I spend a lot of time looking at flights. A lot. Sometimes I’ll literally spend the whole day punching in different destinations and daydreaming about my next trip.
I know, I have way too much spare time. But the good thing about this shameless waste of time is that I’ve come up with various tricks that have helped me save a crapload of money on flights in the past few years, and I’ll share them with you if you promise to like my page.
Fine. I’ll share them anyway.
I’m actually kind of nervous to write this post up, not because I don’t want to share, but because I’m scared everyone is going to be thinking “Duh? Doesn’t everyone do this? This guy’s a freakin’ dork!!” punch screen
If that’s the case, then I’m sorry. About your screen.
1. Start with a flight search engine
This is your starting point. I personally use Skyscanner, but I have also used Kayak in the past. There are a lot of aggregator sites out there, but we’ll stick with Skyscanner for now. Let’s say we’re going from Auckland to Tokyo for two weeks – 1 April to 14 April. Just plug in your dates and destination, and it will search (almost) all airlines for you and give you the best available price.
We get a “best price” of $1,257 USD, flying indirect with Cathay Pacific. You’ll also see that if you want to fly direct it will cost you $1,468. Let’s see if we can get that price down.
2. Be flexible with your dates
Hands down, the best way to save money on a flight is to be flexible. If you only have two specific weeks during the year where you can travel there’s probably not too much you can do, but if you’re travelling longer term without a strict schedule, you can save a ****load.
Let’s search for another flight to Tokyo, assuming we don’t care when we go. All we want is the cheapest flight. Enter Auckland – Tokyo, but select ‘one way’ and for dates use the ‘whole year’ option:
Skyscanner will then give you the cheapest possible flight to Tokyo for the whole year. Here we can see that it’s on June 1st, for $528USD.
Remember this is only a one way flight. We need a return flight (assuming you’re coming back). Since we know the cheapest flight going there is in June, we’ll search for a return flight also in June.
To do that, select Tokyo to Auckland, and then simply choose a date in June and select the “Whole month” option.
Skyscanner tells us that the cheapest flight back in June will be the 21st, for $339USD:
All up the flight will cost you $528 there and $339 back: $867 compared to $1,257 earlier. Within minutes, you’ve found what appears to be the cheapest possible flight for the year. This is a great baseline to compare with any other flights you may find.
3 important things to remember here:
– If you’re looking at an indirect flight (like we are in this example), try and book the direct portion of the flight seperately. Then book the connecting portion using a budget airline.
In this example, the Tokyo flights are indirect, going through Gold Coast, Australia. Therefore try searching Gold Coast to Tokyo instead of Auckland to Tokyo, and use a budget airline to fly the Auckland to Gold Coast segment. 50% of the time this will make your overall fare even cheaper (although I checked in this case and it didn’t).
– You’ll notice in the above search results that not all dates have a price; some just have a ‘search’ icon. If you hover over that icon, you’ll see that the absence of a price doesn’t mean there are no flights on that day; it just means that no one has searched for one recently:
To see flights for that day, just click the search icon. You might find an even cheaper price.
– Remember that airfares change every day. Wait a few days and do the search again; you’ll be surprised how much it can change in just a short time (I’ve seen this Auckland-Tokyo route at least $200 cheaper before).
3. Be flexible with your destination (and get a ridiculously cheap flight)
If you’re like me, maybe you don’t really care where you’re going. You just want to go somewhere new. So unless you’ve fallen in love with a girl on a Tokyo dating website, or have an infatuation with guys dressed in cosplay, perhaps you could pass on Tokyo and try somewhere else. If that’s the case, here’s what I do pretty much every time I travel.
Go to Skyscanner and put in your origin. For me, it’s Auckland. Then, select the “whole year” option like we did before. Then leave the destination field blank.
Hitting search will give you the cheapest flights from Auckland to everywhere in the world throughout the year. Check out how many places you can go to for under $500 USD:
That’s only the first step. Now do the same search, but use a nearby international hub as your departure point. For example, the closest hub to Auckland would be either Sydney or Singapore. The Skyscanner search we just did (Auckland to everywhere) says we can get to Aussie for $89 and to Singapore for $243!
Once we get ourselves to Singapore we can book even cheaper flights; it probably has the most wide reaching airport in the world. Using the same ‘whole year‘ and ‘everywhere‘ search, take a look at where a few dollars (USD) will get you once you’re in Singapore:
So the gameplan here would be, buy the $243 ticket to Singapore and then go crazy. Indonesia for $23? Cambodia for $33? It’s up to you!
Down here in distant New Zealand we’re so often abused with super expensive flights costing thousands of dollars. It doesn’t need to be that way. It also goes to show that you don’t need a lot of money to travel. Many backpackers spend less money flying around Asia for a year than they do living at home in their own apartment.
What if you’re not flexible with dates or destination?
So, this means you basically have no bargaining power at all, but there are still one or two tricks you could use that might save you some money.
Try using different hubs
If you’re flying internationally chances are you’re going to pass through a hub. Therefore it pays to look at different hubs both near your origin and your destination.
In our example we were flying from Auckland to Tokyo. This gives you plenty of options; Tokyo is close to many hubs such as Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. Auckland is close to Australia. That leaves you with a lot of search possibilities.
For example, you might be better off flying from Auckland to Singapore and then taking a budget airline such as Tiger Air to Tokyo. We also already discussed the possibility of booking the flight from Australia to Tokyo instead of from Auckland.
I did this recently and saved a few hundred dollars when, instead of taking the Emirates flight from Auckland to Nairobi (through Australia and Dubai), I caught a budget airline from Auckland to Singapore instead, and then flew from Singapore to Nairobi with an Indian airline. It was a simple route, but a Skyscanner search never managed to put it together.
Once you do manage to find a cheaper flight into or out of a hub, you can check this list of budget airlines to see who you can fly to your final destination. You could also use the websites FlightRoutes and WhichBudget.
Go directly to the airlines website
I’ve actually never found a flight to be cheaper on the airline’s website than it was on Skyscanner.
I have however found flights on the airline’s website that didn’t exist on Skyscanner, which has actually saved my a** a few times. This was particularly common in Africa.
There’s a lesson here. Skyscanner (and every other aggregator site) will never show every single flight available. That means you need to search a little bit deeper once you’ve done your initial research, which means searching both flight search engines and the airlines’ official websites.
Also, to make sure you haven’t missed any of the lesser known airlines (which are also sometimes missed on Skyscanner), use this list of budget airlines and check the websites of the one’s in your targeted region. Also, it pays to do a quick search on Whichbudget just as a final check.
Land in a smaller city
This works because larger airports are more expensive for planes to land at, and these extra fees get added to your ticket.
For example, instead of flying into Tokyo you could try fly into one of Japan’s smaller cities. The first one that popped into my head was Osaka, and a quick search shows it is in fact cheaper (it was $1,257 to fly into Tokyo).
Obviously this gives rise to the problem of getting from Osaka to Tokyo after you land, but if you wouldn’t mind visiting Osaka anyway, why not? Especially if the flight is several hundreds dollars cheaper (and sometimes it really is!)
Other examples might be flying into Clark Airport in The Philippines instead of Manila airport, or flying into Christchurch, NZ instead of Auckland.
Fly budget airlines
If you want to travel long term, you really just need to get used to this. I’ve known people that pay up to $800 more for their airfare just to avoid a budget airline. Of course, that’s fine, but it also means you have no reason to complain about not having enough money to travel.
One couple I met spent $3,000 on their airfares to Thailand because they didn’t want to fly Air Asia, which could’ve got them there for $1,600. That’s $1,400 in change! A couple could live in Thailand on that for 3 months.
At the end of the day, just think about how much better a major airline really is. You get a TV, a plate of airplane food, a couple of free Cokes and maybe an extra inch of leg room. That’s it. How much is that worth? I’d say about 50 bucks. Get used to flying budget airlines, and spend the hundreds of dollars you’ll save on something a little more rewarding once you land.
Fly at the right time
They say the best day to fly is Wednesday, and the best time to fly is the last flight out at night (or very early morning). From my experience this is often true. When flying around Asia, the 2am flight is sometimes less than half the price of the 9am flight.
Also, be clever about which time of the year you fly. Christmas and other holidays are traditionally bad times to fly; but you can also use the heavy season to your advantage.
Example: In 2011 New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup, and during that time airfares coming into the country skyrocketed. Also, no one wanted to leave the country during that time, so flights going out of the country hit rock bottom. During that time I flew to Buenos Aires for $1,100 return (usually around $2,300). And that $1,200 saving goes a long way in South America.
Watch out for specials!
This one is so obvious, but I need to mention it. Unless I absolutely must go somewhere at a specific time, I rarely book a flight that’s not on special. Jetstar often runs flight specials from Auckland that are almost 50% less than normal fare. A few years ago Air New Zealand had $1 return flights to San Francisco. In The Philippines, Cebu Pacific sometimes has $0 flights!
My favourite special is Jetstar’s Auckland to Singapore for $250USD (it usually pops up every March and June). I’m actually laying low in New Zealand right now waiting for it to come on. It’s a ridiculous bargain, because once you get to Singapore you can fly almost anywhere in Asia for less than $100. Not to mention most airlines charge between $700 – $1,000 for that Auckland – Singapore route. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on flights to travel.
So, that’s about all I’ve got. It seems everyone has their own little tricks to hunting down cheap flights online, so if you have any, please share them in the comments section! Flights are almost always the the biggest drain on a backpacker’s budget, so if you can get them under control that’s half the battle won.
- For affordable accommodation, I highly recommend using Airbnb. You can get $25 of Airbnb credit, absolutely free, using this link.
- For easy and affordable travel insurance, I always go with World Nomads.
- For more useful websites for cheap flights, accommodation and other travel needs, you can check out my Resources page.