Tip #1: search for flights during a global pandemic. Kidding. In all seriousness, these crazy cheap flights ($100 for a weekend trip from Boston to Los Angeles?!) are only temporary. Plus they are tough to take advantage of right now, anyway. Recognizing that this pandemic will end (it will), flights are going to go back up to pre-pandemic prices. As someone who is VERY frugal when it comes to spending money on flights, I have spent years figuring out how to find cheap flights to support my wanderlust.
How to Find Cheap Flights: MY FAVORITE HACKS
CHEAP FLIGHT HACK #1: Start with Google Flights
Google Flights is my go-to website to find cheap flights. In fact, it’s my go-to website in general because not only is it actually really useful, but it’s also so much fun to play around with.
Unless I have a truly set destination in mind (which I rarely do), I will only input my departure city and target travel dates (keep reading for my advice on dates!). Google Flights likes to tempt visitors by suggesting destinations like “Hawaii”, “Istanbul”, and “France”, but try to resist the urge and just leave the destination blank. Then, click search to discover why I love Google Flights so much!
Immediately, Google will give you a snapshot of the world before zooming in a bit closer to the country of your departure city. The more you zoom in, the more cities and flight prices you can see.
Google gives you the option to lower the maximum price and flight duration, indicate the number of stops you’re willing to make, and adjust preferred times and airlines. I tend to always leave the Airlines filter untouched as I’m not tied down to any. particular alliance like Star Alliance, SkyTeam, or Oneworld.
Once I have my filters, I explore! By having access to all the available flights for even the most obscure destinations around the world, it is much easier to find cheap flights. I’m in the habit of exploring Google Flights every day (not a joke) so it’s pretty often that I will discover an incredible flight deal like $200 from Boston to London (ROUNDTRIP!!). Google Flights is also how I found amazing deals and non-traditional routes to get to Northern Finland and Thailand.
Two IMPORTANT notes about Google Flights:
1. Google does not include Southwest Air flights on the Explore map. If I end up picking a destination I know Southwest Air flies to, I will usually double-check SW flight prices directly on the SW site before proceeding with my booking.
2. Always (ALWAYS) book directly with the airline you are intending to fly with. Google Flights usually directs you to the airline’s site so you don’t have to worry about this (another reason why I love Google Flights), but occasionally there will be third-party booking sites that Google links you to. Even if the flight is cheaper, do not book it. It is too risky should anything go wrong (even a delay can screw up everything).
CHEAP FLIGHT HACK #2 • Skyscanner for Mobile
Before Google Flights existed, I was obsessed with Skyscanner. Skyscanner was the first (as far as I’m aware) to allow “everywhere” as a flight destination. And boy did I take advantage of that option…
Like Google Flights, Skyscanner’s Everywhere feature can help you narrow down destinations based on where is most inexpensive at the time you would like to travel. Unlike Google Flights, though, Skyscanner does not give you a map to explore. Instead, Skyscanner will give you a list-style overview of countries with noteworthy flight deals and the estimated lowest prices found. If a particular country looks attractive, you can click to view individual cities and flight prices currently available within that country. Skyscanner doesn’t include every city, but it will highlight the more popular ones.
Finally, you’re probably wondering…why choose Skyscanner instead of Google Flights? Can’t you just use Google Flights? Well…you could. Except for that Google doesn’t currently have an app for Google Flights. Skyscanner, on the other hand, does have an app. So when I just have my phone, I will use the Skyscanner app to find cheap flights.
CHEAP FLIGHT HACK #3 • How to Find Cheap Flights Using Currency
One of the sneakier ways to find cheap flights is to change up the currency you’re using. I usually do this when I am booking international flights, including flights departing from the United States. Two tabs I usually need to have open before attempting this cheap flight hack: a translator and a currency converter.
The most money I have saved on a flight by paying in a different currency is $70 USD. Other times I’ve saved as little as $5 USD. The task of figuring out which currency gets you the best deal can be tedious and time-consuming for some, but for others, like me, it’s a fun challenge.
So how exactly does this flight hack work? Most airlines allow you to change the country from which you are booking your flight. Simply change the country and the currency will automatically update to match that country. Keep playing around with countries and currencies to figure out the best cheap flight deal!
I’ve booked flights as if I were in Canada, Sweden, France, etc. For the European countries that speak English (UK) it’s pretty easy to navigate the website, but for other countries with their own languages, using a translator is extra helpful to figure out what you’re doing.
CHEAP FLIGHT HACK #4 • HOW TO ACTUALLY GET FREE FLIGHTS
If you can’t find cheap flights, get some free flights! I love to play the points game by using specific credit cards that will maximize my earning opportunities. Every point earned is a point towards travel and a less expensive or 100% free flight!
My favorite travel credit card in the world is the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. There is a hefty annual fee ($550) but $300 gets automatically reimbursed for travel-related expenses. So, in actuality, I look at the fee as $220 annually. This is still a lot of money for a credit card, but there are benefits that make this fee absolutely worth it.
Benefits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card
- Sign up bonus of 50,000 points = $750 in travel (insane!)
- Complimentary DashPash (unlimited DoorDash food deliveries and reduced service fees) + $120 in DoorDash credit (free food!)
- No foreign transaction fees (essential for any traveler)
- Global Entry & TSA Pre-Check Credit = $100 savings!
- 10x points on Lyft rides + complimentary lift membership (15% off car rides and priority airport pickups!)
- 3x points for all travel & dining; points are worth 50% more through the Chase travel portal (includes most airlines!)
- Complimentary Priority Pass Select Membership (normally $429)*
*Having the Priority Pass has been one of the BEST perks of having this credit card. With free access to most airport lounges, I can eat, drink, and comfortably rest or do work FOR FREE! The one I went to in Thailand (photos below) was a perfect escape from the chaos of the Bangkok airport. Additionally, lounges usually have to-go water and snacks so I always stock up for the plane and post-plane adventures, saving even more money.
I do not currently have a referral link, but here is a general link to learn more and apply. You can also sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card with a $95 annual fee and fewer benefits. I started out with the Preferred but very quickly realized I would get the most out of the Reserve.
CHEAP FLIGHT HACK #5: Pack Light TO SAVE LOTS OF MONEY
A lot of cheap flights are with low-budget airlines, such as Ryanair or Spirit (yes, I will fly Spirit if it saves me money). These airlines charge considerable fees for both checked luggage and carry-ons. Nevertheless, it is totally possible to get away with using a backpack as your hand luggage and avoid paying fees. It is not always easy, but worth it when you can spend $100 on fun activities instead of bag fees. I even managed to pack for two weeks in Thailand using just a backpack!
CHEAP FLIGHT HACK #6: Travel Off-Season
Even though it is really tempting to head to a place when you know the weather is nearly guaranteed to be perfect, the problem is that everyone else is also thinking the same way. Flights and hotel prices increase based on heightened demand so traveling during the high season might have its benefits, but the financial hit on your wallet is not one of them. I have found the shoulder seasons to be my favorite, exploring places just before or after the height of the busy season when the weather is usually still nice but prices are MUCH more realistic for my budget. I went to Iceland in the winter, for example, and got flights as low as $120 roundtrip!
HOW TO FIND CHEAP FLIGHTS: FINAL THOUGHTS + Even More Tips!
There are so many more ways to find cheap flights not yet mentioned! Some of my other go-to practices include:
Search +/- 1-3 days for both departure and return. Sometimes just leaving a day early or returning a day later you can save quite a bit!
Set up travel alerts. Flight prices fluctuate without warning so by setting up a travel alert (through Google Flights, for example), you can get notified as soon as the price drops for a particular destination.
Don’t give up. Finding a cheap flight doesn’t always come easy. It can require a lot of time! And even when it seems like you are out of luck, you never know when a flight will suddenly drop a few hundred dollars.
Once, my family was eyeing flights to Barcelona during the holidays. It seemed that whenever we checked, flight prices were astronomical. Randomly, a few weeks before we hoped to travel, the flight dropped $400 to an incredible $200 roundtrip from Boston to Barcelona during our exact dates. We immediately booked the flights and the next morning the prices jumped back up. A Christmas miracle or not, the important takeaway is to not give up!