Airfare can be (mind-blowingly) expensive. Yet after much trial and error, I’ve learned several ways to find the cheapest flight possible. With my do’s and don’ts, you, too, can lower these ungodly prices by hundreds of dollars!
My first ever “adult” airfare (aka one that my parents didn’t pay for), was all the way back in 2015.
In all my naïve glory, I paid over $1,000 for a round-trip ticket to France (fast-forward to 2018, where I’m still cringing).
Back then, I didn’t know how to shop around on different sites or avoid extra fees at the airport. I was too excited to simply “get there,” and jumped at the first opportunity I saw.
Ever since this HUGE airfare blunder, I’ve learned some key do’s and don’ts that have saved me hundreds of dollars.
Just this past year, I made another round trip (again to and from France…noticing a pattern?). Except for this time, the ticket cost me about $600—quite an improvement from the ticket of three years past.
Without further ado, here is my list of do’s and don’ts so that you, too, can find the cheapest flight possible, and take the trip of your dreams!
BEFORE PURCHASING YOUR TICKET
1. DO PAY ATTENTION TO WHEN AND WHERE YOU’RE TRAVELING
Flight tickets will be much cheaper months in advance, rather than a few weeks—or the day—before your big trip (guilty as charged). The specific day and time of your flight will also affect the cost of airfare.
According to FareCompare, you will find the cheapest airfare for domestic travel (or travel within the US):
- from 1 to 3 months in advance.
- on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
Conversely, you will find the cheapest airfare for international travel:
- from 5½ to 1½ months in advance.
- on weekdays (as opposed to weekends).
Both domestic and international flights will be cheaper if they leave at inconvenient times (aka early in the morning or later at night).
(If you have an overnight flight, you’ll want to prepare accordingly. Head over to 15 Essentials to Survive Long Flights for some tips!)
If you have a specific destination in mind, you can also research the cheapest time during the year to travel there. This will vary depending on the location’s tourist season.
For example, prices for most European cities (especially those in the north) go down in the winter months because…well…who wants to be freezing in Scandinavia when they could be tanning on a beach in Mexico?
(People on a budget like me, that’s who.)
But seriously, the prices will fluctuate throughout the year. If you’ve got time to plan it out, you could save some serious money.
If you’re more of a spontaneous planner (much like moi)…
2. DO BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR DESTINATION
If you want to travel and you don’t necessarily know (or care) where, you can make use of tools like Fare Finder on RyanAir’s website.
You simply plug in your departure airport and how much money you’re willing to spend, and it will spew out destinations within that price range.
The times of departure and arrival won’t always be ideal, but you at least know that you won’t be going over budget. (I only had to pay 30 bucks for a round trip from southern France to London!)
Note that RyanAir is mostly useful for travel within Europe, but you should check your preferred airline’s website to see if they have a similar tool.
Speaking of RyanAir…
3. DO LOOK INTO LOW-BUDGET AIRLINES
By now, you can guess that I’m mostly flying to and from and all around Europe. This makes my two most relevant airlines RyanAir (for travel within Europe) and Norwegian (for transatlantic travel).
These two airlines have saved me LOADS of money, and as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, it won’t cost you a great deal of stress.
Sure, the seats are so cramped that you’re practically sharing with your seatmate, and food and blankets are reserved for the elite (aka the ones who can afford them…aka not me), but you’re also paying SO MUCH LESS.
(Again, head over to 15 Essentials to Survive Long Flights to prepare yourself for these stingy airlines.)
If you still want to give all the airlines a chance to compete for your hard-earned money…
4. DO USE THIRD-PARTY WEBSITES, BUT DON’T BOOK A FLIGHT THROUGH THEM
But since they’re providing this comparison service for you, these sites charge an extra fee when you book through them.
You can still use these sites, but if you find a flight you want to book, make sure you go to the airline’s actual website to buy the ticket.
I usually use Google Flights, which provides the same comparison services. However, it actually brings you to the airline’s website when you click on the link and doesn’t increase the prices.
Google Flights also notifies you when there’s a cheaper date for your desired flight!
(I talk about even more comparison services in The Ultimate Guide to Traveling for Free (or Otherwise Lowering the Cost), which covers more than just cheap airfare.)
5. DO DELETE YOUR COOKIES WHEN SEARCHING FOR FLIGHTS
I’m about to use some technical words. Stick with me.
Cookies (the online ones, not the edible ones) are like your electronic fingerprints.
From what I understand, cookies gather information about what sites you’re visiting, essentially tracking your activity. This collection of data then enables the sites you’re visiting to identify you when you revisit.
(This BBC article gives a much more comprehensive explanation.)
Seems harmless. Except when these sites use this identification to analyze the demand of whatever it is they’re selling, and then jack up the price accordingly.
For example, if you go to a website that compares airfare for a specific date and destination, the site will know that you’re interested in this flight. If you continue to refresh the page, or come back to it, the demand for this flight will increase.
This means that the site will then increase the price, pressuring you to buy the ticket before it rises again.
This has happened to me on multiple occasions. I have literally seen the prices of my airfare rise by several dollars with each new click (*cue inner rage*).
To avoid this, you will want to delete your cookies before returning to the website. I promise it’s not complicated!
To delete your cookies:
Simply enable “incognito mode,” which resets your cookies automatically.
If you’re on Google Chrome or Safari, hit Command, Shift, N. If you’re on Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer, hit Command, Shift, P.
And if you’d rather delete your cookies manually:
- Open your Internet browser (I’m using Google Chrome, specifically).
- Look at the very top of the screen, where there are tabs for “File,” “Edit,” “View,” etc.
- Click on “History.”
- Click on “Show full history” (this will bring you to a new page).
- On this new page, under the word “History,” click on “Clear browsing data” (the page will refresh and show a pop-up screen).
- This pop-up screen will allow you to change your clearing preferences. I usually keep the default (the first four) checked, but I suspect you only need to keep “Browsing history” checked.
- After setting your preferences, click “Clear browsing data.”
And voilà! Now those pesky sites will have no data to use against you, and your airfare will remain at a cheaper price.
NOTE: In a Time article, FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney claims that “prices change not because of a consumer’s search history on a website, or their cookies, but because of inventory updates or glitches on the website.”
I personally think that’s a load of garbage, and still recommend that you delete your cookies.
6. DO LOOK INTO LAYOVERS
When you’re comparing flights, you will see options for both direct and connecting flights.
Direct flights go from point A to point Z without stopping. Connecting flights will stop at Point B (and sometimes Point C and Point D, etc.), which is called a layover.
During this time, you 1) have to get off the plane, 2) find your luggage and weigh it again (this only happens in certain airports, otherwise skip to step 3), and 3) find your new plane in a different terminal.
Connecting flights won’t always be cheaper than direct ones, but it’s a possibility.
Truthfully, connecting flights stress me out. I try to avoid them when possible, but if they can help me save money on airfare, I suck it up.
You just have to make sure there’s enough time in between flights to get to your next terminal (my safeguard is 3 hours, and that’s usually plenty).
7. DON’T SETTLE ON THE AIRPORT CLOSEST TO YOU
My first trip to France cost so much because I left from an obscure airport close to my (even more obscure) hometown.
Instead, I should have taken a train from my hometown to a city with a bigger airport, like JFK (which is what I did for my most recent trip).
My point is, look into airports in bigger cities that are feasible to get to from your location (note that “feasible” does not equate to “close”).
Bigger airports usually have cheaper tickets. Even when you take into account the cost of transportation to get to these airports, the overall cost may be cheaper (mine sure was).
WHILE PURCHASING YOUR TICKET
8. DO BUY THE CHEAPEST CLASS AND DON’T BUY ADD-ONS
When booking a flight, you will have several options for your “class,” usually starting with Economy and ending with First Class.
If we’re comparing these classes to the movie Titanic, Economy corresponds to Jack and First Class is, of course, Cal (okay, maybe the Titanic comparison isn’t so accurate, but you get what I’m saying).
I always buy Economy (or a lower class, if available), which pretty much means “next to nothing.”
Be aware when choosing your ticket, because the cheapest ones (especially on low-budget airlines) usually don’t include any checked baggage or meals.
(For the love of God, go to 15 Essentials to Survive Long Flights and make sure you’re ready for these conditions.)
As you go through the process of buying your ticket, some airlines will try to trap—I mean, entice—you into buying these extra amenities, or into choosing your seat at an extra cost.
Don’t let them fool you!
Make sure you know what your specific ticket provides, and don’t select anything that will cost you extra money.
You are allowed to bring your own food and water (highly recommended for overnight flights), which probably taste better anyway.
As for your seat, cross your fingers that you don’t get placed in between a particularly hands-y couple (which has happened to me a surprising number of times).
9. DO SIGN UP FOR REWARDS SYSTEMS
Whenever I’m using an airline for the first time, I make sure to sign up for their rewards system, at no extra cost.
Every time you fly with that airline, you will gain points. The more money you spend, the more points you accumulate. You can then apply these points to any later trip, which will bring down the cost of the ticket.
For example, I bought a (very last-minute) return trip home from…you guessed it…France. The initial cost was about $440, but my points brought down the cost by almost $4.
Each airline will be different, so make sure to read about their corresponding rewards system to help save money on airfare.
Which brings me to my next point…
AFTER PURCHASING YOUR TICKET
10. DO FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH YOUR AIRLINE’S RULES
Each airline will have its own set of rules regarding baggage. It’s your job to familiarize yourself with these rules beforehand to make sure you’re compliant.
Otherwise, you may have to pay an extra fee.
If you go to the airline’s website, you will find important information, like how many pieces of luggage you’re allowed (pay attention to checked baggage vs. carry-ons) as well as the appropriate dimensions and weight.
(If you’re only bringing a carry-on, make sure you check out How to Pack a Carry-On Like a Pro to maximize on space.)
I’ve found that regardless of the airline, the dimensions for carry-ons are similar, if not exactly the same: 9x14x22 inches.
As such, I’ve invested in a “universal” carry-on backpack with Tortuga. After purchasing this bag in 2015, it’s seen 4 continents and is still going strong.
I don’t think this specific backpack is available anymore (I can’t even find the precise name of the bag on the website), but the company is still producing high-quality carry-on-friendly bags.
I’ve also invested in a luggage scale—a scale small enough to hold in your hand that comes with a hook at the end of it.
You simply attach the hook to your backpack or suitcase handle, lift the bag, and the scale will tell you the bag’s weight.
(I can’t remember where I bought mine, but here are some luggage scales on Amazon.)
I use this scale to weigh my luggage ahead of time, which ensures that I’m not going over the airline’s weight limit. This has saved me tons of money and stress.
In the case that your luggage is overweight…
11. DON’T BUY A SECOND SUITCASE
If you know your suitcase is going to be overweight (something that coincidentally always happens to me), DO NOT buy a second one.
You will most likely have to pay an extra fee at the airport, on top of having already spent money on the luggage itself.
Instead, overstuff your carry-on and personal item (I often use a large tote bag) as much as you possibly can. I also wear tons of layers to save space, if need be.
Sure, you may end up sweaty and sore, but your wallet will thank you.
(For more tips on how to survive with just a carry-on, don’t forget to take a gander at How to Pack a Carry-On Like a Pro.)
9 times out of 10, the airline doesn’t even weigh my backpack, and never weighs my personal item. (Of course, I can’t guarantee the same experience for everyone.)
And last, but not least…
12. DO READ THE FINE PRINT
Low-budget airlines, especially, will try to trip you up with little rules (that most definitely shouldn’t be rules). These will change depending on the airline and even the destination.
For example, I have been charged an extra fee for not having printed my ticket before arriving at the airport. As bitter as I want to be, the information was out there, I just didn’t care to look for it.
So again, go to the airline’s website, read the rules and regulations once, read them twice, and read them a final time, JUST IN CASE.
Airfare CAN be expensive, but with a little planning, an awareness of airline regulations, and an understanding that you’re getting what you pay for (which is not a lot), you can lower the price by hundreds of dollars and find the cheapest flight possible.
And if you’re looking for even more extensive coverage on how to save money for your next trip, head over to The Ultimate Guide to Traveling for Free (or Otherwise Lowering the Price).
So start searching, get packing, and prepare for your next trip without the worry of unaffordable airfare!
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