Flights often account for a big part of a travel budget and can be a daunting purchase, especially if you don’t have any travel reward points to help lower the cost. But if you are willing to invest a little bit of time and get creative with your research, you can often find tickets that don’t break the bank. Just recently, we flew from Europe to Asia for just $224! While prices like these aren’t guaranteed, this guide covers the steps we always follow when searching for cheap flights.
Some Things to Consider
Before beginning your flight research, here are a few things you should keep in mind:
The more flexible you are with your dates and destinations, the more likely you are to find a great deal. If your dates are fixed, try getting creative with the route you take.
Determine Where You Are Willing to Compromise
Think about where you are willing to make sacrifices in order to save some money. Using budget airlines, having longer travel times with multiple layovers, and flying into a nearby city can be ways to cut costs. Filtering out flights that don’t meet these preferences can narrow down the results you have to sort through to find the best deal for you. While you might not know the exact answer to this until you see what options are available, it’s good to at least have an idea before you start.
Booking with OTAs vs Direct
OTAs (Online Travel Agents) occasionally have significantly cheaper prices than if you were to book the same flight directly through the airline, but there are some risks. If everything goes smoothly with your flight, then great! You’ve nabbed yourself a fantastic deal. However, if things don’t go according to plan and you need to make changes to your booking, or if your flight is canceled, it will be the OTA you have to deal with rather than the airline. Unfortunately, a large number of these companies make even just getting in contact with them next to impossible, and requesting a refund is just downright excruciating. Can you tell we’ve been burned before!? Because of this, we prefer booking directly through the airlines unless the savings from these OTAs are too good to pass up. In this case, we cross our fingers and hope all goes according to plan.
Go Incognito When Searching for Flights
After years of travel “experts” saying that airlines will increase flight prices if you look at the same route too many times, many are now saying this is just a myth. While we are not usually ones for conspiracy theories, we’ve seen flight prices dramatically increase from one minute to the next. Maybe this was just a coincidence, but we figure better safe than sorry with this one. Looking at flights in an incognito window stops airlines from being able to track this if they are in fact doing so.
Factor in Additional Costs
When comparing prices, don’t forget to include any extra fees for each flight as these can take a super affordable flight to an overpriced one very quickly. Here are some things to look out for:
Extra fees for baggage, food, inflight entertainment, and seat selection
Booking fees charged by OTAs
The initial price does not include tax
Write Down Your Findings
Writing down flights you think are a potential option as you continue researching can save you a lot of hassle. Unless you happen to stumble across a flight unicorn on the first or second search, you will probably have to look at many flights when the time comes to weigh up your options. Avoid redoing work you’ve already done and document as you go. If you are a little tech savvy, putting this straight into an excel spreadsheet and making use of its filtering and sorting capabilities helps a lot if you have quite a few options to choose from.
When to Start Looking for Flights
As soon as you decide to go on a trip, looking at flights should be the first thing you do and there are 2 reasons for this:
While flight prices are constantly fluctuating, the further out you start looking, the better chance you have of finding a low price.
Unless there is a reason you absolutely have to travel during certain dates, you can save yourself a lot of money by planning your travel dates around the cheapest time to fly rather than vice versa.
How to Find Cheap Flights
Before we dive in, just a little heads up that this process can be time-consuming but have patience, persevere and you will hopefully be able to find yourself a great deal! At any point, if you find a price you are happy with then forget about the remaining steps and jump on it! Don’t wait until the next day as it might be gone by then.
Disclaimer: This is just the process we use, there is no guarantee. It’s impossible to fully predict what flight prices will do and sometimes there just are no cheap options!
Step 1: Get a Baseline
Before you really get into the nitty-gritty, it's good to establish a baseline so you have something to compare the rest of your research to. Google Flights is our search engine of choice because it has many useful tools, aggregates an incredible amount of data, and doesn’t charge companies a commission to be included in the results, so prices are usually accurate (i.e. they don’t suddenly increase once you go to book).
To find your baseline on Google Flights, select where you are flying to and from and choose some dates roughly around the time you want to travel. Then make note of:
How much are the cheapest flights?
On the explore tab - is this considered low, typical, or high? What is the usual price range for this flight?
Are most flights direct or do they have layovers?
If they have layovers, where are they stopping?
Which airlines are the cheapest on this route?
What other airlines have somewhat reasonable prices?
There’s no need to spend too much time on this part, maybe just 5 minutes or so to jot down some notes and repeat it with a few other dates. You’ll quickly find that the same airlines offer the cheapest prices on the same routes - with a few exceptions popping up here and there. Once you think you’ve got a good sense of what’s on offer, it’s time to move on.
Step 2: Compare using Flight Aggregator Sites
Now you have your baseline, you can have a look at what other sites have to offer and see how they compare. While Google Flights is a very powerful tool, it doesn’t show everything. Different sites often have different rates and discounts, so it's important to look at a few different websites to cover all bases. While comparing prices is your primary focus here, make sure to note down any new routes or airlines that didn’t show up in the Google Flights search - this will come in handy a little later.
Secret Flying is a great starting point. The Secret Flying team scours the internet for the best flight deals and lists them on their site. Occasionally, they even find some insanely cheap business-class deals and error fares.
Next, move on to Skyscanner. While you may see a lot of the same flights as Google Flights, this is also where you can find some tantalizing deals from OTAs (Online Travel Agencies) that aren’t shown on Google. Make sure to take into account any extra fees you might incur if you book through one of these agents though and factor this into your comparison.
If you are really struggling to find any somewhat reasonable flights, you can try other sites like Kayak, Monomondo, Trip.com, Expedia, etc. but 9/10 you will be wasting your time as they usually add their own fees on top of the airline’s prices and most likely will have already shown up in your previous searches.
Step 3: Check Airline Websites for Promotions
Use your list of airlines traveling to your destination and start going directly to each of their websites. Occasionally they will have promotions that aren’t shown in the search engine results such as discounted fares or free upgrades. These promos will usually be plastered all over their home page, but you can also see if they have a promotions page on their site, or do a quick search of your travel route and see if any discounts are automatically applied.
If you have plenty of time, you can also sign up for their newsletters where some airlines have special promotions and discounts only for their subscribers - but don’t rely on this!
Step 4: Play Around with Dates
Changing the travel dates by just a few days can sometimes see prices drop drastically, so it really pays to be flexible. If your dates are set, move on to the next step. Otherwise, try out different dates and see how the prices compare to your baseline. On Google Flights there are a few ways to do this:
Use the date grid to quickly compare different date combinations if your dates are flexible by a few days
Use the price graph if you are traveling for a set amount of time (e.g. 1 week) but your dates are still flexible to compare different departure dates
Set your search to one way rather than return and look at each leg individually. When you go to select a date, you can see the price for each day for 2 entire months at a time. Note down the cheapest dates. • Repeat this but in the opposite direction and now you’ve quickly found the cheapest days to fly!
It’s pretty common for one direction to be a lot cheaper than the other. If that’s the case, keep this in mind during the next step.
Skyscanner has similar tools for comparing dates, so if you found promising results in your initial search, it can also be worth checking there.
Step 5: Get Creative with the Route
If you’ve reached this point and still haven’t found a flight for the price point you were hoping for, this is usually where the magic happens. But, it’s also where you will need the most time and creativity. The previous steps are still important, however, as they will help give you some direction for this part. There are a few avenues you can explore when modifying your route:
Changing The Airport Within Your City
Some cities have multiple airports and typically budget airlines will only depart from one of these. So you may find cheaper flights just by changing the airport you are flying in or out of. Using Google Flights, you can quickly compare all of the airports at once by selecting the city for your departure or destination rather than a specific airport.
Not Flying Straight to your Destination
Consider flying to somewhere other than your intended destination. Sometimes it’s cheaper to get yourself roughly where you want to go and then make your way to your final destination by other means. For places in Europe and the USA, this is usually the case as there are super affordable flights within these areas. To do this:
Set your destination to the entire country or continent and have a look at where the cheapest place to fly into is.
If it is significantly cheaper than flying straight to where you want to go, then have look at other ways you can then proceed to your final destination. Consider:
Carpool (like BlaBlaCar)
Get the total price of the initial flight and this extra leg to use in your comparison
It’s possible to do the same but for your departure location as well. See where the cheapest place to fly out of an entire country is for example and then have a look at whether it’s cheaper to get a separate leg to that city before continuing your journey
Keep in mind the more connections you have, the riskier it is especially if each leg is with a different airline.
For multiple legs with the same airline, on the same booking: if one leg is delayed they will get you on to another flight.
For multiple legs with the same airline, on separate bookings: it’s 50/50 on whether they will help.
For multiple legs with different airlines and different bookings: there’s a very slim chance they will help get you on a new flight if you are going to miss your original due to a delay or cancellation from a different airline.
Sometimes breaking a return flight up into two one-way flights can actually be cheaper. With luxury airlines, it is generally cheaper to buy a return flight through them compared to two one-way flights. Whereas with budget airlines, it typically costs the same to book a return as it does for two one-way flights. This opens up the possibility to mix and match flights and find the cheapest combination in the following ways:
Book your flight to your destination with one airline and your flight home with another
Book your flight to your destination, arriving in one airport or city and departing from somewhere else.
If you are moving around on your trip, this can also save you some backtracking as you don’t have to make your way back to your starting point
This is where the information you collected at the start becomes useful as it gives you somewhere to start. (!! maybe remove this from the start). By searching for potential layover destinations, every now and then, this method uncovers a route that Google and Skyscanner missed and is mysteriously cheap! However, it’s more likely that if you find a good layover country, you’ll have to break up your route into multiple legs and therefore, multiple bookings. If you do find a cheap flight this way, you may have to go through immigration at your layover country to check in for your next leg so make sure you are aware of any transit requirements before you book. Also, logistically this can make your travel a little more complicated, so have a good think about whether the savings are worth the extra hassle to you.
In Google Flights, open the ‘Explore’ tab, put in where you want to depart from, and select the month you want to travel in.
We generally don’t use any filters here as if we have reached this far, it means we are REALLY searching hard for the best deal but feel free to add some filters here if there are any non-negotiables for you
Start exploring the map and have a look at where the cheapest places to fly to from your departure city are.
If you find a flight that piques your interest, select that city as your departure point and see how much flights are to your final destination.
Total up these 2 legs and see how they compare to the other flights you’ve found.
This part is basically just trial and error - select a country and see what happens. While it seems like there might be endless combinations, you typically start narrowing your options down as you get a sense of how much it costs to fly from one area to another.
For example, if you were looking at flights from Australia to Europe, you might find it is really cheap to fly from Australia to Southeast Asia but then quite expensive to fly from Southeast Asia to Europe. You might check a few other countries here but if the trend continues you can be pretty certain that a layover in Southeast Asia is not the solution.
Step 6: Tweak
Keep playing around with different date and route combinations until you feel like you’ve exhausted all reasonable combinations.
Step 7: Set Alerts
Don’t be disheartened if you’ve made it this far and haven’t found a price you are happy with. Set up some price alerts on google flights and sky scanner to get notified when prices change. As soon as you see a price you’re happy with get it! Don’t panic if prices go up, they will fluctuate.
Step 8: Reassess
If a couple of months have passed since you set up your price alerts (assuming your trip isn’t imminent) and you haven’t come across the price you were hoping for, then this is the point to reassess your target price. While this process does work for us most of the time there is also no way to fully predict what flight prices will do and sadly, they just don’t drop.****
Finding cheap plane tickets can be a bit of a challenge. But with a bit of strategy and a focus for your searches, you can find some pretty great deals that won’t break the budget. The more flexibility you have, the better your chances are. Build your baseline, do your research, and get creative!