When you travel, especially when you travel internationally, one of the biggest expenses that you will have to account for is your airfare. In some situations, the cost of your airfare could be over half of your total trip expenses. That is a lot of money, and it is one of the top reasons why most people aren’t able to travel as much as they would like to. It is also one of the expenses where travelers tend to overpay the most.
As you begin to travel more-and-more, you will realize that there really isn’t a silver bullet, single solution to saving money on airfare. On one trip you will try something that will lead to cost savings, while other times that very same solution won’t yield much savings at all. Part of the reason for this is that airlines, like all companies, are continuing to refine the way that they do business. As the tools that are available to travelers evolve, so does the way that airlines structure their fares, their rewards, and other aspects of the flights they offer.
So I would be wary of any travel advice that you might read on the Internet that tells you there is a tried-and-true, single way to save money on airfare. I am not going to mislead you that way. What I will tell you is that there is a process that you can follow to make sure you are getting the best deal that you possibly can on airfare, and never overpay on a flight again. In this guide, I am going to outline that process for you so that you can make sure you are doing everything you can to save money on your next big airfare purchase.
1. Be Flexible With Your Flight Dates
One of the most important, if not the most important, tips for saving money on airfare is to be flexible with your travel dates. If you are locked into certain dates, then you won’t be able to take advantage of fare sales and other low fares that you might find. This is why I always start my travel planning by researching airfare costs. Not only is it typically one of the biggest expenses of your trip, but it is also the expense that can vary the most depending on the dates you travel.
One of the best ways to start the planning for any trip is to look at the historical flight costs for different times of the year to your destination so that you can get an idea of what time of year it would be the most affordable to take your trip. The app that I use to do this is the Hopper app. The Hopper app looks at historical flight data and will give you a graphical overview of what type of fares you can expect at different times of the year for your flight.
Armed with this information, I am then able to start narrowing down the dates of travel for my trip and start looking for airfare deals. I have a much better chance of finding airfare deals if I am looking for flights at the time of year where fares are typically lowest than I do if I were to look for flights at the time of year where airfare to my destination is typically the highest.
2. Set Airfare Alerts
One of the best ways that you can save money on airfare costs is to always be looking for discounted airfare. Now, I am not saying you need to spend all of your time scouring the Internet looking for deals. Instead, you can use an app like Kayak to monitor fare prices for you. If you know that you would like to take a trip to a specific location, but you really haven’t begun planning your trip or have firm dates set for when you would like to travel, then this strategy almost always leads to cost savings on airfare.
Simply download the Kayak app onto your phone and configure an airfare alert for your desired destinations. The app will send you alerts when it finds airfare deals for the trip that you configured. This is a great way to monitor flight prices to a lot of different locations and take advantage of deals as they come up. Obviously, you will need to be able to move quickly on booking trips in some situations, but the amount of money you can save is significant.
3. Don’t Focus On Just Direct Flights
Continuing on the theme of flexibility, if you want to get a good deal on airfare, you are also going to need to be flexible on whether or not your flight is a direct flight or whether it has a layover. If you are only willing to book direct flights, you probably aren’t going to find really good fare deals very often. In fact, you will probably end up overpaying for airfare more than you will save on airfare.
That’s not to say that you can’t start your search by looking for direct flights, but if you don’t find the kind of fares that you are looking for I would expand your search to include flights with layovers. Just make sure you don’t book a flight with too short of a layover or you (or your luggage) might end up missing a connecting flight.
4. Determine the Cheapest Airports to Fly Into
One of the first big decisions that you will need to make when you are looking at flight options is which airport you want to fly out of and into. For instance, I live in Milwaukee, so General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee is the closest airport to me, but I am only about an hour drive from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. When I am looking for flights, I always look at flights flying out of both airports.
The same thing applies to your destination. If I am traveling to Santa Barbara, California, I might start by looking at flights into the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, but it would be smart for me to also look at flights into Los Angeles International Airport as it is only a few hours away. I may find flights that are considerably cheaper into Los Angeles.
5. Determine the Cheapest Day to Fly
The next big decision you need to make when looking for airfare is which days you are going to travel. Not only which time of year, which we covered in step number 1 of this guide, but also which specific days you will be departing and returning. The best way to do that is to look at one-way flights departing and returning on different days. You aren’t going to book one-way tickets, you are just using these searches to determine which days are the cheapest to travel on for your trip.
The calendar above lists some hypothetical one-way ticket prices from Milwaukee to Los Angeles (in red) and from Los Angeles to Milwaukee (in green). If I were to do searches for one-way airfare prices and these were the fares that I found on each specific day, then I should be able to find the cheapest round-trip fare if I depart on a Tuesday and return the following Tuesday.
6. Know Where to Search
If you are serious about saving money on your flights, then you also need to be diligent about where you are searching for your flights. Despite what you might think, not all flight search sites are equally as effective at finding the lowest airfares. You might see a lot of the same flights on all of the sites at the same prices, but some of the flight search engines find the best bargain fares more regularly than others. When you go to start your search for flights, I would recommend one of the following sites:
- Momondo – Considered one of the best flight search sites.
- Skyscanner – Another site that is consistently regarded as one of the best.
- Kiwi – Combines all airlines to help you find multi-carrier flights at bargain prices.
- Airwander – One of the few sites that allows you to book extended layovers.
- JetRadar – Includes budget airlines in their searches.
- Airfare Watchdog – Great tool for finding fare sales and discounted airfare.
7. Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute to Book
Each year, CheapAir does a study on when it is the best time to purchase airfare. In this year’s study, they determined that the optimal time to purchase airfare is between 115 days to 21 days before your travel date. In the article, they do a really great job of explaining how airlines change their fare prices to take advantages of different segments of the market. I would strongly recommend that you read this article as they back up their conclusions with the study of millions-and-millions of flight bookings throughout the year.
While it is true that booking your flight well in advance usually won’t get you the best flight fare that you can get, the bigger lesson here is that waiting until the last minute to book your flight will typically result in you overpaying the most for your flight. The Airline companies reason that anyone booking a flight so near their departure date is probably desperate for airfare and will pay a much higher price to fly.
If you would like to read more about why it is important to not wait until the last minute to book, my friend over at The Travel Architect has an outstanding article on Things I Learned from my Travel Agent where she touches more on this very subject. It is a great article with some wonderful wisdom from someone who has worked in the industry for many years.
8. Always Join Airline Rewards Programs
One of the very best ways to save money on travel is to take advantage of airlines rewards programs. This takes time, commitment, and patience to pay off, but the savings you can get can be monumental. Every time I book airfare, I accumulate frequent flyer miles. That’s because every time I book airfare with an airline I haven’t flown before, I sign up for their frequent flyer program. I have a frequent flyer account with over two dozen different airlines at this point.
However, signing up for a frequent flyer account and getting miles when you fly is only the first step in maximizing the number of frequent flyer miles that you can earn. In order to really start racking up those frequent flyer miles, you need to use a few additional earning methods to compound the number of miles earned.
Using an Airline Rewards Credit Card
The best way to start racking up frequent flyer miles quickly is to apply for an airline rewards credit card. Most airlines, including Delta, American Airlines, United, and Southwest Airlines all carry rewards credit cards.
When you sign up for a rewards credit card, typically you will get a large sign-up bonus in the form of frequent flyer miles. These bonuses can be as high as 100,000 frequent flyer miles, which can be enough for one round-trip international flight. Not to mention, each dollar you spend with the credit card will earn you one frequent flyer mile and each dollar you spend with the airline will typically earn you two frequent flyer miles. These miles can quickly add up.
With some of the credit cards, you even get a free companion certificate each year. This companion certificate allows you to bring a companion with you on a flight for free (you just pay the taxes on their ticket) when you purchase a flight with that airline on your airline credit card. This is really valuable because you can split the cost of the purchased ticket with your companion and you will each fly for half the regular fare.
Transfer Hotel, Car Rental, and Other Rewards to Frequent Flyer Miles
Another way to really expedite the growth of your frequent flyer account is to sign up for rewards programs with hotels, car rental companies, and other travel companies that allow you to transfer your rewards to your frequent flyer account. Since your airfare is typically one of your biggest travel costs and frequent flyer miles typically don’t expire (unlike most hotel rewards points), you get more value out of transferring your points to frequent flyer miles.
Take Advantage of Airlines Dining Rewards Programs
Most of the major airlines, including Delta, American Airlines, United, and Southwest Airlines offer a dining rewards program. With these programs, you typically register one of your credit cards and then earn frequent flyer miles when you use that card at any one of a number of participating restaurants. The card you register typically doesn’t have to be an airline rewards card, but you can double-dip if you do use one and earn points both for eating at the restaurant and using your airline rewards card.
9. Keep An Eye Out for Fare Sales
Every so often, airlines will offer fare sales for flights that haven’t been booking as quickly as they would like or anticipated. These fare sales can be extremely good values if you are able to find them and are able to make those flights work. More often than not, the flights will be in the near future so you won’t have a whole lot of time to think about it.
One of the best sites to use to look for fare sales is Airfare Watchdog. This website allows you to browse and search fare sales, see which upcoming weekends are the cheapest to travel, and you can even set up alerts for fare sales. Before booking any airfare, you should always see what type of fare sales are available/
10. Don’t Overlook Budget Airlines
If you are looking to save a lot of money on airfare consistently, then one of the most tried-and-true methods for doing that is to book your flights on budget carriers. You can find some really low airfares on budget carriers, but you should be aware before you book that you typically get what you pay for. You might get a lower cost for your flight, but you will undoubtedly give up some of the amenities you are used to when flying. I have included a general list of the advantages and disadvantages of using a budget airline below:
- Cheaper Airfare.
- Pick-and-choose which amenities you want to pay for and which you don’t.
- Regular promotions and far sales (more frequent than large airlines).
- Fewer bells and whistles in planes (for instance, no seat-back LCD consoles or WIFI).
- You have to pay for amenities (carry-on bags, choosing your seat, and priority boarding are just a few of the examples).
- Limited flight routes offered.
Reliable Budget Airlines
If you are considering using a budget airline for an upcoming trip, here are some budget airlines around the world that you can look at.
11. Consider Booking Extended Layovers
If you are going to be traveling to multiple destinations, another great way to save on airfare is to book an extended layover on one flight. This can save you a significant amount of money because you are only booking one round-trip ticket instead of booking multiple different flights. Here’s how it works:
Let’s say I am planning to travel from New York City to visit both Paris and Barcelona. Instead of booking a round-trip ticket to either Paris or Barcelona and then having to worry about finding a different flight (or other transportation) from Paris to Barcelona or vice versa, I can book one flight with an extended layover instead.
Perhaps I book a flight to Paris with a three-day layover in Barcelona. That would allow me to see Barcelona on my way to Paris without having to book more than one round-trip ticket. If you can find an extended layover that works with your schedule, this can lead to some pretty significant savings on airfare.
One of the few flight search sites that allows you to specify extended layovers is Air Wander. With this amazing website, you can search for flights and then explore extended layovers that you can take advantage of. In the example above, I did a search for flights from New York City to Paris, then chose to browse the extended layovers. As you can see in the screenshot, I am able to add a 3-day extended layover in Barcelona for just an addition $80. That is significantly cheaper than what I would have to spend to find additional flights from Paris to Barcelona.
12. Utilize Multi-City Trips
Speaking of multi-destination trips, even if you aren’t interested in booking an extended layover on one plane ticket, it always makes sense to book multi-city tickets instead of multiple round-trip tickets. You will save a significant amount of money by doing it this way. If you aren’t quite sure what I mean, let me explain.
Again, let’s say I am traveling from New York City to visit both Paris and Barcelona. Instead of booking a round-trip ticket from New York City to Paris and another round-trip ticket from Paris to Barcelona, I can book a multi-city ticket that takes me from New York City to Paris with a return flight from Barcelona to New York City.
All I would have to do is find a one-way flight from Paris to Barcelona. Not only will this likely save me money, but it will also save me time because I won’t have to go back to Paris from Barcelona to fly home. That means I can spend more time sight-seeing and less time traveling.
13. Consider Using Hidden City Ticketing
Out of all of the tips for finding cheap airfare that I am giving you in this guide, this is the one tip that I am the most apprehensive about. Hidden-City ticketing is a cost-saving technique that has been around for a while, can save you a significant amount of money on airfare, but is not without its risks or drawbacks.
Essentially, Hidden-City ticketing is a cost-saving technique where you book a flight with a layover at your actual destination with no intention of boarding your connecting flight. Because of the way that airlines price their airfare, sometimes you can find a cheaper flight to a different destination with a layover in your actual destination than you can find flights to your destination. By booking that flight and then just stopping at your destination (the layover), you can save a significant amount of money.
As I said, this cost-saving technique does come with a certain amount of risk. For one, you always have to carry-on your luggage. If you don’t and your flight gets delayed, you are out of luck. Also, you are in a world of trouble if the airline decides to re-route your flight for some reason, which does happen. However, the biggest risk you take in using Hidden-City Ticketing is that airlines have started to catch on to the practice and are penalizing people by revoking their rewards points and status. If you would like to learn more about Hidden-City Ticketing, you can read my full thoughts on it in the article I linked below.
14. Take Advantage of Student Discounts
If you are under the age of 26, you could qualify for student discounts that can save you a significant amount of money on travel. Sometimes these discounts can be as much as 30% off the regular fare price. Before you book any flights, make sure you check with organizations like Student Universe or STA Travel to see if they can find a good student discount for you to take advantage of.
15. Give Up Your Seat When Airlines Overbook
The last cost savings tip I have to give you for saving money on airfare isn’t going to help you save money on the ticket you need to book right now, but it can certainly save you a significant amount of money on tickets that you book in the future. Every-so-often, airlines request volunteers to give up their seats for others in exchange for travel vouchers. Airlines do this because they overbook flights to ensure their flights sell out.
If you aren’t in a hurry to get to your destination or to get home, giving up your seat can earn you a very significant travel voucher amount to use to get free future airfare. I have seen people get as much as $5,000 in airfare vouchers from airlines for giving up their seats. However, before you raise your hand, let me give you a little bit of advice about when to volunteer to give up your seat.
First off, never volunteer to give up your seat at the first offer. Airlines will typically start by offering either gift cards or travel vouchers worth between $300-$500. That offer will continue to go up until they get the number of volunteers that they need. If they really need a seat, that number can go really high. So unless you have absolutely nothing going on and don’t mind waiting, I would suggest holding out for a higher amount.
Also, make sure you completely understand which later flight they would be able to get you on before volunteering. If they are able to get you on the next flight in a few hours, that is probably not that big of a deal. However, if the next available flight isn’t until tomorrow evening, you need to determine whether spending that time in an airport instead of enjoying your trip is worth it to you.