I’ve flow from the UK to Paris for €5 (total price), I just booked my flight home for Christmas (New York’s JFK to London Heathrow) for £75 and I’ve recently flown half-way across Colombia for under $50.
How? A combination of experience, sheer will and a fair number of flight booking tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over years of booking flights. In this article I’ll share with you my 101 tips for cheap flights.
Deciding where to go
1. Be flexible on destination. Sure, you want to spend two weeks at the beach but does it need to be in Spain? What about Bulgaria? Make a long-list of potential destinations and keep an open mind.
2. Get to know the world. Make it your business to read up on the world and it’s destinations. It will make you less likely to dismiss a cheap flight because you don’t know the place it’s flying to.
3. Avoid trendy destinations. If a location has made it onto any top 10 lists for the year you’re travelling, tourism will peak and so will flight prices. Popularity will eventually wane – go then urtead.
4. Avoid countries hosting a major event. Head to any country during it’s World Cup or Olympic years and you’re going to face a premium. Unless you’re heading there for the event, wait until after the excitement has passed.
5. Consider emerging destinations. There’s a sweet spot when a destination is increasingly opening up to tourism but hasn’t found it onto and trendy travel lists yet. Google and, if you’re committed enough, travel trade shows will help.
6. Consider re-emerging destinations. Whether it’s storm damage that’s been fixed or civil war that has ended and stabilised, if you’re looking for an adventure and you’re confident on safety, re-emerging destinations can be incredibly rewarding.
7. Keep an eye on new flight routes. If an airline has started flying there, it will want to get some passengers. Jump onboard before everybody else does. Airline websites list their new routes.
8. Use stopover as trips. A fair number of airlines will allow you a free or very cheap stopover in their hub city e.g. Hawaii with Hawaiian airlines. Add these destinations to your trip to make the most out of your flight price.
Deciding when to go
9. Do your research before you commit to your annual leave dates. Sure, you’re supposed to book your leave then your trip, but do your research first or risk being stuck with dates twice the price of going the following week.
10. Be flexible with your travel dates. Work gets us into the week/weekend mind-set but mid-week travel can be cheaper. Do you really need to leave on Saturday morning?
11. Play around with days of the week. There are bundles of reports on the best day to travel. In my experience, it’s going to depend on the route and the airline. Friday and Sunday departures are more expensive on low-cost airlines in Europe but mid-week seats on a business route won’t be cheap either. Play around – it shouldn’t take long to figure out the spikes.
12. Consider unattractive flight times. You might need to get to the airport at 0’dark-thirty but if the flight is a fraction of the cost, isn’t it worth setting the alarm a few hours early?
13. But beware the hidden costs of flying outside the hours of local transport. Do your travel maths and ensure that you don’t spend your flight-price savings by having to take expensive taxis to the airport or stay in an airport hotel.
14. Fly in low or shoulder seasons. Fewer tourists often means lower airfares. Shoulder seasons are a good combination of reduced prices but still with sufficient stuff to do. Low season is usually cheaper but beware.
15. However, understand the realities of low-season. If attractions are closed, outdoor activities are put on hold and the destination becomes a ghost town, are you really putting your money to good use. (Related Article: The Highs and Lows of Low Season Travel)
16. Don’t be afraid of the weather. Even during hurricane season in the Caribbean it won’t rain all-day every day. If you’re prepared to accept a potential storm, you can get some great deals when the weather is most ugly.
17. Don’t dismiss the hottest time of the year. If you’re after a sun break but looking for a deal, still check the price of the hottest time of year. In some destinations the weather is so hot (and therefore humid or monsoon ridden) that it’s actually low-season. If that doesn’t bother you, you could get a deal.
Avoiding peak problems
18. Avoid school holidays if at all possible. If you can’t avoid them (damn, having kids seemed like a good idea at the time), try to avoid the first week of school holidays when everyone is chomping at the bit for some sun.
19. Avoid public and national holidays in your home country. Easter and Christmas travel are particularly pricey for flights. Changing your dates to just before or just after can make a huge difference.
20. Fly on the holiday days. Most people want to spend Christmas Day or Easter or Thanksgiving with their family, but if you can pull it off, travel on the day in question and you could get some good deals.
21. Avoid seasonal events in prominent places. Valentine’s Day in Paris. Christmas shopping in New York. Unless you specifically want to go Christmas shopping or propose in Paris, choose another time to go.
22. Be savvy about local holidays at your destination. Flying from the UK to the USA over Thanksgiving will cost you. Likewise, hitting Hong Kong during Chinese New Year. Unless it’s the purpose of your visit, go some other time.
23. Search local events too. Being in Honolulu during the Honolulu marathon wasn’t the smartest move and flights to (and, vitally, off the island) became prohibitive.
24. And anniversaries can bump up the price too. The anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Flanders Field on the 100 year anniversary of World War I. Either book way in advance or go some other time.
Searching for deals
25. Be the first to know about airline sales. Sign-up for their email alerts to know exactly when they’re happening and you can be amongst the first to get the best deals before they sell out.
26. Research regular sales. Some airlines have sales at the same time each year. Get to know their routines. Waiting just a week or even a month to your your flights during sale time can save hundreds on long-haul.
27. When you search, be as broad as you can. I love Skyscanner for that exact reason and that’s why it’s my go-to flight planning tool.
28. Flush your cookies before you book. If you didn’t know, airlines use something called dynamic pricing to raise the cost of airline tickets for individuals based on things like how many times you’ve searched.
For more information, including how to beat the system, check out my related article: Dynamic Pricing: Flight Pricing’s Biggest Scam
29. Don’t dismiss auctions. Sites like Priceline allow you to name your own price for flights. If your bid matches, the seat’s yours. Do beware – you can only specify the date and location so you could end up with an unattractive flight time.
30. Don’t overlook Round the World tickets. If you’re doing something a bit more elaborate than a straight return flight, check whether a RTW or multi-stop fare (some start as low as £339) might offer a better price…and more locations!
31. Research local flight passes. Airlines like LAN in South America offer local passes that could be cheaper than buying individual flights in-country. Beware – you usually need to book at the same time that you book your international ticket.
32. But don’t overlook low-cost carriers in your destination. Flight passes can be a good idea but make sure you do a price check as there are an increasing number of low-cost carriers around the world.
33. Take advantage of anomalies. Sometimes, for some reasons you won’t understand, glitches happen – business class becomes cheaper than economy or currency fluctuations make the fare a lot lower (both have happened to me). Don’t question it. Just book it. Quickly.
34. Be aware of new airlines. Every now and again, a new airline springs up (there’s a wave of them in the US at the moment). As they vie for customers, flight prices are competitive.
35. Keep an eye on airlines doing a big media campaign. When an airline gets a budget to boost sales, prices can drop. I got a great deal from Air New Zealand a while back and Norwegian Airlines have been popular in the past.
36. Price your route going indirect. You usually need one of two things for travel – time or money. If you have the time to fly indirect (e.g. Across the US via Atlanta), you can usually save some money. And the longer your layover, usually the cheaper the ticket.
37. Look at hub airports. More airlines, more flights and more departures per day leaving to and from the hub airports often means more competition (and therefore cheaper flights). It was cheaper for me to fly out of Phoenix to compared to neighbouring Albuquerque.
38. Get to know outer limit airports. While I might dispute Ryanair’s description of Bergamo airport as Milan, who cares – it’s a snip of the price of going to the central airport and a shuttle but will transfer you for only €5. Again, Skyscanner will let you search for nearby airports.
39. Understand routing for your destination. Knowing that Madrid is one of Iberia’s main jumping off points for Latin America is going to save you a fair bit of money compared to trying to book the same trip from London.
40. Price your trip by combining airlines. Using a low-cost carrier in Europe to get to London for a competitively priced flight from a hub airport to the USA could be cheaper than flying direct.
41. Know the low-cost airlines. Globally. You probably know a handful of low-cost airlines in your own country but getting to know them extensively in every continent you visit will allow you to broaden your search field.
42. Check out oversupplied seats. If you don’t need to go to an exact destination on an exact day, you can get great discounts with Hotwire of up to 40% buying a seat on a flight where there is surplus. As always, check the price elsewhere before you book.
43. Find the local community for where you want to go. New Malden in Surrey, England has a high number of residents from South Korea. And there’s always a deal to Seoul with the local travel agents. Find the relevant community near you and check out the flight deals.
44. Google it. I’ve been playing around with Google Flights and it holds promise. Better still, Google have just launched a new service where they will ping you price decreases.
45. Don’t expect flight search engines to include all airlines. Whether it’s for technical or legal reasons, flight aggregators don’t always capture 100% of the airlines. So, don’t just reply on them in your quest for low flight prices.
46. Always check the price of booking with the airline direct. Even if your ticket pops up on a flight search engine, still check the price with the airline direct to make sure it’s not cheaper.
Booking your flight
47. Book a return ticket. As much as I like one-way tickets, they can be hellishly expensive to some destinations (Japan was twice as costly to fly one-way with British Airways compared to a return). Even if you don’t use it, booking a return can be cheaper.
48. Pay extra for flexibility. If there is even 1% chance you’ll change your plans or screw up, pay the extra for a flexible ticket. I skipped the $100 extra for flexibility in Asia last year. 1 screw-up, 1 flight-change and $250 later…
49. Consider a travel agent. No, travel agents didn’t go out of fashion in the 90s. They still have way more flight searching knowledge than you and often access to bulk discounts you simply can’t get your hands on.
50. Consider a bunch of travel agents. If one travel agent isn’t getting you quite where you want to be on price, ask another. A bit of healthy competition can help drive down prices.
51. Use travel agents in-country. The travel agents that litter the streets of popular destinations in Asia can perform a magic with flight prices akin to witchcraft. Don’t dismiss them.
52. Don’t let bureaucracy put you off. Sometimes you can’t book online or at least have to complete your transaction in a complex manner (involving photocopying your passport and posting it off or paying your bill in a supermarket). If the flight price is worth it, do it.
53. Don’t book at the airport. I’ve never gotten my hands on a cheap at the airport ticket. If you’ve missed your flight, at the very least, try to find an internet connection and book online.
54. Insurance – Don’t fly without it. Ever. From cancellation to curtailment, you’re really going to want that policy the second anything goes wrong.
55. But don’t book the airline’s insurance. Tick the emotive “No, I will take all the risk and probably die as a consequence” opt-out box when an airline is trying to sell you insurance. You’ll almost certainly get cheaper travel insurance anywhere else!
56. Play around with currency. I can’t guarantee this will work but just this month I got a $150 flight for just $50 with LAN just by conducting the search in different currencies (tip: the flight was cheaper paying in pounds than pesos – go figure?!). You’ll need a VPN for this. I use Express VPN.
57. Yet, pay in your own currency by default. If you’re allowed to pay in your home currency (rather than just a converted version of it – where the airline uses a price converter), do. It should reduce your bank charges that come when you buy something in a foreign currency.
58. Don’t pay unnecessary fees to third parties. I’m calling out eDreams on this one. For a flight that was less than $50, the final fees were an additional third of the price. Meanwhile, over on the airline’s website I could book direct without fees. Double check before you book.
59. Do pay fees if they get you a cheaper price. Flight booking websites do still manage to come up with great fares even after they have added on their fees. Booking with lastminute.com plus fees was still cheaper than booking direct. Again, double check with the airline for their direct booking price first.
60. Get an online friendly bank card. We’re all tired of added costs and in a world where the final price can depend on the card you pay with, it’s worth getting hold of a card with the lowest (and often no fees). That seems to be the Visa Debit card from the flights I’m buying.
61. Make sure you have Visa as well as Mastercard. Different countries around the world have different credit card preferences. Visa seems generally more popular – don’t miss out on great flight deals because you only have a Mastercard to book with.
62. Look at bundling your purchases. Sites like Expedia and Lastminute.com offer discounts if you buy a bunch of services together – flights, hotels, car hire etc. Price the items individually and if there’s a saving to be had, take it.
When to book
The lovely people over at Cheapair crunched some data (over 4 million trips to be exact) and came up with the following solid suggestions for the best time to book your flight.
63. The magic number of advance booking days is 54. The absolute best time to book for the best flight price was 54 days before travel. Of course, that will be an average across the data and it’s not the whole story, but it’s a great starting point.
64. Book early. If you know exactly when you’re going to fly, then you should get booking.
65. But don’t book too early. You can generally book fights around 11 months in advance but prices don’t tend to start to drop until 7.5 months before departure. In fact, 7.5 to 3.5 months before departure saw a steady drop of prices.
66. If you have to book late, don’t book too late. I’ve had some excellent last-minute deals but you shouldn’t be too last-minute. Between 54 to 29 days before departure, flight prices rise a little and then 2 weeks before departure prices accelerate upwards.
67. And if you follow only one golden rule – never book on the day. On the day flight prices are never a good deal. If you have time, check if it’s cheaper to hole up in a hotel for a few nights while the price comes down.
68. In short, the prime booking window is 29 to 104 days before departure. Put it in your diary!
Oh, you can actually book with Cheapair, too.
69. Collect airmiles on flights. It takes less than 5 minutes to sign-up to an airline’s points scheme and even if you don’t travel often, the points mount over time…and can eventually lead to discounted trips.
70. Get into bed with the airlines…financially. Most airlines offer a credit card that allows you to earn points while you go about your usual shopping.
71. Get a points collecting card from one of the banks. If you don’t like any of the airline credit cards, look wider and take advantage of one of the point collecting cards available from many of the banks.
72. Sign-up when there are bonus points on the table. Point collecting credit cards will have various signing bonuses during the year (free miles or upgraded flights). Hold out for the right deal.
73. Get savvy to the fact that there are many ways to collect points, not just on flights. Grocery shopping. Car hire. Shopping online. All ways you can earn points.
74. Fly often. If you’re collecting points, keep an eye on tier levels and points needed to get a discounted flight and, if necessary, consider a points-run (you’ll get a trip out of it to boot!).
For more information on collecting air miles, check out my series on Travel Hacking
Dealing with low-Cost Airlines
75. Pack light. For all but the most premium carriers, paying for checked baggage has sadly become common practice. And the more you check, the more you pay. Pack light (ideally just carry-on) and reduce your flight costs.
76. Book your baggage in advance. Baggage gets more expensive the closer you get to the gate. Book online for the greatest discounts and never get caught out having to check baggage at the gate. Spirit charges as much as $100.
77. Know the dimensions and weight and be exact. Low cost airlines will and do weigh and measure your bag. The size and weights permitted differ by airline. Know what they are and follow the rules rigidly.
78. Buy airline compliant baggage. When I spent a month in Italy last year, I went as far as buying a new carry-on bag and shopped with dimensions in mind. I can now pack with confidence for my low-cost airline trips. Some of the airlines sell their own luggage – you’ll probably find a cheaper deal elsewhere. Here’s my summary of my favourite travel bags and suitcases.
79. Drop the luxury requirements. A free gin and tonic and meals onboard can be a nice addition to your trip, but how much extra are you paying for the service versus flying the same route with a low-cost carrier…and is it worth it?
80. Expect to sit alone. Along with checked baggage fees, booking seats together has become an additional expense with many airlines. Take a book, tough it out and spend what you’ve saved on flights on a nice dinner out together when you arrive.
81. Board last. Speedy boarding looks painful and stressful. By boarding last, you avoid the fees that come with getting into the scrum..ahem, getting on first and can usually just hand you bag to the cabin staff who will find a slot for it.
82. Pay attention to your clicks. Mis-typing your name, clicking on the wrong year and failing to deselect a whole suite of extras can all cost you when you book. Check your booking. And check it twice.
83. Read the small-print – carefully. The time you need to turn up at the airport. What documents you need to bring. Which line you need to stand in. How many times you need to salute the staff – break one rule and it will cost.
84. Print your own boarding card. Many low-cost airlines require you to print your own boarding card but worse, some of them (Ryanair, for example) will charge you handsomely if you don’t.
85. Don’t call the airline unless absolutely necessary. Premium rate numbers and additional admin charges for interacting with a human are common. Book online and if you need to correct an error check if you can do it online first.
86. Do your travel maths. After taxes, baggage charges, credit card fees and food and drink costs, is it as cheap (or cheaper), to fly with a seemingly more expensive airline?
87. Use your special status. Student? Armed forces? If you have any special status that can get you a discount on your flights, do it. You may have to search for the best airline or booking agent.
88. Enlist Indiana Jo to for tips on booking your flight. Keep an eye out – I’m always updating this site with new travel planning tips.
89. Combine transport modes. Instead of flying into a smaller, more expensive to reach airport, fly into a bigger airport (with more competitively priced flights) and carry on by train, bus, car hire, boat, tuk-tuk, donkey, kayak…
90. Cross borders by land. Especially in places like South America where cross border flights are unreasonably costly, consider flying within a country to its closest border and crossing by land.
91. Let the fare determine your location. Haven’t you always wanted to take a wildcard trip – you know, where you let external factors decide your location? Set a budget and go play online. It could be the trip of your life.
92. Make friends with airline staff. Apart from the fact that you should be polite to airline staff out of good manners (and nobody want to be that douche screaming at the airport), upgrades and freebies are all within their hands.
93. Contemplate a fly-drive. Flying is fun but you don’t really get to see a huge amount. So, if there are a few of you to share the car costs, bringing the price down, consider taking a fly-drive.
94. Look at package deals. The age of the internet has convinced us that we can get cheap flights and hotels and we don’t need packaged trips any more. That’s not always true. It was cheaper for me to fly to the Gambia on a package than any trip combo I could put together. Embrace the simplicity.
95. Take night flights. If you’re on a tight budget and flying for a fair number of hours, try to take a night flight – they can be cheaper due to their unattractive timing and you get to save on a night’s accommodation.
96. Take your own food on board low-cost airlines. Not only is airline food way over priced, it tastes like sh!te. A deli sandwich, piece of fruit and soft drink it going to cost you less at the airport than it will on board and will taste better too. Just check you’re allowed to pack your own food – buying it then loosing it would be worse.
97. Snag a spare seat early. If you’re on a flight with spare seats, ask the flight attendant if you can move after take-off. Identify the seat to secure the deal – all the space of an upgrade, without the cost.
98. Complain. Things don’t always go to plan and if the airline is at fault, don’t just let it slide. Refunds, bonus points and compensated ancillary costs could all be yours.
99. Complain Again. If at first you don’t succeed, complain again. For some reason (standard airline pushback?) it often takes more than one run at it to get a complaint heard. Be polite but be persistent.
100. Use Trip-It. Don’t know when you might be entitled to a refund? Get TripIt Pro and it will not only keep track of your flight and any delays, it will let you know when a delay has passed into the refund arena.
101. Don’t screw up. Even comprehensive insurance doesn’t compensate for stupidity. Double-check the airport. Double-check the date. The flight time. Transport to the airport. Once again, Trip-It will keep all your plans in one easy-to-check place.
Top Travel Sites: +100 Links for Trip Planning
That’s my 101 tips for cheap flights. Have you got any more to share? Let me know in the comments below.
If you liked this, you might be interested in my related articles:
The Highs and Lows of Low-Season Travel
12 Tips – What to Do if You’ve Missed Your Flight
Travel Insurance: Don’t Get Screwed by the Small Print
How to Turn Up At the Airport and Take the Next Flight
Why One-Way Tickets Don’t Always Work
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6 thoughts on “101 Tips – How To Book Cheap Flights”
It’s very informative and very useful for first time traveller like me. I got totally confused seeing multiple websites when I was booking. Apt in one.
Its really an amazing collection of useful tips for cheap flights. People always try to find low price air transportation so these idea will sure help them.
Wow Jo, you weren’t kidding on 101 tips. That’s impressive! We’d add a #102 – sign up for airline newsletters for their weekly specials or unpublished deals.
Thanks Lance – glad you liked it. Nice extra tip! Any more – always looking to add to my flight booking armoury!