The Best And Worst Ways To Look For Cheap Flights

June 19, 2012 by Anil Polat  

airplane wing detroit metro airport

Looking for and finding the cheapest possible flights is hardly a science but more an obscure dark art with many interpretations among its disciples. I’m asked routinely what’s the cheapest flight from one place to another and I’m sorry to say there is no magic formula – even for us frequent travelers. However – a big however – if you’re willing to set aside some time, effort, and a cup of coffee, a new world of deals may be laying just beneath your keyboard.

You Need To Do The LegFingerwork

Sadly, there isn’t some nirvana of free flights hiding out there on the Internet. (If I find it I’ll let you know.) Discovering one of the better deals on airfare for your specific route requires some digging and the biggest mistake you can make is only using one search engine.

Before we begin, start off by opening two separate web browsers on your computer. For example Firefox and Chrome (don’t just open up two tabs on the same browser.) Put your primary browser – the one you use daily – off to the side until you’re ready to book. During the searching phase use your alternate web browser as there is anecdotal evidence the airlines may be using cookies to charge you more.

Airfare Search Engines For Major Airlines

For major airlines and cities, begin with my personal favorite, Kayak; which searches several hundred travel sites at once. Kayak will give you a good baseline price to work with and you can continue looking from there.

kayak explore

  • Google Flight Search – It tends to use information directly from the airlines’ own sites often results in fares about 10% lower than baseline; unfortunately it’s Canada and U.S. originating flights only.
  • Hipmunk – An intuitive interface for sorting through multiple flight schedules.
  • FareCompare – Selective search of other aggregators like Priceline, Expedia, and Vayama.
  • Orbitz – Particularly better rates when booking with upper-budget accommodation.

hipmunkOnline Search Tools For Budget Airlines

  • AirNinja – Specializes in low-fare routes.
  • Fly Low Cost Airlines – Terrible interface but finds routes and connects you to low cost carriers directly.
  • Momondo – Not specifically for low cost carriers but its searches cast a wide digital net.

Once you find a price and route that suits you with any of these search engines, go around them when possible by heading to the airline or final booking site directly in your other browser. (To get around tacked on commissions.) When you’ve got time to plan, set up price alerts using Yapta which will notify you if ticket prices fall – effective after you purchase as well for any due refunds.

Use the local version of airline websites to uncover discounts on international flights. Say you’re booking a flight on Air France from the United States, it doesn’t hurt to search for tickets using the French domain of their site (http://airfrance.com/ vs. http://airfrance.fr/). There are no guarantees you’ll get lower fares, but 1 extra minute of your time could produce savings.

anil polat on mobileGoing One Step Beyond Traditional Searches

Airfare search engines are certainly useful but they’re designed to give you the most straightforward booking experience, which doesn’t always result in the lowest fares. You can manually improve the process by using multi-city flights to save on airfare. Picking up the phone and calling the airlines often uncovers special promotions not likely to be picked up by aggregators. (Use GetHuman or Contact Help to get quickly through automated prompts.) RetailMeNot is also a good resource to find discount codes.

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Finally, Money Talk News suggests searching for one seat at a time as the airlines will show you the most expensive rates by default. They recommend always doing searches for a single traveler initially to get the lowest airfare per seat class.

Use Your Frequent Flyer Miles With Borg Efficiency

You don’t need to fly very much – or sometimes at all – to accumulate frequent flyer miles. Those bonus points aren’t just for free flights either, aside from upgrades they can get you hotel rooms, car rentals, retail discounts, and more.

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Credit cards are the most common path to large batches of bonus miles but you can still foster an impressive stash without relying on plastic. You should also encourage your family and friends who travel to open up alliance accounts – they might not use those miles but could be kind enough to transfer them to you. Better yet – have them book a flight for you directly from their award account so you don’t have to pay any mile transfer fees. (And then don’t forget to thank your mom!)

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georgian pig mtskhetaBook At The Right Times By Blasting Prevalent Myths

Rumors like booking on Tuesday nights are prevalent but there isn’t much data to support such specific booking windows for low fares. According to the New York Times, how early or late you should book varies based on the time of year and destination. In general, they found booking 24 weeks in advance was a sweet spot for lower airfare. I don’t know about you, but pigs are more likely to fly out of my butt before I book that far in advance so luckily the next windows are before airlines are tend to raise fares. Those are 22, 15, 8, and 4 days before you intend to fly.

Other Ways To Use The Calendar To Save

  • Try To Travel On The Following Days –  Flying on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Mondays can often save you on airfare as there’s less demand for tickets on those days.
  • Check For Tickets More Than Once In A Day – airfarewatchdog notes airlines change fares several times a day. Check back more than once in 24 hours and you could find yourself saving a few dollars.
  • Fly Very Early, Late, Or Accept Hellish Layovers – It’s cheaper because not many people are not willing to make the trade between cost and travel comfort.

Bing’s Farecast can also guide you to better purchasing times by letting you know whether the routes you’re searching for are likely to get more expensive or go down in price in the coming weeks.

Calculate Final Costs And Know When To Quit

Remember that airfare search engines and the airlines may hook you with deceptively lower prices that don’t include fees until you’ve got your credit card out and are about to hit “purchase.” (That’s again where two browsers can come in handy.) Luggage Limits (original post) clues you into baggage fees and Kayak has a nice list of other things airlines may charge you for.

Though, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is no free flight out there for you to find. What exists is a lower limit on how much you can save, depending on how flexible your travel plans are. Give your low airfare search a good effort and know when to stop chasing cheap tickets to really save on your next vacation.

What are some of the tricks you use to save on airfare?


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  1. I wasn’t aware of the cookies. I’ll definitely try using a second browser next time I need to buy tickets. I second your recommendation for Kayak–I always begin my search for tickets with them as well and then move on from there. Even if I don’t end up booking with Kayak, they always give me a good benchmark to start from.

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  2. Martyn says:

    I did a similar article recently. One trick I use is to check the Wikipedia page for the airport you’re flying into, or the official airport page and get a full list of the airlines that serve the airport. That way you can check back to your flight search results and see if there’s any airlines missed. Often there are especially if you’re flying around eastern Europe and the far east.

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  3. Wow, that’s a lot of info! We’ve actually done a little test between friends on a particular airline’s website (we’ll let them remain nameless on this occasion) to see if they may use cookies to increase fight prices. It APPEARS this company do…
    I actually enjoy hunting around online for cheap flights and as for the hidden extras with luggage, as you know, I’ve become proficient in squashing our worldly goods into one backpack. Every penny counts. I’m proud of that one! 😉

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    • Anil P. says:

      Funny how those prices change 😉 especially with the sites that let you login with a Facebook account. It’s just impossible to objectively say one way or another without seeing what’s going on the back end of company sites. I suppose we have to go on anecdotal data and our trust of the airlines 😀

      And yes, you do pack very well! Even light enough for that marathon uphill walk in Istanbul 🙂 That’s the real test!

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  4. Larissa says:

    Great tips

    I’ve also discovered that many of the aggregators don’t always include some of the budget airlines (something about paying the booking fees to the sites, I think–e.g. RyanAir), so all options may not appear. I’ve gotten into the habit of going to the website of my intended departure airport-they will usually list every airline that flies to that particular city, and often have the schedules as well. This gives you a more complete idea of options.

    In a few of these searches, I’ve also come upon Skyscanner (www.skyscanner.net) a newer search site that seems to list everyone.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Definitely – many budget airlines aren’t included and a good habit you’ve gotten into. I haven’t used Skyscanner in a while, though I like their search for all flights from a given country option.

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  5. Molly says:

    Thanks for the tips. I will definitely try separate browsers for searching and booking. People have told me that if they search more than once (say morning and then evening) for fares on an airline site or aggregators’ site the fare almost always goes up the second time. I, too, use Kayak for browsing. It has a great interface on a mobile device.

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  6. One important thing to bear in mind:

    ALWAYS book directly through the specific airline site (as opposed to Orbitz, et al) whenever possible. The latter vary somewhat in their cancellation/change fees, but ALL will likely be MUCH higher than any such penalties imposed by the airline directly. Indeed, often, there’s no change fee at all directly from the airline, but Orbitz, Expedia, etc. will require sometimes $100+ for a change.

    In short, READ. THE. FINE. PRINT. on any website you’re purchasing air tickets through. Better yet, once you have your flights nailed down to specific carriers – pick up the phone and dial their 800 # to check on fees, visa, etc.

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  7. Great tips thanks. Will check out if any of them can be used from New Zealand. Travel from here is EXPENSIVE!!

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    • Anil P. says:

      I hope they help and can imagine it’s a tough place to get good connections to much of the world from…well, at least inexpensively 🙂

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  8. This was so timely for me. I’ve been trying to find a decent fare from SE Asia back to the States for more than a month. Everything is sky high and the planes are booked to the gills (monsoon season). I tried a couple of things you suggested (up all night) and finally figured out I could save a wad of money by going Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City on AirAsia, then China Southern through GuangZhou to LAX. Strangely, the price in Hipmunk (which I’ve been using for a while and love) was half the price shown on China Southern’s own website, and Hipmunk sent me to Orbitz. Now my only problem is figuring out if I need a visa for Vietnam, especially since I’m changing airlines and it’s unlikely that the discount operator AirAsia will check my bags all the way through to LAX on another airline. Any thoughts? Great article!

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    • Anil P. says:

      I suspect you may since you’ll have to pick up your bags beyond passport control and then clear customs. AirAsia won’t be able to check your bags on another airline – if it were a part of an alliance it might be possible. I’m wondering if you can call AirAsia and have them stow the baggage on board or let you pick it up right after landing if you explain your situation. After that hurdle it depends on how the airport handles arrivals, but if you don’t have to show a passport to make a connection you can get around that visa 🙂

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  9. Joseph says:

    for me searching a ticket within reasonable limits is an adventure. I usually set a certain amount of money, then look for prices. If they are unacceptable I follow all the tips you provided. I usually start with Kayak, then move to the websites and not rest until I find what I’ve been looking for. For example – this summer I’m flying to the US – after a thorough search I found the cheapest ticket through the Ukrainian airlines (with a 19 hour layover but with the 100$ difference I wasn’t complaining, plus with the difference money I managed to book a night at a nearby hotel, and still be left with a reasonable amount). Also, it’s important to be flexible and if the price is not convenient, wait a couple of days, the prices may drop (which meant a difference of almost 60$ for me).I found that US Airways has slightly lower prices on their official website than those on search engines – another great search engine is Skyscanner!

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    • Anil P. says:

      We follow a very similar process when booking and looking for tickets 🙂 And you make a good point, the more flexible you are – dates, connections, layovers – the more room you have to find a good price. Probably the worst situation is to *have* to fly on certain dates and times. It’s not easy to get good fares in those cases.

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