Updated on 01.05.16

Seven Ways to Find Affordable Flights

Getting there can be half the fun -- but it can also be half the price.

Airfare is one of the most expensive components of any vacation or business trip. More often than not, getting there isn’t just half the fun — it’s half the price. Still, that means finding affordable flights is one of the easiest ways to bring your travel expenses back down to earth.

Here are a few proven strategies you can use to save money when booking your next plane ticket — combining a few of these techniques at once is the surest way to score cheap flights.

1. Use Price Comparison Websites

It’s now easier than ever to compare prices online to find the best deal — and airfare is no exception. In fact, there are a number of big websites dedicated solely to helping you score cheap flights and save on other travel expenses, too.

While some people might be partial to one particular discount travel booking site, I recommend checking as many as you can. After all, you never know which one will have the best deals on that particular day. A few of the most popular price comparison travel websites are Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity

One lesser-known website that I also love using is Skyscanner — it’s great if you have flexible travel plans. I was recently planning a springtime trip for my family, and I knew I wanted to take them abroad — but I had no preference as to exactly where we should go. Using Skyscanner, I was able to view the cheapest plane tickets from New York to all of Europe: Just enter “Everywhere” as your preferred destination, and it will organize the search results by country and price.

I found I could fly from New York to Iceland for very cheap, and from there purchase very affordable flights to Europe. Just a little bit of research can go a long way, saving you hundreds of dollars on airfare.

2. Don’t Forget to Check Budget Airlines

Many price comparison websites don’t include certain budget airlines. For example, one of the most popular budget airlines in the U.S., Southwest, only sells flights via its own website. However, I fly Southwest most of the time because their prices regularly beat out the competition. So don’t just assume that the cheapest flight on Orbitz or Kayak is the cheapest flight available.

Plus, I find that Southwest’s Rapid Rewards Points go a very long way when booking flights, and they have a surprising number of direct flights — which seem to be a dwindling luxury these days. Sometimes you can find a Southwest flight for as few as 5,000 miles one way, which, when compared to some of the larger airlines, is a great deal.

3. Use Rewards to Pay for Flights

Speaking of points, if you’ve never used airline miles or rewards to purchase flights, it’s relatively simple to start. Of course you can earn frequent flyer miles for each flight you take, but you can also earn airline miles and points — a lot more of them, in fact — without ever leaving the ground, just by using a rewards credit card.

Many travel rewards cards, like the Southwest Rapid Rewards card or the Delta SkyMiles card, offer a big signup bonus from time to time. Once you meet the minimum spending requirements — often around $3,000 within three months — you’ll be eligible for a huge dump of rewards points worth in the neighborhood of $300-$400 toward travel.

There are many different types of rewards cards, so don’t feel like you’re limited to branded airline cards – especially if you’re not loyal to one particular airline. Many credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, offer flexible travel points that can be converted to airline miles or simply cashed in for any travel-related expense. So it’s worth doing your research to find a card that will work best for you and your spending habits.

Just a word of warning, though: Only use credit cards to get airline points if you consistently pay off your card at the end of each month, and only use the card for purchases you would have made anyway. This method is only for people who are very disciplined with their finances. Racking up excess debt on unnecessary purchases just to save money on airfare completely defeats the purpose.

I’m still somewhat of a novice when it comes to credit card rewards, but I have friends and fellow bloggers who have traveled all over the world for free. Using their advice, I was able to secure four round-trip international flights for my family, saving me thousands and thousands of dollars.

Beware, though, that some airlines do have restrictions on when and where you can book using credit card rewards, and there can be times when your rewards don’t post exactly as promised. So take a lot of screenshots when applying for your credit card, and call the credit card company to confirm that you’ll receive your rewards after meeting the minimum spending requirement.

4. Stay Flexible

As I mentioned above, the fact that our travel dates and destination were flexible is what really enabled me to book cheap flights for our upcoming family trip. So, if possible, be flexible with your travel dates, flight departure times, and even your location.

Travelling midweek can save you $100 or more on a round-trip ticket compared to peak travel days, and departing at less popular times of the day — think 5 a.m. — can also save you quite a bit of money. The more flexible you are with your travel plans, the more money you can save.

I know that many people can only take certain days off of work, but sometimes it’s worth it to take an unpaid day off it it means saving a few hundred dollars on your plane ticket. And remember that when it comes to location, it’s worth checking nearby airports, too. One airport could be significantly more (or less) expensive than another one just 20 miles away.

For example, I’ll be flying out of New Jersey for my upcoming trip, but flying back into New York’s JFK airport on the return trip. If you’re able to stay a little flexible, you can save a lot of money. After all, you can always expect to pay a premium for convenience, and air travel is no different.

Of course, common sense prevails here. If a cheaper flight means you’ll have to pay $50 extra for a cab far into the city versus a $2 subway ticket, or includes such a long layover that you’ll need to book a pricey hotel room or take an extra unpaid day off of work, make sure the math adds up and that any inconvenience is actually worth the savings. If you’re traveling with kids, maybe it’s worth an extra $50 to avoid an overnight red-eye flight or an additional layover. Your time is a valuable asset, too, especially if you’re tapping into your vacation time to travel.

woman doing yoga

Staying flexible with your travel dates, destination, and flight times is a surefire way to find cheap flights (no yoga required). Photo: Dave Rosenbaum

5. Use Fare Trackers and Alerts

If you have plenty of time before your next trip, setting up an airfare alert is a pretty painless way to save money on your flight. Just recently, a friend of mine was able to save almost $200 by using the flight tracker and alert system at AirfareWatchdog.com. The website will send you an alert when prices drop significantly lower than normal so you can book your flight at the best price possible.  

Likewise, Kayak’s flight search tool includes an airfare predictor, which on many routes will issue a recommendation about whether you should buy a ticket now or wait for a lower price. (This is similar to what Farecast did, the popular airfare prediction tool that Microsoft nonetheless nixed last year.) Airline ticket prices are constantly in flux, so it’s a helpful tool — but it’s not always perfect.

6. Time Your Purchase

A statistical analysis of over 1.5 billion domestic airfares by CheapAir.com revealed that the prime booking window for cheap flights was between one and four months before a trip (27 to 108 days).

However, there are some caveats to consider: You’re better off booking early than waiting when it comes to holiday and summer travel, and if you’re particular about departure dates and times or flying specific airlines, you’ll have more affordable options the earlier you book. With the exception of some excellent-but-rare last-minute deals, prices tended to take off in the last 14 days.

CheapAir also offered some good advice to anyone searching for affordable flights: “Aim for a good deal, not the best deal. With 70 different fare changes on average for each trip, you have to get very lucky to book your flight at their absolute rock bottom. So don’t get too caught up in trying to squeeze a few extra dollars off your ticket price.”

7. Shop Through Specific Airline Rewards Programs

Even if you’re not planning on buying a flight in the immediate future, you can still enroll in every airline rewards program you can find. Many airlines have online shopping portals where you can earn miles on your purchases, and often they’ll send you e-mails on specific promotions and deals.

For example, I once bought my mom and mother-in-law flowers for Mother’s Day by way of the American Airlines portal using my American Airlines credit card. This particular deal got me something outrageous like 30 miles per dollar spent because it was right around Mother’s Day. (Right now, a 1-800-Flowers deal through the AA portal will earn you nine points per dollar spent, but it fluctuates all the time.)

Most people don’t realize that you can go through these shopping portals for your everyday purchases and earn a ton of extra airline miles for when you need them.

Is Bundling Worth It?

Bundling isn’t just for your TV, Internet, and phone service anymore. Travel packages and bundles have become increasingly popular in the past few years, with sites such as TravelZoo specializing in combo deals that include both airfare and hotels. In fact, if you visit any of the travel comparison sites mentioned earlier, they’ll often encourage you to book not only your flight, but also your accommodations and rental car, too. While this is incredibly convenient, is a travel package really worth it?

Well, to answer that question, there are several things to consider — including what your needs are for your trip and what aspects of the package may be unnecessary.

Don’t automatically assume that a package will save you money, especially if you’d be interested in booking a vacation rental (through a site such as Airbnb or HomeAway) instead of a hotel, or taking public transportation instead of renting a car. It’s easy to get caught up in the promise of saving money by bundling your trip, but it might not be the best idea if you end up paying for things you otherwise wouldn’t.

To Snag Cheap Flights, Try a Multi-Tiered Approach

Ultimately, when it comes to booking affordable flights for your next trip, it’s best to go with an all-of-the-above strategy. Saving money takes time and research, and sometimes you need to do more than just log in to a discount travel comparison website and book the first cheap flight you find.

Combining several of the above methods will help you find the best deal on your next trip. For example, check a variety of travel websites over the course of a few weeks to keep an eye out for cheap flights, staying as flexible as possible with your departure dates or destination. Then, use a cash-back credit card or airline-specific card to earn rewards you can apply to offset some of the purchase.

Good luck, and safe travels!

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