We write about quirky destinations and exotic foreign lands here on this travel blog, but we tend to avoid the most unpleasant part of the trip: flying there. Unfortunately, that cramped sardine can experience is also likely to be one of the biggest budget line items of the whole trip, so it’s important to take the time to shop around for the best deal.
If you’re trying to find the cheapest flight deal for your next vacation or holiday, there’s no secret website or app in beta that’s going to unlock some special fare. The traits needed to find the best possible price are much like the ones you need to succeed in business: patience, flexibility, and persistence. And oh yeah—a willingness to compromise and strike a deal when there’s a deal you can live with.
Here are a few strategies that help you find the best flight price each time.
1) Let the deals come to you.
Nearly everyone you would potentially book a flight with would love nothing better than to have you on their e-mail list. You’ll get alerted to fare sales when they happen and with the airline ones, also bonus mileaase opportunities. A lot of the big travel agencies and online booking services will send you one of two kinds of alerts on your request: prices between two cities and prices from your home airport. The first is good if you’re waiting for something like “Atlanta to Portland for less than $450.” The second is good if you just want to watch for great sales from your home town. Or even one town over. When I’m living in Tampa I get a weekly one for that airport (via Smarter Travel) and also one for Orlando. If the price is right, I’ll gladly drive an extra hour and a half.
2) Use the best flight search tool out there that nobody knows about.
Have you heard of Google Flights? Most people haven’t, but it’s a beautiful thing that will save you loads of time. For years I’ve yearned for a website where you could plug in any city and see prices to everywhere in the world from there for a certain date. When Google bought ITA Software a couple years ago, they made it happen. Now I can put in my home airport or one I’m willing to get to and see the flight prices for everywhere. This is terrific if you want to see all the options without the tedious task of plugging in new combinations in Expedia again and again. It’s all there on a map you can zoom in and out of. As you can see from the example below though, you probably don’t want to be heading anywhere in Europe in July!
You don’t actually book anything at Google Flights (they just link to the airlines), but now you’re armed with the info you need. Keep in mind though this won’t show every single carrier, which leads us to…
3) Check the non-legacy airline sites
Not every airline is tapped into the big online booking systems. Southwest Airlines, for starters, and also Allegiant and Spirit Air in the USA. They won’t list RyanAir, EasyJet, or Wizz Air in Europe. Four airlines in Mexico aren’t listed and most of those independent budget airlines in Asia aren’t either. So you have to research who covers a specific route and then go to their website. (Airport websites will usually list who flies in and out of there. Or just put “flights to ____” in a search.) Often you can combine one of these airlines with a legacy one to get where you need to go for less, but just pay attention to the luggage restrictions. On Southwest they’re in your favor, on RyanAir, Spirit, or Aerobus the onerous add-on fees could double the price of your ticket.
4) Clear your cookies to avoid overpaying.
There have been documented cases of airlines and booking sites remembering who looked for a fare yesterday and then presenting them with a higher one today. Clear your history to be sure you’re getting a fresh search. You should be clearing your cookies when you close your browser automatically anyway unless you like 50 advertisers, Google, and maybe the NSA all snooping on every website you visited for weeks on end. This is just a matter of checking a box or picking an option in your browser settings.
Don’t forget to look for alternatives when you’re doing your searches. Move the dates around, search alternate airports, and consider combinations of carriers instead of going on one airline or code-share. With that unpleasantness over, now you can start planning that visit to somewhere strange and wonderful.
Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel is author of four travel books, including Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World’s Cheapest Destinations.