What’s the best way to find low airfares? Based on years of experience, we know some methods work better than others! This article will highlight some of the main strategies to keep in mind, and some of the best tools and websites to help.
Table of Contents
- Flexibility is king
- The best flight search engines
- Go incognito
- Are budget airlines really budget?
- Flight fare hacking
- Points & loyalty
Flexibility is king
While there are some great ways to get lower fares using search or hacking techniques, the best approach is simply to travel when it is cheapest. Airfares vary with demand and finding a less popular time, route, or airport can make a big difference to the cost.
When is the best day to fly?
Simply changing your preferred departure date by a day or two can significantly improve the price. If you don’t have enough flexibility for this, try just changing either your departure or return – it can still make a difference.
It is generally thought that Tuesday and Wednesday are the cheapest days to fly. Beyond this, it tends to depend on your route. On shorter flights, Friday and Sunday are often the most expensive, and for long haul flights, weekends are usually pricier than weekdays. But there can be many anomalies for this – there may be events taking place that send prices skyrocketing, for example.
The best way to check for this is to make a flexible search. Some airline websites show flight search results across several days, but many do not. Flight search engines tend to be better. Google Flights does not have flexible search input, but you can view dates around your chosen ones by selecting the ‘Date Grid’ option, once flight results are displayed.
ITA Matrix Airfare Search is also a great option. It allows you to search a route using up to two days of flexibility either side of departure and/or return.
The time of day can make a difference too, as people prefer some times to others. This tends to make the most difference on shorter flights. People making a short trip would generally like to arrive earlier at their destination and depart later. Fly in the late evening, and you could save. This is easier to search for; most websites will allow searching (or filtering results) by the time of day.
Bear in mind additional costs when considering departure and arrival times, though. You might save by taking a very early morning flight, but if you then need to take a taxi rather than public transport, this saving might not be worth it.
When is the best time of year to fly for cheap flights?
The time of year can make a huge difference in flight prices. We all know that prices to leisure destinations are highest during school holidays. But, in reality, there are a lot more factors that affect prices, and peak travel times can vary between routes.
One of the best ways to search for this is by using Google Flights. For any route, you can see prices going forward for a year. To do this, select the ‘Price Graph’ option after searching for a route. This is a great tool when planning ahead for a particular destination, and there is some flexibility in your plans.
Looking at historical prices can also provide a useful guide. Bear in mind that the same patterns may not be repeated in the future, but it can be indicative.
Faredetective provides some good, high-level searches in this area. It will show typical historical prices for any route, going back around one year, and will indicate the cheapest months to travel.
Be mindful of your destination, but be aware of hidden costs
It can pay to look flexibility at where you fly. Nearby airports may offer a lower fare.
If flying to Amsterdam, could you fly into Rotterdam and get the train? If you’re flying to London, you may choose London Stansted or Gatwick over Heathrow. Often the same airline will fly to multiple airports (British Airways, for example, flies to both Gatwick and Heathrow from some locations).
Searching for different airports in the same city is easy with most search engines. For London, for example, you can usually select something like ‘London All Airports (LON)’ rather than ‘London Heathrow (LHR).’
Searching for other cities (or in Europe, other countries) is a bit more complicated. ITA Matrix has good functionality here, allowing you to search all airports within a given distance range. This can be combined with other search options, such as flexible dates, for some very powerful searching. Likewise, Google Flights offers an option to show ‘Nearby Airports’ for your chosen flights.
Make sure you consider additional costs, though. A cheaper destination may have increased transport costs – public transport into London from Stansted is more expensive and time-consuming than from Heathrow, for example.
And think about your starting point as well
Departure airports can make a difference too. The same idea for traveling to a different airport applies, but are other opportunities. Airlines price tickets for different markets, so a change of origin could make more difference than you think.
Departing from another city may bring in options for other airlines. For example, in the US, it is often more expensive to fly from an airline hub city. And in Europe, moving to another city or country could introduce other options for connecting carriers.
For long haul flights especially, you might want to consider traveling further to a departure airport. The price reductions could make extra travel worthwhile. Taxes vary between countries too. The UK, for example, has some of the highest departure taxes of any country, so traveling first to another European country could save (this is especially true if buying premium cabin tickets).
Book early, but not too early
And finally, when thinking about travel flexibility, what about the issue of when to book travel? There is a lot written on this, but in reality, this depends a lot on the airline and route. There can be good savings offered in sales, but in general, looking a few months in advance will provide the best fares. Budget airlines, in particular, tend to increase prices dramatically in the days before departure.
It is also worth signing up for flight price tracking. Google Flights offers this and will email price changes to you. It can also show price trends for the past 60 days for many routes.
The best flight search engines
Searching, flexible or not, is made easier with a good flight search engine. There are plenty out there, but here are a few of our favorites (which we use for examples in this guide).
Google Flights is one of the easiest to use search engines, with plenty of visual options for flexible searching by day or route.
ITA Matrix is a great flight search tool, with plenty of options for flexibility and advanced searches, but it does not offer sales or links. Once you find flights, you will need to repeat the search elsewhere. It is especially recommended for those who want to learn to use it for advanced searches. It will also display all fare rules easily.
Many budget airlines do not appear in most search engine results. Skyscanner will show more of these, along with several options for purchasing. It will also display lower cost options where you’ self connect.’
Airlines will track your searches – use an incognito window
Have you ever seen flight prices change after you have searched a few times? This is no coincidence. Many airlines and travel booking websites track searches and will raise prices to try to get quick sales.
To get around this, you should always search using an incognito window or private browsing mode. These can be easily selected on most browsers and will stop activity tracking via cookies.
Look for flights using a VPN
As well as tracking your search history, many airlines will track your location or IP address. The same route may be offered at a different price in different countries, and you can take advantage of that.
The best way is to use VPN software to change your location. The fare differences may not be massive here, but they can soon add up if booking multiple tickets.
There is no hard and fast rule about what will work, but there are a few things to try:
- Change your location to the country of departure for the flight.
- Change location to the home country of the airline.
- Choose a lower-cost country, in the same or a different region.
Change the currency in which you’re paying
Changing location with a VPN will also change the currency in which you pay. This can affect the ‘point of sale’ of the airfare, again possibly offering different fares. Some search engines will also let you change this directly.
For example, for many fares in South America, if you search from the US using dollars as your currency, you will see higher fares than are offered for the local market in local currency.
It is worth checking for websites that are based in the departure country, as this may offer a cheaper local currency fare. Expedia, for example, has several sites (.com, co.uk. .co.jp, etc.).
Are budget airlines really budget?
Compare what each airline offers
Despite their often aggressive marketing promising low fares, so-called budget airlines may not be the cheapest. It is sensible to always compare prices with other airlines, even on short routes.
When comparing, make sure you are looking at the total price. Budget airlines charge extra for everything. But these days, many ‘traditional’ airlines do too. Most US airlines charge for bags and seats (unless you are a frequent flier). And in the UK, for example, British Airways offer the lowest fares with no extras.
The best low-cost carriers by region
While there is less difference between budget and ‘full service’ airlines than there used to be, there are still some significant savings. Look out for sales and promotions when they offer very low fares, but usually well in advance and not cancellable.
Some of the best budget airlines, by region, are listed here. Many of these operate between multiple countries in the region, and unlike traditional airlines may have several bases. Bear in mind that many budget airlines will not show up on flight search engines (more will on Skyscanner), so it is best to check the airline websites directly.
The United States / Canada
Australia / New Zealand
Flight fare hacking
Want a deal? Try scouting out for error fares
If you want to take advantage of the best offers, you need to keep an eye out for special sales or error fares. Unlike traditional airline sales or promotions, these are short-lived and very specific fares, often posted in error.
Why do error fares happen? Often these are mistakes – fares posted incorrectly by airlines, either through human error, currency conversion, or a technical glitch. Sometimes, they may be legitimate ‘flash sales,’ offering big savings but not widely advertised.
Error fares can be fantastic deals if you can find one that works for you. But be careful with them as the airline may backtrack and cancel the tickets. This usually happens quite soon, sometimes even before the ticket is issued. But it can happen later, and you should not rely on the flights as guaranteed.
To give an idea, these are a couple of the best error fares (that have been honored) seen recently:
- In November 2019, Finnair offered flights from Germany or Italy to Guangzhou or Hong Kong for around €520.
- Cathay Pacific sold first-class flights from Vietnam to the US (via Hong Kong) for around $675. These were sold for a few hours on New Years Day 2019 and confirmed as an error fare but honored by the airline.
To find error fares, you will need to sign up for notifications. One useful resource is the website Secret Flying. It will notify you of good flight deals, including (but not only) error fares. It has a good track record of notifying about past errors.
Self connect for less
Another way to save is to look at booking two or more separate flights rather than one combined ticket. When you search for through fares between two cities, you are limited to using the same airline, or two airlines that partner on that route. If you instead book flights separately, you can access more fares and airlines.
The risk here is that you will not be covered for a missed connection. When you book, for example, New York to London and onto Paris in one ticket, the airline will protect you in the event you miss the second flight. If you ‘self connect,’ you will most likely not get this protection. Good travel insurance can help, as can simply allowing a reasonable safe connection time.
You can search this way yourself, simply by looking at connecting flights separately and comparing the options or make use of search engines. Skyscanner is especially good for shorter regional trips where using two budget carriers may be cheaper.
Kiwi.com has an interesting guarantee for connections as well. It will offer additional connection options, where it guarantees the connection (rather than the airline). Simple Flying spoke to the company about this.
Points & loyalty
Choose a loyalty program that fits your travels
While airline loyalty programs have seen many changes in recent years, there are still excellent ways to use miles for great value or free flights.
All the main legacy carriers have a mileage scheme, and miles can be collected or used with any airline in the same alliance. We won’t go into details of all airline programs here, but it is worth choosing a program that works best for you and is most rewarding for how you fly. Some programs, for example, award miles based on the distance flown (with bonuses for premium cabins), while others are based on the fare paid for the ticket.
For more details on some of the best programs, see our guides to American Airlines AAdvantage, British Airways Avios, and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles.
Likewise, there are differences when spending miles. Some programs will offer point to point redemptions, charging a certain number of miles for any one flight. Others will allow multiple flights between any pair of cities.
Fly for free with points
For regular travels, points can build up quickly. You can also get some great bonuses from credit card sign up offers and ongoing spending. Hotel stays, online shopping portals, and many other areas can also boost earnings.
This will open up some great chances to redeem for otherwise high-cost flights. Remember, though, that taxes and fees will always be added. This often makes economy travel, especially on popular routes, not good value when compared to cash fares.
Some of the best options for using points include:
- Business and first class cabins on long haul flights. These can be very expensive for cash, no matter how much you ‘hack’ or try to save.
- Shorter flights in expensive regions. Some short-haul international flights in Asia or South America, for example, are excellent value.
- Last-minute bookings. While cash prices often go up, miles required will stay the same.
- Complicated itineraries, or even multiple sector routes with stopovers.
There are lots of different ways to save on flight tickets, and everyone has their preferred methods. Feel free to share your tips in the comments.