10 ways to find cheaper flights

First the good news. There is money to be saved and you should always spend some time searching to find cheaper flights that suits your wants, needs and wishes.

But be careful to avoid analysis paralysis where all of a sudden nothing is good enough. And all of a sudden price is all that matters down to the last cent.

Because nothing could be further from the truth. Let me explain before we move on to the tips.

A cheaper flight also needs to be the right flight

Having spent a large portion of my career in the travel industry I have always been confused about travelers who hunt for the cheapest flight at any cost. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. Price matters and it is important. But a slightly lower price on a flight that arrives at midnight could force you to spend more having to stay an additional night at a hotel. 

So we need to be mindful and keep the big picture in focus. Here are my top 10 truths to keep in mind when looking to find cheaper flights.

1. What is the best day of the week to find cheaper flights? Be flexible..

The short answer is that there is no particular weekday that is always cheaper. 

Instead, your chances of finding a cheaper flight will increase substantially if you can be flexible with dates and times of travel. 

Flight prices follow the number of available seats on any given flight at any given time. If you are flexible with your travel date, you will stand a better chance of finding a flight with more available seats and consequently a lower price. 

I am aware of surveys, reports and suggestions that certain weekdays are cheaper. But remember that even if this is historically true, there is no guarantee it will be true for your period of travel, destination and chosen airline. 

Pricing of flights follows the law of supply and demand, let me explain:

  1. If any given flight is starting to fill up, the remaining available seats will increase in price. 
  2. Airlines employ yield management experts to calculate which prices to charge at any given point in time to make sure that enough seats will be sold for the flight to be economically viable. 
  3. Yield management is a variable pricing strategy. Airlines try to understand, anticipate and influence travellers buying behaviour to maximize revenue on a service that is 
    • Limited in time – flight will leave at a specific time and date
    • Fixed – there are only a given number of seats available

So when we see an airline campaign 6 months before scheduled departure, chances are good that the yield management experts need more bookings to feel comfortable that enough seats will be sold before departure.

Summary: there is no best day to book. Be flexible and use price alerts to find cheaper flights that make sense to you.

2. Consider booking a longer trip with connection(s)

After only a couple of searches it becomes obvious that the number of stops will have a great impact on flight prices.

Direct flights departing at convenient times will be charging a premium. The same trip with 2 stops adding hours of waiting time will give you a cheaper time.

My advice is to always consider booking a cheaper flight with stop(s) if you agree with the following statements. I will

  1. not spend tons of money in restaurants during transit times
  2. not go crazy tax free shopping out of pure boredom
  3. still have enough time at my destination 

So, yes, do book a cheaper flight with stop(s) given that you will not spend all the savings shopping or find that your trip away is all of a sudden spent at airports rather than vacationing. 

3. Is it better to book a flight directly with the airline? 

Always check with the airlines directly. Here’s why:

Airline campaigns and rebates would be two reasons but there is more to the story.

If you are a travel agent or a travel aggregator you want to make sure that you have access to all flights and all prices that can be booked.

It used to be that travel agents only needed the following to ensure that “all” prices were available to them to book for their customers:

  1. One or two GDS connections (Global Distribution System) 
  2. Selected direct connections with low cost airlines or a low cost airline aggregator  

But flight and price distribution is currently undergoing a major upheaval and it is hard to know if even major travel agents have access to all available flights and prices. 

In the marketplace today we are seeing airlines charging fees in selected booking environments. At the same time they only make some price categories available in direct connect type distribution channels. 

With this follows that the cheapest flight that fits your travel plans may only be available with a select few travel agents or, most likely, the airline directly.

Summary: to find cheaper flights you need to also check with the airline directly

4. Build your own trip with one-way+one-way and virtual interlining

First of all, this is a classic risk / reward type tip. There is money to be saved but you need to understand the risks involved when combining airlines to find cheaper flights.

Combining airlines and virtual interlining is a new approach where you can get the best possible price by building your own itinerary combining all available flights and airlines. 

You can combine low cost airlines, regular airlines and even trains and buses if you wish.

And believe me, the savings can be quite substantial.

When an airline files a price they are also assuming responsibility for the completion of the trip per itinerary booked. This means that the airline will assist you with a solution in case of

  • Time table changes
  • Delays
  • Undelivered baggage

If on the other hand you build your trip yourself by combining airlines the airlines involved will only look to the successful completion of their individual part of the itinerary.

Explaining the risks of Virtual Interlining using an example:

You plan to fly from New York via London to Rome.

Your flight leaves New York four hours late and you end up missing your next flight in London.

Scenario 1: One trip, one booking, one reservation number

If you booked one trip for your entire journey under one booking reference, on American Airlines website, the airline will assist you when you arrive in London. 

The airline takes responsibility for getting you to Rome, your final destination. Hopefully they can book you on a later flight the same day or else they would most likely offer accommodation and meal vouchers. 

Scenario 2: one trip, two bookings, two reservation numbers

If you, on the other hand, booked one ticket with American Airlines to London and then a separate ticket with EasyJet from London to Rome, the situation would be quite different. 

  • American Airlines would of course apologise for the delay but have no clue about the EasyJet ticket. 
  • EasyJet would simply view you as a no-show and move on after a few fruitless last calls echoing down the terminal for the missing passenger. You would lose your ticket. And if you had a return flight with EasyJet that return flight would also be lost. You would need to buy a new ticket for this journey.

With virtual interlining you will consequently take on a lot of responsibility with regards to the completion of the trip.

A compromise could be to use a travel aggregator that uses virtual interlining technology when presenting flight options. Kiwi.com is one popular alternative and they also offer a Kiwi guarantee to back up their offerings. 

5. Should I book flights through a travel agent? It is worth checking.

It is hard to say yes, but you should at least check.

As we discussed earlier, the distribution of fares and prices are undergoing major changes.

And as such, you should check with several different sources including your travel agent.

Now, when you contact your travel agent you should look for specific fares that fit the type of travel you are planning. Examples can be:

  • If you are planning an international trip you may consider asking about tour operator fares that would require some type of land arrangement to be booked with the flight. Check with your travel agent but one night accommodation may be enough to qualify. And the benefits are usually lower price, more flexible conditions with regards to changes and cancellation as well as more favorable payment terms.
  • If you are planning a trip that involves flights within Europe you need to be aware of baggage and fees if not included in the fare. Make sure your agent compares the price of Economy Light with added cost for bags with for example Economy Standard that would include baggage.
  • If you are a family of four and depending on your type of trip you may be able to save money by combining different fare types. You could for example combine two Economy  light fares without baggage with two Economy Basic including baggage for a total of two check-in bags for the group.
  • If you are planning a trip where dates may be subject to change you may consider paying a slightly higher price for a fare that allows free date change

So, yes, it can help you find cheaper flights when you check with your travel agent.

Below is a short overview of fares, booking classes, cabins and fare families to prepare you for your call to the travel agent.

Traditionally we had several different types of fares (prices) 

  • Published fares (for all to book)
  • Negotiated fared (for example larger agents rewarded for performance)
  • Tour operator fares (for example agents that offer packages including flights)
  • Youth, student, ethnic type fares (specialty travel agencies)

And we have several different types of cabins

Each cabin consists of different booking classes, level of service included and where you sit inside the airplane varies 

  • Economy
  • Premium Economy
  • Business
  • First Class

And then there were fare families within the Economy cabin

Fare families are typically found in the Economy Cabin. The different fare families are paired with different features and restrictions. An example can be that the cheapest Light fare is non-refundable and allows no change of travel dates whereas a more expensive Plus ticket would have much more lenient conditions.

  • Light
  • Basic
  • Standard
  • Plus

Should you also check with Online Travel Agents? No need as long as you use the price comparison sites – see below.

6. Book your flights early, but not too early – enter price alerts

Goldilocks principle all over this one. Airlines use yield management to decide which price to offer at any given time.  

Yield management uses seats available / seats booked to arrive at the correct price point.

How can we know when the time is right? We cannot.

So how do we solve this problem? We use price alerts and sit back and wait.

My recommendation is to set several price alerts at different price points to get a feeling for direction of price and rate of price change.

Setting the travel alerts is easy. Simply do a search on the price comparison websites and look for the “Price Alert” function in the left column next to the actual flight results.

Acivate price alerts to stay informed about cheap flight prices
Activate the “Track prices” function to for example create a price alert in Kayak.

The price comparison sites will ask you to use their app or sign in with Facebook, Gmail, etc… but it works just as well to choose the email only option where you simply enter your preferred email address.

Creating the price alert and receiveing updates by email.
Enter your email to create the price alert. The favorite deals “newsletter” is optional.

7. Be smart when you pay for your flight

Needless to say, when you book a flight you need to look at the total cost including necessary extras. 

With the onset of Covid-19 travellers have once again had to read the fineprint of their insurance coverages.

If you choose to pay by card you could be afforded extras such as travel insurance, cancellation insurance, buyer protection, etc.

Now, you may have this protection via a different means of payment. Fine, use it.

My point is that the actual ticket price is just one component of the total cost of your flight. 

And to find cheaper flights you need to keep an eye on the total cost.

8. Find cheaper flights that do not add extra costs

When you book your flight you have to look at the big picture.

It makes no sense to spend time to find cheaper flights if the flilght adds unexpected additional costs that outweigh the savings.

I will give you two examples to illustrate my point.

  1. You book the cheapest possible flight saving a few bucks but arrive at an airport where public transport stops at 5 pm on weekends? Taxi anyone? 
  2. The cheapest flight has a return flight departing at 6 am in the morning forcing you to pay for an extra night accommodation and missing breakfast at the hotel?

These are just two examples where it could make more sense to pay a little more for the flight as the total cost for the trip would be less.

9. Use a VPN to make sure you do not pay too much

A VPN is a service that allows you to create a Virtual Private Network that protects your data and identity when you are surfing the Internet. The VPN connection hides your data and IP address in a “virtual tunnel” and prevents others from spying on your activities.

Even if this makes no sense to you, please read on. After all, did you ever understand how email or cell phones work? And did it stop you? Did not think so.

I recommend that you consider using a VPN for one reason only when you search for flights.

And it is not to avoid browser cookies that some would argue could increase flight prices when we search over and over. 

I do not think this is true. The online travel market is too transparent and any foul activities like this would have been discovered and proven a long time ago. 

And furthermore, as we are using price comparison sites, this is not a factor. Price comparison sites have no reason to increase the price based on user activity. They just want to present the lowest price available for the itinerary chosen by the user. Period.

Rather, and far more importantly, some airlines use point-of-sale pricing. 

With point-of-sale pricing any given flight may cost less if purchased in for example Canada compared to for example the US. 

And with a VPN you can change your location and present yourself as searching from another country.

This may give you a price advantage especially when you book directly with the airline.

But as always, before you book, please read the rules to make sure you are allowed to travel on the ticket.

VPNs are available as a paid service as well as a free browser extension. Personally I have only used NordVPN and I do recommend them.

10. Use more than one travel platform to find cheaper flights

More is not always better but given the choice I recommend searching Kayak, Skyscanner and Momondo in your hunt to find cheaper flights.

Though they all strive to present the traveler with the best possible options they do have slightly different methodology in how they arrive at the Best, Fastest and Cheapest options.

Be observant and start the exact same search using the same filters on all three search engines.

From there on it is simply a matter of selecting the provider you trust.

I will leave you with three points:

  • When you do simultaneous searches across all three brands you will find that one and the same provider may present 3 different prices for the same flight.
  • Apply your filters before you do your search to receive only relevant options. If you filter after you search, you are merely removing options that were simply wasting space in the first place.
  • Be observant and make sure that selected options for extras like baggage are carried over to the travel agency correctly. The fact that the price is the same is not enough, check the details. Be sure you know exactly what you are paying for.

Meet the author: With more than 20 years experience from the travel industry, Mattias offers tips, expert advice and a unique perspective anchored in having worked with market leading cruise lines, tour operators, consolidators, airlines and hospitality suppliers. Read more..