When you see friends or people you follow on social media posting photos from exotic destinations you have never read about, how do you think they ended up there? Have they been planning a trip for 10 years to Tallin, Sofia, or Cartagena? Or were they just searching great flight deals and they ended up in Cyprus?
In many ways the “bucket list” phenomenon has been a detriment to travel, cranking up the overtourism in famous destinations like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, Machu Picchu, and Ankor Wat, while leaving places just 50 kilometers away struggling to fill rooms. As everyone rushes en masse to the tour bus favorites, there’s another set of more independent flyers grabbing a great fare on JustFly.com and heading to where the crowds are thin.
Most Tourists Do Vacation Planning Backwards
If you want to travel well for less, the first step is to open up your variables as wide as possible.
We understand that if you’re a family who has its heart set on a certain theme park owned by the world’s biggest entertainment conglomerate, there’s no other choice really. You and your kids have been marketed to for years (if not decades) and you’ve made the decision to part with thousands of dollars no matter what. But when your plans are less specific, take an honest look at your first choice destination. Does it have to be that particular place? Why? Is there a specific reason you’re being so specific, or is there some subconscious marketing message that put that idea in your head? One article you read or a movie you saw perhaps?
As a travel writer who covers different destinations regularly, I’m always curious about what finally tips someone past the point of purchase, to booking an international trip to a place. So I ask people—a lot. “Why did you decide to come here?” is the usual start. After asking that question for years, I’d say almost half the time they struggle to answer with anything definitive. “I don’t know…we’ve just always wanted to come here” is the most common answer.
If it’s that vague anyway, why not leave your options open? Your main expenses for any trip are going to be what you spend on the ground for food/lodging/activities, then your flight costs (if you fly). So if you pick an inexpensive destination on the first count and find a great flight deal for the second count, you’re almost sure to save a small fortune compared to someone who says, “We’re planning on visiting Venice and Florence in July.”
Here’s an experiment to try for your next trip, whether it’s a 4-day weekend that’s a short flight away or a long trip halfway around the world. First see where the best flight deals are, then pick the place with the cheapest hotels or apartment rentals. If the lodging is cheap, that usually means everything else will be less too, from restaurants to taxis to sightseeing. (I’ve got a book on Amazon that can make all that quicker though: The World’s Cheapest Destinations.)
How to Get Flight Deals Through Travel Flexibility
The reason you see so many Europeans visiting formerly offbeat places like Ljubljana and Riga is “The Ryanair Effect.” Ever since that notorious airline started offering ridiculously cheap bare-bone flights (sometimes under $10), travelers started flying on a whim from their own city to wherever was showing up on sale.
You can do something similar in the USA if you’re willing to put up with all the fees and restrictions that are part of the business plan at counterpart airlines Allegiant and Spirit. Even with luggage and seat reservation charges, you can often find flights for less than $200 round trip.
For international trips, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. You may be lucky enough to have Wow Air, Norwegian, or Edelweiss serving your airport, but more often you’ll be dealing with the regular legacy airlines. (Though keep in mind that Spirit flies south internationally, as does Southwest.) Fortunately, we’ve got a killer search tool at our fingertips that can show us the best regular airline deals from our home airport. Pull up Google Flights, pick your city and dates, then let the map unfold. I did Chicago in early April as an example.
Let’s imagine your main goal for an early April vacation from Chicago is to go somewhere warm and sunny. If you put aside any deep-seated “I’ve always wanted to go to…” limiters and just look at flight deals, it’s clear you can get to Florida for really cheap: Tampa Bay or Miami for a hundred bucks. Or Las Vegas is just $133. Score! But if you want to get your passport stamped instead, check these others out and remember that you can get anywhere in Mexico or Central America on a bus or in a rental car. So just because you fly into a resort area doesn’t mean you have to spend the whole time lazing around at an all-inclusive resort. (Though we won’t judge you if you do.)
Leon/Guanajuato, Mexico – $317
Mexico City – $244
Cancun, Mexico – $194
Belize – $348
Costa Rica – $339
Off that map:
Ecuador – $412
Egypt – $597
Jordan – $564
Bangkok or Phuket, Thailand – $662
Cebu, Philippines – $617
If your plans were rigid and you insisted on going to St. Kitts in the Caribbean, you would pay a minimum of $610 round trip. It would cost you as much as heading to South America, northern Africa, or Asia.
In that flight deals list above, I can tell you that Belize and Costa Rica are going to cost you close to U.S. prices for most things, but the rest are a bargain on the ground.
Now, Google Flights is not actually a booking service. They send you elsewhere. So you can just use whatever online travel agency you’re comfortable with. You will often find more thorough international options on the less famous ones. Shop around, but I’ve often found the best fares on JustFly or Vayama, especially if there’s a mix of two airlines on the departure/return.
Do it right and you may end up in a place where instead of the backdrop you’ve seen 1,000 times already on Instagram, you end up in a place like this instead:
Don’t recognize it? Well, that’s the point, but it’s in one of those flight deal destinations outlined from Chicago.