Aside from food and accommodation, airfare is generally one of the biggest costs on a trip. Knowing how to properly search for the best deals on flights will allow you to save valuable time and hard-earned money on funding more exciting adventures.
With a seemingly endless search engines and airlines to choose from, what’s an intrepid traveller to do? The answer is to learn and educate yourself! There are hundreds of sweet flight deals published every day. By knowing where and when to look, you could potentially save yourself thousands to tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your travelling career.
I am going to share with you my top ten tips and tricks on How to Get the Best Flight Deals. If you can master even just a few of these, you’ll be well on your way to expert traveller status!
1. Perform Your Searches in Incognito Mode
There is some debate on whether this actually makes a difference on prices or not, as some claim that website algorithms have become too smart for that, but I lean towards the camp that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The theory goes that search engine or airline websites target your web browser with cookies, which will track repeated searches of a particular route. Basically, you are tipping your hand that you intend or at least are thinking about booking a flight. This causes the price change to stay flat at best and go up at worst as the site wants to create a sense of urgency for you to lock in a price.
By performing your search in Incognito Mode (File -> New Incognito Window in Chrome or File -> New Private Window in Safari), your cookies are reset each time and the website will not “remember” you. That way, you are always looking at the most up to date price and not an artificially inflated one.
2. Use the Best Search Engines and Aggregator Sites
Let’s face it, the website you use to search for flights matters. Some websites are worse than others and will often have significant markups. Avoid “corporate” search engines such as Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz as their pricing is often poor to mediocre.
The best ones that I've found and recommended by other travel bloggers are the following:
Google Flights – The search behemoth is not slouch when it comes to flights, and they offer one of the most comprehensive filter options, allowing you to filter by route, dates, airports, airline, price, bags, stop, price, etc. They also have a built-in calendar and price trend chart to allow you to see which dates offer the lowest prices on any given flight.
The biggest drawback to Google is that budget airlines often do not show up on their searches, so you’ll have to check other aggregators to make sure you are not missing out on a cheaper deal for shorter distance flights.
One of my favourite features, is the Track Prices option, which allows Google to periodically send you emails if the price for a route has gone up or down. If you are not in a rush to book a flight, a wait-and-see approach is a good to see whether price trends go your way.
Matrix ITA – Whereas Google Flights is the consumer-facing side that allows you to book the flights, Matrix ITA is the actual software behind it. The interface allows you even more search filters such as cost per mile, geo search, real time filters and other advanced criteria.
Momondo – This is a great website that offers competitive prices, along with hotel and car rentals. They search most airlines and websites in the world in an easy-to-use interface. Endorsed by Frommers, CNN and New York Times, they offer the best price more than 90% of the time.
Sky Scanner – This is another great website similar to Momondo. Both offer extremely similar pricing. However, Sky Scanner stands out for its special deals section, which is better publicized and special offers are also sent out regularly if you’re on their email list.
3. Be Flexible with Your Travel Times
The old trope goes that flights are cheaper on Tuesdays, which has some truth to it. However, airlines are getting smarter about this and their pricing model seems to have been optimized to prevent huge price fluctuations simply due to the day of the week.
That said, some general principles still apply. If you have a one or two-week window to fly out and return, you’d certainly have more options for the cheapest day to choose from simply due to supply and demand. Business travellers flying out on a Monday will usually lead to a spike in price, whereas the same Red Eye flight on a random Wednesday night will be significantly cheaper.
The same flight from Toronto to Sydney in May varies tremendously!
Along the same lines, flying during peak holiday or special occasions will have big premiums. Do you want to fly to Europe in the middle of August with your kids or fly home during Christmas to visit your family? So does every other traveller and airlines know that!
The peak travel months for any country or region is going to cost more. If you’re set on visiting a certain place, consider going during shoulder or off-season, when prices for accommodations will be lower and lineups to local attractions shorter as well.
4. Be Flexible with How You Get There
In addition to when you travel, it also matters how you get to your final destination.
For example, let’s say you want to go from Vancouver to Budapest in early May.
The cheapest airfare from Vancouver to Budapest costs $916 CAD, whereabouts Vancouver to Prague only costs $618 CAD! That’s almost a $300 difference. To get from Prague to Budapest, it will cost approximately $25 CAD for a 7-hour bus ride.
Do the math: $916 – ($618+$25) = $276 in savings!
If you are long on time and short on dollars, it may be worth it to take a detour to save that money! With a great travel book in hand, the time will pass quickly.
The same principle also works with flights. You simply set your “home airport” in the search parameters and look at prices of other surrounding cities to your destination.
In our example above, I found a flight with a budget airline from Prague to Budapest for $90 CAD, so it is more cost-effective to fly into Prague, and then onto Budapest on a separate flight than it is to fly from Vancouver to Budapest in one trip.
You can also do this in reverse by flying out from another airport close to your home city, if the savings are significant enough to justify the extra effort.
For example, round-trip flights from Vancouver (YVR) to Frankfurt (FRA) often cost on average $800 USD, whereas flights departing nearby Seattle (SEA) to Frankfurt (FRA) cost $700 USD and can even go as low as $500 USD when a sale is on. For an extra 4.5-hour bus ride leaving and coming home, it may be worth it to fly out of Seattle!
5. Fly for Free with Credit Card Rewards Points and Miles
While this subject can be an entire blog article or even website by itself, just know that airline reward programs and credit card points can be a great way to score free or discounted flights, hotel stays, companion tickets, free upgrades and lounge access.
Americans have it luckier than Canadians, as their credit card sign-up bonuses are often much more generous and there is a greater variety of cards to choose from. Although deals and best travel credit cards change year to year, I have generally found Chase (US only), AMEX (US and CA) and Scotiabank (CA only) to have the best rewards programs.
Many savvy travellers also engage in “travel hacking,” where they sign up for a (sometimes multiple at once) credit card, hit the spending targets to get the bonus points or miles, use it to travel, and then cancel the card the following year. As long as you keep it to no more than 3-4 card sign ups per quarter and are able to repay your monthly balance (never overspend and go into debt just to earn credit card points!), your credit score will not be affected too much.
While the ethics of such practices are up for debate, I believe responsible and savvy spending to take advantage of the best offers on the market should be part of every smart traveller’s arsenal.
6. Use Budget Airlines
Budget airlines offer no-frills, cheaper option for travellers than the big names. The increased savings, of course, come at a trade-off. There is often less leg room, no “complimentary” food or drinks (which you paid for as part of your ticket on bigger airlines anyway), and carry-on luggage only.
They also often fly out of smaller, regional airports rather than international hubs, which may potentially be an inconvenience if you’re connecting flights from a larger airport.
Their luggage restrictions are often very strict, and staff will enforce dimension and height rules to the letter (IE Ryanair is notorious for this). Make sure your luggage complies with the type of ticket your purchased, otherwise you may be in for a surprise bill at check-in.
That said, there are often some very sweet regional flight deals to be found. Sale fares of 10-20 Euros to get between European cities are not uncommon. If you take the time to read the fine print, and ensure you pay for everything you need up front, these companies can offer significant savings.
Here are some popular budget airlines by region:
United States: Southwest, Allegiant Air, Frontier, Spirit Airlines, Sun Country Airlines
Canada: Flair Airlines, Swoop, Jetlines, Air Canada Rouge, Porter, Air Transat
Europe: Vueling, Ryanair, Easyjet, Aigle Azur, Eurowings, Flybe, Norwegian, Wizz
7. Use Skiplagged
The practice of hidden city ticketing has existed for some time, although its ethics are hotly debated. Basically, you book a flight to a target city with your actual intended destination as the lay-over / connecting city. You then get off at the lay-over city and miss the final destination flight on purpose. The reason some people do this is due to savings.
One-Way Flight #1: London (LGW) -> Vancouver (YVR) = $620
One-Way Flight #2: London (LGW) -> Vancouver (YVR) -> Los Angeles (LAX) = $324
In this case, the traveller books flight #2, disembarks at Vancouver and misses the flight to L.A on purpose in order to save $296.
There are some risks and caveats with this practice. The first is that you should only do this with carry-on luggage, as checked luggage are often shipped to the final destination.
Secondly, ensure that this is the last leg of any trip and you do not have more flights left with the same airline. Airlines hate it when travellers do this, as the empty seat represents a ticket they could have otherwise sold to another potential customer. As such, they will cancel any other tickets you have booked with them for missing a flight.
Lastly, there is also the potential for flight changes to throw a monkey wrench into your plans. If the airline decides, for example, that the connection to LAX will be made via Calgary (YYC) instead, you’d be scrambling. To the airline, there is no difference as they still upheld their end of the bargain to get you to your final destination.
A website that I have used to check for hidden city tickets is Skiplagged. Just be aware of the potential risks involved and use at your own discretion!
8. Sign Up for Special Deal and Airline Email Lists
We are all trying to limit the amount of clutter and junk mail in our inboxes, but there are a few emailing lists worth signing up for! The people running these email lists are literally full-time bargain hunters, and it is their job to find the best deals every day before sending it out to their subscribers every day or week. This saves you a ton of time from having to plow through multiple sites to find it for yourself. Here are a few of my personal favourites:
YVR Deals – This one is specific for Canadians in Vancouver, but I use it since it’s my local airport. Living in the West Coast, which is geographically far from many places, flight deals do not pop up often so any deals are greatly appreciated.
Scott’s Cheap Flights – This is the BEST email subscription service for finding bargains for US flights and occasionally international flights. Their legion of flight experts works hard to bring you some absolute steals every once in a while. Their premium membership list will receive the best, often time-sensitive deals first so it may be worthwhile to sign up for it.
Secret Flying – This is an excellent website which compiles the best flight deals and airline fare errors daily from all over the world. I like that you are able to sort deals by region; Canada, USA, Europe, Asia or by Trending / Latest Deals. Their filters are easy to use, and you can also look up historic deals to anticipate similar bargains popping up.
Another option to consider is airlines themselves, which sometimes send special deals to their most loyal customers or alert their mailing list on early-bird sales to the hottest deals. Simply subscribe to the most popular airlines in your region or your favourite ones to receive notifications.
9. When You Book Matters
In general, airline tickets do not get cheaper as the departure date approaches and can rise drastically for last-minute bookings. On the one hand, you do not want to book too early and risk missing out on potential special deals that pop up for the flights you’ve been eyeing. However, you also don’t want to book too last minute and have to pay a huge premium. Generally, I have found that booking 3-4 months in advance to be the sweet spot for getting a fair to great price on a flight.
10. Use Multi-Day Layovers and Stopovers
There are some long-haul international flights which can be cheaper if broken down into separate, multi-leg layovers. Often times, these also allow you an extra day or two on an extra-long layover to explore your layover destination.
Examples of this include:
Air Canada – Offers one night stopovers in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, Canada if departing and arriving at destinations within Canada or the United States.
Iceland Air – Offers up to a 7-day stopover in Reykjavik, Iceland on international flights, such as the common Vancouver to London via Reykjavik route.
TAP Air Portugal – Offers a one night stopover in Lisbon if departing from London or Manchester, flying to an international destination.
You can also build your own extended stopover by booking two separate flights, but at the same time. This works well if your stop over city is a popular flight hub. This will cost the same as booking the same trip in
Bonus Tip: Once you’ve booked your flight, don’t go back a few days or weeks later to check on whether prices have gone up or down! This will keep your sanity and not cause you to feel bad if prices have decreased or you missed out on a flash sale. Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss!
Finding cheap flights is about being smart and flexible in your bookings. Being open and creative to how you get to your destination can result in some big savings over time.
That said, don’t spend hours and hours researching flights just to save a few dollars – your time is much more valuable! Once you’ve done some research, perhaps tracked a flight for a few weeks and no deals have popped up, it’s better to just pull the trigger on a fair price and move on with life.
If you’ve followed some or all of the tips I’ve share with you in this article, you will never be the person that overpaid for a seat and can rest easy know you got excellent value for your travel dollar. Just be sure to get good travel insurance to make sure you're well protected!
Until next time,