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 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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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 you just want to browse your options:
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.
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:
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.
Pretty awesome, huh?
If you just want a good deal to anywhere:
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.
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:
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.
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.
What are your favorite sites for finding cheap flights? Comment below!