There's a secret that airlines don't want you to think about: you might have paid 50% more for your seat on a flight than the people sitting around you.
It can happen even if you thought you did everything right to get the cheapest flight. You've probably spent hours comparing different search engines, looking at various airlines, scrolling through dates, and it still didn't make a difference!
Airlines have all kinds of clever tricks and secret algorithms for deciding what price they think they can get you to pay. To help you make sense of it all, here's our complete guide with all the info you need to know to find the cheapest flights to anywhere. So, take it from us; it’s been our job for over three years.
1. What do cheap flights look like?
The first trick to finding a good deal is knowing what makes a good deal in the first place.
It doesn't really matter how many hours or days you spend stalking the prices if you don't know what you're looking for. You've probably experienced that first hand if you’ve ever had a flight drop in price not long after booking.
If you always go to the same destination, then it's easier to tell what prices should look like after a year or two, but if you're going somewhere new, there are a few tell-tale signs to watch out for.
We consider many different factors when looking for cheap flights, for example:
- Is the price at least 30% less than the standard price?
- Is the price lower than the average for that season?
- Is the price lower than what other airlines are offering?
- Does the price include perks like checked bags and a free, flexible change policy?
- For business class fares: Is the cost less than 2.5x-3x a deal in economy
Sidenote: Dig deeper in our how do I know if I have a good deal article for more pointers on how to find a deal to different destinations.
Now that you know what a cheap flight should be, let’s talk about when they're at a price they shouldn't be...
2. Get notifications for "error fares" with 80%+ discounts
Have you ever come across a ticket price that made you say, "No way that's real!"? If you have, then you've encountered the mystical “error fare”.
Error fares are simply mistakes that happen when the airline systems are pricing up flights. You'd be surprised how often they happen, and they’re usually gone almost as soon as they show up. (Airlines aren't exactly known for wanting you to score unreasonably cheap flights, are they?)
Here at JFC, we've seen our fair share of error fares over the years in the different regions that we cover. You will do a little happy dance when you spot one (or we email to tell you about one! For example:
From the USA
The standard price for flights to Australia is often well into the $1000s and can involve two or more stops. So seeing one-stop tickets go down to $300s felt like winning the lottery.
In the EU/UK
The standard price for a good business class fare (including lie-flat seats and the usual add-ons) can kick the price up well over £2000. When you see a long-haul business class flight that only costs three digits, you have an error fare!
If you spot a price that seems outrageously low (sometimes cutting as much as two-thirds off the standard price), book first and ask questions later! Flight deals are like the stock market, they fluctuate ALL the time, and the best prices don't stick around for very long. That’s even more true with error fares as you’re racing to beat the airline to fix their mistake.
To catch an error fare, you pretty much have to be constantly looking for them on flight search engines. We can tell you that it’s a lot of work to spot them, so join our free deal newsletter, and we’ll just tell you when an error fare is out there.
Sidenote: Error fares can be canceled and refunded by the airline, but over 70% of them are honored. Follow these error fare guidelines, and you won't lose out.
While being snappy is essential for booking error fares, it's often true of flight deals in general - that’s why our business is to make you the first to find out about them.
3. Avoid booking last minute, but here’s when to try for a last-minute getaway
If you've ever looked for a flight for a weekend trip anywhere on a difficult Wednesday afternoon at work, you’ve probably noticed that flights get very expensive on short notice... Why? The simple answer is that airlines know they can charge more.
Statistically speaking, most people who buy last-minute tickets are business travelers who don’t pay much attention to the cost since their company pays. Airlines are aware of this, and they charge accordingly.
Concur.com - Average airfare by booking window between 2018 - 2020.
The way they do this is through a system called yield management. Basically, airlines charge different prices for a single-seat, which their algorithms adjust based on demand.
But in recent times, the type of last-minute travelers has been changing thanks to the pandemic. According to CheapAir’s study, we’re seeing more last-minute travel due to constantly changing travel restrictions, unexpected trips, and family emergencies.
Don't panic just yet there's a silver lining - when airlines struggle to fill up seats, they do the reverse and churn out last-minute deals. While we wouldn't recommend relying on these for a specific trip you have planned, there are times when grabbing a flight at short notice may be suitable.
In that case, there are many sites like lastminute.com, CheapOair, or TUI if you're in the UK that help airlines fill up seats.
Since these tickets are basically on clearance, be prepared to make some compromises by giving up extra perks like early seat selection.
There are a few tips and tricks for landing a cheap last-minute flight, but it can sometimes just boil down to luck.
4. Forget these money-saving myths
We guarantee you’ve heard some of these myths when looking for cheap flights before. Some of them stem from old truths, others... not so much. So let’s get into debunking the most common myths:
Myth no. 1: Hide your cookies when booking
This myth seems to be everywhere! As it goes, airline search engines track your interest in a flight and hike up the price if you come back to book it later!
The "unfortunately the price has gone up" message on Google flights brings no joy at all for anyone.
While there is no denying the airline industry's nickel and diming ways, this particular myth doesn't hold much weight. Our team goes through hundreds of flights every day, including multiple searches to the exact location. The fare price doesn't change because you’ve visited a web page before.
This may have been a trick some dodgy travel agents tried in the past, but those days are long gone.
It’s always possible that a flight you were eyeing goes up just because of how frequently the prices change. Or maybe someone else has booked the same flight, triggering a change to a new price bucket.
Myth no. 2: Booking as early as possible
It's possible to see good deals as early as a year before, especially when using the Google Flights calendar tool. Yet, booking as soon as the flights are released isn't always the best strategy.
How airlines price their tickets is complicated, but it is a long game. They don't usually actively manage their fares for domestic flights until 3-4 months before departure and as many as five months for international flights.
So waiting in the metaphorical line for airlines to open shop and release tickets could mean paying the standard price, and that's not what we're about.
Myth no. 3: Tuesdays are the cheapest days to book
This may have been true back in the days when airlines loaded their fares once a week, probably on a Tuesday afternoon, and if you booked early, you were more likely to get one of the cheaper flights.
Nowadays, fare changes no longer happen once a week and can fluctuate after just a few minutes even. Instead, fares are based on complex algorithms that consider the best price based on the season, time, popularity, human psychology, etc.
So marking down Tuesdays as the flight booking day isn't a thing anymore, but knowing the right time to book can make a difference (which we'll get into in a bit).
Myth no. 4: Low-cost airlines always have the best deals
You might want to hop straight onto a budget airline’s website if you're in a hurry, have no flexibility, and want low fares without the bells and whistles.
But if you don’t look at what’s out there, you're potentially missing out on deals with better airlines. It doesn't take too long to compare prices, especially with the number of tools available.
Always, always, always compare prices.
While these are the most common myths we hear, we know there are many more floating around, but, luckily it's not our job to answer those ones!
Since we just spoke about comparing prices, let's talk about the tools we use to do it.
5. Make the most out of flight search engines
They say a worker is only as good as their tools - that’s true for cheap flight hunting too!
The sites we’re going to run through each have unique valuable ways to help you spot those extra good deals. Here’s a rundown on how to use them for the best results.
Google flight is our go-to tool for finding cheap flights to anywhere. We've used it so much that we've made an in-depth guide on how to master the Google Flights features to find insanely cheap flights.
The main highlights are the Explore Page which shows you a world map with (nearly) real-time prices for your itinerary. You can use the filters here to filter out airlines, durations, stops, and even filter by interests.
Protip: Set the filters you'd like to have from this page and head back to the mapping tool. Google automatically applies the filters - making your search for great deals a lot easier!
It's also the gateway to find cheap hotels, vacation rentals, and things to do while you're there.
The second feature is the handy calendar tool that shows up once you've selected your destination. It shows the cheapest dates in green and sometimes suggests even cheaper options.
Google Flight’s main con is the airline listings - they don’t have ALL of them. While you'll see most full-service airlines. A few airlines don't show up or may not list their prices on searches, like Southwest.
When this happens, you may need to go directly to the website or look at what OTAs offer.
OTAs or Online Travel Agencies are the middlemen of the flight world. While a few popular ones are aggregated by Google Flights, you'll find many more on other aggregator sites like Skyscanner and Momondo.
Unfortunately, we’ve heard many travelers are skeptical of OTAs since they question if it's still safe to book with an online travel agent. But they're definitely worth checking, especially for expensive long-haul flights as their prices can be a lot lower than what airlines offer.
Using Skyscanner is pretty straightforward. Just add in your departure, destination, dates, and you're all set. They also have flight filters like choosing direct flights only, flexible tickets only, and adding nearby airports.
What makes them stand out from other OTA aggregators is their flexibility. For example, you can choose to see the "cheapest month" or "whole month" when selecting dates.
Plus, the "search everywhere tool" shows a list of flight deals around the world. But, sometimes the prices aren't accurate, so it's best to use it as a starting point.
Kayak and Momondo
Next up, Kayak and Momondo. We're talking about them together because they have the same parent company and many similarities. They both pull from large OTA databases, including popular OTAs like Expedia and much lesser-known ones. This is great for finding the lowest fares, but it makes them a little slower.
Momondo has upped their filter game lately. Apart from choosing which OTAs you'd like, you can also select the flight quality. This could mean choosing flights with wifi, hiding red-eye tickets, or mixing & matching fares.
The mix & match fares, also known as “hacker fares”, are a combination of separate airline tickets. This sometimes leads to lower prices but could mean different refund policies.
Not sure if you’re getting a good deal? The "Our advice" section at the top corner lets you know if a price is likely to drop in a few days. It works similarly to Google's price graph by calculating recent price data. But sometimes the stickman appears, which is code for "IDK yet."
On the other hand, Kayak takes the best of both worlds from Google Flights and Momondo. The interface is very similar to Google flights. Plus, they have the flight quality and OTA filters like Momondo.
One unique feature is their fee assistant, which calculates the flight price to include baggage fees. So, let's say you plan to carry a checked bag - simply choose your destination and dates, click on the checked bag icon - bada bing bada boom, no surprises!
Checking for alternative prices on flight search engines is a must for finding cheap flights. Even if you have miles/points or are part of a frequent flyer program, it's still worth checking. These airlines ain't loyal, and your wallet shouldn't be either.
Sidenote: To up your chances of getting a great deal, try combining these tools into a single workflow by using a search engine comparison tool. We've released a free browser plugin that converts Google Flights pages to equivalent searches in Skyscanner, Momondo, and Kayak for easy comparison. You can grab it on the Google Chrome Store and Firefox/Mozilla Edge.
6. Know how to avoid travel agent pitfalls.
Booking via Online Travel Agents (OTAs), instead of buying your ticket directly from the airline, will often make your flight cheaper, but not always!
When this is true:
Online Travel Agents sometimes get 'exclusive' fares from specific airlines, allowing them to sell add-ons like checked bags for far less than the airline sells them, even if the base ticket price is the same.
This is especially true for most long-haul flights with traditional full-service airlines like British Airways, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, etc.
When this is not true:
European budget airlines, like Ryanair, Easyjet & Wizzair, almost always offer the cheapest fares on their website. On the US side, it’s uncommon to find cheaper OTA’s for full-service airlines like JetBlue and United Airlines.
While still in the minority, a few full-service carriers like Delta, American, KLM & Air France have decided to buck the trend and offer the cheapest fares only on their website.
There are some drawbacks to buying flights with Online Travel Agents, but overall it's generally safe and can make your flight cheaper.
7. Pick the right moment to book to get the best rates.
Like we talked about in the myth-busting section, gone are the days when airlines release tickets once a week. They’ve made it very difficult to predict when any particular destination will go up or down in price.
The good news is that we’ve noticed some patterns in the times when great flight deals show up frequently. We go more in-depth in the best time to book a flight article, but here’s the gist of it:
From our experience, the cheapest months to book flights are usually after the general holiday/high season in January, February, August, and September.
On the flip side - the closer you get to the holiday season in May, June, April, and October, the more it'll cost to book a flight. December is usually the most expensive.
This is all a rule of thumb of course; prices reacting to demand is still a thing. Big world events like the Olympics or even regional events like the Brazilian carnival can greatly impact the fares you'll see.
8. Choose the best season to fly
After choosing the best time to book, the next step is figuring out when is the right season to fly. ”Well, that's an easy one” you may be thinking “just go during the low/off-peak seasons."
That might work for year-round destinations like Iceland, but booking a beach vacation in the Caribbean during the hurricane season isn't such a good idea.
An easy way to find the peak season for any city is to hop on the Google Flight explore page, click on a destination and scroll down the infobox on the left. You'll find helpful tidbits on the weather and, in some cases, popular holidays and festivals.
Traveling during the shoulder season (the period between the high and low seasons) is often the best of both worlds - good weather, fewer crowds, and deals on more than just the flights. Knowing what to expect during each season will help you decide if it's worth visiting during the off-season.
Here are a few guidelines for each region:
Low Season: November - March. During the winter, the temperature drops, and in some countries, rainy days increase. December is an exception here - prices go up for ski season, Christmas markets, and Christmas break.
Shoulder Season: Early October for Southern Europe, April - May for Western Europe. During this time, the weather is still comfortable, but the holiday crowds are yet to come.
Low Season: July - October for Southeast Asia. You'd want to avoid going during the Monsoon season when typhoons and tropical storms occur frequently.
Shoulder Season: Generally June. The weather is a lot cooler with little rain.
Low Season: October - April. The 'top end' or Northern territory is also affected by the Monsoon season. While the rest of Australia varies, the general rule of thumb is June - August, during the winter.
Shoulder Season: September - November during spring and Autumn/fall in April to May.
Low Season: June - October. The rainy season starts in June, and hurricane season picks up in August.
Shoulder Season: November - Mid-December. The rainy season is coming to an end, and it's right before the holiday rush.
Low Season: Generally May - September in Brazil but in the Southern parts (think Patagonia), it's during their winter in June to November.
Shoulder Season: Varies a lot from country to country, but it's usually after a big festival. For example, in Brazil, it's after the Carnival in March.
Low Season: Another region that varies a lot because of its massive geography. It's mostly November - March during the fall/autumn to the spring season, but school holidays like Christmas, Fall, Winter, Spring break, and Easter can spike up prices.
Shoulder Season: Sometimes during March to May when school's open as well as September. There's much fewer crowds during the start of the winter in November - December for ski destinations.
Low Season: It also varies a lot by country. For example, South Africa's low season is in their winter season, from June to August. This also happens to be the low season for Egypt for the opposite reason when it's super hot.
Shoulder Season: Mostly January when the Christmas crowds are gone.
Finding a deal for each season is a patience game. A convenient way to keep track of prices is using Google Flight alerts; this lets you know when prices have changed for your specific dates.
9. Fly on the least busy day of the week
So, you've figured out the best season to travel, but what about the cheapest day to fly? The answer varies really heavily on the route.
But usually, we’ve noticed that Tuesdays & Wednesdays are the cheapest days to travel, followed by Mondays and Sundays as the next cheapest. Unsurprisingly, Friday and Saturday are the two most expensive days to fly.
For short-haul flights - Mondays, especially during the evening, can be very expensive. This is usually due to travelers returning home after a long weekend trip.
This doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes find deals on flights departing on Fridays & Saturdays - just that most of the time it’s easiest to fly cheaper early in the week.
10. Timing is everything when hunting for cheap flights
Now that you’re up to speed with the cheapest days and seasons - let’s move on to time of day. The cheapest time to fly is usually the first flight on schedule in the wee hours of the morning. This happens because airports charge lower fees for their take-off spots during these hours.
But, if you're more likely to hit the snooze button, the second cheapest time is during the late hours of the night. In the industry, it's called a red-eye flight - departing at night and arriving in the morning. As a result, you'll sometimes see a red-eye logo marked on your itinerary when booking.
It's especially true for trans-Atlantic travel - a round-trip ticket with an overnight leg is often cheaper than a day flight. Airlines are aware we'd rather fly at convenient times during the day that doesn't interrupt our beauty sleep, so they often keep the best flight times more expensive.
To score cheap flights during the holiday season with reasonable flight times, booking at the right time is a must.
11. Be as flexible as a gymnast
Not literally! But you also don't need to be retired to have flexible travel plans - there's a bunch of stuff you can fine-tune to knock money off flights. For example:
- Instead of setting your sights on a single destination during a single set of dates, come up with a list of destinations that appeal to you. The wider the list, the more likely you'll be able to score an awesome deal.
- Use Google Flights' flexible price-map tool to identify which destinations have cheaper options during the time of year you plan to travel.
- Check nearby departure airports. It's not uncommon to cut a long-haul ticket from somewhere like the US to Europe in half by selecting a different, nearby departure airport.
- Keep an eye out for nearby destinations. Suppose you're flying somewhere fancy like Koh Samui (Thailand). Because there isn’t a lot of traffic directly there, you might be better off getting a long-haul fare to nearby Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore and grabbing a cheap regional flight onto the island.
- Once you've chosen your route, always check nearby dates using the Google Flights price-calendar tool. Moving your travel dates by a few days might mean a better route or a much cheaper flight.
Keeping plans open will also come in handy when choosing what extras you’ll need.
12. Don’t let extras cost you… extra
Airlines use all the tricks in the book to make their fights look the best value. That's why you should know precisely what you need before you go searching, or you could end up overpaying for your ticket.
Extras or add-ons could include:
Checked bags - If you're taking them, make sure the airlines that charge extra don't end up more expensive than paying for a ticket class that includes a checked bag.
Budget airlines are the biggest culprits - they're notorious for having high checked bag fees and charging extra for carryons.
Seat selection - There are two kinds of people: those who are okay with any seat and those who have military-style strategies to find the best seat. If you fall in the latter camp, be prepared to pay extra for that perfect seat. However, some airlines still offer free booking at check-in if you're feeling lucky.
Insurance & Flexible Policy - With travel en route to getting its groove back, many airlines that offered free changes during the pandemic are returning to their 'old flexibility policy'. It might be worth the extra cost to get a ticket that allows changes/refunds if your plans change later.
Pro tip: The best way to compare flights is to include the extras you want to the ticket price before comparing.
Here are some other tips for cutting costs on flight extras:
- Split checked bags with a buddy
- Pack as light as possible in your carry on and heavy in your personal bag
- Choose seats in the first row for more legroom
- Bring your own snacks
- Pack sleeping aids like masks and earbuds
- Carry a portable charger
13. Pack more value into your holiday with a multi-city trip.
You can often fly back from a different airport or add a stop to flights for the same price as a regular return flight. You're already planning a trip to Thailand, so why not add time in Istanbul into the mix?
When done correctly, bundling two or more cities (aka multi-city trips) can save you some major dinero.
There are a few ways to make multi-city flight work without spending a fortune:
- The extended layover
- Multi-city hopper
- Open-jaw/Round the world with a local connector
It can be tricky to find these sometimes so check out our full guide to booking each type in our multi-destination article.
14. Try using the hidden fare ticketing (carefully!)
A hidden ticket is a flight hack where you purchase a ticket with a stop before the final destination, and instead of going through the entire trip - you leave early at the stop and don't board the final flight.
This works quite well because direct routes are more popular than multiple stops. Therefore airlines price direct flights much higher according to the demand and multi-stop flights lower even though you'd be flying more miles.
Skippedlagged.com is a great website for finding hidden-city and multi-city flights. But be mindful of the caveats, such as limitations on when you can check a bag. We have a full Hidden-City Ticketing guide here.
15. Save more dineros by switching currencies.
Sometimes the foreign exchange rate works in your favor when looking for cheap flights to anywhere. Local airlines usually price fares in their currency and may be cheaper if you pay in it too. For example, Mexico's VivaAerobus may charge their tickets in pesos, saving you a couple of bucks if you're dealing with dollars/euros/pounds.
Flight search engines let you choose the country and currency you'd like to see when searching. It's worth checking the prices in the currency of your destination.
This trick works especially well in Europe where many countries share a currency but travel agents differ in price. Keep in mind that their customer service might only be available in a language you don’t speak, although most will also speak English, at least.
16. You can almost fly for free with credit card rewards.
There's nothing quite like buying an air ticket for $0 - and the best way to do that is through travel hacking with credit cards.
If you're starting out, you can choose between an airline rewards card that's associated with a particular airline or alliance, or you can opt for a general travel rewards card that gets you miles/points for several airlines.
The trick is to use your card as you would with cash, pay for everyday items, and pay off the balance each month to avoid interest.
There are some caveats to watch out for when using this method. For example, opening a new credit card account could potentially shorten your credit history, and applying for multiple credit cards at once to score those signing up bonuses could drop your FICO score.
Wheeew, that was a long journey, and hopefully, you feel more confident in your flight-finding skills. When finding cheap flights to anywhere, the main thing to keep in mind is to be flexible, know what makes a good deal, and book quickly when you spot one.
If you want to find out more about finding cheap flights, take a look at our other guides.
Happy flying! :-)
Please note, while we do have links to other websites in our articles, none are affiliate links, and we do not benefit from you clicking on them; we just think they’re a good resource :)