Many people, especially Americans, believe vacations are expensive. A 2013 American Express survey revealed that the average cost per person for a summer vacation within the United States is $1,145. And that’s just within the United States. That cost alone is probably what a plane ticket to Europe will cost during the summer months. With the evolution of community sharing initiatives like Couchsurfing, Airbnb, and Relay Rides, it’s easy to travel for dirt cheap or possibly free. However, the one expense you can’t avoid is the cost of a plane ticket. And it’s probably not easy to hitchhike a plane.
Plane tickets are often the majority of anyone’s vacation budget. When I’m traveling I keep track of all my expenses in an Excel file and my travel journal. After the trip I add all my expenses from food to alcohol to gifts to plane tickets. Unless I travel using an award ticket, my plane ticket is often the most expensive item in my budget. Ever since my trip to Belize last year, I’ve been on a mission to find the cheapest possible flights so instead of paying an airline a ridiculous amount of money for a ticket, I can use that money for cool adventures like sailing the Greek isles with MedSailors, go cave tubing in Belize, and snorkel the Silfra in Iceland.
In the past two years I have traveled to 14 new countries all while holding down a full-time job while also running my own freelance writing business. Next year I’m finally taking off on my Great Escape. While I may not be the most seasoned traveler, I know how to make the most of my measly two weeks of vacation time a year and my post-grad salary saddled by massive student loan debt by scoring cheap flights and traveling on pennies. My friends and colleagues are always asking me for advice on travel, especially on how to score cheap flights. I even gave a talk at my language school on the topic. So, I’ve finally decided to share my secrets with you today.
How to Find Cheap Flights
Travel Hacking and Award Travel
After my Belize vacation last May I got bit hard by the travel bug. I’ve always wanted to travel the world, but like most people I thought that it was way too expensive. I started researching and came across Nomadic Matt’s website and then his book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. I hate clichés, but the book totally changed my life. I began plotting and saving for my Great Escape. The more I read and researched online, the more I learned about this little thing called travel hacking. As a competitive person, I knew this game would be fun. I’m lucky that I have excellent credit card and soon qualified for my first travel rewards card, the Barclays Arrival Plus card. I earned 40,000 miles with $1,000 spending in the first 3 months. It was easy. Next thing I knew I got sucked into the game and now I sit pretty with over half a million rewards points to my name across different reward programs. First class to Sydney? Yes please!
My flight to Europe this past May only cost me about $75 and 60,000 United miles for a roundtrip economy ticket. It would have been even less if I didn’t change my departure airport from Amsterdam to Brussels. If you have excellent credit and good with money, travel hacking is the way to go. Sign up for a travel reward credit card like Barclays Arrival Plus, Chase Sapphire, or American Airlines Premium Card. You’ll have to spend the minimum spending requirement within a set time period, usually 90 days, but you’ll receive a hefty bonus at the end. The bonus is often enough to get a roundtrip economy ticket within the US or a one-way ticket to Europe. Play your game right and you can score expensive first class tickets for just pennies.
To learn more about travel hacking and the best credit cards, check out a few of my favorite resources:
- The Points Guy – Each month TPG will rank the best credit cards based on their bonuses and spending requirements. He’ll also keep you abreast of any award program changes. Not to mention is team will sniff out the best flight deals and stories too.
- Nomadic Matt’s The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking – For $29.99 you’ll get the ultimate resource about travel hacking from beginner to advanced tips and tricks. While most of the information you can find on the internet, you’ll save countless hours by just buying it. I did and it helped me score my half million points over the past two years.
- FlyerTalk – Love forums? Flyertalk is for you! The site provides short news articles and a robust public forum about anything flying, including award travel. I don’t use this much, but if you’re looking for information about mistake fares, manufactured spending, and how to get the most out of your award miles, this is the holy grail of websites.
Flight Search Engines
Just like airlines, you have multiple choices in flight search engines. And just like buying a car, you’ll want to test drive several sites. Not all sites are created equal. Personally I’m not a fan or Expedia and Priceline. I can never find a deal on those sites and completely skip them in my search for cheap flights. My search engine of choice is Skyscanner. Skyscanner is a global search engine for flights, hotels, and car rentals. Skyscanner works by searching through travel agents like Expedia, Orbitz, and directly through airlines. However, Skyscanner does not pick up American budget airlines like Southwest and JetBlue. They will, however, search European budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet.
Kayak is another great search engine that I use. I LOVE the Kayak Explore tool found in the upper righthand square. The explore tool gives you a map view of the world. You’ll have to tell Kayak your home airport and select either a month or season and Kayak will populate flight prices all over the world. This is a great tool for daydreaming or if you are flexible on when and where you want to travel. For example, in January I want to fly out of BOS for under $300 roundtrip. I can filter the search by anything like weather, price, time, and activities. Based on my search, I can go to Fort Myers, Mexico City, or Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.
Google Flights is another tool I use regularly. Google Flights was once known as the ITA Matrix, but Google purchased the technology and renamed it. Google Flights is awesome because once you enter your departure and destination airport, it will give a calendar view of prices. Often times flying during the middle of the week is cheaper so if you have some flexibility in dates, this is a great search tool. You can also add additional features like time, number of stops, and price. Google Flights does pick up American and European budget airlines. However, Google Flights doesn’t always display prices for Southwest. I always recommend checking directly with Southwest and JetBlue for flights. Google Flights also has a explore map similar to Kayak Explore.
Recommend Flight Search Engines:
Fly Budget Airlines
Some of my favorite airlines are budget airlines. In Europe, there is an abundance of options for budget airlines. In the United States, we only have a few options: JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit. However, over the past couple of years, we have seen some European budget airlines inch their way into the States. Norwegian and WOW air now offer cheap transatlantic flights to Europe. The major downfall of budget airlines is they love to nickel and dime you for everything. While in Europe this past spring I flew Ryanair twice with no problems. While I hated the annoying and stinky perfume cart, I had a pleasant flight both times. I followed the rules. I paid extra for checked baggage because I knew my large backpack was going to be too heavy for a carry-on and I printed my boarding pass prior to arriving at the airport. Those who tend to have a grievance with a budget airline tend not to follow the rules.
All three of the American budget airlines now fly to the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America. Spirit is notoriously one of the worst airlines in the world. While I’ve never actually flow them before, I know a few people who have and they all have mixed feelings about the experiences. Spirit prices are generally dirt cheap, so it’s great if you’re on a tight budget, but you also get cheap service too. Be prepared to pay extra for baggage, no food or drink, and your seat won’t recline back. Think cattle car in the sky. Personally, I love Southwest and JetBlue. You now have to pay for checked baggage with JetBlue, but I love their customer service and in-flight entertainment so it’s worth it to me. Just learn how to pack light.
When searching Google Flights from Boston to Santo Domingo for January 21st to 25th, JetBlue was the best cheapest option at $484 (and nonstop to boot!). I could save about $30 by flying Spirit, but I would have to stop twice. Yuck! Delta was the next cheapest at $499 with one stop at JFK.
Cheap United States to Europe Flights
Everyone dreams of going to Paris in the spring, but few people can actually afford it. Summer in Europe is expensive including the flights to get there. Thankfully over the past couple of years Norwegian and WOW airlines are making a splash in the American marketplace by offering cheap flights to Europe. WOW air is a recent newcomer to America. They started offering flights from Boston to Iceland this past March, but have expanded to fly year-round from both Boston and Baltimore to Iceland and mainland Europe. WOW air routinely offers $99 sale tickets to Iceland and mainland Europe so make sure you sign up for their newsletter for the latest deals! I scored one of these flights when WOW air first announced their flights out of Boston.
Looking to book a trip to Paris in May? You can fly roundtrip from Boston to Paris from May 17th to May 30th for $696.34. For the same itinerary, you can fly Icelandair for $782 or Aer Lingus for $890. Go in the off-season and you’ll find even cheaper flights!
Norwegian Air is another budget airline that flies from the US to Europe. Flights to Europe originate from New York (JFK), Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angles, and Orlando. Throughout the year Norwegian will run crazy sales and you might score a roundtrip flight from west coast US to Europe for close to $300. Now that’s insane! For example, you can fly roundtrip from LAX to Oslo from January 21st to February 25th for $395.90. That’s cheaper than flying from west coast to east coast USA! While you’ll have to pay extra for baggage and bring food, you can’t beat that price.
Sign Up for Airfare Alerts and Newsletters
Did you know that airlines sometimes offer mistake fares? This has happened a few times over the past year. While it is debatable on whether airlines need to honor the mistake fares or not, some actually do. Airlines also run periodical sales. I scored roundtrip flights from Boston to Sao Paulo, Brazil for $550 in November. Flights to Brazil usually cost over $1,000. I also scored a sale flight from Boston to Belize and Guatemala City to Boston in February for $420. If I purchased the ticket the night before I could have purchased the ticket for closer to $300. How do I find these sales? I love The Points Guy. I get his email newsletter and follow him on Facebook. That is how I scored both those tickets. I don’t have time to search the internet for cheap flights, but The Points Guy has a staff that does. This website is a wealth of information.
When I start to plan any of my adventures, either domestic or abroad, I will set up airfare alerts for prices on several websites. These sites allow you to set up a personal alert for airfares to specific destinations and alert you when a price drops. Also, sign up for all the airlines newsletters, especially the budget airlines. Ryanair is notorious for offering super cheap fares. If you use Gmail like me, you can easily filter these into a separate folder so the newsletters don’t clutter your main inbox and hide the important stuff, like your credit card statement.
My favorite websites include:
Other Smart Tips to Score You Cheap Flights
- Depart and Return Midweek – Flying midweek, either on a Tuesday or Wednesday, tends to be the cheapest ticket options. Kayak’s Travel Hacker Guide shows flying to Europe on a Wednesday and returning on a Tuesday will yield you the lowest price. A quick Google Flight search confirms this trend to be mostly true but you’ll always find some outliers. If you have the flexibility to fly midweek then take it. You’ll often save money and availability for award travel tickets are greater too.
- Travel in Off or Shoulder Seasons – Europe in the summer is high season. It’s expensive and you’ll pay through the roof for flights and hotels. Looking to save some money? Travel in the shoulder seasons, which are April – May and September – October. Shoulder season for Australia is September – November and March – May. Not only will you save on airfare, you’ll save on accommodations, tours, and food. Plus, there will be less crowds.
- Fly to Hubs – Budget airlines in Europe are king. Use them and you’ll save a bundle. Use a major US airline to get to Europe and then use a budget airline like Ryanair to get to your final destination. This trick might not always save you money so do your research, but it might save you time. If you find a cheap flight to say Milan, but you really want to go to Prague, fly to Milan and then use a budget airline to get to Prague.
- Be Flexible with Your Dates – Midweek flights tend to be the cheapest. Want to go to Hawaii for Christmas? Consider flying on Christmas Day for the best price. Early or late night flights also tend to be cheaper than daytime flights. Use Google Flights to identify the cheapest day and time to fly.