How to save money on airfares

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.

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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.

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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.

Comparison shopping

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.

saving money

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?

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  1. Thanks for the tips I am always looking for ways to save a buck or two. We currently are shopping for flights from Istanbul back to Asia… Wish me luck!

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  2. Almost always though the airline, but occasionally I have booked with Orbitz, Expedia, and Cheap Tickets. I almost always go through the airline, though. If you have a problem, they’ll be more helpful than the third-party booker usually.

    I have had a similar problem with Skyscanner showing a fare that isn’t actually available through the airline, which is another reason I usually go through Adios for my final search. I haven’t had that issue with them.

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  3. I’ve had this site bookmarked for 7 years and just opened it up again to find invaluable information! Thanks so much, Talon!

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  4. Great tips, Talon! Always worth taking all pieces into account, like the extra fees for checked bags or having to print your boarding pass at the airport. I’ve never used Momondo, I’ll have to check them out. The layovers are a big deal, too. Since Andy doesn’t like to fly, it’s often worth it for us to book a more expensive flight with fewer layovers since each flight increases his anxiety. It’s also worth looking at how long the layover is. Sometimes the option that looks good has an incredibly short connection, and if you miss your connecting flight when the first flight is not late, most airlines won’t help you out. Worth paying a little extra for a flight with a better layover than to get stuck paying for a new flight at the last minute.

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    • Yeah the layovers can really hang you if you aren’t careful. I know someone else that had MAJOR problems because of that, and since they booked through Expedia it was even tougher.

      For our upcoming flight to the US, the cheapest route had us with about 2-1/2 hours in Calgary. They’re different airlines, and I didn’t want to chance it since there’s a good chance our bags wouldn’t be checked in all the way. So we decided to spend a couple of days in Calgary since we’re flying there anyway. Will give us a couple of days to adjust with the time zone, and I won’t have to stress about the logistics of “What if something happens and we’re delayed.”

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  5. If we are flexible with our time we try to book flights to major airport hubs and then get cheaper local flights. We’re currently researching our summer vacation and I’m looking at flights from Incheon, Korea to Da Nang, Vietnam. Using the Skyscanner Canada site vs the Skyscanner Korea site the tickets are more than $100 cheaper. I was really surprised! I knew using a vpn could effect the prices but I didn’t expect such a different price just using a different countries site of the same website.

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  6. Although I enjoy Adioso for dreaminging, I’ve never used it to book… have you booked with them? How were they?

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    • You don’t book through Adioso. They direct you to either the airline’s website or another 3rd-party site. Most of the ones I’ve seen are reputable. There have been a couple I don’t know much about, though. So far I’ve almost always booked through the airline directly since their fare was actually better than the 3rd-party site’s.

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  7. Some great tips here and most are new to me. Thank you!

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  8. Wow great info here! Never thought to get rid of cookies when searching. The $175 fare was amazing. And the Mex ones. Big difference from the ones I’ve found.

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    • That’s why I always use an incognito window. Don’t have to remember about dumping my cookies, and it means I can still remain logged into the stuff I want.

      My eyes almost fell out of my head when I first saw that Madrid rate.

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  9. I’m curious what sites you use to actually book flights? I often search on Skyscanner but the cheapest fares are on really sketchy sites that often have horrible reviews so I have never felt comfortable booking on them. By the time I check out the reliable sites or the airline sites, the fares are nowhere near as cheap. Or I might see a cheap fare on Skyscanner but when I click to go to the actual site to book, it’s no longer available.

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    • Almost always through the the airline, but occasionally I have booked with Orbitz, Expedia, and CheapTickets. I almost always go through the airline, though. If you have a problem, they’ll be more helpful than the third-party booker usually.

      I have had a similar problem with Skyscanner showing a fare that isn’t actually available through the airline, which is another reason I usually go through Adioso for my final search. I haven’t had that issue with them.

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  10. What a very handy post!!
    Thank you 🙂
    I will be using these for future travel!

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  11. Hey, Talon. Excellent post! I’ve been meaning to write an in-depth post like this for a while now. Adioso is a new find for me so thanks for the tip.

    One of my favorite ways to search flights these days is to use Google Flights. Have you tried it yet? I love the flex calendar feature that shows you the prices for the entire month and the map feature which allows you to plug in a departure city and then navigate around a Google map with the prices for just about every destination in the world.

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    • I haven’t heard of it before. Google owns Matrix, so it sounds like they’ve just taken that and put in some improvements. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the info!

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  12. Thanks for the tips I am always looking for ways to save a buck or two. We currently are shopping for flights from Istanbul back to Asia…wish me luck!

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    • Make sure to check out Malaysia Air. I know they’ve had a bit of bad luck lately, but they’re a good airline, and they often have great deals to KL from that area of the world.

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