Save on Plane Tickets: How to Find Cheap Flights to Your Dream Destination


Flying is difficult these days, from flight delays and cancellations to exorbitant airfare prices. If you’re looking to get your travel fix following the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, you have your work cut out for you. The budget flights from the peak of the pandemic are a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to save money when planning that dream vacation. Here are a few tips that can help you find cheap airline tickets.

1. Compare Flights

google flights

Google Flights
(Credit: PCMag)

Not sure which airline to fly? Services like Google Flights(Opens in a new window), Skyscanner(Opens in a new window), and Momondo(Opens in a new window) compare flights and prices across airlines. Meanwhile, sites like Kayak(Opens in a new window), Expedia(Opens in a new window), and Orbitz(Opens in a new window) are online travel agencies (OTA) that allow you to book directly through their websites.

Lower prices through OTAs have some trade-offs, though, like having to go through their customer service teams for any changes, some of which may require additional charges. In many cases, you can cancel within 24 hours, but not always. Typically, this rule only applies to tickets purchased at least seven days in advance. If you are booking outside the United States or through an OTA, make sure to double-check the cancellation policies.

If you’re under the age of 26, StudentUniverse(Opens in a new window) offers cheap travel bookings for students. The site also has a deal with Amazon(Opens in a new window) whereby Prime Student members can get up to 10% off flights—plus 10% back on hotels as an Amazon gift card after your trip.

Unfortunately, the “trick” of avoiding increased prices by searching in incognito mode or deleting your cookies is a myth(Opens in a new window).

2. Know When to Buy

spiral bound calendar sitting on a pink background

(Credit: Getty Images/Nora Carol Photography)

What is the best day to buy airline tickets? Turns out it doesn’t really matter.

“If you shop for flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays instead of Saturdays or Sundays, prices have only been 1.9% cheaper on average over the past five years,” according to the Google Flights team, which recently analyzed(Opens in a new window) five years’ worth of historical airfare data.

“So if your trip is just a couple of weeks away, don’t wait for Tuesday to roll around—book your flight now in case the price goes up,” Google says.

Most of us know that the further out you can purchase your tickets, the cheaper they’ll be. But how long should you wait? Google puts the sweet spot at 21 to 60 days before your flight, “with average prices bottoming out 44 days before departure,” it says.

That’s not always true for the busiest travel times. If you’re traveling on Thanksgiving, consider buying at least 36 to 74 days before departure; prices tend to hit their lowest point 52 days before Bird Day, Google says.

“For domestic trips around Christmas, the lowest average prices have been 22 days before departure, but that may be cutting it close,” according to Google. “Prices have tended to drop anywhere between 20 and 88 days before departure.”

Here are some rules of thumb for other popular departure times and destinations:

  • Spring Break (March/April): 23-59 days before departure; lowest at 38 days out.

  • Summer Vacation (July/August):14-44 days before departure, lowest at 21 days out.

  • Flight from the US to Europe: The earlier the better. Consider booking 129 days before departure; lowest prices are anywhere between 50 and 179 days out.

  • Flights from the US to Mexico or the Caribbean: 37 and 87 days before departure; lowest at 59 days out.

3. Fly Budget Airlines (But Watch Those Fees)

two different spirit airlines planes on the airport runway

(Credit: Jillian Cain / Getty Images)

Flying budget airlines such as Frontier, Southwest, Spirit, or RyanAir may test your patience(Opens in a new window), but they’re a great way for cash-strapped travelers to save a few hundred dollars on airfare.

The most important thing to keep in mind when booking with budget airlines is that they usually make their money through hidden fees. Amenities such as food and drinks, picking a seat, checked bags, and sometimes even carry-on bags often come with extra fees. These charges can vary greatly from airline to airline, so make sure you read the fine-print carefully.

For example, Nerdwallet(Opens in a new window) calculated that the average passenger can expect to pay around $25 in additional fees on Southwest, which doesn’t even charge for checked bags. Meanwhile, you can expect to pay around $100 for Spirit or Frontier, which only allow passengers to bring a personal item that fits under the seat in front of them free of charge. All other bags will incur a fee. Need more than 28 inches of legroom on Spirit? That’ll be $60 for 36 inches(Opens in a new window) of space.

You can avoid most budget fees by bringing only a carry-on and skipping seat selection. In addition, some airlines offer credit cards(Opens in a new window) that allow passengers to avoid certain fees.

4. Avoid Weekend Departures

google flights calendar

The real savings come when you’re flexible about which day of the week you depart. According to Google, “flights that depart on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday have been 12% cheaper than weekend departures.” Excluding international destinations, savings can top 20%, it says. Google Flights has a calendar UI that allows you to quickly get an overview of the differences in prices.

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5. Embrace the Layover

google flights map

If you’ve got time to spare as you travel to your destination, you can often save some cash by forgoing direct flights. “On average, nonstop fares have been 20% higher than a flight with stops,” Google says. For example, if you’re going to Amsterdam but flights are too expensive, it may be cheaper to fly into a city like Stockholm and then hop a budget flight to Amsterdam.

Rome2Rio(Opens in a new window) is a great resource for piecing together different flights to find the cheapest option. Travelers pick a starting location and destination, and the site will display different routes via plane, train, bus, car, or ferry, along with the expected price and travel time. Filter out the fastest options, and you might find a combination that works better than a direct flight.

Google Flights also has an excellent Explore feature that allows you to see flights all around the world, and the cheaper ones stand out. 

If you’re traveling to a specific city, meanwhile, consider flying into airports that are further from the main city. Just double-check that there are affordable public transit options to your destination lest you get stuck with a hefty taxi bill.

6. Get Notified

google flights track prices feature

Most travel sites will let you set up alerts that will tell you when flight prices change. On Google Flights, toggle Track Prices for any route or flight you’re interested in booking.

There are also numerous newsletters from airlines and travel websites such as Thrifty Traveler(Opens in a new window), Airfarewatchdog(Opens in a new window), and Dollar Flight Club(Opens in a new window) that can notify you of deals. For a price, sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights(Opens in a new window) can also let you know when there are mistake fares—extra low fares caused by errors from the airline—that can result in unbelievable deals if you act fast. 

With the tips above you can plan your dream vacation without breaking the bank. Remember to use points you might have accrued through your credit cards or previous trips and relieve the financial stress of traveling.

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