Airline tickets are usually the most expensive part of travel- especially if you’re flying with the whole family. Domestic flights within the USA can be expensive, while costs can increase astronomically if you’re looking to fly internationally. But the cost of airline tickets doesn’t have to deter you from traveling the world. There are lots of little tips and tricks out there for finding cheap flights. We’re going to compile them all in one handy blog post right here in our Wandering Moms Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Flights!
Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Flights: The Basics
First we’re going to cover the basics of finding cheap flights. These are super simple things that everyone should keep in mind when searching for deals on plane tickets. They don’t require any special websites or search skills- just a basic understanding of how to start looking at flight deals!
Book Flights First
Many people start their travel planning by picking a location and then picking their dates. It’s not uncommon for people to then move right into finding and booking their hotel or AirBnB. If you plan in this order, it means that flights come last and by the time you book your flights you are locked into certain dates- and locked into the prices on those dates.
Flip your travel planning upside down and focus on booking your flights first. If you are a bit flexible with your dates- even by just a few on either end of your trip- you can end up saving a ton of money. Always click the “flexible dates” button before you search for flights and this will help you compare costs over the span of three to seven days. You can select the cheapest flights, then move on to building the rest of your trip around those more affordable plane tickets. We’ll discuss the best days to book below!
Be Flexible with Nonstop vs. Connecting Flights
A nonstop flight is obviously more desirable, especially if you’re traveling with young children. A nonstop flight means you only have to navigate one airport, wait to board one plane, and sit through only one take off and one landing- then voila! You’ve arrived at your destination. Booking a connecting flight means you’ll have to repeat this process two, sometimes even three times. It takes longer and can be a big hassle if you’re shuffling three kids from one plane to the next.
However- flights with connections can save you a LOT of money. So while there are times when handing over the cash for a nonstop flight is totally worth it, if you can be a bit flexible with your travel days then consider a connecting flight. It really depends on if you’re more interested in saving time or saving money- but if you’re looking to save money, you can save a LOT with connecting flights. This is particularly true for international flights. If you’re super creative with this, you can even snag a few hours or even an over night in an extra destination… more on that in the “level up” section!
Check Prices at Surrounding Airports
Just because you are used to flying out of whichever airport is closest to your home (convenience- we get it!), don’t forget to check prices at surrounding airports. For example, if you live in the Los Angeles area, flying in and out of LAX is the obvious choice. But you can also fly out of Long Beach, Burbank, Ontario or even San Diego. Sometimes you’ll find enough savings on tickets to make the extra commute to the airport totally worth your time.
Book Non-Peak Days
Peak travel days are Friday, Sunday and Monday and flights on these are almost always going be more expensive. Non-peak days are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Flights on these days are almost always cheaper. This ties in with the idea of booking your flights first. You might plan on leaving for vacation on a Friday after work or school (because that’s the most logical thing to do!) but leaving on a Thursday or Saturday could save you quite a bit of money simply by flying on those non-peak days!
Use Points and Miles
You can earn points or miles by joining loyalty programs or by using a credit card that allows to to earn points on purchases. Whenever you fly, sign up for that airlines loyalty program and start collecting miles that can be redeemed for future flights. Or consider signing up for an airline specific or general travel credit card where you can earn points and miles that can be redeemed for free airline tickets. Travel specific credit cards give you a better value if you trade in points for travel as opposed to cash back or non-travel items. Many travel credit cards have a sign up bonus which means you’ll earn a giant lump sum or miles or points for spending a certain amount on your credit card within the first three months. If you play your cards right- you can earn a free flight right off the bat! The Chase Sapphire cards and the Capital One Venture Rewards cards are great general travel points cards (meaning you can redeem your points on all things travel, not just airline tickets). For airline specific cards, Delta and Southwest cards are popular. Stay tuned for our Wandering Moms Ultimate Guide to Travel Points in the near future!
Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Flights: Level Up
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to level up! These techniques take a bit more time and patience, but if you’re willing and able to put the time in- you can score some seriously cheap flights all over the world!
Understand the Pros and Cons of OTAs
Before we delve into these advanced techniques to finding cheap flights- let’s take a second to discuss the OTA. An OTA is an “Online Travel Agent”. It is a third party provider that sells flights, accommodations, transportation, tours and trips via an online platform. OTAs offer a convenient self-service approach to booking travel. Examples of OTAs include Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz and Skyscanner. These companies purchase flights, hotel rooms, rental cars and tours directly from vendors, then resell them to customers.
Sometimes OTAs resell at a marked-up price, meaning you will pay more. But sometimes they are able to markdown prices, meaning you can save money. It’s always worth taking the time to compare prices directly from airlines with prices on OTA sites. You won’t always save money, but sometimes you can save quite a bit!
However, always read the fine print and be aware of the downsides of booking through OTAs. Cancellation policies on flights booked through an OTA are likely to be different than the policies offered directly from the airline. If you need to make chances or cancellations to a booking, it must be done through the OTA- not through the actual airline. For example, if you book a flight on Delta through an OTA like Expedia- you must make changes or cancellations through Expedia. And that’s not always easy. Many of these huge OTAs are known for poor customer service- including extreme difficulties reaching an actual human in the customer service department. Another disadvantage is the 24 hour cancellation rule, which we’ll discuss below, doesn’t always apply to flights booked through an OTA.
Many people recommend booking flights directly through the airline because it simplifies the process when you cut out the middle man or third party provider. If you book directly with an airline, you will handle any changes or cancellations directly with that airline, which can be a more streamlined process. But if you’re more interested in finding the cheapest deals, you may be willing to make a few sacrifices by booking a cheaper deal through an OTA!
Compare Prices Across Search Engines
Now that you understand how OTAs work- use them to your advantage! It takes a bit more time, but you can score some serious deals if you’re willing to search all of the different platforms for the best price. Priceline, Momondo, Expedia, Orbitz and Skyscanner are top sites for comparing prices and finding deals.
Another fantastic resource you’ll want to master is Google Flights. Google Flights isn’t an OTA. It’s a gigantic search engine for flights that uses a global distribution system that allows you to search the flight inventory of nearly every airline in the world all in one simple search. Google Flights has tons of filters that will help you find exactly what you’re looking for, then you can compare prices across all the options it pulls up. Then you book directly through the airline, meaning you can skip the downsides to booking through an OTA.
Set Price Alerts for Your Destination
If you have a specific destination and a small range of dates in mind for your trip, you can set price alerts on various websites. These will then alert you when the price of plane tickets to your destination on your dates drop. Skyscanner, Momondo, KAYAK and Google Flights all have options for setting up price alerts. Check out this great article on How to Set Airfare Price Alerts for details on setting alerts on these four popular sites.
Don’t Forget Budget Airlines
Giant OTAs and search engines like Google Flights are fantastic resources for finding cheap flights- but they don’t include all airlines in their search. Some budget airlines like Southwest do not participate with any OTAs or search engines while others, like Spirit will show up in some OTAs but tend to keep their best deals for those who book directly through their website. Internationally, budget airlines including AeroMexico, Turkish, Royal Jordanian, China Eastern don’t pull up on Google Flights. So while it’s great to use things like OTAs and search engines- don’t forget about budget airlines that you might have to check by going directly to their website.
A word to the wise when booking a budget airline- be aware of extra fees and charges. Chances are the actual flight price shown for a budget airline will look fantastic, but when you read the fine print you’ll see that they will then nickle and dime you to death. Budget airlines operate by charging minimum base rates, then up-charging for all the extra amenities people expect when flying. Want to pick your seat? That’ll cost extra. Want to bring a suitcase? That costs extra too. Hoping for priority boarding? Extra. Peanuts and a Coke? You got it- extra!
A general exception to this “everything costs extra” with budget airlines is Southwest Airlines. Their prices don’t always look super cheap, especially compared to other budget airlines like Spirit- but with Southwest, what you see is what you get. Their tickets include free checked bags, open seating, snacks and drinks, and the best cancellation policy you’ll find anywhere in the airline industry. It may take a few basic calculations to see which options are cheaper, but if you play around a bit you’re likely to find that Southwest has some really great deals.
Look for Individual Ticket Prices
To understand why it’s worth looking at buying one ticket at a time instead of buying tickets for your whole family together, it’s time to learn another airline term: “Fare Bucket”
A fare bucket is an airline term that denotes your ticket package. It includes which cabin you’re in as well as any privileges associated with your ticket such as a refundable ticket, an upgrade-eligible ticket, etc. Airlines hold a certain number of seats in each fare bucket and each fare bucket has it’s own price point.
Say you are searching for four tickets to your destination. When you type in four passengers, the tickets come up as $350 each. But if you go back and search for just one ticket, it comes up as $199. What’s the deal? That flight may have only had one ticket left in the $199 fare bucket, which means it jumped your whole group up to the next fare bucket which costs $350. But if you search for one ticket at a time, you can snag that first ticket at the cost of $199, then get the remaining tickets you need at $275. You didn’t save on every single ticket, but you saved a decent amount on one and that’s a pretty sweet deal! This doesn’t always work- but it is worth checking out to see if any savings are available!
Look for Hidden City Fares on Skiplagged
What is a hidden city fare? A hidden city fare is when you book a connecting flight to a final destination, but only intend to take the flight to one of the layover destinations. Say you are looking to fly from NYC to Iceland, but the tickets are $699. But a flight from NYC to London with a layover in Iceland only costs $525. You can purchase the ticket to London, but with the intention of landing in Iceland and not boarding the second leg of the flight to London.
Skiplagged is a search engine that helps you identify hidden city fares and it can help you save quite a bit of money. But there are a number of things you should be aware of if you’re looking to book a hidden city fare:
- Is it legal? Yes, booking a full fare but getting off at a layover point is legal. There have been a number of lawsuits filed by airlines, but they have all been thrown out because it is legal.
- Do airlines like it? No- airlines hate it. They’d obviously rather you pay more for a direct flight to your desired destination than hold up a seat on a connecting flight that they could have given to another paying customer. So you’re not going to tell the airline that you’re skipping the second leg of the flight- you just don’t show up. Talk less… smile more!
- Can I book a round trip ticket? No. If you miss any flight on your round trip ticket, the rest of your itinerary is cancelled- including all of your flights home. So you’ll only book one way flights when booking hidden city fares. Scott’s Cheap Flights has a great tutorial on using Skipplagged that covers this in more detail. Be sure to check it out before going for these kinds of savings!
- Can I check bags? Generally the answer is no because a checked bag is not unloaded until you reach your final destination. If you purchased that NYC to London ticket but end up staying in Iceland, your checked bag will land in London without you! There are some exceptions when flying internationally as some flights do require you to pick up your bags in the layover airport- but you’ll want to make absolutely certain this is the case for your flight before you check a bag.
Keep an Eye Out for Error Fares
Error fares are the Holy Grail of cheap flights! You can save hundreds, even thousands by finding and booking error fares- but this technique comes with a lot of baggage (ha!) By definition, error fares are discounted at 75% – 90% of their original rate. Error fares, also called mistake fares, are exactly what they sound like. Airlines make an error or mistake when posting the tickets. Error fares are often the result of a miscalculation on converting currencies or sometimes a result of an employee mistyping a price or leaving a number off of a price when entering it into the system. It don’t happen often, but it does happen.
The big key with error fares is flexibility. If you’re only looking for an error fare to Orlando on May 26th- it’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll find something with that exact location and date. But if you’re a free spirit who is willing to go just about anywhere and you have some flexibility with your schedule, you’ve got a much better chance of scoring an amazing deal on super cheap flights. If an airline posts an error fare to Rio de Janeiro and you’re up for the adventure- jump on it!
Another important thing to know about error fares is the US 24 Hour Rule. The US Department of Transportation guarantees a full refund on any flight that departs from or lands in the US if you cancel within 24 hours of booking. We’ll discuss this in a bit more depth below, but it’s important to know this when booking error fares. Airlines will correct errors the second the notice them- and that means an error fare may only be posted for a few moments. You don’t really have time to hem and haw- you need to make a decision and FAST. If the flight departs from or lands in a US city- just book it immediately. Once you have the tickets, you have 24 hours to decide whether or not you can make the trip work. If it won’t work, you can get a full refund by cancelling within 24 hours.
There are a couple of ways you can search for error fares:
- Scour OTAs and Google Flights: This isn’t necessarily the most practical way to find error fares as you’re essentially searching for a needle in a haystack. But if you’re got the time- search away!!
- Set Price Alerts: If you set alerts on Google Flights or any of the OTA for tickets below a certain price, you’ll be alerted if something super cheap pops up. You’ll also get alerts for flights that aren’t necessarily error fares, but if there is an error fare for your destination, you’ll get the alert.
- Join a Website to Track Error Fare: Some travel websites like Thrifty Traveler and Scott’s Cheap Flights offer a premium service (at a monthly or yearly cost) where they will track error fares and alert you when something comes up. If you are a super flexible traveler and are willing to jump on any destination for the right price- it might be worth investing in such a service.
- Join the Wandering Moms Facebook Group: There’s really no better bargain hunter than a mom- and what’s better than one mom on the hunt for amazing travel deals? Twenty-two THOUSAND moms! We have quite a few moms in our Facebook group who love searching for error fares and they share them in our group so other people can take advantage of the deals too. Not only is the group free- but you’ll also get to network with tens of thousands of like-minded women who share their tips and tricks on travel every single day. So if you’re a mom, it’s time to become a Wandering Mom!
There is one more really important thing to note about error fares and that is that not all airlines will honor them. Many do- but some decide not to. And they have the right to cancel tickets booked as an error fare. So if you happen to find and book an error fare, just be aware that if it’s too good to be true- it might not actually be true. Don’t book the rest of your trip (hotels, transportation, tours, etc.) until your ticket has been confirmed by the airline. This can take from a couple of days up to a couple of weeks- but they’ll let you know if they’re confirming the tickets or cancelling them. If they do cancel the ticket, you are owed a full refund of what you paid.
Buy Now Think Later!
As discussed above, US federal law requires airlines to offer a full refund for flights that depart from or land on US soil if cancelled within 24 hours of booking. So if you see a really great price on flights- don’t wait to make a decision. Just book them, then look at the logistics after. If you wait too long, you could loose out on an amazing deal.
There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to this rule. First, the law technically requires airlines to offer a full refund OR option to lock or hold a flight at the current price- but not both. It also only requires the 24 hour cancellation policy for flights booked more than seven days before the flight departs, so this wont apply to those last minute bookings! The last thing to keep in mind- not all OTAs are required to honor this rule. Many of the larger OTAS do, but some do not- so be sure to read the fine print if you are booking a flight through an OTA!
We’ve covered a LOT of tips and tricks for finding cheap flights in this post! Stay tuned for the next post in our Wandering Ultimate Guide Series where we’ll teach you how to use our favorite tool for finding cheap airline tickets- Google Flights. And don’t forget to check out our Ultimate Guide to Your Child’s First Flight!