The 101 Guide to Finding a Cheap Flight

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I still remember the first time I ever planned and booked a flight on my own. It happened right after I started my Freshman year in college. I was trying to find a flight home to Los Angeles for the Thanksgiving break, but little did I know what a nightmare that would turn out to be. I didn’t think to look until late September, and flights between the Bay Area and LA that were usually $80 ~ $120 were already going for $250+! That definitely left me scrambling to find alternative routes – I even contemplated on whether I should just give up going home that break (or endure that 7 hours car drive).

Planning trips and weekend getaways when I was studying abroad also proved to be another challenge. Being abroad in another country gave me the perfect opportunity to explore the neighboring countries and regions. But here was my dilemma: how was I going to afford all the trips that I want to take??

What I am trying to say is: booking a cheap flight is one of the most important elements in planning a budget-friendly trip. Think of all the other things you can spend your money on from the amount you save on flights!

So without further ado, here are some tips on booking a cheap flight.

1. Book early. Book Early. BOOK EARLY.

I cannot emphasize this enough! Timing is so important when it comes to finding a cheap flight. Airfare usually goes up the last two weeks before flying. The ideal time to book a flight:

  • Domestic/Regional Flights:
    • 6 to 8 weeks beforehand and no later than a month before flying.
    • Typically, you don’t want to book earlier than 3 months ahead of time because airlines usually don’t put out their sales before then.
  • International Flights:
    • 2 to 6 months beforehand
    • Generally, you want to book as early as possible.
      *If you can, it never hurts to plan ahead, which bring us to our next point.

2. Book early for the holidays.

This one seems pretty comprehensive BUT here is the little trick. If you anticipate to go somewhere for a specific holiday, try to book a flight for that before the holiday immediately preceding it. For example, if you know you will be flying home for Christmas, book your flights before Thanksgiving. From my experiences, people tend to focus only on booking trips for the next break, and generally don’t think about planning for their next break until the upcoming one has passed.

3. Book your flights on Tuesdays.

Fact or myth? Fact. The cheapest flights are sold on Tuesday, and you would want to look at this as early in the day as possible since most sales end before 3 PM Eastern Time. Even if you don’t book your flight then, it never hurts to look. I am always on the lookout for cheap flights, so I make it a habit to check up on airfares every Tuesday, especially if I am looking to go somewhere around that particular time. In fact, my friends and I were able to book a $83 round trip ticket from San Francisco to Chicago with Frontier Airlines (normally this route costs around high $300s to $500s!!) earlier this year. This was awesome because we were able to use the amount that we would have normally spent on the flight on other things such as hotel, food, attractions, food, local transportation and did I mention….FOOD? The total for our entire Chicago trip came out to be around the same amount as we would have spent on a normal flight.

4. Be flexible (if you can).

The most expensive days and times to fly are Friday and Sunday nights, so if you are planning to do a weekend getaway, consider taking a day off if you can to save up on costs. For example, if I am planning to do a weekend trip somewhere I would usually consider the following flying options:

  • Take Monday off so I can move my Friday – Sunday trip to Saturday – Monday instead.
  • Take Friday off so I can fly Thursday night and come back Sunday morning (cheaper than Sunday night flights)
  • Take a half day on Friday to lower the costs since Friday morning and early afternoon flights are considerably cheaper.

5. Make some sacrifices…on your sleep!

If you’re willing to give up some zzzzzz’s to save, you can consider flying very early or flying very late (take a red-eye!). Luckily for me, I can sleep almost anywhere so this is not too big of a problem for me since any sleep I am losing I can probably make up on the flight to my destination. But unluckily for Anna, and for most people, sleep is hard to come by and very precious. Because of this, most people don’t want to fly at the crack of dawn or past their bedtime. Airlines know this too so early and late flights are typically way cheaper than flights during normal business hours.

6. Accept a layover.

I am not actually a big fan of layovers, mostly because I think it wastes a lot of time and waiting at an airport can really drain your energy, not to mention your excitement for the trip! But I do have friends who are always willing to take layovers because it does end up saving a lot of bucks. One of my friends once bought a flight from San Francisco to New York with three layovers, the trip took her ~14 hours but she only had to spend $200 (normally $300-$400) – not saying I would be willing to do it…so I really admired that haha. If time is not a factor for you, do consider looking into flights with layovers.

7. Check out alternative airports.

If you are lucky enough to live in an area that has access to more than one airport, you can compare the prices flying from different airports. For example, if I am flying from the Bay Area, I would look into flights from SFO, OAK and as a last resort, maybe even SJC.

8. Use 2 or 3 reliable airfare search engines to compare fares.

It is important to compare airfares because no one airline will ever have the best price. I used to like going to Skyscanner but recently my two go-tos are definitely Google Flights and Travelocity. I also love STA Travel, which I found out about during my study abroad days, when looking for affordable international flights.

9. Don’t forget to check your local friendly budget airlines!

Know your local budget airlines and always remember to check the prices for your route on those before booking. Airfare search engines like those mentioned above sometimes do not include budget airlines so it is important to remember to check out those on their individual websites before booking. Here is a guide on some of my favorite budget airlines (coming soon!)

10. Book on incognito or private browsing mode.

I am sure most of you have heard this one before. And as someone who works in the digital media advertising space, I can assure you that this is true! Your cookies from your browsers are tracked when you are browsing in a normal browser window and based on those, a flight price can change if you repeatedly search a particular route. Why is this you ask? Well, the sites you are browsing want you to book as soon as possible and by telling you that the flight prices are going up, Up and UP, they want to convince you to book before the airfares go even higher.

11. Join frequent flier programs and sign up for cards that can get you free flights.

If you fly a lot, sign up for the airlines’ frequent flier programs! Although I always consider signing up for things a hassle, what’s the quick pain in comparison to when you finally get to reap the fruits of your labor?

Another way to earn discounted or free flights is to sign up for credit cards that you can earn travel credit on. If you travel often, there are a lot of cards out there that would be perfect for your lifestyle. I was recently introduced to the Chase Sapphire cards and I can’t say enough good things about them!

12. Check if it is cheaper to pay in other currencies.

This is especially the case if you are planning to fly internationally. Airfares are generally cheaper if you pay for them in the currency of the place that the airline originated from. I experienced this when I booked a flight with China Southern flying from Los Angeles to Guangzhou. Although we might think that the airfare should be the same after the conversion, currency exchange rates fluctuate and it might actually be cheaper for you to pay in another currency. You can also read this guide here on how to avoid being charged a foreign transaction fee when paying in a different currency (coming soon!).

13. Annnnnnd last but not least, BUY NOW!

If you have followed and checked off all the tips of this guide up until now, the last word of wisdom I have for you is to BUY NOW. Airfares rarely get cheaper as you get closer to your departure day. Sure you might be wondering, but what if there is a last minute sale?!?! Although that is something to take into account, if you are already in the prime booking window as mentioned in Point #1, think of all the time and energy you will be wasting while harping on this sale that may or may not happen as you loom closer and closer to the departure date. Because you simply can’t predict prices, the best day to book is today. 🙂


*last updated 03/01/2017






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