“The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.“ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Let’s all admit it.
There’s something tiresome yet magical about the process of finding cheap flights online. It’s an obsessive habit of many travelers around the globe who get an instant gratifying sense of possibilities.
However, the mechanism of online flights booking is as complex as it is chaotically confusing that you will often find yourself seated next to someone who paid half or double your plane ticket. I like this system though, it punishes the lazy and rewards you, the determined and curious.
What I’m about to show you are a few ‘dirty secrets’ that had helped me more than once to find cheap flights online. How cheap you’re asking? Yesterday I found a one-way ticket from Sweden to Poland for a whopping $2. I once found a one-way ticket from India to the United States for $69. And boy, I love one-ways.
Those who will leave this article harnessed with this new knowledge will get their ten minutes of reading time back in possibly tens or hundreds of thousands of future saved dollars. The return on investment will be huge – as long as you apply those techniques.
How to Find Cheap Flights Online
Let’s dive right in.
“Why should I even bother? the travel agent guarantees the lowest price!”
This is a very confusing concept in the flight-booking industry that most people are not even aware of. Travel agents don’t actually guarantee the lowest price possible – but the lowest price advertised. It’s very easy to confuse the two – what they actually guarantee is the lowest price the airlines allows them to advertise.
What’s really happening here?
The airlines can’t supervise the prices their tickets are sold for by the agencies, so what they do is supervise the prices those agencies are allowed to advertise. Those agencies can and will lower the price even less than the lowest-advertised price.
If the travel agent insists that this price is the lowest on the market, he probably means that this is the lowest price on the market offered by this specific airline. Most times you can ‘stitch’ together a few separate tickets that will get you to your destination for a much cheaper overall price than your agent’s quote.
Travel agents will RARELY be able to give you cheaper flight tickets than the tools I’m about to introduce in a few minutes, but once in a while you will encounter a black swan. In other words, it’s not totally futile to check agencies as not-so-often you’ll find the cheapest ticket through some travel agent. But that’s uncommon.
Where and How to Book The Cheapest Flights Online
ITA Matrix (matrix.itasoftware.com)
This tool was bought by the Google monster in 2010 and is the king of savvy frequent flyers. It is so powerful and efficient that I always find myself surprised that most of the world isn’t even aware it exists.
You can’t actually book the tickets through the tool but that’s a good thing – you can be sure you don’t pay any extra commission fees like in most other flight search engines. You’ll have to visit the airlines’ websites and manually book the flights you found through ITA Matrix. This only adds 30 seconds to the process.
Here’s a screenshot from the tool:
I spent a lot of time over the years playing with different flight engines – and ITA Matrix stands out as the most powerful. I later found out that many of those search engines actually use the ITA software as their core engine. You can still check other sites like Kayak, SkyScanner, Momondo, Orbitz etc just to compare prices before you order – but in most cases you won’t need anything other than the Matrix.
In the past year and a half – I actually used SkyScanner more than any other tool in existence. The reason? as someone who makes his money online and has plenty of freedom and flexibility – I have the luxury of traveling whenever and wherever I want. That brings the ‘Everywhere’ and ‘Whole month/year” features of SkyScanner VERY handy.
For example, I know Europe tends to be beautiful in December (Christmas markets and stuff) and might even want to catch the ‘Northern Lights’ in Scandinavia if I find a good ticket. Ran an ‘Everywhere’ search for ‘Whole December 2013′ to quickly get a rough estimate of my options:
That brings a great opportunity to visit Budapest and feel their famous traditional Christmas market. Running the same search from ‘Budapest’ to ‘Everywhere’ – I found another ticket for $20 to Sweden (The ‘Northern Lights’ are supposed to break an intensity-10 years-record this December) and a few more – including a $13 flight to Istanbul. As you see – if you have the flexibility – your options are near limitless.
Basic Rules of Thumb to Follow: How to Get Cheap Flights?
1. Flexible Search
Flexibility breeds options. Whenever it’s practical – put to use the option to search a whole time period instead of the exact day. (Like +-3/5/7 days or even whole-month/year like in Skyscanner). This will dramatically decrease your costs most of the time.
Many times this will allow you to find crazy deals and ‘black-swans’ out of nowhere. That ‘Whole year’ feature in Skyscanner? that’s how I found that $69 one-way ticket from India to the United States, a ticket that usually costs around $400.
When you travel with no set plans – the world really does become your oyster and you can just ‘jump on the adventure’ when you find one.
In my experience, a few days OR a few months in advance will yield the best results. When some seats are left a few days before the flight, many times the airline will offer the ticket for much less than the original price. Any money is better than an empty seat.
If I get a direct one-way flight from Tel Aviv to Baku (Azerbaijan) – I’ll have to pay $225. If I get a flight to Budapest (~$50) and from there another one to Baku – I’ll pay a total of $100 (55% less) and also get to see a little bit of wonderful Budapest! This is what I called ‘stitching’. You stitch a few tickets together to make it cheaper and see a few more beautiful places.
I’m using this technique all the time. It leaves a helluva more Israeli Shekels in my bank.
My good childhood friend Naama came to me last year asking for help to find a cheaper ticket to Durban (South Africa) than that $1380 one the agency offered her. We managed to stitch a few tickets through Europe and lower the overall price by close to $500. Knowledge is money, my friends.
Try to use big main airports as ‘stitching points’. Bangkok in the East, JFK in America, London or Frankfurt in Europe etc. This method works in international flights as well as local ones. Use it wisely and try to find out what main-traffic airports in the country there are and use them as stitching-points.
If you don’t have a clue – use Skyscanner or Kayak to find out what ‘connection-stop’ the airline itself uses for the specific route you’re after and use it as a stitching-point while booking independently.
When I get to the country of my final destination, I’ll often fly through a cheaper-local airline to my desired location within that country. If you fly to Bangkok in Asia, you’ll find crazy-cheap flight tickets through AirAsia to almost any place around. If you fly anywhere in Europe, you can do the same thing through WizzAir or RyanAir. Going to the U.S? try Spirit or Southwest airlines.
Sometimes they offer promotional tickets in advance just for the cost of airport taxes and gas.
And last thing for the stitching technique – don’t underestimate small airports. Gems do show up from time to time and many times you can find small airports with lower taxes and cheaper prices. Luton is a great example – it is not the big main airport in London but I use it a lot as a stitching point in Europe.
3. Round-trip/One-way Comparison
Don’t ask me why it happens, but I swear it happens. Sometimes a round-trip to and from the same destination will cost LESS than a one-way. It’s common and I have no idea why it happens.
I personally love love love one-way tickets for the freedom they give, but sometimes booking a round-trip can save you money even if you don’t use the return fare. Try to see if getting a return will lower the overall cost. Check the mid-week days the next week for a return (tuesday to thursday), those seem to be the cheapest.
You might even end up using your charisma later to persuade the airline representatives to change your return date and actually use the return fare when you need it, or even change the return departure location with a small cost. Might worth trying.
Don’t sweat the whole process too hard – finding super cheap flights shouldn’t take too long. Time IS money – and if the time you spent is more valuable than the money you saved.. slap yourself for bad resources management. I usually spend less than an hour even for big inter-continental trips. That’s usually the sweet spot and spending a lot more time will save only a little more money.
Wikipedia list of low-cost airlines (great for insanely cheap flights tickets locally).
Kayak Explore (lets you quickly see a big map with all your options by cost).
P.S - I didn’t touch the concept of frequent flyer miles for the simple reason that I’m from Israel and can’t really make an effective use of it. If you’re an American – I know there are some amazing techniques to fly for practically free if you make use of credit cards and other Frequent Flyer Miles opportunities. You can probably learn a lot more about it in FlyerTalk forums.
For any comment or insight, use the comment box below. Share the guide with your fellow traveling friends, fasten your seat belt and have a wonderful flight.