This is a little bit of a tricky one to write because this is one of the places you can spend a lot or save a lot, and there are a lot of ways to do it. These are the things that I do, but I also encourage you to read even more about cheap flights, particularly by searching “travel hacking.”
You probably don’t want to hear this, but credit cards are the easiest way to get free flights. I used to always scroll past the credit card tips when I read articles about booking cheap flights, but now I’ve converted.
With very little effort on our parts, Greg and I are averaging about the right amount of points to get one free round trip ticket to Europe per year with our Chase Sapphire Reserve. Greg likes to go on an international trip every other year, so it works out that this is how we pay for our tickets on these trips. Beyond the points, there are several other perks that we benefit from as well.
This particular card is best for people who want to travel a decent amount. It has a high annual fee, which scares most people away, but after doing my research on it, I realized that it would be worth it for us. It seriously has been! If we just got the free flights, we might come out closer to breaking even, but we get so much more. I’ll post separately all about my love for our CSR and how much we’ve gotten from it soon.
My suggestion is to go to The Points Guy’s site and read about current credit card offers. These change pretty frequently and TPG has an entire team that keeps a very detailed and current site on all things points and miles related.
Google Flights is where I often start my search. I especially use this when buying flights without points or miles. If you are buying a flight with points or miles, it can still help you find the cheapest flights, which should equal the least points or miles spent.
Google Flights is a super-flexible search engine, and it’s my favorite. You can add multiple departure airports, multiple arrival airports, not include where you’re going, add or not add dates, and a lot more. Then, move the map around, zoom in, zoom out, and find different price options. After you click on a particular route, you can look at the date grid, price graph, and nearby airports to make sure you’re getting the best prices. I wrote a tutorial for it here.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s a new site called GreatEscape that’s very similar to Google Flights. I haven’t done a lot of exploring it yet, but I’ve been seeing posts about it on a lot of travel blogs recently. Watch for more about it in the future!
Other Search Engines
Even though Google Flights is my favorite, there are plenty of other great search engines out there.
Momondo also has a very flexible search tool and uses Google Flights at times. You can use it for booking accommodations, cars, and more.
Sky Scanner will search for cheap flights and hotels. They have recommended deals from your departure airport as well.
The airline’s own website may have deals that don’t show up in some searches, especially search engines that you buy your tickets through. You can also usually get just as good of a price by simply booking through the airline’s own site.
Scott’s Cheap Flights
Scott’s Cheap Flights is great if you’re willing to be completely flexible, have plenty of time to book a trip but are willing to act quickly when you find a deal, or just want to see what deals are out there. This is where I find the best deals outside of reward travel. There are both free and paid subscriptions. Of course, you’ll get better ones if you pay, but you’ll get a lot of great deals through the free subscription as well.
Scott’s Cheap Flights has a team of people who search for flight deals and they’ll send you emails when they find them. Unfortunately for me, most of the best deals they find are out of the biggest airports, but they sometimes find really good ones that include medium-sized airports like Cleveland, too. It’s sometimes worthwhile to buy a separate ticket or drive to a large airport, especially if you find a good deal on a flight that is leaving the country.
There are other great sites that search for cheap airfare too, like The Flight Deal.
A lot of people save a lot of money and get a lot of extra perks through airline loyalty. (The same could be said of hotel chain loyalty.) You can add even more points and miles on by using a credit card from that particular company. If you fly a particular route frequently, airline loyalty can really be for you. I personally don’t fly enough for it to do a lot for me, especially since we mainly use a Chase card, rather than an airline card. This is where you have to decide what will work best for you and the way you travel. Some people get a lot out of using a particular airline or hotel’s credit card and being loyal to it.
This tip is the opposite of the last in some ways. The more that you can be flexible about when it comes to flights, the more money you’ll have the chance to save. Be flexible with the departure airport, the arrival airport, your dates, and your times. This is why I suggest Google Flights. It’s the easiest way to search for a lot of slightly different flights without spending hours doing one route search at a time.
Fly out of Large Airports
Look for really large airports here if you’re flying internationally. That’s where you’ll find the best deals. If you can go from large airport to large airport, you’ll get a cheaper rate, as well as less stops or maybe even direct flights. It can save you so much that sometimes it’s worth it to buy a separate ticket to a large airport, then fly from there. If you do, just make sure you have several hours if not between flights because you’ll have to go get checked bags, you may be delayed, etc.
Check for the High Season
If you’re going to travel over the high season, you’re almost guaranteed to pay more for your flights and accommodation. This differs depending on your destination, but in general, the summer is going to be the high season.
From here in Ohio, a lot of people fly to Florida during the summer when schools are out. If you can travel outside of summer break, you can often save a lot.
If your job allows you the flexibility to choose the season in which you travel, try traveling in the low season or the shoulder season. The shoulder season is between low and high, and often has the same benefits of the high season without the added cost and crowds. Think May or very early June plus the end of August and September for most places.
Budget airlines are loved by some and hated by others. We take budget airlines for at least half of our domestic flights, and while they obviously aren’t the most comfortable times of our lives, we often think they’re worth the savings.
We mainly fly on Spirit out of Akron-Canton and Frontier out of Cleveland, but what you should take will depend on your closest airport. Look at the airport’s site to see what airlines fly out of it and where their direct flights go.
Realistic expectations are key! Budget airlines are not as comfortable, but if you go in expecting it, it’s not terrible. You also have to expect to pay for every little thing.
Greg and I really aren’t picky about where we sit, especially when the flight is only a couple of hours, so we don’t pay for seats. We know that we either need to take food with us or be willing to pay for food on the plane. We also both pack very lightly, so we don’t pay to check bags. We’ve even taken a couple of trips where we’d have to pay for bags in the overhead bins, so we only packed backpacks that went under the seats!
Give some of these strategies a try, and you should be able to save a lot of money on your next flight!