Travel Hacks for Flying on the Cheap
From delayed departures and long layovers to arbitrary fees and expensive airport food, countless things are out of your control when you fly.
How much you pay for your flight shouldn’t be one of them.
While it may seem like there’s not much you can do about the cost of flying from one place to another, there are are a surprising number of ways you can hack the system to save big on your next trip. From common sense solutions to best business practices, here are some of the most helpful tips and tricks.
Accept That There Is No Perfect Time to Book
Do a quick Google search for the best day of the week to book a flight and you’ll find lots of contradictory advice. While it was long believed that Tuesday was the best day to book, some sites now say that Sundays reign supreme, while others swear that Wednesday afternoons are ideal.
Time for some myth-busting: None of this date-hacking is going to lead to massive savings on your next trip. Realistically, it’s possible to save yourself the cost of a lunch or checked bag, but rarely are you going to see fares slashed by hundreds of dollars simply because you’re searching on a Tuesday morning (or Sunday, or Wednesday afternoon).
Avoid Peak Travel Times
In a perfect world, flights would always be perfectly timed to your schedule and priced for your budget. But the fact is, when everyone tries to plan their ideal long weekend away on the same schedule, there’s not much you can do to avoid skyrocketed fares.
The solution? Avoid peak travel times like Friday and Sunday evenings and holidays.
Some online booking sites like Kayak let you enter your travel dates and then search for cheaper flights within a few days on either end of your trip. While there’s no perfect science to finding the cheapest time to fly, sites like Airfarewatchdog say that the best days for budget travel are Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Search in Secret
If you’re browsing flights before finalizing your travel plans, you might want to consider browsing discreetly. When you repeatedly search for a specific flight or group of flights to get to your final destination, the price you see may suddenly increase because of the ramped-up demand.
Wondering how this works? Cookies from websites that you visit let the site know where else you are searching as well as how often you return. For this reason, when researching potential flights, always make sure that you’re searching in a private browser mode like Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode. If you’re not browsing privately, you can also consider clearing your cache or using a different computer to research flights. This will prevent your previous searches from following you around the internet and influencing the cost of your flight in future searches.
Bite the Bullet on Budget Airlines
It’s no secret that budget airlines can be a pain. But if you’re trying to cut down on airline costs, sometimes it’s worth biting the bullet and booking on a budget carrier. Especially if you’re traveling with minimal luggage and don’t care about added amenities like in-flight snacks or the ability to choose your seat free of charge, budget airlines — like Spirit, Frontier, or Allegiant — might be the perfect way to save some cash.
For quicker flights or weekend getaways, enter your start and end destinations into sites like WhichBudget to see which carriers could support your trip. But if you’re traveling internationally, these cheaper — and usually less comfortable — options may not be your best bet.
Ultimately, the most important thing to do when booking budget is deciding when you’re willing to skimp and when it will negatively impact your overall travel experience.
Especially if you’re traveling to or from a smaller airport, your options for direct flights — or even itineraries with only one connection — may be limited. Not only does this restrict your options when it comes to scheduling, but it also means you’re stuck paying whatever price the limited carriers offer.
In order to keep your costs down and give you more flight options, consider looking at other airports in the region to see if you could more cheaply connect to your final destination instead of letting the airline choose your connection for you. By purchasing your flights individually and creating your own travel itinerary, you may have more options when it comes to flight connection times and seat prices. You could also look for flights into other nearby airports and consider renting a car to drive to your final destination if it’s a better fit for your budget and time.
Invest in Travel Insurance
If travel insurance isn’t something you’ve ever considered, now might be the time to change that. While it’s an added cost up-front, travel insurance is the only way to protect against cancelled flights or unexpected circumstances like someone getting sick, a death in the family or inclement weather.
While prices can vary depending on the coverage and company you choose, travel insurance typically costs between 5 and 12 percent of your total trip costs. Think of it this way: You’ve already invested in your vacation by paying a couple hundred dollars for a flight and hotel accommodations — why wouldn’t you pay a little bit more to protect your investment?
While travel insurance won’t cut down on your airline costs initially, it will help ensure that you’re not stuck paying for additional fares if things don’t go according to plan.
Pay Attention to Price Alerts
You can’t jump on airfare flash sales if you don’t know about them. Consider signing up to receive price alerts for trips you’re trying to plan. Sites like Airfarewatchdog let travelers enter their point of departure and final destination to receive email updates when fare prices drop. You can also opt to receive emails about flights to any destination flying out of your hometown if you want to be able to act as soon as wanderlust strikes.
Even if you’re cautious about clogging your inbox, signing up for airline emails is helpful for spotting flash sales and other last-minute deals. Sign up to receive airline emails and then be ready to jump on a deal if one comes into your inbox. Oftentimes major airlines like United and Southwest will slash prices as low as $49 for select destinations or date ranges. If budget travel is your bread and butter, consider signing up for Frontier’s email list to receive updates on flights priced as low as $29. Most times, these airline flash sales are only available for 24 hours, so be sure you’re ready to buy.
Search for Seats as a Single
When it comes to comparing flight prices, you might find cheaper fares if you’re searching for a single seat rather than for a group.
If you’re traveling with the whole family it may seem counterintuitive to search for available flights for only one person. But on many airlines, prices actually increase for group ticket sales. Find the lowest price by searching as a single, even if you have plans to book as a group later on.
When it’s time to book, if the group rate is ridiculously more expensive than a single seat, consider purchasing your tickets separately and using the seat-picking functionality at the end of your transaction if your group wants to sit together.
Bundle Your Bookings
If you’re already purchasing a flight and need to also book hotel accommodations or a rental car, it might be cheaper to bundle everything. Some airlines even have special combo deals that give customers access to cheaper airfare simply because they’ve booked accommodations or rentals through their site.
These packages can potentially be more restrictive — especially if you like having a say in your hotel selection or rental car agency — but can be a sound choice if you’re just trying to find a good deal. While it might not always be cheaper to bundle, it never hurts to check and weigh your options.
Take Advantage of Exchange Rates
When booking international flights, consider playing around with currency conversions before booking. If your home country’s currency is currently strong compared to others internationally, consider switching to a weaker currency.
Check whether your desired flight has a cheaper price by visiting the international airline’s native website (not the English one that is sometimes generated). Maybe international airlines will offer at least a slight discount to passengers who book in their country’s native currency. This saves the company foreign transaction fees and isn’t impacted by constantly changing international exchange rates. While this travel hack may not always work, it’s possible that you could find a cheaper fare on a flight you’ve already identified as a good fit for your trip.
Fair warning, though: Be sure that the credit card you’re using does not carry a foreign transaction fee, or you may end up paying extra for your travel hacking.
Similarly, consider booking international flights in the local currency of the country you’re visiting for a potentially cheaper rate. Many airline websites have a toggle feature in the top right corner of the screen. Simply select the country you’re planning to visit and browse away.
Harness the Power of Credit Card Rewards
If you’re planning to spend big on flights and you don’t have a credit card offering airline miles as a reward, you’re missing out.
Do some research to determine what cards might be a fit for you and your travel preferences. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card have a large sign-up bonus — in this case, 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months — and earn travelers two times the points for every dollar spent on travel and restaurants. Through Chase’s system, 50,000 points is worth $625 in travel expenses through partners like Southwest, United and Hyatt.
Travelers who prefer the freedom to use rewards on any expenses should consider programs like the Capital One Venture Rewards Card. This card earns travelers two times the miles on every purchase; points can go toward airfare, a hotel stay or a rental car.
Don’t fall prey to the myth that something better is always out there. Whether it’s a cheaper fare or better flight times, it can be easy to keep waiting for something better to come along before you book. But if you have specific dates that you need to travel, it’s actually best to book your plane tickets as soon as your plans are finalized.
While it may seem like a better deal could come along, fares rarely get cheaper the closer you get to your departure date, and if you wait too long, you run the risk of your desired flight selling out or getting out of your price range.
That said, you don’t want to buy your flights too far in advance either. Typically it’s best to book between six and eight weeks prior to your travel.