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How to Find Cheap Flights: The Ultimate Guide

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We get dozens of emails every day asking for help or advice on booking flights. While we're sad there’s not enough time in the day to help everyone one-on-one, we wrote up answers to some of the most common questions.

Cross the ocean as cheaply as possible

If you want to get the cheapest flights possible, focus on getting the cheapest fares across the ocean, even if it’s not from your home airport or to your ultimate destination.

Two itineraries are frequently cheaper than one. Plus you can stay and explore the city (in this case NYC or Brussels) as long or as short as you like.

To give a few personal examples, I used to live in Washington DC, but the best ticket I ever purchased was from NYC to Milan for $130 round trip.

It was well worth the $20 bus ride up, and I even got to spend the weekend with friends in NYC. If I had insisted on flying to Milan from Washington DC (not NYC) the ticket would’ve been around $800, not the $150 I actually paid.

The next best fare I’ve gotten was from DC to Brussels for ~$250 round trip. So nice I bought it twice! Even though I didn’t have that much interest in Belgium, I knew once I was in Europe, budget flights to other European countries are incredibly common.

For one trip I bought flights from Brussels to Norway (~$60 round trip) and for the other trip I bought flights from Brussels to Dublin (~$80 round trip). If I had insisted on flying from DC to Norway or Dublin (without stopping first in Brussels), I would have paid around $750 round trip, not the $310 and $330 I actually paid. And I wouldn’t have gotten a day in Brussels to boot!

Be flexible

This is the way most people approach getting a flight:

  1. Pick where they want to go
  2. Pick their dates
  3. See what prices are available.

Typically this results in high prices.

Instead, if getting a cheap flight is your priority, flip that approach:

  1. See what prices are available via Google Flights, Momondo, etc. to various places are around the world
  2. Decide which of the cheap destinations appeal to you
  3. Select the dates you like that have the cheap fares available.

Plus, like we discussed above, once you get to Europe or Asia or wherever, it’s really easy to hop a budget flight to your final destination.

Be flexible with where and when to go. If you’ve picked out your destination, picked out your dates, and don’t have flexibility ,95% of what you can do to bring down the cost of airfare is already out the window. Flexibility is king.

Sidenote: Be sure to search more than one date. (Clicking the calendar in Google makes it easy and shows you cheap fares for two months at a time.) Often times shifting the dates by even a day can cut the price in half.

For cheap domestic flights within the United States, check Southwest Airlines and Skiplagged

If you’re looking for cheap flights in the United States, be sure to search Southwest.com separately since Southwest flights don’t show up on any flight search engines.

You can also find some cheap hidden fares on Skiplagged, but be sure to read up there on the basics of hidden city ticketing so you know what you’ll be doing.

When is the cheapest time to fly?

The cheapest time of year to fly is usually:

  • January through mid-May
  • September through early December

The most expensive time to fly is usually:

  • Peak summer: mid-June through mid-August
  • Christmas
  • New Year’s Eve

It will also vary a bit by the specific destination, especially around popular festivals. Fares to Dublin for St. Patrick’s day or to China for Chinese New Year aren’t cheap.

When is the best time to book cheap flights?

We typically recommend booking when you see a great fare 1-3 months in advance for domestic flights and 2-8 months in advance for international flights.

If you’re booking for peak summer, add a month or two onto these recommendations, and if you’re traveling during low season it’s more likely cheap fares will pop up closer to departure date.

Prices tend to jump in the last month or two before departure, so you don’t want to cut it too close.

On the other hand, if you book too early and settle for a not-great fare, you’re missing out on potential future sales. Of course, if you’re looking to travel around major holidays like Christmas or during peak summer, add a month or two on those recommendations.

I found a great fare. How long will it last?

Hard to say for sure! Unless it’s an advertised sale (which usually aren’t that great to begin with), there’s no public end-date on any given fare. The rule of thumb is that the better the fare, the shorter it will last. In general you shouldn't expect most great fares to last longer than a few days.

What are the cheapest days to travel?

In general Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are the cheapest days to travel. Friday and Sunday are usually the most expensive days.

It’s a recurring Internet myth that booking at a specific time each week (typically cited as Tuesday at 2pm or so) is when the cheapest flights are available. This was the case a couple decades ago when airlines loaded their fares once a week, but hasn’t been true for years. Today, new flights are constantly being added, as well as pricing changing dynamically.

I have specific dates/destination. How can I track fares for that?

Both Google Flights and Kayak let you track a specific trip and get alerted when the price drops.

What are really good roundtrip fares from the United States?

  • Africa: $800 or below roundtrip
  • Asia: $500 or below roundtrip
  • Australia: $800 or below roundtrip
  • Caribbean: $300 or below roundtrip
  • Central America: $300 or below roundtrip
  • Europe: $500 or below roundtrip
  • Hawaii: $400 or below roundtrip
  • South America: $600 or below roundtrip

I found a cheap flight that departs from City A, connects through City B, and arrives in City C. If I live in City B, can I just skip the A-B leg?

No. Once you miss a leg of an itinerary, the rest of your itinerary automatically gets cancelled out.

The only way skipping a leg can work is (a) if you buy two separate one-way tickets rather than a round trip, or (b) if you just skip the very last leg of a round trip itinerary, in this case from City B to City C. This is a practice called “hidden city ticketing,” which the airlines don’t like (so don’t advertise your plans!) but has a seal of approval from the New York Times Ethicist.

Should I clear my cookies before searching?

No. It doesn’t make a shred of difference.

Where should I search for flights?

Our three favorite tools to search for flights are Google Flights, Priceline, and Momondo. There are also some more complex ones like the ITA Matrix, SkyScanner, and various plugins, but for most folks Google Flights, Priceline, and Momondo are plenty.

Remember that Southwest doesn’t show up on search engines, so check directly on their website.

Should I try to get a standby fare? Or book unsold seats at the last minute?

Basically, no. Last minute deals can pop up, but it’s increasingly rare. In the last week or so before a flight, the price tends to skyrocket.

This wasn’t true 20 years ago as airlines slashed prices to fill unsold seats, but nowadays airlines jack up prices on unsold seats knowing that business travelers are far more flexible on price but can’t make plans until the last minute.

How do I find cheap one-way tickets?

For most carriers, one-way flights are significantly more than half the cost of a round trip flight.

If you want to fly into a different airport than you will depart from, usually better to book an open-jaw flight (flying A to B, then C to A) on one itinerary rather than two separate one-ways.

Airlines whose one-way flights are around half of a round trip include jetBlue, WOW, Norwegian, Condor, and basically all intra-continental budget carriers like Ryanair and Air Asia.

How do I find cheap last-minute flights?

Pray.

In all seriousness, it’s pretty rare to find cheap last-minute flights because airlines typically jack up the price to gouge business travelers who are last-minute planners and not very price-sensitive.

Cheap last-minute flights are more likely on international routes than domestic routes because business travelers don’t fly international routes nearly as much.

But other than using the tips above and generally searching Google Flights, Momondo, Skiplagged, and Southwest.com separately, there’s not a separate strategy for finding cheap last-minute flights.

Last Updated:
October 23, 2018
Scott Keyes
Scott Keyes
Co-Founder & CEO

Scott has traveled to 46 countries (and 46 states!), living in California, to Oaxaca, to Oregon. He’s left-handed, drinks five cups of tea daily, and holds a vendetta against the “Happy Birthday” song. On a dare, he once ate 13 hot dogs (and a bowl of Dippin’ Dots) at the ballpark. He grew up in Ohio and founded Scott’s Cheap Flights in a Denver coffee shop. Favorite airport: PDX.

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