Our Best Tips for Finding Cheap Airline Tickets in 2018
Everyone likes to get the best price on airline tickets. Why pay more than you have to? We’ve scoured the best sites and combined that with our own experiences for the best tips to get cheap airline tickets.
But first, let’s talk about something very important…
When it Comes to Cheap Flights, How Much is Money Worth to You?
Would you do a six-hour layover to save $200 on a flight?
How about saving $1,000 for a ten-hour layover?
Would you get up at three in the morning to catch a bargain flight, versus getting up later and paying a bit more?
Would you travel with just carry-on to avoid paying luggage fees?
These types of trade-offs – usually money for time and convenience – are worth thinking about when you shop.
If saving money is your top priority, and you’re willing to trade time and convenience, then you’ll get the rock-bottom prices.
We Want Both – Cheap Airline Tickets and Convenience
Just to get our biases out of the way:
As much as possible, we want to fly direct, and if necessary are willing to pay more. So, we’re looking for the cheapest direct flights. Layovers increase your chance of losing luggage, missing your connecting flight because your first one is late, eating too much over-priced airport food and finally needing the first day of your trip to recover from the ordeal.
If we have to do a layover, we’d rather split the flight in two, spend a few days in the first city, and then fly to our eventual destination. So, it’s an add-on mini-holiday. Yes, the total costs more, but it’s a much more interesting experience.
The #1 Tip for Getting Cheap Flights
With preferences out of the way, let’s look at getting cheap flights. As you’re shopping online, remember that the airlines or the loyalty points providers want to get most possible for their ticket. You, on the other hand, are looking for the lowest cost fare.
That’s where the airlines and points providers use a little trick to their advantage.
Here’s what happens. You’re planning your trip. You’re on the airline site and see a flight that you like, which costs $600. Sounds good, but you’re just shopping, not ready to buy yet and you leave the site. But unbeknownst to you, the airline has set a little piece of code, a cookie, on your computer that tells them that you’ve looked at that flight and how much it was.
Two nights later, you’re ready to buy. You find the flight, but now it’s $950! Darn!!! Did they sell out of all the $600 seats? Umm, no, they’re just seeing whether you’ll pay $950 for it. They know you want it, so why not get you to pay more for it? That’s called “maximizing profit”.
The Key to Cheap Airline Tickets is Browsing “Incognito” or “Private”
Your web browser has a setting that prevents sites from dropping cookies. Chrome calls it browsing Incognito, while Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer call it Private. Browsing in those modes means that sites can’t track you.
Look for this setting, often under your “File” menu and use it every time you’re ticket shopping. Actually, use it on any shopping site.
What if You Forget to Browse Incognito or Private?
If you forget, and start seeing higher prices, either switch browsers or switch computers. (You could trash all your cookies but you might lose some that are valuable to you)
A quick personal example. We wanted to use points on a recent flight from Toronto to Lisbon. The first time we looked, tickets were 60,000 points each, a great deal for a return flight from North America to Europe. Perfect! Didn’t book though. Later that week we were ready. Now they were 120,000 points each! A 100% increase!!! Then we smacked our foreheads, fired up another laptop, found the flights for 60,000 points and booked them. Lesson learned.
The #2 Tip: Flexibility is the Key to Getting Cheap Airfares
If you can travel on any day of the week, at any time of day, to any of a number of locations, you stand the best chance of getting the lowest fare. The less flexibility, the more restricted your choices. Let’s take this one at a time.
Can You Fly on Tuesday? It May Be Your Cheapest Airline Ticket.
Often, but not always, the lowest cost fares are on Tuesdays. So, if you’re an employee, could you make your last work day Monday and fly on Tuesday? Most people end their work week on Friday and then fly on Saturday, traditionally the most expensive day.
Consider Statutory Holidays For Cheap Airfares
What about flying on holidays like New Year’s Eve? How about Thanksgiving, or for Americans, July 4? Most people want to party, which means that fares are often a bargain.
Also, look for unpopular times of day. Sometimes late-night or really early morning flights are substantially less than at other times of day.
Would You Take a Cheap Airfare to Wherever?
How about being flexible in your destination? If you’re looking for a warm weather holiday during the northern winter, rather than settle on one destination, why not consider many and find one that’s priced right? There are lots of nice beaches in the Caribbean. Pick the one that’s on sale! Google Flights (more on that later) makes it easy. You can choose from your location to many airports within a region and get an immediate price comparison.
Some Airports Are Cheaper Than Others
Look at flights going to nearby secondary airports. Because airlines pay less to use these airports, they can offer lower fares.
But make sure you include the cost of ground transportation to wherever you want to get to. An airport many miles out of town may mean a long bus trip or expensive taxi.
Here’s a dramatic example: I just looked up one-way Toronto to London. Flying to Gatwick airport is offered at $246 on Westjet. To Heathrow it’s $1,618 on Air Canada. Same day, both direct, leaving about an hour apart. Gatwick is a 30-mile bus ride to downtown, while Heathrow has a direct connection to the tube. But for a difference of $1,372 per person…
Think Backwards for Cheap Airfares
Here’s what most people do: they pick the day they want to fly (often Saturday), they pick their destination, and lastly, look for the lowest cost airfare.
Turn that on its head: look for low cost airfares to a location you’re willing to go to and fly on the day the fare is lowest.
It’s not as insane as it sounds. We have a long list of places we’d like to visit. So, assuming the season is right (no, we don’t want to go to southeast Asia during monsoon season), we’d be happy picking any one at any time. We have flexibility on the date we’re flying, so we can easily start by looking for a good flight first.
Start Shopping for Flights on a Sunday 2 – 3 Months Out
This seems to be the sweet spot according to an analysis of billions of flights. For whatever reasons, fares seem to be best on Sundays about 2 – 3 months ahead of when you want to fly. All of this can change by the day, so you’ll have to experiment. Again, being flexible in your travel helps.
The other option is last-minute deals. If you’re flexible enough that you can leave within a day or two, you might find a sweet deal because the airline wants to fill up the last seats.
One Way Versus Round Trip Tickets
The cost of one-way tickets compared to round trip are all over the map (sorry about that).
Sometimes they’re significantly less than half of a return trip, in other cases they are much more. There seems to be little logic to it.
Why would you want one-way tickets? You may save money by not flying the same airline both directions. You may choose to come back from a different airport than the one you landed at.
Most importantly, if you’re travelling for a longer period of time, you may not know exactly when you want to come back, or whether you decide to carry on to another country. With a one-way ticket, you can save and have the most flexibility on time and location.
Caution Using One Way Tickets!
Many countries require “proof of onward” travel. In other words, they want to know you’re planning on leaving, not immigrating illegally and want to see a ticket out of their country as proof.
For sure, you will be asked when you’re travelling to New Zealand, the United Kingdom, United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Peru, and the Philippines and perhaps Thailand, Mexico, and Panama. In fact, you should always be prepared for this. You never know. Without it, you may be denied boarding.
You will be asked before you get on the plane to visit that country. So, to use the Toronto to London example, before getting on the plane in Toronto, they will ask at the gate for proof of a ticket out of England, usually back to Canada, but not necessarily.
But what if you don’t know when you’re returning? Or let’s say you want to visit England for a few months, and then head for India, or perhaps Thailand… depending on how you feel.
Three Proof of Onward Travel Workarounds
- Most airlines let you cancel within 24 hours of buying a ticket (check the terms and conditions carefully ahead of time, some airlines charge cancellation fees). Assuming your flight out is less than 24 hours long, before you leave, buy a return ticket on your phone while you’re at the airport to show at check in. When you land, AFTER you clear immigration, cancel your ticket.
- If you have enough frequent flyer points, buy your return or forwarding ticket on points. Again, check the cancellation policy, then cancel the flight after you’ve arrived. Most point programs are quite lenient and simply add the points back to your account.
- Look for a budget airline flying out of the country or region (remember if you’re going to the European Union countries, you have to leave the region, not just go from France to Germany for example), buy a cheap $50 ticket and be prepared to eat it.
Use a Premium Credit Card to Max your Points
Ah, the world of credit cards and points. I’m not going to go into detailed comparisons here (there are lots of websites for that), just outline the ones we use. Depending on what country you’re in, where you’re travelling and how you use your cards, your mileage will vary.
Here are the Canadian-based cards we use and why:
American Express Gold – Amex Gold gives you the most points per dollar for many purchases, the points are easily converted to Aeroplan points, and you get good car rental insurance coverage. They also offered a healthy points bonus for sign-up, but be aware, it’s an expensive card to carry. So, make sure you can make use of its features.
TD Aeroplan VISA – For merchants that don’t accept Amex, we use this one. Fewer points per purchase, but still car rental insurance coverage.
Amazon VISA – When we’re outside of Canada, we use this card, because they don’t charge the 2.5% transaction fee that most cards charge on foreign exchange, and it offers 2% cash back on Amazon purchases, 1% on everything else. No points, and no rental insurance.
Which Websites are Best for Finding Bargain Fares?
There are many fare comparison sites out there and it seems like there’s a new site or app every day. The ones we hear most often are Google Flights, Skyscanner, Momondo and Kayak.
Our favorite of the bunch is Google Flights followed by Skyscanner.
What we like about Google Flights is the clean layout, best prices for each day for months, the ability to filter by airline, number of stops, and preferred time of day, the tips on lower fares, and the ability to track price changes and receive alerts. We also like that you can easily compare prices to numerous airports within a region, say all of Europe.
Skyscanner has many of the same features and provides direct links to hotel and car rental sites.
Prices offered on both sites are usually within a few dollars of each other, so it really comes down to which site you find easier to use for your trips.
But before you book through any of these sites, do a last minute check on the airline site. You never know…
Reminder – Not all Airlines Show Up on These Sites
If you booking within Europe or Southeast Asia, you’ll find lots of discount airlines (they seem to come and go, what happened to Berlin Air?). Anyway, often they won’t show up on the big fare comparison sites, so you’ll have to go to their sites directly.
However, when booking with these airlines, you really need to read the fine print carefully to take advantage of the bargain fares. They’ll charge for everything starting with luggage, but also checking in at the counter, printing out boarding passes, reserving a seat, food and drink (on shorter flights not even an option), etc. So, spend some time reading and researching before booking.
Travelling Within Europe? Here’s the App for You.
Unlike North America, Europe offers much wider choices for travelling by rail or bus. Often, it’s just as fast and much easier than air, especially if you’re travelling from city center to city center.
That’s when you want Rome2Rio on your laptop and phone. It will give you all the travel options between two points – air, train, bus, ferry or automobile. It also gives you prices, schedules and estimated time of travel. If you need a combination of any of those modes, it will give you that too.
It’s an incredibly handy app to have on your mobile.
Airline Overbooked and You Got Bumped? You Might Get Paid.
Most airlines overbook their flights to make up for “no shows”, but if everyone does show up, someone will get bumped. If that happens to you, you may qualify for compensation.
The amount depends on the destination of your flight and how long you were kept waiting for the next flight. It could be hundreds of dollars. But don’t count on them to tell you – you may have to ask.
Read our blog post, Know Your Airline Passenger Rights for all the details.
Planning a Trip? We Don’t Go Without Travel Insurance
These days there are many things that can happen when you travel, aside from getting bumped from a flight. That’s why we always get insurance for our trips. It covers damage, loss or theft of our belongings, health issues and if necessary, emergency evacuation. Better safe than sorry.
Get a Quote: It’s Easy and Free
Whether you’ve just booked your trip or are already underway, you can get covered. Complete the form and get a quote. With a few clicks, you can buy your coverage online. It’s fast, easy and convenient.
Need WiFi When You Travel?
Like everyone else, we’ve become used to having WiFi wherever we are. For our last trip, we rented a Teppy for portable WiFi. In addition to working on our laptops, it allowed us to use Google maps in our car without data charges.
If you don’t have a phone plan that covers your data where you’re travelling, renting a Teppy, is a great option.
Lonely Planet Guides are Our Favorites
Along with the websites and other travel planning tools, we still like to have one guide book handy. We’ve tried them all, and these days we prefer Lonely Planet books. Although we love paper books, we’ve started buying the digital versions to read on our iPads, which we take with us anyway.
Best Choice of Hotel Accommodations
For hotel accommodation, we like Booking.com where we find a great selection, current prices and pages that make booking easy. We used Booking.com for hotels during our recent Portugal trip. There is a good selection of accommodation with the most up-to-date hotel prices here.
First Time For Airbnb? Click Our Link to Save!
We’ve often rented Airbnb both in Europe and North America. Everything from a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam, a house with a wonderful pool in Merida to a stone cottage in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We’ve always had a good time. If it’s your first time renting Airbnb, click here to get the equivalent of $50 CDN off your first booking.
Note: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. If you click on them and buy something or book accommodation, we receive a small commission at absolutely no cost to you. This helps with the cost of operating this site.
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