Booking flights has become a specialty of mine.
After taking multiple trips around the world and traveling 40 countries in the last 5 years, I like to think I'm pretty good at getting the best deals. But the thing is, the way that flights are priced makes no sense!
For example, when I booked my flight home from Europe to Montana, I did something I don’t usually do. I went to standard flight websites (Expedia, Orbitz, one of the those) and typed in where I wanted to go. I had a week before I needed to leave.
The price that showed up was $4,000.
Well, that’s insane.
No wonder people think you have to be rich to travel.
Luckily, by this late in the game, I have made mistakes, learned the hard way, then taken short cuts and figured out how to get around the system and wound up paying around $600 for the same flight.
$4,000 vs. $600. Seriously. It makes no sense.
The executives got together and said, “Throw logic out the window, fire the accountants! Let’s price some flights!”
Then they got drunk.
Then they priced the flights.
Because of this ridiculousness, here are my tips to save money on flights.
If you want to know how to save money on flights, try Google Flights. This alone will save you hundreds on airfare. Google Flights searches thousands of airlines and gives you a calendar of dates and prices. That way, you can see that by altering your trip a day or so you can sometimes save hundreds of dollars on a single flight. They also show discount airlines the big guys often leave out.
I have flown more places by cashing in miles than I ever have by paying cash. Although you will sometimes end up taking crazy routes to get to where you want to go, you will also get crazy deals.
I flew from the US to Bolivia for 17,500 miles on Alaska once and out-of-pocket it cost me $20.
Since the majority of my readers are in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Montana, I recommend American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. American Airlines will get you around the world and they make it really easy to book online with miles. Their program is fair and straight forward.
Alaska Airlines is great for regional travel and also has great international partners. I took the best 15-hour flight of my life with Alaska miles. It even had great food.
I’d just remind you of this, booking with airline miles takes a little work. Be prepared to make some phone calls and be on hold. It sounds crappy but this extra time can literally save you thousands of dollars.
I’m going to put a disclaimer with this one. Don’t do this if you can’t trust yourself to pay off your credit card weekly. This can be a very slippery slope if you’re not careful.
But, the way that I have been able to travel so much is by getting airline credit cards when they offer their new sign up deals. Wait until a promotion is running for 50,000 bonus miles or more. Usually, you only get these promotions if you spend something like $1,000 in the first three months.
For a list of good offers, and a great blog on the subject, click here.
What you can do is put all your groceries, gas, bills, even rent on that card until you reach the spending limit. Then you get the miles within a month or so and can travel. For example, 50,000 miles is typically enough for a round trip to Europe. I’ve flown to South America on 30,000 round trip. I think Japan in the off-season was also around 30,000. As long as you pay off your cards weekly, you will be ahead of the game and not losing money on interest.
You want to do this so your searches aren’t being tracked by your IP Address. Once the Google-powers-that-be know what you’re searching for, you will find prices are rigged and don’t go down. You end up stuck. It’s best they don’t know what you want.
Seattle to London for $250!
This one is huge! In the US, we now have some international budget options like Norwegian Air. When you can fly from Seattle to London for $250, it’s nothing short of a miracle. Last week I was eating in the Seattle airport and the waitresses were talking about if they should go for the latest promotion which was an Asian airline offering flights to China for $250.
I'm not even kidding, the deals are out there.
Now, the downside is, at the rock bottom prices, you can’t choose your seat, get inflight meals, or bring extra luggage. But, you can incrementally add those things if you want.
For me, I’ll add some extra luggage or a seat if desperate but often, you can get better food in the airport and bring it on to the plane with you so there’s no loss at not getting in-flight meals.
Now, after you’ve left the US, did you know that you can fly from country to country in Europe for as low as $25?
Seriously! It’s the best thing ever!
If you’re looking for flights in regions outside the US, Google “Budget airlines in blah, blah blah). In Europe, you’ll see things like RyanAir and EasyJet. In Asia, there’s Thai Airways and dozens of others. In South America, you’ll hear crickets and wind up taking a bus, but it’s still worth looking.
Okay, this one is crazy, but I’ve had it work. Earlier this year when I was traveling from Northern Thailand to the South, my friend and I just showed up at the airport and asked for tickets. We had looked online and they were about $90. When we got to the airport, we got tickets for a flight leaving in an hour for $60 each!
Note: This does not work on international flights. I tried the same thing when going from Thailand to Ireland.
There are some flight paths that are only flown by one airline. These name their price and we line up and pay in a defeated, sad sort of way. This was the case when I went from Santiago, Chile to Easter Island. Only Latam flies that route. It’s a six-hour flight and there’s just no other way to go.
I tried repeatedly to outsmart the system, thinking that prices would fluctuate or a deal would crop up. It didn’t happen. The only way to get ahead of it was to book 3-6 months in advance which is not how I travel. I had to eventually fork out the money. Easter Island was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m glad I did. But lesson learned. Know when you’re beat.
I typically take a couple of hours to book a flight. That may seem like a huge waste of time to some but in the first example, my flight went from $4,000 to $600. That’s an insane difference in two hours. I honestly don’t know what I could do in two hours that would be so valuable I’d recoup that $3,400. I spent that time looking up flight routes, airlines that flew them, calling for reward tickets, figuring out it was too late for reward tickets then search budget airlines and compromising.
Time well spent.
In the example in #8, it took me 5 flights to get from Northern Norway to Southwest Montana. Being that neither location is near a major airport, this is not a surprising number. I was prepared for hours of airports. If you hate that sort of thing, you may want to schedule a long stop-over.
I also didn’t care where I sat. This backfires sometimes and you end up sitting in the middle on a 16-hour flight, but I had a small miracle on these flights and had an entire row to myself for 4 out of 5 flights!
That’s like winning the airline lottery.
I am currently willing to endure some discomfort to get to where I want to go cheap. That being said, I’m also one of the few people I know that can sleep on a plane. If this type of misery isn’t your cup of tea, draw the line somewhere and compromise or drink to make up for the difference. You need to maintain your sanity.
There are lots of options out there to watch for an alert you of deals when they come across. Next Vacay and Airfare Watchdog are a few of my favorites. Also, for those of you in the Northwest, sign up for Alaska Airlines emails. You’d be surprised how often you can get tickets from say, Seattle to San Diego for $60.
There are lots of automated processes out there. Sign up and have someone else do the work for you!
This one is slightly risky, but it is a huge money saver. The thing is, sometimes by booking connecting flights, you pay a premium. One of my tricks is to book a ticket to a major US hub and the international flight separately.
The risky part of this is that airlines aren’t required to help you if you miss a connecting flight when they aren’t all on one reservation. So you want to book a long layover in case there are delays or cancellations. The best way is to stay with a friend who lives in the city overnight. If that’s not an option, book a layover that is at least 4 hours.
It’s risky but I saved about 300 hundred dollars doing this when I arrived in Seattle before departing for Montana. I just spent an extra few hours in the airport. Let’s say I had missed my connecting flight and had to buy one at the airport, it probably would have cost me around $300, so no big loss there.
This is genius and crazy that it works. That being said, I rarely use it because I don’t want someone to miss out on a seat because of me.
Skiplagged is a website that finds loopholes in airline pricing. For example, let’s say you want to fly from Portland to San Diego. It’ll find you a flight that’s cheaper but is from Portland, stops in San Diego, then continues to LA. You simply get off the plane in San Diego and cancel your next flight.
It finds weird deals like that.
The other thing I love about it, is that you can just put in your departure airport and find the best deals to Anywhere! So, if you’re up for adventure without an itinerary, this is a great option.