Last updated on June 24, 2023
Finding flights is among the more stressful aspects of planning world travel. When you press purchase on that flight, it represents not only your trip, but hundreds (thousands?!) of dollars, too.
There is no fool-proof way to ensure that you always find the lowest price for your flight, but there are certainly tactics and opportunities to lower your total airfare on any trip, and particularly during long-term travel. There are straight up myths far too many recycle—what day of the week you book and your browser cookies don’t matter—and there are also tips many offer but far to few travelers know how to take advantage of. You can actually employ some creative hacks to find cheap flights—but to do that, you need to have a game plan.
Of note: If you’re debating about booking a round the world ticket for an upcoming long-term trip, my post Round the World Flights: A Cost Comparison delves into the issue, offering heaps of resources and specific ideas on how to find well priced flights for a round-the-world trip.
Understand Your Travel Requirements
Before diving into the process of finding the cheap flights, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of your travel requirements. Define your needs and preferences so you’ll be better equipped to search for flights that align with your specific criteria. Here are the key factors that will impact your ability to travel on the cheapest days, and take advantage of the best deals:
Define Your Travel Dates, Duration, and Flexibility
In an ideal world, you’re booking (or at least researching) your flights before you confirm your exact vacation days approved from work. It might turn out that flying just one week later shaves hundreds off of a flight—you need the flexibility to jump on that level of savings!
So, determine the exact dates you plan to depart and return, and determine if there is any flexibility on either side of your flights. Flexibility is usually the number one hack to find finding cheap flights. We’ll get into why in a moment.
Then think about how long your trip will last—if you’re leaving for six months of world travel, then it might make more sense to buy a one-way flight into one city and another flight home from a different one.
Assess your flexibility. Are you open to adjusting your travel dates by a few days?
Determine Preferred Airlines, Airports, and Layover Preferences
Go check your airlines miles accounts and determine if you have a large batch of unused miles sitting there. This is valuable to know before you start researching, since you can then hone in on a certain alliance and see if there is a way to find cheaper flights in exchange for miles.
You may also just have had positive experiences with certain airlines in the past or have loyalty to a specific carrier—obviously you can prioritize those options in your search. But note that allegiance to an alliance or a carrier, absent of airline miles, may end up locking you into more expensive flights.
You likely have your main airports in mind, but consider the airports you are willing to fly from and arrive at. Sometimes, flying from or to alternate airports can offer more competitive fares. That’s not only because discount airlines often fly to between a region’s secondary airports, but also because major airports sometimes carry the heftiest fees (looking at you, Dulles International). Secondary airports often have lower landing fees, which can translate into cheaper flights. And I’ve usually found the less crowded and offering smoother immigration and customs processes.
Lastly, think hard about your layover preferences. Are you comfortable with longer layovers to potentially save money, or do you prefer shorter layovers for a smoother travel experience? It’s easy to outright nix a long layover in your mind, but you might find that the flights stop in a city that’s a lot of fun to visit for a handful of hours. I’ve done long layovers in Taipei and Geneva, and both cities were super easy to navigate and enjoy in the ~12 hours I had to explore.
Take a Hard Look at your Baggage Needs
Finding cheap plane tickets usually means being willing to sit in economy class, and those no-frills tickets now come with very little. You have to add practically everything on top of your base fare. While all of the major carriers used to offer a free checked bag on international flights, American Airlines actually just changed that policy—you can be sure others will follow suit.
For that reason, determine if you really need to check a bag, and then check the baggage policies of different airlines. Some may offer more generous allowances or charge less for additional bags. That can really have a huge impact on the final price of your plane ticket.
And if you’re traveling with kids, European airlines are often more generous with kid baggage—some allow a travel cot to count as one of your kids items, versus U.S. airlines that tend to only accept a stroller or carseat.
Why You Should Start Your Flight Search Early
Starting your search early is maybe not one of the most novel flight booking hacks, but it works. It can significantly increase your chances of snagging cheap plane tickets. By allowing yourself ample time before your travel dates, you open up far more opportunities.
That said, airlines often release their fares around 11 months in advance, but the most competitive prices are often found around 6-8 weeks before departure. Keep an eye on price trends and aim to book within this optimal window for the best chance at securing affordable tickets.
Here’s why starting early (but not too early) is key:
You Can Take Advantage of Fare Fluctuations
Airline ticket prices fluctuate constantly due to various factors such as demand, competition, and seasonal changes. By starting your search early, you can track the price trends over time and identify the optimal moment to book when prices are lower.
Waiting until the last minute usually limit your flight options and almost always results in higher ticket prices.
More Airlines and Routes Are Available
Starting early enables you to explore a wide range of airlines and routes, increasing your chances of finding the best combination of affordability and convenience. Compare prices and itineraries from different carriers and consider alternative routes or layovers that might offer better deals. Expanding your search horizon gives you more options to choose from.
Use Fare Alerts and Flight Price Tracking Tools
Make use of fare alert services and flight tracking tools to stay updated on price changes. These tools notify you when prices drop or rise for specific routes, allowing you to act quickly when favorable deals become available. Set up alerts for your preferred destinations and keep an eye on the market.
Google Flights is an easy way to track fare fluctuations—just input your ideal route and set it to track and notify you. And this guide shares how to navigate fare alerts.
It Increases Your Flexibility in Travel Plans
Starting your search early gives you the flexibility to adjust your travel plans if needed. By exploring different dates or nearby airports, you may discover significant savings. Being flexible with your departure or arrival dates, even by a few days, can open up opportunities for lower fares and better flight options. That means you can ask work for additional or shifted days off, for example.
You Can Take Advantage of Limited-Time Fare Promotions
Some flights, particularly during peak travel seasons or for popular destinations, tend to sell out quickly. If you want to find a cheap flight, you need to be looking and booking seats on these flights before they become scarce. Additionally, you can take advantage of limited-time promotions and flash sales that airlines occasionally offer, providing excellent opportunities for savings. (But note you usually need to sign up for airline newsletters or a site like Going to find these promotional flight deals).
How to Make the Most of Flight Search Engines
For obvious reasons, flight search engines are your best friends on your hunt for cheap flights. But there are SO many flight search engines, and many offer the same flights at the same prices. So how do you navigate the sea of available options to hack your way to a cheaper international planet ticket?
Here’s how I make the most out of flight search engines when I’m booking flights for my next trip:
Use the “Flex Days” Search Feature
Kayak and other booking sites like Expedia allow you to search for a set date, and then “+/-” up to three days. Then the results show a fare calendar of which dates are the most affordable for your planned route.
This is one of my top flight booking hacks because it allows you to rapidly scan for the prices across a range of dates. Because I work remotely, I usually have a lot of flexibility of when I actually leave, so I’ve used this feature extensively. By exploring different date combinations, I always discover significant variations in prices. Adjusting your travel dates by a few days or even flying midweek instead of on weekends can lead to substantial savings.
Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday.
The best time and day to book flights is actually thing! Being strategic can save you a lot of money. Since most travelers leave on the weekends, including business travelers, mid-week travel is often steeply discounted. At least 80% of my flights these past eight years have departed mid-week. I also find great deals on Saturday evenings flights, or off-peak times.
If you’re scheduling time off of work and you’re on a budget, see what it would take to leave mid-week instead of on a weekend. Or sacrifice a day on either side of the trip to fly Saturday to Saturday, instead of Friday to Sunday as many people do. When my parents visited me in Barcelona from Tampa, Florida, they had about two weeks to visit, but we shaved $300 off of each round trip flight by having them leave Friday versus Sunday (they had to be back before the Monday). Those cheaper flights made a big difference since they’re both living on a retirement budget.
Fly to a Hub City and Then Take a Budget Airline or Overland Transport
Check hub airports near your destination for the best international flight routes. When I fly to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I often book my flights into Bangkok and then I separately book the train or a one of the many budget airlines in the region—this tactic requires an extra step of checking in for another flight, but it usually shaves hundreds of dollars (and many hours) from my flights.
(You save potentially hours on your total trip time because you are not tied to a partner airline alliance flight for that final, smaller leg. Local budget airlines usually offer many more flights per day than the major international carriers.)
Filter Your Flight Search Results Like a Pro
To optimize your search, use specific keywords and filters. Include your departure and arrival airports, preferred travel dates, and any other relevant details. Then experiment with different search queries to explore alternative routes and pricing options.
Remember that tip about layovers? The major flight search engines offer filters for specific airlines, layovers, and price ranges, which can help you narrow down your options and find the best deals. Sometimes I have multiple tabs open with different searches so I can pull from a cheap flight from a search engine the exact flight time that I want (I fly with a toddler now, so I’m particular about how late I arrive).
Search for Open-Jaw Tickets on Multi-City Itineraries
If you plan to visit multiple destinations during your trip, consider using open-jaw tickets. An open-jaw ticket allows you to fly into one city and depart from another, eliminating the need for backtracking and potentially saving you time and money. This flexibility can be advantageous, especially for travelers exploring different regions or embarking on multi-country journeys. And it’s an easy flight booking hack—just update your planned itinerary to end in a different hub city along your route.
How to Compare Flight Prices and Services
Comparing prices and services across different airlines is a crucial flight booking hack. It means taking an extra moment to look at more than the price of the flight listed. Finding a cheap flight means ensuring that the price charged to your credit card is truly the cheapest flight you’re willing to take.
Research Multiple Airline Websites
Start by visiting the websites of different airlines that operate flights to your desired destination. Explore their pricing options, special promotions, and any additional services they offer. It’s important to note that some airlines may not be listed on popular flight search engines, so visiting their websites directly can unveil exclusive deals or unique fare structures.
Use Flight Search Engines and Aggregators
Flight search engines and aggregators play a vital role in comparing prices across multiple airlines. Platforms like Google Flights, Skyscanner, or Kayak allow you to input your travel details and view a comprehensive list of available flights with their respective prices. Take advantage of the filters and sorting options provided to narrow down your choices based on factors such as price, duration, or layovers.
Compare Inclusive Fares and Additional Fees
When comparing prices, consider whether the cheapest fares are inclusive of all necessary fees or if there are additional charges. Many airlines might offer lower base fares but charge extra for services such as checked baggage, seat selection, or in-flight meals. Factor in these additional costs to get a more accurate understanding of the overall price and the value you’ll be receiving.
Assess the quality of service and amenities
Price is not the only factor to consider when choosing a flight. Assess the quality of service and amenities provided by different airlines. Look for reviews or customer feedback regarding factors such as on-time performance, customer service, legroom, and in-flight entertainment. Consider what amenities are essential to you and compare the offerings of different airlines to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable journey.
Check for hidden discounts or loyalty programs
Before finalizing your decision, check for any hidden discounts or special offers available through loyalty programs or credit card partnerships. Some airlines may have partnerships with specific credit card companies or offer discounts to frequent flyers. Research these options to see if you can leverage any additional savings or benefits.
Check Alternative Currencies or Regions
When booking international flights, consider searching for prices in different currencies or from alternate regions. Sometimes, the same flight can be priced differently based on the currency used for the booking. Explore different country-specific websites or use VPN services to access region-specific pricing options and find the cheapest flight possible.
Best Flight Search Engines for International Travel
Know the landscape first. You can search and book through an Online Travel Agency, through an aggregator of flights from Online Travel Agencies, or directly from the airline. None of these are guaranteed to offer the cheapest flight every time, so you need to check around. If I find a either a really cheap flight, or an amazing route out of my price range, I then head directly to the airline to see if the fare costs more or less booking directly. Online Travel Agencies buy fares from the airlines that they resell to you, so it’s why you can find amazing deals using them (and why you should check a couple, or an aggregator like Skyscanner), and why those deals are sometimes so drastically different than booking through the airline.
Another tip: Sometimes you can find a better deal on the extras booking through an alliance partner that has more favorable baggage policies. All things to keep in mind as you really dig into your search.
I usually start here for my flight searches to get a baseline on the costs, then I move on to the aggregators that pull in more of the low-cost carriers. Kayak is a comprehensive online travel agency that enables you to search for flights, hotels, rental cars, and more—but don’t get distracted. I use it exclusively for flights.
It offers a variety of filters and sorting options to help you find the best flights based on your preferences. One interesting feature of Kayak is its “Hacker Fares,” which combines separate one-way flights from different airlines to potentially offer you lower fares than traditional round-trip bookings. Obviously this is a great flight booking hack!
Skyscanner aggregates flights from many online travel agencies and should always feature in your research. It excels in finding cheap plane tickets. It offers an “Everywhere” search option, allowing you to find the cheapest flights to any destination from your chosen departure airport. Skyscanner also has a unique “Month View” feature that shows you the cheapest fares for an entire month, making it easier to identify the most affordable travel dates.
Use this as your first source for booking flights to or within Asia; the search engine pulls in a lot of the low-cost airlines too and can offer up some great fares you won’t find on the other aggregators.
I have been surprised by some of the great flights I find on here leaving from the US, particularly if you book in advance and have some of the major hub cities as stopping points. Like Kayak, it’s a complete online travel booking agency. Although it offers a wide range of filters to customize your search and provides a user-friendly interface, Expedia’s unique feature is its “Bundle and Save” option, which allows you to combine flights and accommodations for potential discounts on your overall travel expenses.
You know it’s good if it’s from Google, the king of search. Google Flights is a good place to get a baseline for price estimates at the time of year you’ll be traveling. It offers a user-friendly interface and powerful search capabilities. It allows you to search for flights based on flexible dates, explore different destinations using the “Explore” feature, and view prices on a map.
Maybe the best feature of Google Flights is the ability to track price changes for specific flights or routes and receive email notifications when prices fluctuate.
- Indie from Bootsnall: While generally a round the world flights finder, it works well to research for any multi-stop journey. Countless times I have found routes that no other search engine surfaced, but that represented hundreds of dollars in savings.
- Matrix.itasoftware.com: Access to the backend that many travel agents use to find flight deals. It’s not in my regular lineup, but I always have this one in my back pocket.
- Research Regional Airlines: I found many tiny airlines in Africa that are not listed in any aggregator, so checking a guidebook or online for local low-cost airlines in some regions is a good idea.
My Six-Step Process for Finding Great Flight Deals
- Identify the primary “hub” airports near my destination, then select a mid-week, flexible date to begin the research.
- Input date and hub airports into Kayak, then use the flexible date feature to view a grid of the fares for that week.
- Repeat the process using Skyscanner (which also searches budget carriers), the search within my rewards cards program (I use Chase and have found amazing deals in the Chase search engine), and then if it’s a multi-stop journey I plug the dates into Indie from Bootsnall (which often finds alternative routes and fares combining differing airlines on each leg of the journey).
- I spend at least 20 minutes playing with the dates and potential airports, then I select the best flight and go to that airline’s website and research that exact time and flight—compare to see if the airline is offering it for cheaper.
- Use Google Fare Calendar to research that flight time again, and see if now is a historically good time to book the flight, or if you should wait a bit longer before booking. Seasonal changes in flight prices can seriously impact your fare.
- If I have found a fare that seems seasonally appropriate and hits the date and time that I need, then I book immediately so that the fare won’t increase while I sleep on it. You have 24 hours in the U.S. to cancel any flight, so it pays to trust your research and book the flight.
Your Next Steps
Bookmark these steps and use my process to research your next flight. While I am no wizard, it’s a process I have refined over the last decade, and I’ve always found great flights using it. If you haven’t learned about travel hacking yet, that’s a worthy topic for research. With travel hacking, you can use rewards cards to earn points that can drastically decrease your fares, and offer perks too. I lightly travel hack with the Chase Sapphire Rewards card (here’s how I chose my credit cards for travel), and it generally saves me $600 to $1,000 per year on flights since I fly internationally on points rather than cash.