Transportation is, without a doubt, the highest cost of travel, and it’s what holds a lot of people back from just booking a ticket and hitting the road. The days of rock-bottom prices for flights may be over, but good deals are still out there if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to find them. That’s where travel hacking comes in.
What is travel hacking?
“Travel hacking is about changing the value equation and getting the absolute best travel experience possible for the least amount of money.” – TravelAddicts
Basically, it’s about bringing your price point as close to zero as possible. Getting the maximum value for minimum payout. It doesn’t matter if you’re a luxury traveler or a budget backpacker, everyone likes to get more for less.
One of the essentials of travel hacking is learning how to book a cheap flight. In this post I’ll focus on the basics of flight booking. We’ll get into the madness of mileage/partner programs, sign-up bonuses, “mile runs,” & credit card churning at a later date. 🙂
Choose a Cheaper Destination
Just starting to plan a trip or not quite sure where you want to go? Both the Kayak Explore Tool and Google Flights’ ‘To Anywhere’ option let you compare prices to different destinations before you book.
Vacation spots & backpacking destinations alike often fluctuate in popularity. Just because a location isn’t as trendy at the moment doesn’t mean you can’t have an amazing time there. Don’t discount less ‘touristy’ destinations – personally I prefer them for relaxing vacations or romantic getaways. Be open to getting off the beaten path.
Shoot for the Shoulder Season
High season is during warm weather, school holidays & major events. Low season is the opposite. You want to aim for in between – the shoulder season.
For example, if you’re planning a trip to Europe or SE Asia in the summer (especially July & August) expect to pay a lot more for a flight than you would in the spring or fall. Traveling during the low or off season will let you save significantly, but you might want to prepare for some less-than-great weather.
Check out this month-by-month guide on how to find the shoulder season for all popular destinations by Travel & Leisure.
Bonus Tip: Not only does it save money to travel in the low or shoulder season – you’ll find lower prices when you book during the off season as well. Planning a trip for the autumn? Airline prices may actually be higher if you book it during July or August than waiting until closer to your departure date.
Flexibility is Your Friend
If your dates are flexible you’ll have a much easier time finding a cheaper ticket. Aggregate sites like Momondo & Skyscanner give you charts comparing prices throughout the month so you can see how they fluctuate by the day.
Start looking through search engines at least 8 weeks before your trip so that you get an idea of what prices are. The more you browse, the more you’ll know what to expect. Decide what you’re willing to pay for a flight and when you see the price drop to a point you’re comfortable with, snap it up.
Booking Flexibility: The best prices on flights are usually found on Wednesday or Thursday afternoons. These savings aren’t overwhelmingly significant (around $10 on domestic flights and $25 on international) but they can add up in the long run.
Flying Flexibility: According to a report by Hopper (a company that primarily aggregates blog posts for travelers), it matters more when you fly than when you book. For domestic flights, the best day to depart is a Wednesday & the best day to return is the following Tuesday. For international flights, Wednesdays are best for both departures and returns.
To summarize, stick to the middle of the week for both booking & traveling and avoid the weekends in order to save.
Search Multiple Booking Sites
All search engines are not created equal. Never look at just one and assume that those are the prices you need to pay. Different sites search different airlines. Aggregate search engines are your best friend.
Some of the most popular big-name booking sites search major airlines but don’t often include prices from smaller, budget carriers. My ultimate go-to sites are always Momondo & Skyscanner. Within the US I find that Skyscanner generally pulls lower prices, but when traveling abroad Momondo usually wins.
However, there is no single best search engine. Always compare the prices at different sites before you book.
Book Early (but not TOO early)
According to a recent study conducted by CheapAir.com where the gurus monitored roughly 1.3 billion flights, the ideal time to book a flight is 54 days (seven & a half weeks) in advance. As a rule of thumb, airlines raise the prices 21 days before a flight. Waiting until the last minute to try to score a bargain price rarely works.
Think of last-minute, in-person or stand-by deals like unicorns. Fun to dream about, but non-existent in real life.
Here’s what CheapAir.com had to say:
“According to the data, sometime around 225 days out (seven and a half months), on average, fares started to drop and by 104 days out (three and a half months) they had fallen to within $10 of their low point. From there they continued to drop, slowly but steadily, until reaching a low 54 days before departure. After 54 days, fares started to climb again, remaining within $10 of that low until 29 days out. Then, the increase began to accelerate and once you were within 14 days the fares really shot up dramatically.”
Watch for Sales
Sign up for every airline newsletters you can. This can get overwhelming fast, so my advice is to create a specific folder in your inbox for them. Airlines often have seasonal sales or occasional special promotions where you can get bonus miles for taking advantage of a ticket deal.
Have a destination or two that you’re itching to get to? Set numerous fare alerts (again, direct those to a specific email folder or it can get overwhelming). Airfarewatchdog is my favorite for US-based flights. I highly recommend signing up for their newsletter.
Go Directly to the Airlines
Airlines will occasionally offer special sales or better prices for customers that book directly through their websites. In my experience this is true of budget airlines much more than major carriers, but it’s always worth a look. Find out which carriers fly into a specific airport and check the ticket prices on their sites as well as an aggregate search engine.
Use Social Media
Airlines sometimes have flash sales or accidental fares (pricing mistakes) that you need to act fast in order to book. Create a Twitter list of all booking sites, airlines & fare watchers and use HootSuite or your SM management tool of choice to monitor the list. @TheFlightDeal is a good one to follow for continuous alerts & updates on airfare deals.
There are even forums on sites like MilePoint.com and FlyerTalk.com specifically for sharing too-good-to-be-true airfare deals. Fortunately, many of these sites will let you set up and email alert whenever someone posts a topic that might interest you.
Check out Multi-City Routes
Try searching for flights that go through the city you actually want to visit. For example, when I booked my ticket to Europe, prices from Little Rock to Dublin were $800-$1,000. However, I found a ticket to London with a layover in Dublin for around $400.
This is not always the case – in fact I found the opposite to be true when I booked my flight back, but you never know until you check.
Look at Nearby Airports
Many of the budget carriers will fly into smaller airports as opposed to the major international ones. Keep in mind that many of the smaller airports may be a further distance from the city center or downtown area and be sure to factor in the cost of a train or shuttle ticket.
Book Legs of Your Trip Separately
When flying from the US into Europe or Asia, no matter what your final destination is, it’s often most cost-effective to fly into whichever city is the cheapest and then find a budget flight from there. A ticket from New York to Brussels might be $900, but you could fly to London for $500 and then hop on a Ryanair or EasyJet flight to Brussels for $40.
The same is true in reverse. A flight from Dublin to Little Rock (going through Chicago) would have cost me $944. Instead, I booked a flight from Dublin to Chicago for $532 and then from Chicago to Little Rock for $139. (Note: these prices would have been a lot lower but I violated rule #2 & booked during the high season due to extenuating circumstances.)
Consider Your Packing Habits
Major airlines will usually allow one free checked bag up to 50 lbs. but most budget carriers will charge you for any checked luggage. If you’re a carry-on only packer like I am, you’re always going to save money. If not, take into account the price for checking a bag – the cheapest flight may end up costing you more in the long run.
Take Advantage of Student Discounts
Sites like StudentUniverse and STA Travel offer vastly reduced rates for students, teachers, staff members and travelers under the age of 26. Despite my rants on ageism, if you are one of the lucky people who discovered their passion for travel early in life, milk your youth for all it’s worth.
Exhausted yet? Don’t be! Travel hacking does take time & energy, but with a bit of practice most of these habits can become second nature to you.
Disclaimer: As with anything, there are exceptions to every rule. While these tips may not score you the cheapest flight in EVERY case, they are good, solid guidelines to follow.