Outwit The Airlines: 15 Hacks For Always Booking The Cheapest Possible Flight
If you’re a budget traveller, you probably already know the money-saving benefits of slow, immersive travel and you know to avoid taking giant leaps around the globe, preferring instead to choose somewhere nearby as your next destination.
You're probably well aware that the bus, train or local ferry is generally the cheapest option to get to your next country or destination and you know to avoid flying as much as possible.
Sometimes, though, circumstances will dictate that you’d be better off taking a flight. These circumstances are numerous and could include:
- You're travelling to an island country like Sri Lanka where the only way of reaching the country is by air
- You're travelling to a very distant destination overseas and boat travel will take too long to be a practical option
- You will face difficulties obtaining certain visas required for overland travel (i.e for the countries you will have to pass through)
- You're travelling to a country that only allows tourists to enter through one of its airports
- In some circumstances, flying is actually the cheapest option, not to mention the most convenient.
Whatever your reason for choosing flying as the preferred means of reaching your next destination, you should know how to be thrifty about booking the flight. A little knowledge on this subject will go a long way in saving you unnecessary expenses when it comes to air travel.
We've learned an awful lot about saving money on airfares from booking numerous flights over the past few years. Here are our 11 best tips for saving money on air travel:
#1 - Be highly flexible with flight dates & destinations
Flexibility is really the whole key to flying cheaply. Flexibility in both where you fly to and the date you fly on. Unfortunately we live in a world where few people have flexibility and as a result, most people pay way more money than they should on flights when they travel.
When a holiday is approaching, most people decide where they want to fly from, where they want to fly to, what date they want to fly on and then search for a flight that fits their criteria. This is understandable behaviour for those who have a job and a limited window of opportunity for travel.
However, this is absolutely the worst possible approach for saving money on flights. If you want to fly cheaply, you have to use the opposite approach; let the prices dictate where you fly from (within reason), where you fly to and the dates you fly on.
Fly only on the dates when the prices are at their lowest and fly only to the cheapest destinations from the cheapest airport that's reasonably close to where you live. At the very least, it's important be flexible in one of these three variables. If you have a job and a holiday is approaching, you can at least be flexible with where you fly to and perhaps what airport you fly from, if not so much the dates you fly on.
Just remember that amazing holidays can be had in thousands of destinations; your trip doesn't necessarily have to be in one the places that everyone else visits. The less touristy places can often be the most enjoyable.
#2 - Compare airfares across multiple search engines
So you understand the importance of flexibility as regards where you’ll fly to and what dates you’ll fly on. Since flexibility is the real key to finding the cheapest flights, the most useful search engines are the ones that allow you to search with very broad search criteria.
In other words you need to be able to easily compare the costs of flying from multiple points of departure to multiple destinations and also compare the costs of those flights over the course of an entire month or even over the course of the entire year.
There are many different flight search engines on the web, including Kayak, Momondo, Adioso, Google Flights, Hipmunk, Skyscanner etc.
We consider Skyscanner and Adioso to be the two best search engines for flexible searches so we would recommend that you begin your search with one of these two engines.
Once you've targeted a particular destination and flight date that you're interested in, it's no harm to compare the prices for that same date and destination across a few other search engines. The reason for doing this is that no single search engine always finds the cheapest available flight.
However, we've found that Skyscanner has most consistently beaten the other search engines in finding the cheapest available flight (for us travelling all around Asia at least) so if you just want one go-to search engine, we'd recommend Skyscanner. Here's why we like it:
- Compare prices for a given route across the entire month or even over the course of the whole year
- Compare prices from a specified starting point to ‘anywhere’ (turns up cheap airfares for a ton of destinations)
- Do flexible searches such as flights from city to city or even from country to country, without having to enter specific airports
- Finds smaller airlines and certain budget airlines that many other search engines miss
#3 - Always book well in advance of your departure date
This tip applies to everyone really. Whether you’re a person who takes a vacation once a year or a long-term traveller you usually need to book flights well before your planned departure date if you want to get the lowest possible airfare.
Long-term travellers might have more flexibility with flight dates than those that have to return to a job at the end of their trip, but even they need to be booking well in advance because booking a flight last minute when a tourist visa is about to expire can be expensive.
So how long before your visa expiry date or your planned departure date should you start thinking about booking?
Some websites advise that 7 weeks in advance is generally the best time to start looking for a deal for short-haul flights and 18 weeks in advance for long-haul flights.
You have to remember however that these are just average numbers. Some airlines could release a special discount fare a week before the departure date, some 6 months before and others might be cheapest to book on the day the flight is first announced.
In our experience, if you do a few searches at least 3-4 weeks before your flying date, you’ll usually still be able to find a very good airfare. Just open up Skyscanner and do a 'whole month' search at least 3-4 weeks before your deadline departure date to find the lowest available airfare for that month.
Skyscanner's e-mail price alerts are also useful if there's a specific flight route and date that you want to monitor the prices of for a while before making a booking. They'll e-mail you if the price changes, whether it's an increase or a decrease in the price.
Leave it too late however and prices will often start to increase at an alarming rate. While some people can be lucky enough to snag an extremely cheap last-minute ticket, this is the exception rather than the rule.
Our best advice therefore for consistent money saving on airfares is to always be thinking about your next move and remember to book all your flights well in advance of the departure date.
#4 - Travel carry-on only
Other than the sheer joy of travelling long-term with nothing more than a 30-litre carry-on backpack, travelling in this way is also important for avoiding extra charges for checked luggage.
As a thrifty flier, you’ll almost always be flying with the budget airlines and it’s usually these very airlines that tack on extra charges for checked luggage, presumably to compensate for their already low airfares.
Many airlines have a maximum weight and size limit for cabin baggage so just make sure you’re within the limits for all of these budget airlines and you’ll always be able to avoid the checked luggage fee.
Regarding size, you can get a 45L backpack onto many airlines but for some of the stricter ones like Ryanair, you'll want to make sure your backpack doesn't exceed 35L.
Regarding weight, cabin baggage limits vary across airlines but you'll usually be safe if your bag weighs under 7kg.
If you turn up at the airport and your bag happens to be over the weight limit for cabin baggage, remember that you can remove heavy items like laptops and cameras and carry them outside the bag. You can also wear any heavy clothes that are still inside your bag (if any) and stuff your pockets with whatever items they'll fit. Now return the bag for a re-weighing and keep your fingers crossed.
We go into more detail about how to achieve carry-on only travel in our article about the 6 golden principles of efficient packing for ultralight carry-on travel.
#5 - Use private browsing mode when booking flights
If you enter an airline's website to look at the details of a flight that you like the price of, persistent cookies or stored cookies are planted in one of your web browser’s subfolders, which allow the airline company to identify you if you return to book the flight later.
The result is that often if you return later to book the same flight, the price will have increased significantly; and this increase is just for you. This seems to normally occur on the airline websites themselves although it could potentially happen also when booking through third party booking sites such as expedia and booking.com.
It’s better to be safe than sorry, so we recommend you take measures to avoid this issue by using private browsing or incognito mode, as it’s also called.
In private browsing mode, much of the information that a browser normally stores is not stored at all. In this mode, cookies are only temporarily stored by the browser for the duration of the browsing session and subsequently destroyed when you close the browser.
Private browsing can be enabled for chrome, safari or firefox in the following ways:
For Firefox, you can go to File -> New private window or just use the shortcut: shift + command + P. These will both launch private browsing.
For Google Chrome, click the wrench icon in the top right corner and select ‘New incognito window’ or use the shortcut: ctrl + shift + N.
For Safari, go to File -> New private window or hit the shortcut: shift + command + N.
An alternative to private browsing is to delete all cookies manually after visiting an airline or travel agent website.
You can also install various add-ons to your browser, which will automatically destroy cookies after closing the tab. You can try this self-destructing cookies add-on for Firefox.
#6 - Know how to avoid bullshit extra charges
One of the most annoying things when you finally find a great flight deal is those extra charges that you get landed with as you progress through the booking process. Air Asia is one airline that is notorious for the extra charges it likes to tack on to the price of the ticket.
We’re not talking about those boxes for extras like travel insurance, meals, in-flight comfort, seat selection or priority boarding that sometimes get magically checked without your consent as you go through the booking process (although you do have to watch out for that happening), but rather extra charges like card processing fees and charges for not checking on online.
Air Asia for example will often charge you $4 or more for an online debit or credit card payment and apparently the only way to avoid this card processing fee is to pay with a BIG prepaid visa card.
A select few airlines, including Air Asia, will also charge you a few dollars at the counter in the airport for not checking in online beforehand. Just remember to always check in online with every airline that offers the option to avoid this ever happening.
#7 - Embrace indirect flights with long layovers
Once you become familiar with using flight search engines, you’ll see how direct flights can often be the most expensive options when you search for flights between two destinations that are far apart.
For example, one search result on Skyscanner revealed that the cheapest direct flight from Tokyo to Paris would cost £1,872 whereas indirect flights for the same journey with 1-stop, 2-stops or more were starting from £461 .
Now, these indirect flights with multiple layovers are certainly not the most convenient and for a very long flight, it might take 30-40 hours to finally reach your final destination. However, it’s a sacrifice you’ll have to make sometimes if you want to save money and when hundreds of dollars are involved, it’s definitely worth it in our opinion.
To ensure that your search engine displays prices for indirect flight itineraries, make sure you don’t have any boxes checked that say things like ‘direct flights only’ before you click the search button.
Although the search engines do an okay job for finding cheap indirect flight itineraries, you can also create your own itineraries manually and usually save even more money this way. This strategy tends to be the most effective for long-distance flights.
For example, if you’re flying from Southeast Asia to a country in Western Europe, the cheapest possible option might be to first fly into a city in Germany and from there take a very cheap Ryanair flight to your final destination the following day or even a few days later.
The search engines will often miss many of these possibilities, as they’ll be usually looking to connect you with a flight that departs within 24 hours of your arrival at the connecting airport.
Just remember when doing it this way that you also have to factor in the costs of food and accommodation (if you’re not roughing it or couchsurfing) into the total cost of getting home!
#8 - Keep an eye out for error fares
Error fares? Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them before; not many people have.
Also known as airfare errors, these are serious pricing errors that are made all the time by airlines and customers who are quick off the mark can often book an absurdly cheap flight before the error is discovered and corrected by the airline.
These pricing errors can happen for a number of different reasons. These include:
- Calculation errors made in converting one currency to another
- Dropping the last zero by mistake (e.g, pricing the flight at €100 instead of €1000)
- Technical glitches in the systems of OTAs (online travel agencies), which omit fuel surcharges from the fare total
- Human error due to lapses in concentration
So how to go about finding airfare errors? Firstly, error fares will sometimes turn up in flight search engines. If you’re doing broad, whole month searches with skyscanner, it’ll be easy to spot an error fare if one shows up as it’ll probably be significantly lower than any of the other fares displayed for that month and it’ll jump right out at you.
There are also several websites that find and display flights with error fares. Our two favourite sites for this are fly4free and secretflying. Those that do a lot of travelling within the U.S.A should definitely know about airfarewatchdog and their daily top 50 airfares.
The great thing is that these websites do all the hard work in sniffing out these error fares and displaying them for you to take advantage of. You can easily sign up for e-mail alerts with most of these types of sites and also browse their social media feeds for great flight deals.
But will error fares always be honoured by the airline? The answer is no, not always. However, cancellations are a lot less common now than they were in the past. The airline will ultimately have to weigh the cost of selling underpriced tickets against the damages to its reputation, loss of customer faith and potential legal ramifications if they decide to cancel the tickets.
The bottom line is that if you spot an error fare, act fast, book quickly and keep your fingers crossed that it gets honoured. Don't make any further plans or bookings until you're sure that you have a confirmed ticket (wait for a confirmation e-mail). You might have to wait more than 24 hours for the confirmation in many cases!
#9 - Make sure you book your flights in the local currency
Did you know that flight fares can sometimes vary depending on where you book from, or more accurately, where you appear to be booking from?
The fare that a search engine or airline website quotes you often depends on the apparent point of sale - the place where the ticket is being bought from.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to spoof your location or currency in the flight search engines and airline websites so that it looks like you're booking the flight from the same country that it’s departing from. In other words, you want the airline to think you're a local booking the ticket from within their own country, not a tourist trying to book an onward flight from that country before they've even reached it.
To illustrate how this works with a practical example, we’ll look at what happened when we searched for a cheap flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka to Male, Maldives.
When we searched using the Google ITA flight search engine, we were able to search for flights using the sales city as Colombo, Sri Lanka (Google ITA is one search engine that allows you to manually change the 'sales city' or point of sale). The results showed that the cheapest flight for the route during a 1 month period was with China Eastern airline and was priced at 14,016 LKR ($93).
We then changed the currency to US dollars and set the sales city to New York. This time the same flight with China Eastern was priced at $157! That's a saving of $64 just by changing the point of sale to that of the departure city.
We then tried searching with Skyscanner, with our country set to UK and currency set to GBP (top right corner on the website). This search turned up the cheapest flight at a price £123.
We then changed our country in Skyscanner to Sri Lanka and the currency automatically changed to the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). Now Skyscanner yielded a price of 14,551 LKR (£77) for that same flight, which is a very significant decrease in the cost of the flight, just by changing our country and currency.
The bottom line is that no matter what search engine you’re using, it’s important that you set the country and currency to that of the country the flight is departing from.
You can also experiment with other points of sale, like the country the airline is based in for example. If you're flying with a Norwegian airline you can try setting the country to Norway and the currency to the Norwegian Krone. This is another tactic than can often save you a significant amount of money.
Now if you choose to be directed to the airline's website to complete the booking, you may find the price resets to the original higher price, as the airline website can detect your true location via your I.P address. You can overcome this by using a VPN to spoof your location, but sometimes you can also just manually change your country and currency on the airline website itself and again see the price fall dramatically.
Now, one thing to bear in mind is that this trick won't save you money every time as the prices won’t always vary depending on the point of sale, but for a few clicks of the mouse, you can sometimes save a significant amount of money so it’s worth always implementing.
It seems that the two best search engines to use for faking your location are the Google ITA search engine and Skyscanner. These two are the best for allowing you to manipulate the point of sale and currency to that of the departure country of the flight.
Other search engines like Kayak and Momondo currently offer a more limited selection of countries to ‘fake’ as your location so they’re not as good as Google ITA and Skyscanner in this regard.
Lastly, remember when you’re booking a flight priced in a foreign currency that you might face currency conversion fees, which will somewhat offset any savings gained from booking the flight in the foreign currency.
That’s why we recommend you use a card that is free of foreign transaction fees. See our article on avoiding banking fees while travelling abroad for tips on smarter banking for travellers.
#10 - Take advantage of throwaway tickets
First of all, what on Earth is a throwaway ticket? Also known as hidden city or ‘point beyond’ tickets, a throwaway ticket is one that has multiple journey legs and the idea is that you usually cancel one or more legs of the journey and throw the ticket away before you reach the final destination.
Now, you’re surely wondering why you anyone would do this. Well, let’s say you want to get to a popular destination or major hub, but all the flights terminating in that destination are prohibitively expensive.
Intriguingly enough, it turns out that flights that pass through a hub or popular destination (headed for an unpopular final destination) are much cheaper than flights that terminate in the hub or popular destination.
The idea is that you book a flight that passes through the layover airport (your desired destination) and once you reach it, you just throw away the other part of your ticket and exit the airport there and then.
There are some caveats to bear in mind when using this technique however. They are:
- You can’t risk checking in any luggage because it will normally go straight to the final destination, giving you no chance to collect it at the layover airport. The only exception is if the airline still allows you to ‘short check’ luggage, but most airlines don’t allow this anymore.
- You can’t utilize the return leg(s) of a round-trip ticket because cancelling one leg of the journey will cancel the entire itinerary.
- If the plane you’re on happens to just be re-fuelling in the connecting airport and a change of airplane is not involved, you might not be allowed to disembark from the airplane.
- If only the final destination is printed on your ticket you might face problems with immigration when trying to exit the airport.
- There’s a very small (2%) chance that your itinerary could change due to exceptional circumstances such as bad weather and the flight may no longer connect at your desired destination.
- Don’t associate a frequent flier account when doing this with an airline as they’ll might invalidate any miles that you’ve accrued with them.
- Airlines hate when people do this and if you do it several times and they eventually cotton on to what you’re doing, you may be issued with a warning or be denied boarding future flights with the company.
They even may attempt to fine you the difference between the price you paid for your ticket and the lowest applicable fare. However, they’d likely have to take you to court for this and it’s doubtful they’d ever pursue it for such a small amount of money.
The bottom line is that it’s perfectly okay to cancel a leg of your journey for whatever person reasons you have, so the law is on your side here.
Another way you can use throwaway tickets is for when you only want to fly one-way but the cheapest round-trip ticket happens to be cheaper than the cheapest one-way ticket. This does occasionally happen, believe it or not.
You can thus fly out on the first leg of your round-trip ticket, reach your desired destination and then just cancel the return leg. The airlines of course don’t like this either but there isn’t much they can do about it.
The best website for finding these throwaway tickets is skiplagged. On their website you’ll see they mention that in addition to normal fares, their search engines can also find these so-called ‘hidden city’ fares.
Apparently, the site has been so effective at undermining the profit margins of United Airlines that the airline sued the owners of the website.
#11 - Purchase two one-way tickets instead of a round-trip
Even though we just mentioned that a round-trip ticket can sometimes be even cheaper than a one-way, sometimes the exact opposite is true; it can often be cheaper to buy one two one-way tickets than a single round-trip ticket.
If you need to return to your destination of departure at some later date, remember to think twice before buying a round-trip ticket. Make sure you compare the total cost of buying two one-way tickets with the cost of buying a single round-trip ticket.
If it is cheaper to buy two one-way tickets, you can buy the second one-way ticket for the return leg at the same time as you buy the ticket for the first leg or you might even consider buying it at a later date if you think the price will drop in the meantime. You may be risking a price increase with the latter approach however.
#12 - Don't overlook smaller local carriers
In addition to the well-known or major carriers there are sometimes smaller local airlines that service some unpopular routes or routes in remote areas.
The search engines can often overlook these local carriers, so it’s worth putting in a google search or making a few enquiries about the existence of any local airlines to see if you can find an even cheaper deal with one of these.
#13 - Consult with a travel agent
If you’re already implementing all of these tips, it’s probably fairly unlikely that a travel agent will be able the beat the lowest airfare that you’ve found but if you’re taking a really expensive long-haul flight, then it’s probably no harm to check to see if they have any better deals before you book your flight. They do sometimes have access to special fares that aren’t available to the public.
#14 - Track offers and promotions from budget airlines
It’s worth having an awareness of the latest deals and promotions of the budget airlines relevant to the part of the world you’re travelling in if you want to stand a good chance of bagging an awesome deal.
Trawl their websites occasionally for special offers and also check their social media feeds (facebook, twitter etc.). You can also sign up for e-mail alerts for a more passive way of staying up-to-date on the latest offers and promotions. By doing this, you might spot a deal that’s not turning up in the search engines.
You’ll find a pretty useful listing of budget airlines over on Wikipedia for various countries around the world. Identify the ones that are relevant to your journey and follow them.
#15 - Use the 24-hour rule to your advantage
What if say, you book a flight that you think is a great deal and a few hours later you notice that the price for that same flight has fallen dramatically? Wouldn’t that fill you with buyer’s remorse?
Well it turns out that when you’ve booked a flight, things are not necessarily set in stone just yet. Many airlines allow you to cancel your booking for a full refund provided that you cancel within the 24 hours after making the booking. This is certainly the case for the majority of major U.S carriers and several other non U.S carriers.
If you subscribe to Skyscanner’s e-mail price alerts for the flight you’ve decided to book, you will be notified if the price increases or falls after you book your flight. If it falls significantly, you can then try cancelling the flight and booking a new one.
A word of warning with this is that not all airlines have the 24-hour free cancellation policy and certain conditions are normally attached for those that do. For example, some airlines will only refund you for a cancellation within 24 hours if you’ve booked the flight directly through them and not via a third-party booking agent or website.
Saving money on airfare is quite an involved topic as you can you see. There are so many different tricks for reducing the cost of flights!
However, even if you remember and use just a few of these 15 airfare hacks on a regular basis you'll save a significant amount of money on flying.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Do you have any tips to share regarding saving money on airfares? Feel free to leave us a comment below.
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Our names are Eoghan and Jili and we hail from Ireland and India respectively.
We are two ardent shoestring budget adventure travellers and have been travelling throughout Asia continuously for the past few years.
Having accrued such a wealth of stories and knowledge from our extraordinary and transformative journey, our mission is now to share everything we've experienced and all of the lessons we've learned with our readers.
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