There are a million different flight companies, travel agencies and comparison sites all claiming to be the cheapest, yet all seem to have different prices, taxes and hidden charges.
Unlike almost any other business model on the planet, when you're booking a flight, nothing is black and white. On a flight of 150 seats, it's possible there'll be over 50 different prices. Knowing that the person snoring beside you with the smelly feet paid half the price you did can be infuriating.
I worked for a travel agency and I'll admit that I hated it. To me, it seemed like The Wild West. For example, the exact same seat on a plane can have multiple prices depending on who is selling it. That price can also change throughout the day depending on the demand. Imagine that in a supermarket you see a bottle of wine for $10. You're undecided so you walk away. You come back after a few more people have looked at it and it's now $15. No! Not cool!
So, how do you make sure you're not paying over the odds? How do you ensure you're getting a good deal for your flight?
Before we get into the tips and tricks, it's important to realize that it's not easy. There's no exact science to getting cheap flight prices. It takes time, effort and a bit of luck.
Depending on where you live, you can have a greater or lesser opportunity to book cheap airfares, but there are some common tactics and techniques that everyone can use to find cheap airfare at anytime of year.
How to find cheap airfare anytime of year
Use the Honey
Join the Groups
Ask the locals
Ditch the luggage
Look for Red Eyes
1. Before you do anything, go incognito
When you visit a website you'll likely see a little box pop up at the bottom of your screen saying something along the lines of "blah blah cookies... blah blah accept." Websites then use these cookies to track your habits and patterns.
Some people claim this makes no difference to your price (Skyscanner and other comparison sights are anonymous until you click through to the airline website), but I was personally told by an airline executive, "the more they want it, the more they'll pay." He then went on to explain exactly how they're used.
The simple way around this is to use the Incognito or Privacy mode on your web browser. This will hide your browsing history and ensure nobody knows what you're up to.
Even better is to use a VPN. With a VPN (Virtual Private Network), as well as remaining secure online, you can change your computer address. Sometimes airlines charge you extra depending on where they think you're from. Change your computer address to the same as your destination and search again. You may notice a big difference.
2. Be flexible!
The joy of traveling is exploring new lands and new cultures. If you're flexible about not only when you go but where you go, you can amazingly cheap airfare.
Skyscanner has the excellent 'Everywhere' feature which has led me on many an adventure. I once spent an entire summer wandering around Israel after finding super cheap airfare to Tel Aviv using this method.
Just enter your departure airport (although remember to be flexible with this too. It could be cheaper to fly from a nearby airport) and type Everywhere into the destination. For even more flexibility, select Whole Month and then Cheapest Month. This could reveal destinations you'd never even contemplated.
Other companies like Google Flights and Kiwi offer similar functions, although I've always found Skyscanner to be the cheapest.
The more flexible you are, the cheaper you can find deals. Fact.
3. Use the Honey Chrome Extension
Honey is a website that collects coupons, promotions and discount codes, and when you use the Chrome Extension it applies them instantly to any booking you make.
No more endlessly searching the web for discount codes that may or may not work. At the checkout you'll get a little popup asking if you want to search for a valid code. It automatically attempts all the codes available. If one works, excellent. If not, you've only lost a few seconds of your time.
I've personally made lots of little savings using Honey — 2% up to 12%, and even had 10% cash back on several airfares.
Again, there are several alternatives, but I've always found Honey to be the most reliable (and it works on a ton of other sites too like Amazon).
4. Set alerts
If you don't have the time to sit online all day chasing special offers then let them come to you. Set alerts with all the major companies and get the updates in your inbox.
Skyscanner, Google Alerts, Airfarewatchdog and many, many more offer the ability to select your desired flight date/destination and then receive alerts when the price changes.
I also use a mobile app called Hopper. It monitors historical and current prices plus the trends. I saved over £150 on a flight from Manchester to Rio de Janeiro using Hopper. You enter your search criteria (or create multiple alerts for multiple searches) and you'll receive a push notification when the price is set to rise or fall.
The only issue I have with setting alerts is that, unless you're searching for something specific, you can spend just as much time reading through the hundreds of emails you'll receive each week. But if you want cheap airfares, it's a price you must pay.
5. Sign up for Discount Flight Groups
If you want someone else to do the searching for you then you can sign up for one of many 'Flight Clubs' which scour the internet all day long looking for the best discount airfares. Some especially great flight clubs include Jack's Flight Club, Scott's Cheap Flights, Dollar Flight Club, etc.
Dollar Flight Club does all the searching for you to identify deals which are 60-90% below the average round-trip price. They search thousands of sites, find the super cheap deals and send you alerts straight to your inbox/mobile.
Dollar Flight Club is different from the general flight alerts mentioned earlier as they have full teams of agents actively searching for deals, plus they offer special discounts for members.
The option to save $500+ per ticket on an international flight is pretty tempting. And it's entirely possible! Knowing how much the prices can vary, it's entirely possible to save hundreds if you know where to look.
Dollar Flight Club also searches for error fares.
6. Error Fares
I have never personally used one, but I've spoken to several travelers who've been lucky enough to find them. They're like unicorns... only real (so maybe not the best analogy).
An error fare is when an airline makes a mistake with the price.
Maybe they miss off a 0, or put a 1 instead of a 9. When you're processing tens of thousands of prices every day, mistakes are inevitable. I've met people who spend all their waking hours hunting for these 'mistake fares.'
If you are lucky enough to stumble upon an error fare, I would advise caution. The airlines are not obliged to honor these mistakes, so if they realize their error they can cancel them immediately or contact you to pay the difference in price. You can then either pay the full amount or cancel your booking.
As error fares are so rare and volatile, it's recommended to book immediately. Book with a credit card faster and easier should you need a refund) and don't book anything else like hotels or rentals until at least a week after. If the airlines don't cancel after 72 hours then they'll probably honor the mistake.
If you can find an error fare and the airline honors it, it's possible that you can save an absolute fortune, so they're always worth exploring. You can create alerts with plenty of companies like Dollar Flight Club, Travel Pirates or lots more to receive these fares by email. Then you just have to be quick enough to open them before they disappear.
7. Reward programs
Not exploring reward points sooner is one of my biggest travel regrets. I was completely unaware of Frequent Flyer Points/Travel Miles/Airmiles/Reward Points when I started traveling. I could have been traveling like a king nowadays with all the money I've spent throughout the years.
Travel points are usually a reward scheme from major Credit Cards. Spend money using certain credit cards and you'll also receive some travel points which you can redeem for free flights, upgrades or other travel related bonuses. Certain credit cards are linked to certain airlines, so it's important to shop around.
Credit cards and travel can be a slippery slope to financial disaster (again speaking from personal experience), so it's vital that you stay on top of the repayments. Repay the full amount as soon as possible to avoid additional fees and you should be able to earn some decent points per year.
Serious travel hackers have multiple cards for multiple situations, and these are the people who get to fly business class while I'm still jammed into Economy. If you're willing to study up on the rules, find the best cards with the most relevant, rewarding deals and work the system then you can go far (literally).
(As a side note, you can also donate your Airmiles to charity should you wish).
8. Ask the locals
You can do a ton of research from home on the cheapest airfare for a certain destination, but some domestic airlines don't show up in flight search engines. This is where local advice is priceless.
You'll probably find a Facebook group or three for the country you wish to visit. Introduce yourself and ask around for local budget airlines.
You could save a lot of money flying to a major airport and taking a cheap internal flight. This is especially true for budget travel in Europe. Fly into the cheapest destination possible and then use budget airlines to find connecting flights.
In Brazil I learned that it can be cheaper to buy Airmiles through a local company (MaxMilhas) rather than buy flights directly through the airlines or flight comparison sites. I would never have known this from my comfortable computer chair in the UK (and it's saved me £100s).
9. Ditch the luggage
While ditching your luggage may not reduce the price of the actual ticket, it can save you a huge amount in additional costs. Most airlines allow 10kg of luggage carry-on for free. It's amazing how much stuff you can pack if done properly!
Watch Youtube videos and study up. Do you fold or roll? Do you always wear your heaviest clothes to the airport? Packing cubes or dry bags?
While that all may sound like something for crazy obsessive people, re-evaluating your luggage can save time, money and back pain. Be ruthless with your packing and you'll be laughing as you're first on the plane, first out of the airport and first to the top of the mountain.
10. Look for Red Eyes
As we established earlier, the more demand for a flight, the higher the price. This means that all the popular flights will be more expensive — Friday nights for people going away after work, Sunday night for people returning before work on Monday morning, School Holidays for obvious reasons.
Avoid these flights. In fact, go the complete opposite. Flying at 4am may sound horrendous, but I guarantee it'll be much cheaper. Flying at 4am Tuesday to Thursday will be even cheaper. The airlines want to fill these Red Eye flights, so a little discomfort at the start can mean more money left over for travel spending.
Research your destination first, but flying out of season will usually bring big savings. It can also lead to a better experience as you'll miss the tourists and thus meet more locals. If you have to travel in the high season, you can still reduce your ticket price by using the strategies above.
This all may seem like a lot of work, but it can literally be the difference between only affording one flight per year or four or five.
Combine your new cheap airfare with volunteering with Worldpackers and you've just removed the two biggest expenses of travel — flights and accommodation. What are you waiting for?