4,529. That’s the number of miles I flew in June 2019 on a ticket that was less than $300. Time and time again, people interested in travel ask me how in the world I find such great flight deals. They want to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, camp in the Moroccan desert, and lounge on a beach in Thailand. But their wallet isn’t too keen on those ideas…
I get it. I really do. Before I figured out the best ways to fly on the cheap, I was only able to afford travel here and there by doing study abroad programs on scholarships, and saving spending money from my nanny job.
Well, if I’m going to make it to every country in the world (yes, every single one–that’s the goal), then I had to come up with a different plan. Luckily for me, I learned new tips as I met more seasoned travelers, and I began to really get a knack for finding cheap flights.
This is the first step to affording the vacation of your dreams. Usually, the most expensive part is getting there. The rest can be done on a budget much more easily! Here are the concrete steps I took to find this flight, the same ones I normally take to find the best deals:
1 // browse incognito!
Before you even get started, check your browser. If you’re using Google Chrome, open an incognito window. If you use Safari, open a private browsing window. Why? Because airlines use your cookies (read: your flight route search history) and target you with higher prices if it’s indicated that you’re interested in a specific route.
I know. Isn’t that the worst?
A simple browser mode change is the solution. If you look at flights in private or incognito browsing modes, then you avoid this tomfoolery and can get down to business.
In order to open Incognito Mode in Google Chrome, simply click the three vertical dots in the top right corner and select “New Incognito Window.” In Safari, click “File,” and then “New Private Window.” Bada-bing, Bada-boom.
Remember, you don’t live here:
You live here:
2 // research on skyscanner
I give an intro to Skyscanner in my post about how to travel on a budget, and it is the first step I use to find flight deals. Basically, Skyscanner is a search engine for cheap flights. You can type in a departure airport code, or even a region as vague as “United States.” Then you can type in an arrival airport code, a more general region, or even elect to go “Everywhere.” Finally, you’ll need to click a time frame. You can choose a specific date, a calendar month, or “Cheapest month.”
Tools like Skyscanner work best when your schedule is flexible! I usually type in my departure airport, depending on where I am in the world. Then, I click “Everywhere,” and also select “Cheapest month,” and I never, ever buy roundtrip tickets. Ever. I’ll get more into my horror story with a roundtrip ticket in a travel mistakes post, but I also shy away from them because they’re usually more expensive!
Even if you purchase separate one-way tickets with the same airline, dates, and route, the one-ways will be cheaper together than a single roundtrip. Why? I’m assuming you’re paying for the security of a RT ticket, but I’m honestly not sure. I recommend having three tabs open: one-way to your destination, one-way home, and then a roundtrip window. I’ve rarely found that the roundtrip is less, but you never know! I actually flew RT on American Airlines from Nashville to Puerto Rico for less than the separate one-way price.
Moral of the story? Check Skyscanner, then check it again. And again. Rinse and repeat. If you do this, then you, too can find a BNA-ORD (one of the more expensive routes these days…) ticket on American Airlines (which includes a carry-on and a personal item!) for $48.30. $48.30!!!
3 // find a ticket for that price directly from the airline
Look at the photo above. You know, the one with the beautiful, dirt-cheap flight price on it. Does the confirmation at the top say CheapOAir? Or Hotwire? Nope! That’s because, after a series of unfortunate events, I pledged to my sanity and my wallet that I would never, EVER purchase flights with third parties again.
When Skyscanner pops up with their calendar of fares, and you select the pretty green one (because green = good fare, yellow = meh…, and red = EXPENSIVE EXPENSIVE RUN AWAY), you’ll be faced with a list.
When you see this list, you want the green box that says “Airline” inside. Why? Because if you need to make any changes to your reservation, and I mean any at all, airline reps won’t even talk to you if you booked through, say, Expedia. Instead, you’ll have to get on the phone with Expedia reps and then they’ll get on the phone with airline reps, and it will be a huge mess.
This also applies if the airline changes your reservation and ruins your itinerary. The third party and the airline will be zero help. Even if the ticket is a little more expensive directly from the airline, it’s worth it.
On a lighter note, it’s also easier to order extras and special meals when you book directly with the airline. As a vegan, I have to use my online portal either during or after booking (but at least 24 hours before the flight!) to order my vegan meal. If I don’t, then disaster ensues, because #hangriness.
If the ticket price directly from the airline is way higher than the lowest bidder, start your search again or check for a different date. It is worth it, because those flight deals are out there. I promise!
4 // keep an eye out for mistake fares
First of all, what is a mistake fare? A mistake fare is exactly how it sounds. They’re more rare nowadays, since robots are taking over our jobs. But they occurred more often when humans were inputting flight prices into the computer for customers to buy. Let’s say a ticket is supposed to be worth $6500. But that person hadn’t been properly caffeinated before his or her shift, so they left off the last zero.
Suddenly, a route in business class that goes halfway around the world only costs a tenth of its worth valued by the airline. Not only do you pay a lower price, but you gain tons of business class-level frequent flyer miles that go in your points bank and never expire.
Sure, this happens less often now that algorithms and computer programs price flights, but it still happens. Dreams do come true.
Rewind to mid-May. My mom and I were hanging out, planning the deets of our upcoming Europe trip. We would usually book a one-way to a northeastern U.S. city, spend a day or two there, and then take a transatlantic from that major airport. Mom suggested we check out Atlanta, too. She struck it out of the park!
To this day, I am certain that the super cheap flight we scored from Atlanta to Glasgow, Scotland was a mistake fare. Here’s why:
The average price of a ticket on Thomas Cook Airlines for the ATL-GLA route with a stop in Orlando was ~650 GBP. Whew! That’s a LOT, especially when you convert it to USD. But there was one day in early June that fit our dates, and that ticket was 220 GBP. Hold the phone.
Why was this ticket so much cheaper? Flash sale? Maybe. Mistake fare? Also maybe. It was euphoric. Cue #5.
5 // book while it’s hot — and cancel later if necessary
When you find dirt-cheap flight deals, don’t sit on them! Buy the fare now. Why be so rash? So spontaneous? Because, according to American law, customers have 24 hours to cancel a flight and receive a full refund. No questions asked.
Here is my caveat: if you’re flying a European carrier within Europe, then this doesn’t necessarily apply. However, if you’re flying a European carrier to or from the U.S., they are required to offer this. So, since we were leaving from Atlanta even though it was a carrier based in Manchester, UK, we had this wiggle room while I searched some more for an even better deal. I wasn’t even upset that I never found a better one for our dates and that route. The one on Thomas Cook was too valuable a find!
If you have the 24-hour window to cancel, then book it for Pete’s sake.
Some airlines offer to hold your fare for a fee, or even 100% free! When I was looking at that BNA-ORD ticket, I decided to freeze my fare for free with American, so I could keep searching. Surprise, surprise. I didn’t find a better deal, and I was completely okay with that!
Technically, American says they’ll hold it for 24 hours. However, if you hold the fare in the morning, you can check back later and the notification at the top will say “Fare held until 11:59pm on (tomorrow’s date),” meaning you actually get more than 24 hours. I’ve done it multiple times before, and have never lost a fare. It’s awesome.
Use all those resources at your disposal to hold or buy the best deal–and cancel it later if you need to. Remember, flexibility is key to scoring flight deals!
6 // check points balances
In the grand scheme of travel hacking, using tools like Skyscanner isn’t the only way to save money on travel. What if I told you that all your everyday purchases could be making you money towards travel? That filling up your gas tank could get you that trans-Pacific plane ticket to Bangkok?
It sounded crazy to me, too, until I learned more about travel hacking through rewards credit cards. I added the Chase Sapphire Preferred to my wallet, and have majorly benefitted from their Ultimate Rewards program. Chase rewards 2x the points on food and travel purchases, and 1x the points on all other purchases. I also will never pay foreign transaction fees or be liable for fraudulent charges. The card is a Visa, the only kind accepted literally all around the world.
Just from everyday purchases and paying my bill on time through AutoPay, I have gained enough points to afford multiple long-haul flights with airlines like TAP Portugal and United.
If you’re not meticulous about how you spend your money, then please don’t get a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The interest you’ll pay will significantly outweigh the rewards you gain. Be careful! A travel rewards credit card is still like any other, and can carry hefty penalties if you don’t pay it off.
If you play your cards right (pun intended–hehe), you can maximize your points with everyday purchases you would have made anyway. Pay off the balance each month, and you’ll be wheels up on a rewards flight in no time!
7 // sign up for email alerts
Okay, so maybe you have no concrete travel plans. You’re interested in flying a specific route, but couldn’t care less when exactly you do so. I signed up for Airfare Watchdog, put in a couple of routes I love (such as BNA-BOS), and let them send me alerts when ticket prices go down. In a typical Airfare Watchdog email, you’ll see top flight deals from your departure airport, and the best deals of the day if you scroll down.
Fair warning, they’ll inundate your inbox with emails if you select multiple routes of interest. Just sign up with your junk drawer email. You know, the one you give to Victoria’s Secret and Target. I do recommend giving an email that you check regularly, because those deals could disappear into thin air…
8 // sign up for paid flight deal services?
This is a question I’ve grappled with quite a bit. Is it worth it to sign up for services that send you flight deals for an annual fee? As of right now, I haven’t. My answer to this question is still a firm “no.”
Should it be a “no” for you, as well? That’s up to how much time you have to search for cheap flight deals.
Because I absolutely love researching this stuff, I find myself doing so at least once a day. If I get too carried away, I could be playing around in Skyscanner for a make-believe trip for hours.
Now, let’s say you try my tips above. And you’re not into the whole search-from-the-ground-up thing. I get it; it’s not for everybody! Sometimes, Skyscanner frustrates even me. If you have a full-time job, a side-hustle, kids, pets, a house, and about a million other things going on at once, then maybe a subscription would be a good investment for you.
Currently, I can’t recommend a paid flight deals subscription because I have never personally used one. I have, however, heard amazing things about Scott’s Cheap Flights and Faredrop. If I change my mind down the road, I’ll look into these two first. Do a little research if you’re interested, and see if it’s for you. If I decide to get one myself, I’ll update this post with my experience!
This is the end of my first how-to guide on finding cheap flights. As I learn more and have success in other areas of catching flight deals, I’ll of course update my beautiful blog readers! For now, try to work your way through these steps, and see what you find. The world is waiting. Go explore it with incredible flight deals your free spirit–and your wallet–can’t resist!