by Allison Macsas
After 13 years of frequent travel and six years of arranging running trips for myself and others all over the world, I’ve finally figured out the secret to landing amazing flight deals!
The secret is… there isn’t one. Seriously. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time booking flights can agree that there is seemingly no rhyme or reason to those ever-fluctuating ticket prices. Some say to clear your browser history before searching (hasn’t done anything for me). Others say to book on Tuesday (I get the same prices that I get on Saturday). And those exuberant “Flight Deal Alert!” posts on Facebook never seem to apply to your destination, much less your originating airport.
But, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some strategies out there to help you save money. As someone who has been a researcher and deal-hunter since birth (thanks, Mom and Dad) I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to booking flights. Recently I’ve come to realize that what I think of as standard practice is actually quite foreign to a lot of newer travelers, so I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned over the years.
Note: This is based on the experiences of a US-based traveler (me!), and most of what I’m about to suggest requires putting in a lot of research time. It recently took me nearly a month of daily searches to finally coordinate flights for myself and my mom for an upcoming Morocco trip, but in the end I paid less than half of what I would have had I just booked the first “cheapest” result that popped up in a search engine. The effort may or may not be worth it to you…
1. Search all of the websites. I used to assume that you’d find the same options anywhere you looked, but that’s not true; you’d be amazed at how wildly varied the generated results are between search engines. They all combine different airlines and various schedules in different ways. I typically make the rounds on Kayak, Orbitz, Skyscanner, Expedia, Travelocity & Vayama, and I’ll continue to do so (or set up price alerts) for several weeks if they seem too expensive on the front end. If it’s not a place you’ve flown before, watch for awhile to get a feel for the ticket price ranges.
Sometimes I check the actual airline sites too, but I’ve yet to ever find the best deal going that route, at least not with major airlines.
2. Consider multi-city trips to get an agreeable itinerary. For example, let’s say I want to go to Dublin but every search result is giving me some convoluted route with multiple stops. I know that there is a direct Austin-London flight and that it’s easy to go from London to Dublin, so instead I search a multi-city: Austin-London-Dublin-London-Austin, rather than just an Austin-Dublin round-trip. Now I’ve got just one layover and a quick hop over to my final destination, often at pretty much the same price as that messy round-trip! However, sometimes it drives the cost up too much, which leads me to the next tip…
3. Consider two roundtrip flights rather than a multicity or a single roundtrip. My recent Morocco booking is a good example: an Austin-Marrakech roundtrip flight on my chosen dates was going to cost $1400. However, an Austin-Madrid roundtrip was $750, and a Madrid-Marrakech roundtrip was just $200. By booking two separate RT tickets, I saved nearly $500!
This is a great strategy that I use a lot, but you should be aware of the risks: if your first flight gets delayed and you miss the second, neither airline will be responsible for getting you to your final destination – you simply missed it. If the first airline loses your checked bag, it’s not going to follow you to your final destination – you just lost your luggage for this trip. You can mitigate the risk by ensuring a really generous layover time and sticking to a carry-on, but sometimes it may be better to pay more and avoid any chance of those scenarios.
4. Speaking of those looooong layovers… they don’t have to be bad. I think that 2-3 hours is the ideal layover with a normal itinerary – it gives you plenty of buffer for delays, and I’d rather be bored than panicked. But if I use that trick above, or if I can get a great ticket price in exchange for a 7+ hour layover, I’ll take that 7+ hours! More and more airports now offer hourly sleeping options (no, not that kind). Sleeping pods are starting to show up in some US airports, and I’ve used this place in Madrid. London Gatwick has something similar and I’m sure there are plenty others that I’m not aware of yet. Getting off a cramped overnight flight and having 3 or 6 hours to shower, stretch out and pass out in a silent cave of a room without even leaving the airport is indescribably satisfying.
Alternatively, if you’re superhuman, you can also leave the airport and explore whatever city you happen to be in for a few hours.
5. Be wary of the cheapest fares. There is almost always a catch, usually in the form of exorbitant baggage fees. Once you add that in (because has anyone in the history of the world traveled without even a cabin bag?), the price won’t be nearly so great. Occasionally it’s still best option, but make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Similarly, there are some crazy cheap fares to be had within Europe on Ryanair, Easyjet and other similar budget airlines. These can absolutely be a great way to bring your cost of travel waaaay down, as long as you play by the rules. Read all of the fine print and do what they say – pay for luggage in advance, don’t exceed the allowed bag size by even an inch, print your own boarding pass, etc – to avoid expensive surprises. Yes, I’ve learned this the hard way. These types of flights won’t have any frills whatsoever and customer service is far from generous, but for an hour or two on a plane? Rarely a big deal.
6. If your schedule is flexible, consider leaving a day early or staying a day late. Sometimes the fare difference is worth far more than the cost of an extra night of accommodation.
7. Points! Miles! Credit cards! If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably not a frequent traveler who will ever earn enough miles with any one airline to score yourself a free flight. However, you never know, and it’s worth signing up for a rewards program when you book with a given airline. RewardStock is a website that I recently became familiar with – it will compile all of your various points and miles from all sources and show you ways that they can be used. I haven’t used it yet, but I love the concept.
That said, what I love the most are credit cards that earn travel rewards without being affiliated with a specific airline. I have personal experience with Capital One and Chase; you’ll need to check out current deals, but generally you’re able to earn points on everything you buy, double on travel purchases, and then you can just use those points to directly reimburse yourself for any portion of any travel expense (think flights, hotels, car rentals, Uber fares, etc). I’m not here to give you financial advice, but if you are someone who can responsibly use and pay off a credit card every month then make sure you’re earning travel points for it! You’d be amazed at how quickly it adds up.
8. Make notes. I often end up with several pages of scribbled, barely-legible notes outlining every airline/date/time/city combo and their corresponding prices found on all of the above-mentioned websites so that I can compare it all. You may discover a MUCH more efficient method, but I’ve got a thing for paper :)
9. Finally, learn how to pack light. So light that all you need is a carry-on. I once wrote a blog on that too. It’s a surefire way to save some cash with air travel!
So there you go. There are no secrets that I’m aware of and you may never beat the system entirely, but these tricks should help you achieve small flight-booking victories now and again. If you’ve got a great trick that I missed, feel free to add it in the comments! Happy searching!