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8 Smart Travel Hacks That Help You Find the Cheapest Flights

Featured Photo: Dirk Vorderstraße. Title: Flugzeug-Start. Licence: CC BY 2.0.

Is it really cheaper to book flights early? Is it true that tickets are less expensive on Tuesdays than on Wednesdays? And why do some people always pay less for their flights than you do? Airfare is tricky. But don’t droop! Today, you’ll learn the rules of the game. If you take the following travel hacks to heart, you’ll be an airfare pro in no time. I promise! Today, I’ll show you how you to find the cheapest flights – guaranteed.

January is the time of year in which I usually take my time to make travel plans for the upcoming 12 months. As you know, I am not a fan of package holidays and I usually don’t book anything but flights in advance, taking care of everything else on site. Booking flights in advance has one huge advantage: There are billions of possibilities and billions of different fares. And they help me find the cheapest flights.

Admittedly, searching in a huge supply of differently priced and clocked flights can be quite confusing – without the necessary background knowledge. Which leads me to a fundamental first question and a quite as fundamental first answer. I beg you to always keep it in mind if you want to find cheap flights.

Photo: Dennis Skley, Title: Parkhilfe, License CC-BY-ND 2.0

1. What are the key factors that determine airfare?

Nobody will ever be able to predict the price of a flight with absolute safety. Which is the bad news up front. Just imagine this was possible! Neither I nor you would have to worry about prices ever again. I wouldn’t have to write this article and you wouldn’t want to read it. Imagine there was an error free algorithm calculating the best time, place and manner of booking your tickets. Sounds a bit too illusory to be true, right? And why is that? Because nobody can look into the future!

All the tips that help you find cheaper plane tickets are based on nothing but prognoses and tendencies. There are way too many factors that determine the price of a flight. Ready for the good news? Knowing these factors means having a great advantage over everybody else. The crude oil price is in free fall? Kerosene will get cheaper, too. And, ultimately, airfare will drop as well – though not at once in most cases. Airlines tend to hoard their liquids. A government is raising or lowering taxes? The change will be mirrored in prices. Or else, a new, cheap airline is trying to get into the market? You can bet on one thing: In most cases, well-established airlines will lower their own fares to competitive prices to withdraw the competitor’s financial foundation.

You can see that market economy and political factors play a crucial role in determining the price of your ticket. But it’s also yourself who has a saying in how much you pay. Generally speaking, tickets get cheaper if you can’t change or reverse your reservation or if your ticket allows only short stopovers (usually not enough time to leave the airport and too much time to wait). Paying up front is also a good means of beating down the price. Also keep in mind that some departure times are more popular – and therefore more expensive – than others. And, as a rule of thumb, direct flights are more expensive.

2. Is it better to book in advance?

It is one of the most widespread assumptions that tickets are cheaper if you book in advance. But is it true? One thing is for sure: There are about as many opinions on this question as there are frequent flyers. But there are also studies and statistics that scientifically investigate the subject. And they come to one conclusion: It is indeed cheaper to book in advance. BUT there are exceptions to the rule.

A recently published study by Expedia, Preparing for Takeoff: Air Travel Trends for 2015, has found out that international flights are cheapest between 170 and 50 days before departure. There are next to no price changes in this period. Prices are usually higher if you book more than 170 days in advance, sometimes considerably. They get most expensive in the two to three weeks before departure when they rise by up to 120 percent – making your flight more than twice as expensive.

Photo: Tim Lucas

So does this mean that late bookers always have to pay more than early birds? As a general rule: Yes. However, most airlines considerably lower prices for flights that aren’t fully booked on short notice. This is a game of chance though and not advisable if you need to get to a certain destination by a certain time.

3. Which impact does a weekday have on the price?

The Expedia study, based on company data as well as data of the Airline Reporting Corporation, the International Air Transport Association and the Airline Tariff Publishing Company, comes to the conclusion that it is best to book flights on Tuesdays – as long as you book at least three weeks in advance. After that it is best to book on a Sunday. Admittedly, the saving is only 5 percent. Whereas if you fly on a Thursday or Monday you’ll save up to 25 percent – excluding holidays. So, once again, if you are flexible enough, you’ll have a good chance of saving a lot of money.

4. Where to book?

There are so many flight search engines on the internet that it is hard to chose the right one. I do feel a bit swamped by the information overload myself from time to time. Eventually, not every search engine finds the same flights. And sometimes their prices vary considerably. They can even change during the booking process. Some „service fees“ keep hidden until the very last step of the booking process – making it an annoying waste of time. It’s hard to compare prices objectively. We have all learned it the hard way: Booking flights is a pain in the ass affair. Which is why I am now going to tell you about my top three flight search engines.

SkyscannerSkyscanner is an internationally operating company that doesn’t only compare the prices of well-established airlines but also those of no-frills airlines such as Ryanair or Wizz Air (and many other low-cost airlines worldwide). Another bonus is Skyscanner’s location search: It searches for other nearby airports from or to which flying could be cheaper.

KayakKayak’s biggest advantage is the possibility to insert flexible travel dates. If you chose any time period to fly within – lets say a week – the site lists all the best prices for each day of that week and visualizes them in a well-arranged chart. If you don’t have to stick to a certain date this method of searching is just perfect (and you can verify if it’s really cheaper to fly on Thursdays…)

GoEuroIs your next epic trip taking you across Europe? Because if it is, this is your place to search for transportation. GoEuro compares airfare with ticket prices for the train, the bus and for fuel cost if you’re driving or renting your own car. But they don’t just compare prices, they also compare your travel time. Which doesn’t just mean the time you spend on a certain means of transportation but also the time you need for getting to the airport or train station, checking in, and the like.

Photo: Ryan McGuire

5. Book like a pro: Use a fake location!

Did you ever notice how airfare changes depending on where you book your ticket? Where meaning: In which country? Most often, this happens when you book domestic flights but it’s true for international flights as well. Generally speaking: It’s cheaper to book a flight when you book either in the country of departure or at your destination.

When I worked on this article I monitored the costs of a round-trip from New York City to San Francisco between Christmas and New Year’s. What I found is this: Had I booked such a flight from Germany – where I was at the time – I would have paid 700 Euros – which is 950 Dollars. That’s pretty expensive, obviously, as it was a last-minute request and ticket prices tend to be higher on holidays. But: Had I booked the very same flight from within the United States, I would have paid 700 Dollars. It would have saved me 250 Dollars.

You probably wonder why I should want to book a domestic flight if I’m not in the country? Sometimes when traveling in a certain country, you do book domestic flights in advance (since it’s cheaper) because you don’t want to travel long distances by car or bus across a certain country (imagine doing that in Australia!).

If you book at the right place, you can considerably save on international flights as well. A flight from Frankfurt to Sydney with the Hong Kong based Airline Cathay Pacific is usually cheaper if you book it in Hong Kong. Also, it will be cheaper if you book it from Germany or Australia.

Unfortunately, you don’t live in Germany, Australia or Hong Kong and have to book your flights at home? Far wrong! Because you don’t have to be at another place to get cheaper tickets. It’s enough to make the website from which you are booking believe that you are somewhere else.

Which works in two ways. There’s a simple option and another simple one (which just sounds complicated). The first way is to change the language, currency and location on your flight search engine – some offer this possibility, but not all. It’s what I did when I researched the prices of the above mentioned domestic flights in the United States. Within a few seconds, you’ll be able to book your flight for the local price in the local currency.

Sounds easy, right? And it is. Except when – let’s say – you want to book a flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Do you speak Vietnamese by any chance? I don’t. Fortunately, there’s another trick.

This trick is a proxy server. What the hell? To be honest, it’s much less complicated than it sounds and you really don’t have to care about the technical side of it. Just so much: A proxy server disguises your IP address via an intermediary server. Which isn’t a hundred percent secure as the server could, theoretically, read or save your data. So make sure you are using some kind of encryption as well. All right?

Yes, yes, okay. I already told you that you don’t have to care about that nerdy stuff. Just download ZenMate. It’s a browser plugin for all popular browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari and Android. It doesn’t only disguise your IP address but also encrypts your data – just like a VPN client. Install and activate it. Now you can chose the location of your proxy server and thus mock your booking website. If you chose a Hong Kong based proxy server, the website will think you are currently in Hong Kong. Chose Australia, and it will think you are in Australia. Applause!

There’s a drawback in both methods: Your bank might charge a fee for using your credit card ‘overseas’ – depending on your contract.

If you want to know more about booking via a fake location, I encourage you to read this article.

By the way: ZenMate isn’t only useful for booking flights, it’s also great for skirting internet censorship. Facebook in China? Hello!

6. Hidden City Ticketing and Throwaway Ticketing

Did you ever notice that some ridiculously cheap air connections take ridiculous detours? Last summer I wanted to book a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Sofia, Bulgaria. A non stop flight was available for 180 Euros. A flight with a stopover in Rome – a considerable detour – cost 120 Euros but had a 7 hour layover in Rome. I didn’t have that much time so I chose the direct flight. What really perplexed me, though, was the fact that the very same airline sold tickets for direct flights to Rome for no less than 180 Euros.

This is exactly the (absolutely absurd and nontransparent) graduation of prices that hidden city ticketing takes advantage of. What if you don’t want to fly to Sofia but to Rome? You’ll save a considerable amount of money if you book a ticket to Sofia via Rome and end your trip on your first stopover. Most airlines would consider this unethical – but it isn’t unlawful. Even though United is currently trying to sue a 22-year-old, who has invented a flight search machine that takes advantage of hidden city ticketing.

Incidentally, hidden city ticketing only works if you travel with hand luggage. Otherwise, your bags would be checked through and arrive in Sofia while you are in Rome. But there’s one exception to the rule: If you have a domestic connecting flight and have to enter the country before you’re allowed to board that flight you also have to take your luggage and go through customs. After that you can just leave the airport.

Throwaway Ticketing on the other hand takes advantage of the fact that – due to certain price dynamics and special offers – round trips are sometimes cheaper than one way tickets. If you only want to go one way you don’t have to take your booked return flight. But be careful: It really just works in that direction. If you don’t show up for the first flight airlines usually cancel the whole booking.

7. Travel with thrill: Stand-by flights

Stand-by is by far the cheapest way to fly. Unfortunately it’s not that easy to get stand-by tickets anymore since they are usually reserved for airline staff. But if you know someone’s brother or sister-in-law who’s working for an airline company, you might work your way around this restriction.

Stand-by tickets are heavily discounted tickets that are issued on a flight route but not on a certain flight. As a stand-by traveler you enroll at the counter on the day that you wish to travel and demand to be assigned the next spare seat. After that, if you aren’t one really lucky bastard, prepare yourself for some waiting time. Bad luck if somebody else buys a regular last-minute ticket or if the demand on the route is generally high. I would only recommend stand-by tickets to people with a lot of time and good nerves!

8. Airline loyalty will be honored

From January 14 on, Air Asia is going to launch a new frequent flier travel pass: The ASEAN-Pass, sold for 148 Dollars. It allows you to take up to ten Air Asia flights across Southeast Asia within one month. Even though airport taxes aren’t included in that price, the pass is unbeatably cheap. So if you consider traveling in Southeast Asia this year you should definitely consider buying the ASEAN-Pass as well: It can save you hours of bus and train rides.

Frequent flyers know that collecting miles is profitable as well – for people who either fly a lot, collect miles for hotel stays or car rentals all the time, or do a lot of online shopping. Miles can buy you a nice little upgrade – or even a free flight.

Let’s sum it all up in a nutshell: This list offers you a range of great ideas to save on your next flight. But always keep in mind what I told you in the beginning: Airfare is not made by airlines only but depends on a whole range of factors. Know these and don’t be disappointed and do NOT resign if one of the presented travel hacks doesn’t work at a certain time. Instead, try another one! Researching for the best price will take a little time and patience but it’s totally worth it. Plus, you’ll get practice. If you take this list to heart, you’ll be the one who has paid least for their ticket on your next flight, I promise.

Any questions left? Leave a comment!
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About the Author

Anna loves travel, photography, and writing. All at once, everyday. She collects entrance cards, plane tickets, and old atlases and has been searching for the perfect globe for some years. Follow Anna on Facebook or Twitter!

19 Comments

  1. Stephie Smith

    I’ve only been on one plane flight when I was younger, and my parents bought the ticket. Now that I want to fly out and visit my sister in Seattle, I really need to learn more about transportation and find something under my budget. I’m going to be saving this article, thank you for sharing.

  2. Nice post. Really interesting. Booking in advance and planing long before is one of the surest way to get cheap flight tickets. You have explained good tricks that I will check it for booking of tickets. Another way to get cheap tickets id to research a little bit and book through less popular routes.

    In your Where to book? section you can add Yatra which serves many location In Asia and it is most popular flight search engine of India.

  3. Hey Anna! Awesome list of tips here. I keep hearing about throwaway ticketing and using a proxy server to book flights, but I haven’t tried these methods myself. Will have to bookmark this post for later! Thanks for the insights.

  4. Great post! The worst part of travelling is paying for the plane ticket. But I’m determined to try booking a standby ticket (something I had not previously heard of) on my next trip. Thank you for the tips and challenge

  5. Carol Colborn

    What a gem of an article! I have picked up so many tips here. I am flying to Manila in May and will consider booking from Manila and ask someone to do it for me and compare it to booking here in Phoenix. Next I will buy that Asean Pass for 148!!! Thank you so much.

  6. I’ve always wanted to know how to disguise my location. Clearly a lot of hard work has went into this article – well done! I’m going to share this via Facebook, everyone wants cheap flights.

    We have the issue of one way. We’ve booked Austin to Lima and warning flashed to say we need a return. However we are travelling around and not returning to Austin. Plus we don’t really want to have fit plans around flights. Any solutions?

    We’ve cleared our computer history to avoid websites remembering us and bumping the price up.

    Thanks Anna, good work!

    • Dear Gemma, thanks for your comment! And thanks for sharing 🙂

      Regarding your problem with the flight from Austin to Lima: Did the warning maybe flash up because of some visa issue? Some countries require you to have a valid return or continuation ticket. If a return flight is too expensive to buy you could just look around for a cheap ticket to some other country in South America just to have proof that you’ll leave the country again. A bus or train ticket should also be alright. You don’t have to take that flight or bus or train only because you have a ticket. I’m not really familiar with Peruvian customs regulations though, maybe it’s alright if you don’t have any ticket at all (which usually is the case, despite all warnings).

      Have a nice weekend!
      Anna

  7. Olga

    I always knew that airlines increase their ticket prices before the flight date but never even imagined it could be something as high as 120%! Ridiculous!

Your thoughts are welcome!