Over the last several years, we’ve taken lots of flights. Being on a rather tight budget (initially $30/day total for 2 people, including everything), I obviously work hard to save money, especially on air travel. I’ve tried various techniques and sites, and this system has worked quite well for me. It takes a bit more effort, but in the end it definitely pays for itself by potentially saving of hundreds of dollars per trip.
Sites to save money
You should always use an incognito (Chrome) or private (Firefox) window before doing searches. Search engines check out your browser cookies, and if they pick up that you’ve been visiting a lot of sites for a particular area or have been doing airfares searches, they may show you artificially inflated fares to get you to buy now.
I begin all my searches with Matrix. While this site doesn’t always show you the cheapest fare, it does tap into more of the low-cost carriers that aren’t included in other search engines. Recently, I did a curiosity search for flights out of Cancun to Europe. I know that often the Madrid route is the cheapest, so I checked that out. Matrix showed a flight for $175 USD with the next cheapest airfare being $743. That’s quite the difference! Other search engines did not show this fare.
When searching for US flights, make sure to also visit Southwest’s site. They don’t usually show up in search engines, and often their fares are much lower. They also don’t charge for up to 2 checked bags. They are one of my favorite airlines, and their crew are among the friendliest in the world. Southwest just began international service with flights to Mexico.
I begin by using a flexible dates search. Even if the fares aren’t as amazing as the one above, it will give you an idea as to when will be the cheapest to fly, which helps you with other searches.
My next stop is usually with Skyscanner. If I’m not sure where I want to go, I will sometimes start with Skyscanner,
Updated: Momondo has been beating or matching Skyscanner lately, and I find their site to be a bit more user friendly. It’s not as easy to look at an entire month at once, but it’s now my starting point.
After I see which areas are the cheapest, I go check them out on Matrix. Both Momondo and Skyscanner allow you to enter “Everywhere” as a destination. They will then return a list of possibilities based on low prices. This is one of the reasons we ended up flying to Faro, Portugal this spring.
Once you’ve nailed down the airline you wish to use, make sure to check out their site as well. Sometimes they have deals that aren’t picked up by the search engines. I did this the first time I flew to Paris and ended up finding an incredible deal—$430 roundtrip from Denver, including travel insurance. This fare wasn’t on any of the search engines.
Recently, I was checking out one of our future US routes, and by using flexible dates (even though I only had 1-2 days to work with), I ended up saving at least $150 by staying in the city one day longer. That savings is after accounting for one night in a hotel, so yeah it was worth it.
One thing you also have to consider when choosing the best fare is a company’s baggage policy. As above, one route we choose didn’t really have much of a price difference. However, one airline doesn’t charge for up to 2 checked bags, and the other charges $35 for each bag. As there are two of us traveling, choosing the first airline will net us a $70 savings on baggage fees alone.
When the fare differences aren’t as huge as my first example, I find Kayak’s list of airline fees to be quite handy. They break down the various fees for most airlines in a very easy format. As those fees can add up quickly, I always check out this list before deciding which airline I will purchase from.
Many times I’ve switched to an apparently higher airfare just because once you added everything in they ended up being cheaper.
Other things to consider
- Online check-in. Some low-cost airlines, especially in Europe, will charge you a fee to print out the boarding pass at the airport. It can be as high as $100! Most make on-line check-ins free.
- Layovers. Is it really worth saving $60 if the route includes 2 transfers and adds 4 hours to your travel day while the more expensive fare is nonstop? Layovers can also come in handy sometimes if they’re long enough to allow you to go out and explore a new city for a few hours.Some airlines, like Iceland, will allow you a 1- to 3-day layover in a country without an extra charge. We ended up enjoying about 15 hours in Sri Lanka. While it wasn’t as long as we would’ve liked, it still gave us time to get somewhat acquainted with a new culture, and we know we want to go back and explore it more. For China, this can be a big bonus as a longer visa for most of the country is $140 for US citizens and requires a bit of a process. However, there are a few cities where you can fly in and stay for up to 72 hours on a free transfer visa.There is a great online resource you’ll want to check out if you’re considering an itinerary that might require you to sleep in the airport. I used this when planning my first trip to Peru, and it was super helpful.
- Seating. It seems most airlines now charge for the privilege of selecting seats in advance or for seats with more legroom. If being able to select your own seat is important to you, make sure you check out the fees list in advance to factor this into your total cost. You’ll also want to check out SeatGuru, a free online resource that can help you know which seats to avoid on a given flight. I’ve used this site many times, and a few times it has made a huge difference in helping me avoid seating that would’ve been awful.
- Newsletters can be quite helpful. Often airlines will advise subscribers of big sales that aren’t generally known (or will allow you to take advantage of the special fare before the general public can join in), so it pays to sign up for these. They’re free so why not? Some fare-watching sites, like Airfare Watchdog, also offer various fare alerts. For example, you can set an alert from your departure city so that you are advised of deals leaving from your local airport. They have various alerts you can subscribe to, and it’s a free service.
- Changing countries. This one is a bit more technical, but it can pay to check out airfares while using a VPN and connecting from a foreign country’s servers. Some airlines also have different sites for different countries and sometimes those fares are quite different. When looking at routes from Australia to Hawaii, a friend checked both her local site and the site that was local to Australia, and the price difference was about $400 per person. As airlines often offer discounts for specific routes or from specific airports, this little trick may help you tap into some serious savings.
Do you have any tips to save money on airfare that I didn’t include?