Depending on where you live, flights can be a real suck on your travel budget. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. How do you find a cheap flight? It’s the bane of every budget traveller.
Over the last few years I’ve learned a few tricks, and flights are no longer the draining expense they were when I first started travelling. It can be a bit of a process, but if you’re vigilant in your flight search there is usually a way to get where you want without smashing the budget.
Below is the general process I use whenever I’m looking to head somewhere new. It can be pretty involved so try and stay with me, but I’m confident you’ll be able to save a bit of money using the tools and tips below.
Step 1: Start with a flight search engine
This is your starting point. There are a lot of them out there, but for this example I’m going to be using Skyscanner.
As I’m based in New Zealand I’ll use Auckland as our starting point. For our example, let’s say we’re heading to Tokyo for two weeks – 1 April to 14 April.
Searching for something like this is pretty simple. Just head to Skyscanner, plug in your dates and destination, click search. It will search (almost) all airlines for you and give you the best available price. Your form should look like this:
Here are the results:
We’re given 950 options, the best one being $622 with China Eastern. That’s not bad, but let’s see if we can get that price down a bit.
Be flexible with your dates
The best way to save money on a flight is to be flexible. If you only have two specific weeks during the year you can travel there’s not too much you can do, but if you’re without a strict schedule, you can save a lot.
Let’s search for another flight to Tokyo, assuming we don’t care when we go. All we want is the cheapest flight.
To do this, leave your search criteria exactly the same but in the date section choose “cheapest month”. It should look like this:
Skyscanner will then search every month and give you the cheapest possible flight for the year. In the results we’ll see it’s in July.
To get the cheapest two week trip, you would probably choose the flights I’ve circled in red – the outgoing flight on July 24th for $192, and the return on August 7th for $208 for a total of $400.
If you remember, our earlier April dates were going to cost $622. In less than a minute, we’ve pinpointed the cheapest possible flight of the year, and saved $222, or 37%. Not bad.
If July or August isn’t a good time for you, just click the months’ dropdown box and you’ll get an indication of prices for each month:
This gives us a few more options. Even though July was given to us as the cheapest month, you can see that September and October look equally cheap. However once you click around those dates you’ll find the return leg is probably more expensive, which is why Skyscanner gave us July instead (Skyscanner is kinda smart). Nonetheless you can click through those other months and see if there are other options for you.
Now if we actually select those flights for $400 and click “Get Prices” we’ll get taken to the actual flight itinerary. In this case the flight turns out to be on Air Asia, for $416:
You might be thinking, why is it now $416 and not $400? This is actually really common on these sites – there are even times when the opposite happens and the itinerary comes out cheaper – maybe $390 or something. Flight prices are always changing (literally every minute) so I presume this is why this happens.
Now if you’re ready to book the flight you can just click the green button and book. But maybe we can do even better?
If you look at the above itinerary, you’ll see it’s an indirect flight, meaning the flight has a layover. In this case, the flight goes through KUL (Kuala Lumpur). One option we have now is to book those legs separately – we’ll book Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, and then we’ll book another flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo.
Using exactly the same technique from before I’ve found the cheapest flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, which is in May/June for $285.
That’s pretty good, but we still need to get from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo. If we can do it for less than $115, we’ll beat our $400 itinerary from before. Obviously we can’t just search any dates – we know the exact dates we’re going to be in and out of Kuala Lumpur (23 May – 7 June) so we have to work with those. Here’s what we get:
Aaaand we’ve struck out. $285 + $253 gives us $538, way more expensive than the $400 we found before. BUT, this technique does work really often, especially on longer routes. I actually spent a while trying to find an example for you that worked but I lucked out (to be honest I only spent about five minutes and then I gave up, but it does work!)
That’s the general process for finding the cheapest flight to a specific destination. Be flexible with the dates, try and book your legs separately, experiment with different layover cities. That should already give you a lot to work with. But again, can we do better?
3. Be flexible with your destination (and get a ridiculously cheap flight)
We’ve just seen how much you can save if you’re flexible with dates, but what if you’re flexible with your destination too?
If you’re like me, maybe you don’t care where you’re going. You just want to go somewhere new. So unless you’ve fallen in love with a girl on a Tokyo dating website, or have an infatuation with guys dressed in cosplay, maybe you could pass on Tokyo and try somewhere else. If that’s the case, here’s what I do pretty much every time I travel.
Go back to Skyscanner and put in your origin. We’ll stick with Auckland for now. Set the search to “One way”. Then, select the “cheapest month” option like we did before. Then leave the destination field blank. It will self populate with “Everywhere”. Your form should look like this:
Hitting search will give you the cheapest flights from Auckland to everywhere in the world for the entire year. Check out how many places you can go to for under $200 USD:
Pretty cool. Note that there is some time lag for these results to update. For example, I clicked into that $199 to UK option and it had already disappeared, so it was probably a flight special or mistake fare that’s been finished. But those were all real results at some point in time, and they’re usually pretty up to date.
Now all these cheap flights are super exciting, but still we need to ask. Can we do better?
Let’s do the search again, but this time we’re going to use a nearby international hub as our departure point. For example, the closest hub to Auckland would be either Sydney or Singapore. The Skyscanner search we just did (Auckland to everywhere) says we can get to Aussie for $63 and to Singapore for $180. Singapore is a really good hub (possibly the best in the world) so we’ll use that one.
Here’s the same “everywhere search” using Singapore as the point of departure:
The obvious gameplan here would be, buy the $180 ticket to Singapore and then launch your travels from there. Thailand for $29? Vietnam for $31? It’s up to you.
What if you’re not flexible with dates or destination?
This means you basically have no bargaining power at all, but there are still one or two tricks you could use that might save you some money. The tips below are some generic flying tips, and you can apply them to all your flight searches, even (especially) the shotgun searches we did above.
Try using different hubs
We touched on this already but I’ll mention it again. If your dates are fixed, and your destination is fixed, you can still try and change the hub you fly through.
In our example we were flying from Auckland to Tokyo. This gives you plenty of options; Tokyo is close to many hubs such as Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. Auckland is close to Australia. That leaves you with a lot of search possibilities. As an example, you might be better off flying from Auckland to Singapore and then taking a budget airline such as Tiger Air to Tokyo. You could also get a Jetstar or Virgin flight from Auckland to Australia and try flying from there. In our example the Kuala Lumpur option didn’t quite work out, but there’s a good chance others will if you have the time to search through them.
I actually remember doing this a few years ago when, instead of taking the Emirates flight from Auckland to Nairobi (through Australia and Dubai), I caught a budget airline from Auckland to Singapore instead, and then flew from Singapore to Nairobi with an Indian airline. It was a simple route, but Skyscanner’s default searches didn’t put it together. I had to do it myself.
A very handy tool for finding flights on budget airlines into and out of hubs is Whichbudget. It aggregates all the budget airlines and has a lot of smaller airlines the bigger sites like Skyscanner don’t pick up.
Go directly to the airline’s website
I’ve actually never found a flight to be cheaper on the airline’s website than it was on Skyscanner. For some reason the search engines are always cheaper (I still haven’t figured out a reason for this).
I have, however, found flights on the airline’s website that didn’t exist on Skyscanner. This has actually saved my ass a few times – it was particularly common in Africa.
There’s a lesson here. Skyscanner (and every other aggregator site) will never show every single flight available. That means you need to search a little bit deeper once you’ve done your initial research, which means searching both flight search engines and the airlines’ official websites.
Again, to make sure you haven’t missed any of the lesser known airlines, do a quick search on Whichbudget too.
Land in a smaller city
This works because larger airports are more expensive for planes to land at, and these extra fees get added to your ticket.
For example, instead of flying into Tokyo you could try fly into one of Japan’s smaller cities. The first one that comes to mind is Osaka, and a quick search shows it is in fact cheaper. If you remember, the cheapest return flight to Tokyo was $400. The cheapest return flight to Osaka is $372:
Obviously this gives rise to the problem of getting from Osaka to Tokyo after you land (it’s about a 4 hour bus ride, I think), but if you wouldn’t mind visiting Osaka anyway, why not? In this case the flight is only marginally cheaper, so it might not be worth your while, but sometimes it can work out several hundred dollars cheaper. Common examples are landing in Newark instead of New York City, Beauvais instead of Paris, or Clark instead of Manila. There are countless examples like this.
Fly budget airlines
If you want to travel long term, you really just need to get used to this. I’ve known people that pay up to $500 more for their airfare just to avoid a budget airline. Of course, that’s fine, but it also means you have no right to complain about flights being expensive.
One couple I met spent $3,000 on their airfares to Thailand because they didn’t want to fly Air Asia, which could’ve got them there for $1,600. That’s $1,400 in change! A couple could live in Thailand on that for 2 months.
At the end of the day, just think about how much better a major airline really is. You get a TV, a plate of airplane food, a couple of free Cokes. That’s it. How much is that worth? I’d say about 50 bucks. Get used to flying budget airlines, and spend the hundreds of dollars you’ll save on something a little more rewarding once you land.
Fly at the right time
They say the best day to fly is Wednesday, and the best time to fly is the last flight out at night (or very early morning). This is not set in stone but from my experience this is good advice. When flying around Asia, the 2am flight is sometimes less than half the price of the 9am flight.
Also, be clever about which time of the year you fly. Christmas and other holidays are traditionally bad times to fly; but you can also use the heavy season to your advantage.
Example: In 2011 New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup, and during that time airfares coming into the country skyrocketed. Also, no one wanted to leave the country during that time, so flights going out of the country hit rock bottom. During that time I flew to Buenos Aires for $1,100 return (at the time the fares were usually $2,000+). It was just a product of good timing, and the leftover change went a long way in South America.
Book at the right time
If you book too early, you get grouped with the high payers (think people who are flying somewhere for a wedding or a conference). These people reserve their seat early because they need to make sure they fly on that date, and therefore they lock their flights in early and pay a premium. If you book too late, you also get grouped with the high payers (think people attending a funeral or some other emergency).
How do you avoid that? The unwritten rule is to book in the golden window: 5-8 weeks in advance. That should give you the best chance of getting the best price. Of course nothing is guaranteed, but that’s a good guideline.
If you’re doing a lot of searching, do it incognito. To do this, simply click “Open Incognito Tab” in your browser. This means your browser won’t hold any cookies and keep data on where/when you’ve been searching for flights. If there’s a route you’ve been searching a lot, it’s possible the search engine will catch on and bump prices in your searches. Whether or not this is actually true is disputed. Some travellers swear by it, some think it’s nonsense. What do I think? I have no idea. But I do it, simply because it doesn’t cost anything, and it does kinda make sense.
Watch out for specials!
I take advantage of specials often. Jetstar often runs flight specials from Auckland that are almost 50% less than normal fare. Air New Zealand is running really good specials constantly. In The Philippines, Cebu Pacific sometimes has $0 flights! Air Asia does all sorts of gimmicky stuff like that too.
My favourite special is Jetstar’s Auckland to Singapore, which usually pops up around March or June. It’s an awesome bargain, because once you get to Singapore you can fly almost anywhere in Asia for less than $100. Not to mention most airlines charge between $700 – $1,000 for that Auckland – Singapore route. It’s pretty easy to stay informed for deals like this – just sign up for the email newsletter of all the major airlines in your city/country and let the specials come to you.
Get Price Alerts
Airfares change all the time. If you’re searching for a specific flight, like we were in our Auckland – Tokyo example, it can be worthwhile to sign up for price alerts. Depending on the alerts you sign up for, you’ll get emails whenever the price is about to drop (or about to rise a lot). Most search engines will have an option to receive alerts, on Skyscanner it looks like this:
I would also suggest signing up for a second set of alerts from a different service, as every search engine has gaps, as we discussed earlier. Google Flights is a good option, just toggle price alerts on as follows:
Lastly, sign up to some flight deals websites. These sites congregate deals from all over the world and bring them to you in one place. Lots of mistake fares (for example, an airline mistakenly puts a fare in the system for $200 instead of $2,000) and limited time specials too. These sites are updated daily, and they do have some pretty amazing deals.
If you love a bargain I highly recommend checking them out. They are a very good resource.
And that’s about all I’ve got. It seems everyone has their own little tricks to hunting down cheap flights online, so if you have any, please share them in the comments section! Flights are almost always the the biggest drain on a backpacker’s budget, so if you can get them under control that’s half the battle won. As we’ve seen above, you don’t need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on flights to see the world. Know where and how to look, and you should be laughing all the way onto the plane.
Good luck and travel safe!