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.
(Others that I’m particularly fond of are Flight Network, Hipmunk and Google Flights).
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.
(As a side note, if for some reason you’re not loving Skyscanner, you can perform this same search technique using Kayak’s “Explore” tool and Google Flight’s “Discover Destinations”)
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.
Some I can recommend are Airfare Watchdog, The Flight Deal, and my personal favourite, Secret Flying.
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!
That couple you’re talking about is crazy. I love AirAsia deals! I once booked a $16 flight from Malaysia to Thailand and $130 r/t from BKK to DPS.
I know! I couldn’t believe it when they told me. I got the feeling they didn’t get the chance to travel too much though, so they didn’t mind splurging on a nice vacation. Long flights on a budget airline aren’t the most fun things in the world, but the savings are just too hard to give up.
I agree! Airasia is great! It’s real good they are getting more and more expanded now 🙂
wow thank you Bren! really helpful
Cool, glad I could help 🙂 Thanks for reading!
Wow Brendan, you are amazing
Hah, I don’t know what to say. Thanks for reading 🙂
I love searching for flights too, and while I’ve been loyal to Skyscanner, I’ve also started looking at Momondo which has some data tools that will help you pin down the best time to travel. Not forgetting Google Flights where you can put in your budget and see where it can take you on the interactive map.
Momondo has never really returned anything worthwhile for me. Same with Vayama. This is the first time I’ve heard of Google Flights though! Will have to check it out, thanks so much for sharing!
You right, much of the tricks are things most of us frequent travelers already know but, good thing you still wrote this. I’ve always traveled only to destinations that the budget airlines from my country has a direct flights. And it never occurred to me that I could look up for destinations with budget airlines from another hub e.g Singapore (w/c has more flight destinations). Awesome! there is still much to learn even if you already know a lot so keep posting. 🙂
It’s always changing. There’s new websites and new airlines and routes popping up all the time, so they always bring with them a new set of tricks. I learn something new every year! Thanks for reading 🙂
Just wanted to add to my post with a few more tips I’ve just found in this article. Good read!
I just stumbled onto your blog by chance and man, this post is such a great share of information and resources on travel hacks. Good job Bren, keep on inspiring us with your travels!
Cheers! If you got any questions just shoot me an email through the Contact page. Happy travels.
I used Skyscanner travelling from Spain to New York earlier this year and found a farely cheap flight. I’m currently planning a trip to India with my friends and I think your tips might really help to get the best deal. Thanks and keep up the good work.
Hi Alice glad it was helpful. Skyscanner is definitely one of the best tools out there right now.
too bad about that darn sq-air nz deal that locks out jetstar from the sgp route!
I know, that was one of my favourite routes!
Hi! I was wondering if you could help me…for some reason, Skyscanner doesn’t work when I leave it “Everywhere” in the destination field. It doesn’t reveal prices, but instead the arrows read “Get Prices.” Is it just the airport I’m using? Or is it something else?
Hi Rick, that means that nobody has searched those routes for some time and it needs refreshing. You will need to click get prices and it will search the routes for you and give you up to date pricing.
Thanks for sharing Bren. Definitely going to help me save some money on the next trip.
Just a thought on the budget airlines: it really depends on the area and what you need. A two hour Air Asia flight that gets you (more or less) where you want, you’re just going for a couple of days and using smaller, less frequented airports, so you pay 50$ instead of 100$? No-brainer.
However: once you need to check a bag, use remote airports, etc. things aren’t as simple. A checked bag can cost you an arm or a leg, even when you pay for your bag in advance, 50$ isn’t an unusual amount. Fly from continental Europe to London, check a bag, pay for the bus or the train from Gatwick or Stansted and all of a sudden a direct flight to London-City airport or Heathrow on Lufthansa, British, Swiss or KLM ends up being cheaper. Not only might it save you money, but elbowing your way through Stansted, clawing and scratching for some space in the overhead bins and shelling out 5€ for a simple coke, isn’t what I’d call fun. Particularly, if you’ve got elite status with a major airline.
I came across your site through a facebook share of your post on Bulgaria. I am hugely impressed by everything I’ve read here so far and can’t wait to read more. You have great travel insights and a very engaging style. Thank you for sharing, and for making travel feel so much more “doable”. Kudos!
Glad I could help. Safe travels!
Thanks so much for sharing all this information! My husband and I are in the early stages of thinking about six months of travel, and are having heaps of fun using the Skyscanner search engine to think about where we could get to.
One question – I know of some people who worry about using Skyscanner because it uses offshore travel agents, meaning that there is a small risk that you could end up using a non-bonded agent and not having a lot of recourse against them in the event that things go wrong. Have you ever come across any issues like this?
Keep up the great work 🙂
Never had a problem with it, though there are some agents that are better than others. I like Travelocity, Expedia, Hipmunk, Flight Network. Though I’ve booked with almost all the major ones and never had a problem.
Hi Brendon, very good info. Thank you. As a travel addict who has visited 123 countries I’ve learned a lot about everything.. Love Air Asia, Air Arabia and most budget airlines. It’s still possible to learn something new.
Curious, ever thought of moving from New Zealand ?
Updated info is great I’ve been to Europe on a tour group and across the ditch alone and I am keen to give it a go and being from NZ I know I have a great passport. Any advice on where to find a guide for dummies on visas? I have no idea and while it would be great for me to get a cheap flight what if I can’t fly there as I don’t have the right documentation … or will the 5-8 week golden window be enough time?
Also are there any good blogs for women travelling alone?
Hi Tammy, if you’re on a Kiwi passport you won’t need a visa for most places. If you do need one, you can probably get it on arrival. Wikipedia has a good summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_New_Zealand_citizens
Also I actually have a whole email series on solo female travel with different bloggers, you can check it out here: https://brenontheroad.com/category/female-travel-series/
Hey Bren, just wanted to share a tip that i found useful while booking a ticket to Tokyo from Manila. Purchasing two one way tickets came out a lot cheaper than booking round trip tickets! I’m not sure why this is so or if it’s common, but it came out cheaper! Instead of paying around 240usd, I got the two tickets for around 180usd. 🙂
Hey! Nice tip. Yes I’ve noticed that too in the past, wasn’t sure if it still worked as I never book round trips anymore. Thanks for sharing!
Skyscanner has so consistently given me the cheapest flights that I’ve stopped bothering to look anywhere else. I also love that you can search for ‘whole month’ or ‘everywhere’ if you don’t have firm plans. I only recently learned that they might put the price up if you keep searching for the same flight so now I always clear my cookies and search on different devices!
I’ve honestly never noticed any blatant price targeting like that, but I do sometimes check incognito on my phone before I book to see if it’s the same price I’m getting. Never seen any obvious funny business going on though. Might be targeted to certain countries/price points/destinations.
I have heard that if you change your VPN location you often get different prices on the same flights. You are still able to choose your currency to pay for it, too. I’ve tried this and it does seem to work. If it’s not in my favour I choose another VPN location. Be careful, though, it threw my email account into a complete tizzy! Took me a while to get it sorted out. That was through hotmail, my gmail wasn’t affected.
Hey Barb, haven’t tried that! I’m almost always connected to my VPN too so that will be easy for me to try, I’ll give it a go next time. Thanks for sharing.
I think this may have changed my life! I read a LOT of travel blogs and no one has ever broken it down so well. Thank you!!!!
Best info I’ve heard all year! Seriously!
So, I, unfortunately, bought an Expedia Ticket to Dublin for $1,100. I am now beyond disappointed that I did not find you beforehand ha. I can only cancel or change my flight for a $275 fee and it will only be credited not refunded. Should I focus on other ways to save money during my trip or lose the $300 and try to find a cheaper flight?
I hardly use Expedia these days so don’t know what their cancellation policy is. Maybe you can email support and try to swindle something. Other search engines like Flight Network and Kiwi.com have price protection so you get refunded if the price drops before you fly even after you’ve booked. If you can’t manage to cancel your flight, just chalk it up to experience and get a better deal next time 🙂
Bren I am really enjoying your blog. You are a great writer, unlike some other travel writers out there!!
This description of how to use Skyscanner is so helpful, I have looked at it before and have struggled to navigate, especially when wanting to "see everywhere" and other wide open choices like that.
Of course at the moment I won't be going anywhere (had to come back early from a Thailand trip to avoid Covid, I know we are tremendously lucky to be relatively safe in NZ), but this will prove very useful once things settle down outside Fortress NZ and the vaccine starts taking effect.
I look forward to reading more from you.
Thanks!!!! Hope your next flight is super cheap