Nearly every popular article on how to find cheap flights ends up being stupid, common sense, and/or contains untrue details.
When non-points collectors have asked me how to find cheap flights for their upcoming trip, I’ll often just point to a flight aggregator like Kayak or Hipmunk.
However, it seems that I’m able to find incredible flight deals more often than ever. Some are mistake fares, often they are not. But I want to talk about how I find amazingly cheap flights.
(Will be similar to the post on 6 Ways To Get “Amazing” Hotels.
But let me quickly say…
0) My Main Strategy Is Free Flights via Free Points
These are NOT dumb/false tips like “check for sales on Tuesday at midnight” (totally a waste of time), and “sign up for [dumb] newsletters”.
And these aren’t tips on how to earn miles for free, then use them for flights… although it is completely worth noting that is my main strategy.
While I can often find flights to Europe for $400 roundtrip, I’d rather get a free flight from points. There are great credit card signup bonuses, and we never pay for long flights, unless it’s a mistake fare. (We’ve paid for a number of sub-$200 fares to Europe, Africa, and Asia).
I’ve posted about this site before, but it’s great at finding the cheapest flights from a specific city to anywhere.
Using it is very simple, and I’ll explain the pros & cons of how it works in a bit.
Let’s take New York as our starting city, because it’s going to have the best prices to Europe.
And I’ll set the maximum price at $400… then zoom in on Europe and I’ll see all the roundtrip tickets to Europe under $400.
One thing that stands out is New York to Sofia, Bulgaria for $343!
So I click through to see the price is still there… and it is. And great news, it’s not in January! But still too cold for me likely.
Now the fact that it’s $343 on CheapOair only and not on other sites like Expedia makes me wonder if it is a mistake fare. Either way it’s a great deal to a fantastic country.
Another one that stands out is $290 to Oslo. You’ll notice a lot of flights on the rising discount airlines like WOW and Norwegian.
However, the best prices are often in winter. No way.
What you can do, is select what season you want to travel, or by month. So you could check “August” or “summer” prices.
In terms of “flexible” searches for really cheap flights, I love SkyScanner.
Also, it tends to find different cheapest flights than Kayak, and I tend to use both. But it is way better for looking for oneways or more specific routes.
First you can search from a city/country to “Everywhere”, and this has a similar result as Kayak Explore (except you can search roundtrip or oneway).
*Oddly enough, I found the same New York to Sofia for $310 (Nov 27 – Dec 5, bookable on hop2)*
In general, SkyScanner is better at searching discount airlines, and thus I find a lot of those super cheap fares to Europe this way. I see lots of tickets to places like Paris for under $400 on WOW… which has close to zero appeal to me.
So again, you can search for specific months.
Cities – countries. Dates – months – all year. Oneway – roundtrip.
Although my favorite part is the country searches. I can search “New York to Budapest”, or I can search “United States to Budapest”. Or I can search “United States to Hungary”.
It’s great for discovery (as shown by finding a better Sofia deal), but also way better for specific searches. When you have flexible dates and want to look for the cheapest flight to Budapest with Kayak Explore, you zoom in and move up the price bar. But with SkyScanner, you just search flights to Budapest and leave the dates flexible.
3) Where Hipmunk (or ITA Matrix) comes in.
The problem with Kayak Explore and SkyScanner is that they are using remembered searches.
More specifically when you run a flexible search on SkyScanner, the reason it quickly shows you the cheapest prices – in order – from seemingly everywhere, is because it isn’t actually running a search… yet. Instead, it is pulling from remembered results from the last 15 days.
This has two problems. That the prices might be wrong, and that there are tons of good results missing. Both are hugely true, which is why Kayak Explore and SkyScanner show different best prices for New York to Sofia.
The results you see before clicking through, are the results of someone else’s specific search results in the last 15 days.
To see if the price is still there, all you have to do is click through. But in order to know if there are better prices you would have to run specific searches for specific dates. Obviously you’re not going to do that for all the zillions of combinations of cities and dates.
Now, the most powerful tool on the planet is ITA Software.
It does these complicated multi-city, flexible date searches with actual flight data. It’s incredible.
There are two problems with this. First, that the more complicated you make the search, the more likely it is to time-out and give no results. Like if I search “NYC, WAS, ORD” to “BUD, VIE” for a month, it will crash 9 times out of 10. (I feel like it has gotten significantly worse too).
Second, it doesn’t search most discount airlines, and only pulls data from “legacy” airlines.
Now the second is an advantage if you are mileage running and going for status. Or it used to be, before revenue based earning.
This is where hipmunk comes in.
Oh, I forgot. ITA Software doesn’t help you book, it only searches flights that you’d have to put into another site anyways. So Hipmunk is a needed step either way.
But it’s also robust in its search options (although not nearly as flexible in terms of locations or dates), and searches discount airlines.
Again, the advantage here is that you can take the results found on ITA, or the city pairs from SkyScanner, and run specific searches here. Thus, you’ll get accurate results that are bookable.
Because it’s actually running a search (instead of just remembering results), the prices are accurate, and it’s not leaving any great options out.
On a side note, for those who want the Kayak Explore discovery, but the customization of ITA Matrix, you might like Google Flights. I don’t use it much, but I would never stick to an alliance or fly to keep a status.
Google Flights has the ability to search for flights under a certain amount, and with a specific alliance.
(This is better for those who enjoy over paying to stick with an alliance and getting marginal benefits that you can buy with miles you don’t over pay for.)
First, sometimes you do have to check the discount airlines directly. Southwest doesn’t show up in search engines, for example
Second, sometimes it’s cheaper to piece things together. Buy a discount $350 ticket to Paris and then catch a $50 ticket to Budapest, it could be way cheaper than a roundtrip to Budapest… or wherever.
I don’t like doing this because if the first flight is delayed the second won’t be responsible for you missing your flight. I like to book one ticket, unless it is a city I could spend a day or two in anyways. Then I’ll book it as a stopover and get the benefit of a cheaper ticket.
See the power of this with my post Round The World With Discount Airlines.
Third, those who sign up for the newsletter will eventually get one (those who have been signed up would already have it) on how to find mistake fares. I’ll give away one secret, which is that I follow Secret Flying and get alerts from all their posts. I have to ignore 99% of them, because they are irrelevant for me, but I find a lot of good ones.
The good ones I share on the Travel Is Free Facebook (here).
Hopefully, finding multiple long haul flights for under $400 during this post is proof enough that these strategies work.
Of course, the city I chose matters a lot. If you live New York… you’re lucky. Hubs I check are often NYC, WAS, ORD, DFW, BOS, LAX, and many more. But you should just check the closest cities to you and wait for the good ones. I very rarely find it worth it to have to book an extra flight just to start my trip.
But honestly, SkyScanner, Hipmunk, ITA, and Kayak, are the only sites I ever check for paid flights… I do enjoy posts from Secret Flying, but it’s more of a passive strategy, and may not help find the ticket you want.
Still, this is a pretty complete set of tools.