How To Find Cheap Flights: 15 Tips To Get You The Best Airfare Without Signing Up For Credit Cards
Shopping for flights is probably my favorite AND least favorite part of travel (actually I take that back...packing and unpacking is definitely my least favorite thing). The thrill of finding a cheap flight and feeling like you’ve beat the system is the best feeling a traveler can have. Having been an avid traveler for most of my life, I’ve put a lot of these airfare tricks to the test and come up with a system that gets me great prices every time. Lucky for you, I’m going to share that system now!
While I understand how great opening a bunch of different credit cards to get the points and use those is, that is not what this article is about. If you want to try that route, go ahead! But these are the tips I use without having to sign up for any cards and still find cheap flights.
Quick note before reading: Finding cheap airfare takes time. You need to be committed to doing a bit of research over a few weeks (or months sometimes), so don’t think it is a one-and-done deal. But rest assured, the time you spend will be soooo worth it when you find that awesome deal that makes your friends jealous.
Let’s get started from the beginning!
1. Utilize Private or Incognito Browsers
It’s no secret that the travel and airline industries are out to make as much money as possible from you. In an effort to pull every last penny out of your pocket, some travel websites will drop cookies in your browser to see that you have been there before.
So what does that mean? Well, when you search a site for the first time you will see one price. Then let’s say you don’t move forward and buy just yet. You return later to buy it and BOOM! PRICE INCREASE! They know that you’ve been there before and want that specific itinerary, so they’ll increase the price a little or a lot.
To avoid this, just do all of your travel searches in a private browser to ensure that no tracking is done and you can get the best price.
2. Shop on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
The rumors are true: Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to look at flights.
In my experience, I have found that airfares tend to be cheaper when you are looking on these days (in a private browser, of course). Airlines sometimes release their weekly prices after the weekend, so these days are usually the best to find those cheaper prices.
The general public is saving their travel planning for the weekend when they “have more time,” so naturally the prices tend to increase when more people are going to be looking. Friday-Sunday tends to be the worst days to look at tickets because of the typical price flux. Follow the money...
3. Timing IS Everything
The time of day when you look at flights ABSOLUTELY matters. I just tested this theory out twice this week and it proved correct both times. I needed a flight from Chicago to New York and looked 2 days in a row at night and the price was $270 both nights. I looked again the next mornings and it was $150 both days. WTF?!
Flight prices will almost always increase in the evening and be cheaper during the morning/day. Why? Follow the money (do you see a trend here yet?). Look constantly throughout the day—from early morning through later afternoon—to make sure you are getting the best price.
The general public is searching for flights in the evening and late at night when they are home, so prices can definitely change. Look the next morning to make sure!
4. Consult Multiple Sources
Everyone has his or her go-to websites for booking travel. I have many. (I’m probably an airline’s worst nightmare because I’m not loyal to any one over the other—I just pick the cheapest one!)
My first go-to website when I travel is Kayak.com. I love Kayak because it is the easiest to search flexible dates (use the flexible dates search) and it aggregates a ton of great airlines in one platform.
Once I go to Kayak and find a great looking deal, I open up a few other websites (Skiplagged, Skyscanner, and actual airline websites) to confirm that I got the best deal. Sometimes you’ll find a cheaper deal on the other websites, so I never just use a one-and-done method.
5. Travel With Flexible Days and Times
The best way to get an awesome deal is to be flexible with your travel schedule. If you are able to leave at any time on any day, use this to your advantage! Kayak, Southwest, and Skyscanner are my 3 favorite websites that allow you to see flexible dates and what tickets will cost.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays tend to be great days to find the price differences. People tend to travel most on the weekends, so use these days to find better prices.
Early morning, late night, and red-eye flights are usually the cheapest because less people want to be on these. I actually love (and prefer) these times because it helps you maximize your time in your destination. For example: I’ll leave Chicago at 6am, get to my destination early and have all day to check it out, leave at 9pm to go home, and have all day to explore on my final day.
6. Travel With Flexible Destinations and Layovers
My favorite thing about urban travel is that big cities often have more than 1 airport. If this is the case for your destination, consider traveling to the lesser-known airport in order to get a cheaper price, and sometimes even fewer crowds! Make sure you include all surrounding airports in your searches.
Kayak Explore is a really awesome tool to utilize if you’re truly flexible with wherever you want to go. It will show you cheap flights from your origin all over the world!
If you’re flexible to do a layover, consider doing an extended layover (15+ hours) and utilize the time to explore an extra city! Instead of booking a direct flight home from Italy to Chicago this summer, I booked a flight that had a 24-hour layover in Istanbul and the whole airfare cost me $600 instead of $1500. I was able to see a little bit of Istanbul on the way home and it saved me money! Win-Win!
7. Have A Budget In Mind
Once you start traveling more, you’ll start to notice prices that are good and prices that are a rip-off. I know that anything under $200 for a round-trip flight from Chicago to New York City is pretty good, and if it is under $150 I need to buy ASAP.
Do a little research to find out what the average cost of tickets to your destination is. There are plenty of online forums and sources to find this information by doing a Google search (i.e. Chicago to Paris average flight price).
When you have a budget, you’ll know what you’re looking for and when to strike. However, don’t get too hard headed and wait too long because you could pass up a really awesome price thinking that it is going to go down.
8. Look On The Airline’s Website
From time-to-time, the prices on the airline’s website will be different than those on the aggregators because of secret sales. I always consult these websites at the time of booking just to confirm I am getting the best price. I’ve sometimes saved 10-30% just by doing this.
Looking on the airline’s website also helps you look at more time options than the aggregators sometimes lead on. So if you’re flexible with your travel time, do this!
9. Utilize Multiple Airlines Instead Of One Round-Trip Carrier
While I am a huge fan of the airline aggregators like Kayak, they are not always the end-all-be-all when finding the best routes. They don’t list every airline out there, which means you could be missing out on the best prices out there.
Consider flying multiple airlines for your trip instead of one carrier all the way through. To do this, search individual one-way prices on multiple airline websites (like Southwest, United, American, Virgin, etc.) or aggregators and then add the 2 one-way prices up to see if it is more or less than what you had in mind.
For instance, I flew to Los Angeles in November 2015 and flew Virgin America ($89) going there and United Airlines ($130) coming back. Together, these prices were significantly less than the $500 round-trip tickets I was seeing all over the web with only utilizing 1 airline.
Like I said in the beginning, this takes time, but it is so worth it when you find those deals!
10. Consider Additional Fees (Like Luggage)
If you are going to use Tip #9, don’t forget to factor in extra costs that are not added until the end. Additional fees can be luggage, processing, check-ins, etc. You can generally find them on the airline’s website.
Spirit Airlines is so good at tricking people into thinking that they are a “budget airline” when they see the price; but what consumers forget is that the baggage fees are an additional $30-35 for just 1 way (+$60-70 if you are going round-trip with them). So don’t forget to mentally add in these things before you move forward with the purchase!
11. Consider International Carriers
Have you ever flown an international carrier like Scandinavian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Porter, Cathay, Emirates, etc.? THEY ARE AMAZING!!! Better service, quality, food, price, entertainment, basically EVERYTHING. My dream for the United States airline industry is that one day they will wake up and realize how stupid they are being compared to every airline outside of the U.S. When you make your customers happy, they buy more! Ok, end rant...
But seriously, use international carriers every chance you get! You have a great chance of getting a better price if you are flying internationally and you are going to get wayyyy better service than most U.S.-based airlines (cough cough American Airlines...). I once found a round trip on New Years from Chicago to Paris for $800 because I flew an international carrier instead of a domestic-based airline AND got upgraded to Business Class because of a simple computer glitch on their end.
12. Consider Connecting Alternatives Like Buses, Trains, or Budget Airlines
Don’t forget about cheap planes, trains, and automobiles! Just see what’s available before you travel.
Sometimes it’s worth it to check out bus services like Megabus to get from a (cheaper) surrounding city to your end destination. For example, I have family in Indiana and instead of flying to see them for $200, I’ll take the Megabus for $10-30 instead.
In Europe, there are plenty of budget airlines (like Easy Jet or Ryanair) that can get you from city to city on the cheap. Trains are also a great, less expensive way to get around when traveling abroad. You can find them by doing simple Google searches.
*BIG TIP*: READ THE DETAILS! Sometimes these budget airlines will also charge for luggage and charge extra for the weight/height. So make sure you read the fine print to see if it is really the best choice.
13. Use Frequent Flyer Miles or Credit Card Points
OK... So I said that this article is not about signing up for a ton of credit cards to get miles, but most people have at least 1 card already open. You might as well use the points you already get from there to go towards airfare if you can! I personally use the Capital One Venture card for my travels and expenses.
While I’m not loyal to 1 airline over the other (don’t get me wrong, I have my preferences...), I still sign up for all of their Frequent Flyer programs. That way, I can rack up miles over time and then occasionally get a free flight here and there.
The other benefit of signing up for FF programs with groups like Star Alliance or One World is that you can utilize and collect points from all of the airlines that are part of that group. This comes in handy when you’re using those international carriers and still want to rack up points.
14. Get Price Differences Refunded
One of the airline industry’s best-kept secrets is that you can get prices refunded if there is a change from when you bought it. This varies from airline to airline, but the best policies are with Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin, and Alaska. They will usually refund most, if not all, of the difference.
Other carriers such as United, American, Delta, etc. only offer the change within a small 24-hour/close of next business day period, and it has to be a significant price drop for it to be worth your while. They usually wrap up the whole process with a bunch of additional fees that cost even more than what you’d be getting back, so it’s important to read the policy or call and speak with an agent.
Sometimes if it is within a 24-hour period, you can just cancel the ticket, get refunded, and re-book the ticket for the new price. Just check into it and see if it is worth it. Websites like Yapta.com are great for this!
15. Sign Up For Alerts
If you know you are traveling somewhere in the next year or you frequently visit a city, set up a travel alert! These alerts, which you can sign up for on Kayak or many other websites, will let you know when the prices are at their best.
Airfarewatchdog.com is another really great tool to use to monitor prices! They even suggest signing up for their Twitter feed to see what great deals come up.
There are so many great travel hacking, money-saving, thrifty ways to find cheap flights these days. These are all the tips I use every day without having to spend the time in opening, using, and closing credit cards. Simple and effective if you’re willing to put in a little effort!
What are your favorite tips for saving money on travel?