How to Score the Cheapest Flight for Your Upcoming Trip


So you wanna fly off to someplace awesome… and you want to do it on the cheap? Airfare has traditionally been one of the priciest components of a trip, but the fluctuation in flight costs also means that you can absolutely find cheap tickets if you go about it the right way. Here’s how to jet into the great big blue sky (without losing your savings in the process).

Time your purchase

It might come as a slight surprise, but buying sooner isn’t always buying better for the bargain savvy traveler. Lifehacker recently featured a post compiling airfare cost data from big airlines and after crunching the numbers, they pinpointed at least one trend: 1-3 months ahead of liftoff generally yielded cheaper tickets.  So to the well-intentioned office worker planning to book a vacation flight to Fiji a year in advance, it might actually be more beneficial to hold off for a few months. That’s not to say you shouldn’t continue browsing for good deals in the meantime, but sometimes a little patience is the best policy.

Search for flights in an incognito window

Ever noticed that once you start searching for flights to certain cities, soon after you start to see flight offers to that destination popping up in your inbox and in your ad space? While you’re stalking airfares, airlines are also stalking you. And once you’ve put yourself on their radar as a high interest customer, prepare to see a surge of similar offers in your inbox. Unfortunately, this targeted marketing doesn’t necessarily result in you getting the best deals. Most likely, you’ll be shown promoted flights – but whether they’re cheaper or not is a tossup. To avoid being “targeted”, search for flights in an incognito window so you can continue to search as a “fresh” traveler.

Use social media to stalk sales

Airlines use social media to snag customers so turn the tactic on them by using their social media accounts to stay on top of deals. In particular, airfare compilation site’s social media accounts are useful in keeping up with current sales and deals. For example, @airfarewtchdog is a twitter handle entirely dedicated to tweeting the latest sales from airlines across the board. It’s an easy (and concise) way to hunt for deals.

Don’t default to buying round trip tickets

Airlines want you to use their airline for both legs of a trip so they’ll advertise some pretty appealing round trip deals to snag your attention (and purchase). The tactic has caught on and consumers often associate a round trip ticket with the highest value ticket. However, in many instances, shopping around airlines (especially for shorter distance flights) and buying by leg rather than by round trip could add up to an overall lower cost for your airfare. Do some date and servicer tetris before committing – one way flights with different carriers might end up being cheaper than relying on one airline alone.

Price match

It’s not a myth! Some airlines will (and do) match prices should you find a lower cost flight offered by a competitor. There is a slight hitch: this rarely happens. Since flights generally go up in cost the closer you creep to a departure date most tickets won’t usually come in cheaper than what you’ve paid by the time of takeoff. But still, it’s worth putting in a good effort or two to find a cheaper cost flight as the trip nears! Stranger things have been known to happen.

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Search with flexible arrival/departure dates

Flying during peak times (think weekends and mid-day flights) will almost always cost you for the convenience. If you can manage an early or late night flight or rearrange your schedule to fly during the week then you can find cheaper deals. One way to see the full spread of your options is to search for your flights with the “flexible dates” box checked. Most sites default to searching 3 days ahead and behind your selected date but you can usually adjust the timeline to your preference.

Take advantage of any and all discounts

Most airlines offer special deals if you meet a certain criteria so absolutely take advantage of any discounts you might be eligible for! Are you a student? A senior? A veteran? A toddler? Save money the old-fashioned way by opting in for deals targeted towards your demographic.  Just be sure to read the terms and agreements that are attached to the discounts and double check that you’re getting the price that you expect and aren’t hit with hidden fees. Additionally, some of these discounts can’t be combined with other price cuts or deals so pick and choose according to the best overall deal.

Buy a travel bundle

Staying someplace for a while? You might save by opting for a bundled deal such as offers that pair plane ticket and hotel, or car rental and flight. Just remember, there are two sides to this coin. The hotel or car rental partner might not be your first choice or may not represent the top in the industry. Just put in some research to make sure you’re not getting a bum deal out of it or being wrangled into paying for a service you don’t really need.

Know when “pretty darn low” is low enough

There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a low ticket price, deciding to wait it out and gamble to find a better deal, and then finally coming back to a hiked airfare. Jetting to Mexico at the low, low price of $80 is infinitely more exciting than jetting there from the same location for the high, high price of $300 simply because you waited two days to scout deals. Decide early on what an acceptable price range is for your ticket, and use that as a guide. It doesn’t have to be a huge margin (maybe it’s a range of $30 for a short distance flight, $100 for a longer distance flight) but make peace with that cost bracket and snatch it up when you find it!

Calculate the real cost of compromise

If you live near an air transportation hub, you probably have a few airports to choose from. For example, in Southern California there’s a handful to fly into: LAX, John Wayne, Long Beach, etc. All are within (relatively) close proximity which means you have some options and consequently varying costs to choose from. For instance, a flight from San Francisco to LAX might be $150 while one from San Francisco to John Wayne might be $130. That’s great if your destination is near John Wayne! But if it’s going to cost you $30 in shuttle fare to get to a final destination that’s in actuality closer to LAX… the cheaper airfare doesn’t end up saving you money. Factor in fuel, taxi services, parking services, etc. and use that number as the “real” flight cost. Factor in all the costs of transport. That includes any costs to commute to the airport.

airfare + cost of transportation to get to that airport = real cost of ticket

Choose your destination according to cost

This isn’t feasible for everyone, but if you have an open mind and a schedule that can swing some uncertainty, buy your ticket based on the sales rather than destination. If you can adjust your vacation to someplace that’s closer to your home base or consistently offers lower airfare, you’ll save on airfare. Depending on whether the location is a travel hub could also determine the price of the airfare. Choosing to visit a remote village in the Arctic will likely cost you more than picking a larger city that regularly supports multiple airlines and flights.

Lastly, a few recommended sites that give you a broad search result and are easy to navigate!

Any of these sites will curate a set of recommendations and deals for your travel needs. Keep in mind that not all travel sites are the same, so browse through a few before pushing the purchase button!

What are your top tips for saving on airfare?

Image Credit: Robert S. Donovan

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  • Hi Claire,

    Good overview of how to save on flights, and thanks for recommending Dohop. 🙂

    Another tip that potentially saves money on flights is to look for flights that leave on Tuesday or Wednesday, as these tend to be slightly cheaper. As regards booking the outbound and return legs separately you are absolutely right. Dohopis great in that it will do this for you automatically.

    Johann Thorsson,
    Dohop Affiliate Marketing Manager.

    • Claire Murdough

      Hi Johann! Thanks so much for the comment and the extra tip. I love finding sites that take care of the extra steps so you can get straight to the best deals 🙂