight Comparison Sites We Use

We typically book our flights through Skyscanner, but we do use other sites to compare pricing. Specifically, we like Momondo and Google Flights for their mapping functionality.

Google Flights has a really cool feature where you can filter by the duration of the flight. This is very helpful when we work out a practical journey time radius. We’re writing another article to explain this in a bit more detail, stay tuned.

Finally, we also love to use ITA Matrix. You can’t actually book flights through this system, but it is great for working out complex flights like multiple destinations. You can also use it to find your own hidden flight deals, but this is unnecessary these days.

Sign Up for Deal Alerts

It is impossible to know all the deals out there all the time, even if you price watch constantly. Signing up for deal alerts helps with finding cheap flights as they crop up. Keep in mind, good deals don’t last long so it helps to have some extra eyes on the ground for you.

Getting the most from your frequent flyer miles is one of the most effective ways to get cheap or even free flights. Sign up for emails from your frequent flyer providers to get a heads up on promotions that maximize your travel rewards.

We also use deal finder sites. These sites seek out the best deals on flights, specifically error pricing. Sometimes airlines forget to include the fuel surcharge, which makes up the bulk of the ticket price.

The three we like the best are Scott’s Cheap Flights, AirfareWatchDog and Secret Flying. When you find something you’re interested in on these sites, book quickly. The best deals rarely last more than 24 hours.

Break Up Your Route

Another tactic we use is to break up our flights. We do this in two ways.

Switch Carriers

Sometimes it’s cheaper to switch carriers at your layover.

For example, a round trip ticket from New York to Dublin may be cheaper than continuing to London. You would then look for a separate flight with a local carrier from Dublin to London.

We did this several years ago. It was considerably cheaper to switch to a Ryan Air budget flight in Dublin, than continuing with the major US airline.

There are a few catches with doing this.

  1. Luggage allowances change from one carrier to the next and within regions. Transatlantic flights have more baggage allowance than domestic or regional travel. So, the flight from NY to Dublin allowed a lot more luggage than from Dublin to London. There were also extra charges and size and weight differences, even for carry on. Check if it really works out cheaper before doing this.
  2. When you book with two different operators, they will not help if a delay causes you to miss your connecting flight. Be sure to leave at least a three-hour layover between connections. Also, most travel insurance doesn’t cover these types of issues. Even if they do, they often don’t pay out enough to cover rebooked flights and hotels. Check with your travel insurance before booking these risky flights.

Utilize Layovers

Our favorite tactic is to use layovers to get a “free” destination. These work out really well when you have a lot of time. The idea is to grab as long of a layover as you can without bumping up the flight price.

We’ve done this a few times, but our favorite was a 5 ½ week “layover” in Malaysia.

We both booked flights leaving Perth, Australia. Instead of going straight home, our layover in Kuala Lumpur (KL) helped us travel through continental Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo, and Brunei.

The best part was my final destination was in the US. This gave me a two 75-lb bag allowance (they don’t do this anymore), instead of the one bag 50-lb allowance for Asia. Anyway, we booked a nice hotel with free locked luggage storage for our first and last night in KL. We took just what we needed with us and left everything else at the hotel.

There are always ways to travel cheaply if you’re creative. 😊

Split Up Your Group

Airlines break up tickets into fare pricing buckets. They only allow so many tickets to be sold within each discount fare bucket for each flight.

When you are booking for a group, often there aren’t enough tickets in the lower cost fare buckets for everyone. When this happens, your entire group is usually moved up into the higher cost fare bucket.

Therefore, it is often cheaper to search for individual tickets. This way only some of the tickets have the higher fare instead of the whole group.

For groups of ten or more, it’s worth checking individual ticket pricing, then calling the airline to inquire on a group discount.

Sometimes you’ll find the best deals by splitting your group over multiple flights.

Take Advantage of Discounts

If you’re a veteran, a student, or a senior citizen it’s worth checking for additional discounts. For instance, United Airlines has a Veterans Advantage program. This program gives signed up veterans and military persons a 5% discount.

Each airline manages discounts differently. It’s worth doing a quick search on their site or calling a carrier’s customer service to see what’s available for you.

Frowned Upon Practices

Remember we said the cheapest flights have lots of restrictions? For example, staying a minimum of 7 nights is what makes a round-trip international ticket usually cheaper than a one-way. What if you only needed a one way?

Throw Away Ticketing

Throw away ticketing is when you buy a round-trip ticket without the intent of using the return trip. You get the discounted price because your round trip meets the restrictions.

Hidden City Ticketing

Hidden city ticketing is where you buy a multi-leg ticket, but the layover is your destination. For example, we want to fly from Charlotte (CLT) to Salt Lake City (SLC) but tickets are $250. However, there’s a ticket to Los Angeles (LAX) for $67 that routes through SLC. We would buy the ticket to LAX and get out in SLC.

The downside is we would need to do carry-on only, so our bags don’t end up in LAX. Keep in mind, lots of travelers have been caught out when the airlines force them at the gate to put their bags in the hold.

If you’re going to do this, an under the seat backpack is the safest way. You also can’t use this for round trips. Once you miss the first leg of your flight the airline automatically cancels the rest of your flight.

Skiplagged

A very popular website for finding these special tickets is Skiplagged. They have some amazing deals. Though, it’s important to realize you are breaking the airlines Terms of Carriage when not using the ticket in the way defined in the fine print.

Per their T&Cs, airlines have the right to charge you the full fare and cancel your tickets. We’ve also heard rumors of them penalizing frequent flier miles.

The airlines have even sued customers and Skiplagged over these practices. Basically, customers argue they have the right to not use any portion of something they purchase. If they buy a combo meal at a restaurant because it’s cheaper than buying just a burger, the restaurant can’t charge them full price because they threw out the soda.

So far, judges have sided with consumers and Skiplagged saying it’s legal. We’re not actually aware of airlines winning any of these lawsuits.

If you do plan on using these frowned upon practices, be sure you completely understand how they work, especially with hidden cities. We also don’t feel it is wise to be flagged by the airlines for doing this frequently.

Go Get Your Cheap Flights

We’ve given you a lot to keep in mind for finding cheap flights. Luckily, there are some great comparison sites out there to help in your search. Maybe after you score your first jaw-dropping deal, you’ll be as addicted to the hunt as we are.  

Now that you’re an expert at scoring cheap flights, it’s time to put it into practice. Where are you going?

Have questions, or want to add another tip? Leave us a message the comments and we’ll come back to you.

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