Finding cheap flights: Best resources

cheap flights

One of the most common questions frequent travelers get is: How do you afford to travel so much?  We all spout off tips about priorities and how to live on a budget and all those other things that can help, but let’s face it – some travel costs are just really expensive. The biggest culprit: airfare. Flying isn’t cheap. And it certainly isn’t getting any cheaper. While most of us have seen stagnant wage increases over the past few years, the cost of airfare has steadily climbed, outpacing inflation in the US.  So I get why people make excuses about travel being too expensive. It sure can be! Flights alone can make trips cost prohibitive.

So with the high prices, many of us are constantly on the search to find the most affordable airfare. Everyone has an opinion on how to find cheap flights. And some are more valuable than others. For me, I have yet to find one solitary resource that has all the answers, but I have gathered a number of different websites that work well for different purposes, depending on what type of flight I’m looking for and how flexible I am. For specific situations, these are my go-to resources:

 

If you know where you want to go:

ITA Matrix

ITA Matrix has become my go-to tool for most of my flight searches. I have found it to have the greatest flexibility in search options while allowing me to plug in some pretty specific conditions, which is a great combination for finding an ideal flight. The site can be a little confusing to use at first, but Hack My Trip has a great guide to get you started your first few times through.

So what makes this search engine so great? The calendar. If you know where you want to go and are not set on a particular date, the calendar feature on this site can be incredibly helpful. You can plug in your destination (or multiple destinations if you’re not set on one particular airport), set the month that you’d like to travel along with a length of time for the trip (can be specific – eg., 7 days, or can be a range – eg.,2-9 days), and the site will pull up an entire month’s worth of airfares. Also, ITA Matrix is often able to pull up flight combinations that might not automatically pop up through an airline’s website and tend to be significantly cheaper.

ITA Matrix's calendar

ITA Matrix’s calendar

Another feature I love about ITA Matrix is the ability to see the cost of a flight in the cents per mile calculation. I find this tool immensely helpful in not only finding cheap flights to rack up miles, but also to help determine how good of a deal the price on a flight is. Most frequent fliers consider really good flight deals as those under 4 or 5 cents per mile. The price per mile search makes it very easy to see how far off  you are from that standard.

You can see the cost per mile under the price

You can see the cost per mile under the price

I almost always begin a search for a cheap flight with ITA Matix but I always, always, check it before booking a flight.

 

If you kind of know where you want to go:

Google Flights

Say you feel like taking a trip to Europe for Christmas but don’t really care where in Europe you go. In this case, Google Flights is an awesome tool to research your options. In the search box, you can enter your departure city and then enter the destination as something as vague as Europe (most other search engines make you enter a specific city and/or airport).

Why not search all of Europe?

Why not search all of Europe?

Google Flights will pull up a map of your destination, Europe in this case, and you can quickly eyeball it for the cheapest flight options. The map allows you to zoom in and out so you can also check out small airports or hone in on one particular area.

So many options...

So many options…

When you’ve found a destination you’re interested in, you can click on it and a bar graph will pop up, providing a visual of flight prices in the surrounding days. It’s a great way to see if you can get a better deal with a little flexibility. Like ITA Matrix, Google flights can show a calendar of fare options but the selection of flights is very limited in comparison to ITA Matrix.

If I can wait a few days, I can get a cheaper flight

If I can wait a few days, I can get a cheaper flight

 

If you just want to browse your options:

Farecompare Getaway Map or Skyscanner

For the times when I just want to see what’s out there, I head to FareCompare’s Getaway Map to see what’s going on in the world. In many ways, it’s not unlike Google Flight’s map but it has one difference that I appreciate: the ability to search for flights by price per mile.

Use the price per mile slider to narrow your results

Use the price per mile slider to narrow your results

I mentioned earlier how I appreciate the ability to see a flight’s cost per mile when figuring out what’s the best deal, and FareCompare’s map makes this easy to do. Unfortunately, the map is currently only available for flights out of the US and can be somewhat buggy. Luckily, there is another option!

Skyscanner has a different range of flexibility in their search tool, allowing you to select entire countries as your departure and/or destination. But why many people love Skyscanner is for the ability to select “Everywhere” as your destination. This can be an awesome tool for exploring possibilities – especially for those living in major cities. Skyscanner will display recently searched-for flights from your departure city to different places around the world. However, if you live in a small market like I do, Skyscanner is likely going to pull up something that looks like this:

Not so helpful...

You’ll have to click through  each individual country to see the prices on flights. Definitely not fun, or efficient.

But for those of you in a bigger city, it can be a fantastic tool for pulling up the cheapest flights to a particular country. Look at the same “Everywhere” search out of New York City.

Ah, now this is much better

Pretty awesome, huh?

 

If you just want a good deal to anywhere:

The Flight Deal

I don’t know how they do it, but the folks at The Flight Deal always seem to be on top of every cheap flight out there. As the deals crop up, they post them on their blog, but the easiest way to follow them is on Twitter.  I mentioned them in a previous post as one of the few sites on Twitter I’d consider having their tweets texted to me, because they’re just consistently that good.

The best part about The Flight Deal’s site is the details they provide to help you book each flight. How often do you see someone post about a cheap flight only to spend hours searching online for the correct dates/times and never finding it? This isn’t an issue with The Flight Deal because they include all of the flight rules and even give directions for locating the flights on ITA Matrix.

Example of some of the details included on each deal

Example of some of the details included on each deal

Idiot proof cheap flights at their finest!

The only negative, for some people, is that The Flight Deal’s site is pretty much exclusively focused on US based flights. Perhaps that leaves an untapped blog opportunity in other countries?

If you’re looking to rack up miles:

Flyertalk Forums

If you’re ready to dabble in the world of frequent flyer miles and mileage runs, your new mecca will likely be the forums on Flyertalk. Everything you could ever want to know, and maybe not want to know, about frequent flyer programs can be found on these boards. For the best in cheap flights, head to the Mileage Run Deals forum and spend a few hours learning how to decode the messages.

EZE? GIG? KL? What? You'll get it eventually.

EZE? GIG? KL? What? You’ll get it eventually.

Hey, even if you never find a cheap flight, at least you’ll learn every airport code you could ever want to know!

Flights posted in this message board are all typically under that 5 cents per mile limit, with a few exceptions. Other flights that don’t meet this standard but are good deals considering the routing are posted in sub-folders called Good Deals In Economy Class and Good Deal Premium Fares. Almost every single flight deal that is posted on Twitter or on travel hacking blogs will be posted in this forum first. Just beware – these forums aren’t the friendliest places to post, especially as a newbie. You’re going to want to do extensive research before posting a question. I generally love travelers but many of these frequent flyers make flying the friendly skies seem not quite so friendly.

 

Unfortunately, bargain hunting in the world of travel isn’t as simple as hopping on one site and finding the cheapest rates on everything. It takes a little work. But with these sites and a little effort (and a few frequent flier miles), I’ve been able to afford my travels on a pretty meager budget. It is doable if you know where to look.

Cheers!

What are your favorite sites for finding cheap flights? Comment below!

30 Comments

  1. Love the list! I’d never heard of ITA, but reference all the other sites when in hunting mode. I also use StudentUniverse.com. Here’s a great example of why they’re awesome: a flight from Washington DC to Frankfort via Reykjavik was advertised on Skyscanner for $926, but the EXACT SAME flight was advertised on StudentUniverse for $738. What a deal! Of course, as the name implies, the only catch is that you have to be a student. No age limit on being a student (I work full-time and am working on another degree in the evenings), but you have to be able to upload two documents as proof of your student status (a student ID, a class schedule, etc). Earlier this year I was able to book a flight on a Wednesday and leave the next day for London thanks to StudentUniverse; the ticket was almost half the price of any other website!

    • That’s an awesome deal Katrina! Unfortunately I’m not a student anymore but if I ever decide to take a class I’ll keep that site in mind. Thanks for the tip!

  2. I love this post because I hadn’t even heard of ITA Matrix and I thought I was quite knowledgable when it comes to booking cheap flights! I only recently heard of google flights too so will definitely be using both of these, along with trusty Skyscanner, when I book my flights for next year’s travels

  3. Skyscanner is the one for me, I LOVE IT, and the ease that you can compare countries for prices, rather than just specific cities! Living in the UK, airports are never really more than a train away, so you can sometimes end up saving loads of money if you’re willing to travel a little further out.

    Sara | This Girl Loves

  4. What a great post that will be relevant to all travellers in today’s market…never heard of ITA but looks like a useful tool I’ll have to give it a go. I’ve been a skyscanner convert for years, simply because of the ‘everywhere’ selection as we tend to book time off, and then decide where to go, which keeps it exciting. Great post!

    • Thanks Heather! ITA can be less user friendly than the rest but it gives me the best results. I do love that ‘everywhere’ selection on Skyscanner though!

  5. Great blog. Especially the section on ‘if you don’t know where to go’. Skyscanner works a treat for that – it’s how I end up in some countries I’d never intended to visit.

    • I’ll admit, I spend way too much time browsing for airfare to places I never planned to go. But with so much of the world to see, why not?

  6. Great list! The only problem I have with Skyscanner is you can’t do multi city flights and we like to do multi city itineraries. We actually use Momondo the most, we’ve gotten some REALLY cheap deals on there. Our last itinerary we saved $1000! Always comparison shop and set up alerts!

    • It seems like Momondo is a great tool – I’ll have to spend more time with it. Comparison shopping is definitely key!

  7. A lot of great resources here. Long time Flyertalk Member here and a big user of Skyscanner back in my backpacking days. Google has definitely stepped up their game with their flights page. I really want to try out ITA for next time.

    • Thanks, Will! I’ve become a much bigger fan of Google in recent days. Their flight search engine really has gotten so much better.

  8. This is an awesome resource Amy. I thought I was pretty savvy at finding good deals but I’ve never heard of most of these sites. I use the Skyscanner everywhere search all the time especially when I’m dreaming about my next holiday. It helps plant the seeds in my head about where I should go next and what is the most affordable for a particular time of year. When I am seriously ready to start booking I check out the individual airlines website first because they usually have the highest prices and then search outwards from there checking Skyscanner, Expedia, Webjet, Kayak etc. It takes a little bit of time but it makes me feel pretty confident that I have gotten the best possible deal. Thank for sharing your tips, I’ll be using some of these in the future for sure.

    • Thanks, Jen! I agree that checking multiple sites is always the best strategy. And I think you bring up a good point about using Skyscanner to keep an eye on where the affordable destinations are and when they’re most affordable. From researching flights so often, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about where to look for flights to certain areas at certain times of year.

  9. Thank you for these! I had no idea about the ITA Matrix and will definitely check it out for certain. These definitely would have come in handy for a lot of my recent trips.

  10. I believe that what matters most when finding cheap flights is how flexible you are in your flight and how do you gather and make the most of your resources.

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