Travel is one of life’s greatest pleasures — it can also be very expensive.
Hotels, excursions, meals: The costs add up quickly. One of the biggest budget busters? Flights. The bad news is that higher-than-usual airfares seem to be sticking around. The good news is there are still plenty of ways to save on this travel expense.
From the tried-and-true tactics to the less-than-conventional approaches, with a little planning, research and flexibility, cheap flights are still well within reach.
1. Be strategic about when you travel
Plenty of myths persist about the best time to purchase flights. The truth is price depends more on when you’re traveling than when you book. Generally, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest travel days, though this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
Avoiding travel during peak seasons (mid-June through mid-August, Christmas, New Year's Eve) is another way to save a pretty penny. January through mid-May and September through mid-December tend to be cheaper times of year to fly. Be sure to look at any local holidays in your destination country and city, as it could be more expensive to fly there during those times. For example, you may not want to head to the beach in March, as it’s prime spring break time for families and college students.
2. Keep your plans flexible
The traditional travel planning process usually starts with picking a place and date, then finding flights — but if you have any wiggle room, it could help you save. Check out fares for different destinations and dates to find a price tag that works for your budget.
Already have a specific destination and timeline for traveling? You can still benefit from some adaptability if you have room to flex your departure and return dates. When searching for flights, change these dates by a day or two and see if that makes a difference in price.
3. Use flight exploration tools
In the same vein of flexibility, there are great tools online for those who know they want to travel but have no specific destination in mind. Take sites like Kayak and Escape, or the Google Flights Explore Map, for example — just input your departure airport and leave the destination field open, or narrow it down by region. The results are displayed in a map that showcases prices for flights to different airports within that region, so you can browse and find a vacation spot that appeals to you and falls within your desired price range.
4. Set fare alerts
A savvy approach for those who don’t have flexibility in their destination and travel dates is to set alerts through various flight search engines. Google Flights, Kayak, Hopper and others allow you to save specific flights based on your starting city, destination and departure and return dates and get notified if and when the fare drops. Continue searching, though, as the specificity of this method can let other deals fall through the cracks.
5. Check out budget airlines
There are numerous airline options today for traveling both domestically and overseas. Budget airlines may offer fewer frills — no free meals or checked bags, limited entertainment options — but the payoff is often significantly cheaper fares than larger commercial airlines.
Don’t want to fly budget the entire way to your destination? Break up flights across different airlines. There may be a less expensive flight to your destination from another U.S. city; in this case, you can purchase tickets from that airport and hop on a budget flight to get there.
Consider some of the most popular budget airlines around the world:
Sun Country Airlines
Air Canada Rouge
Hong Kong Express
6. Compare search engines
With so many applications for finding flights, it can become overwhelming to determine which to use. There is no be-all and end-all source for finding flights with the greatest value; each has its pros and cons. A best practice is to search a few to compare pricing. Google Flights, Priceline, Momondo, SkyScanner and Kayak are all sites where you can compare deals and flight costs.
7. Purchase tickets individually
Even if you’re traveling with a partner or group of people, sometimes it’s cheaper to book each person’s ticket individually than all at once. This isn’t always the case but is worth researching. Look up the price for the number of people going on the trip and calculate the cost per ticket, then look up the price of the same flight for a single ticket and see if there’s a difference.
8. Book early
As mentioned above, there’s no rhyme or reason to how flight prices fluctuate from one day to the next. However, earlier tends to be better. Most airlines offer low rates as a baseline, then continue raising the price as more tickets are purchased. So if you know where and when you’re going, buy as soon as you can. Even if you don’t have specific plans or know where you’ll stay, get the flights first and figure the rest out later.
The recommended time to purchase is typically two to three months prior to the departure date (five months prior if you’ll be traveling during peak season).
9. Consider booking flights with layovers
Flying direct saves time, but nonstop flights are typically more expensive than those with one or two stops. Check out price differences, along with layover lengths and locations, to determine if it’s worth the expenses saved. A flight may be hundreds of dollars cheaper with a layover, but if that layover is nine hours long, you may prefer to pay more.
Another (possibly even cheaper) option is purchasing each leg of the journey separately. If you’re flying from Chicago to Paris, check out the cost of a ticket from Chicago to Amsterdam and a ticket from Amsterdam to Paris and compare the combined price to potentially find a more affordable option.
10. Use points and/or miles
Even better than a cheap flight is a free one! Certain credit cards make it easy to start earning miles and points that can be used toward travel. By building points for every dollar you spend, using these cards for everyday purchases could gain enough points for a free flight or two before you know it.
Some airlines also have their own credit cards, allowing you to earn points as you spend. If you don’t want to open another line of credit, consider joining an airline frequent flier program that builds points every time you fly. You typically don’t have to fly often to qualify or collect points — the only catch is the points can only be used for flights on the respective airline.
Some of the popular frequent flier programs in the U.S. include:
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
American Airlines AAdvantage
Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
United Airlines MileagePlus
Break away without breaking the bank
Traveling should be an escape, not a budget killer. By doing your due diligence and taking a proactive approach, you can get to your dream destination and enjoy your vacation without worry.