Booking flights can be exhilarating if you find a good deal…
Or excruciating if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Prices for flights can vary dramatically based on a large number of factors – you could have paid $700 for a ticket while the person next to you could have paid $1500.
It all comes down to knowing where to look, when to book, and how to find the tickets that others don’t know about.
To help you be the person always paying $700 (or less) and not the person paying $1,500, I’ve created a step-by-step guide that details the exact process I use every time I book a ticket.
Follow these 8 steps and you’ll ensure you’re always getting the best price.
1. Check Your Frequent Flyer Mile Balance
If you don’t have frequent flyer miles or aren’t interested in them, skip directly to Step #2.
If you’re not familiar with how to earn and use frequent flyer miles, don’t worry.
I was in the same boat five years ago, without a single frequent flyer mile to my name.
Since then, I’ve flown to over 30 countries for an average of less than $100 each.
Start with the Frequent Flyer Miles FAQ, which will answer all the most common questions.
If you’re really ready to take the next step, considering joining Frequent Flyer Botocamp, the world’s first course designed to teach you EVERYTHING you need to know travel the world for pennies.
If you have frequent flyer miles, you need to determine two things – first, whether you have enough miles for the flight you want to take, and second, whether it is worth using them.
To determine how many miles you need for a flight, head to milez.biz and plug in the cities. This tells you how many miles you need with each airline.
Determining whether it’s worth using miles is a little more subjective, so use CPM (cents per mile) as a guideline. Simply take how much the flight would cost to buy and divide it by the amount of miles needed.
For example, if a flight costs $600 to buy and costs 60,000 miles, the CPM would be 1. If a CPM is 1 or more, using miles is generally worth it. If it’s less, then I consider buying the ticket outright.
To learn how much a flight costs…
2. Find a Baseline for Prices With Google Flights
The Google Flights tool amazes me with its simple but powerful search engine. It lets you tailor the ticket you want to your EXACT specifications all in one search.
On Google Flights, enter the flights you’re looking for, and the calendar below will show you the cheapest flights for each day.
When you click on a date, it brings up a screen of all the flights for that day, showing the layovers, routing, and any other information you may need.
By starting your search with Google Flights, you’ll see a good baseline for what you can expect to pay.
Because, believe it or not, not even I know how much a flight from Cleveland to Budapest should generally cost in May.
3. Check Surrounding Airports
One of the major reasons that Google Flights is so powerful is that it allows you to search for flights to and from multiple airports simultaneously.
This is perfect for me, since I like to fly out of Philadelphia, but can also fly out of any of the New York airports or even Baltimore or Washington DC if the price is right.
So instead of searching JFK to Paris, getting the price, searching Newark to Paris, getting the price, searching Philadelphia to Paris, getting the price, etc., you can do it all at once.
You can even add multiple airports to the destination and search from JFK, Newark, and Philadelphia to not only Paris, but also Nice, London, or Amsterdam–and then grab a cheap flight from any of those cities to Paris if the price differs substantially.
Being flexible with which airport you fly in and out of can potentially save hundreds of dollars, so you should always check. Since Google Flights makes it so easy, you have no reason not to.
4. Is There a Mistake Fare Available?
Frequent flyer miles are the #1 way we score cheap flights, but mistake fares take a close second place.
With mistake fares, we’ve flown to Italy for $125, Madrid for $225, Bali for $250, and South Africa for $300. I’ve written about what they are, where to find them, and how to book them before, so you’ll want to read that to catch up.
Before booking any flights, always check to see if there is a mistake fare available.
Odds are, the mistake fare won’t be the exact itinerary you want, but even if it isn’t, it may still work.
For example, let’s say you want to fly from New York to Rome, but there is no mistake fare to Rome, and a normal ticket costs $800.
If you find a mistake fare from New York to Milan that costs $125, unless you have absolutely no flexibility, grab the mistake fare and then take a $50 train ride down to Rome.
Learn everything you need to know about mistake fares in this post.
5. Check to see if Budget Airlines are Available
Budget airlines can save you a lot of money on flights, and while they’ve been around Europe and Asia for a while, they’ve recently seen a huge surge in popularity and are even making inroads in other areas, like the US.
I’m a huge fan of budget airlines because not only are they generally much cheaper, but the service is typically as good as “regular” airlines and they fly to many non-traditional or smaller destinations.
Just this past week, I flew directly from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Khon Kaen for $50 on Kan Air (a budget airline).
Everyone else in the wedding paid $100 or more AND had a layover in Bangkok because they didn’t know Kan Air existed.
I didn’t know Kan Air existed before 3 weeks ago either, but using my step by step guide to finding budget airlines, I unearthed this amazing gem and saved myself a lot of money in the process.
6. Check Skiplagged
Skiplagged has received a lot of publicity because the airlines recently sued its 22-year-old founder for revealing the hidden city “trick.”
In reality, savvy travelers have used the hidden city “trick” for a while now, and while the airlines don’t like it, it’s their own system that allows it to happen and there is nothing illegal about it.
Hidden cities work like this:
Let’s say I want to fly from Milwaukee to Detroit. A direct flight from Milwaukee to Detroit costs $407. However, a flight from Milwaukee to St. Louis with a layover in Detroit costs $104.
Instead of booking the expensive, $407 direct flight, I’d book the cheaper ticket. When I land in Detroit for the layover, I’ll get off the plane. By booking to St. Louis but not using the second half of the ticket, I just saved $303.
If you book a ticket using this “trick” be mindful of two things:
Don’t check bags because they’ll end up at the final destination (St. Louis) and you won’t!
If you miss a leg of your itinerary – which you’ll be doing by skipping the last segment – the rest of the ticket will be canceled.
So make sure you skip the last leg of a trip, and not in the middle of a round trip ticket.
Or just book a one way ticket and then you don’t have to worry.
7. Cross Check the Price on Google Flights with Other Websites
If you’ve gone through the checklist above and found that there are no mistake fares (step #4), no budget airline options (step #5), and no hidden city tickets (step #6), then you can return to the ticket you found on Google Flights (step #3).
Find the best ticket for your needs on Google Flights (always checking the surrounding cities) and then take that information and cross check it against Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, and the airline’s website (like AA.com or United.com).
The price on Google Flights matches these other options 95% of the time, but it never hurts to double check.
8. Book Your Ticket
If the price is the same across all platforms, always book directly with the airline itself.
Then, if you have a problem, you can deal with the airline directly instead of having to go through a third party like Expedia or Orbitz.
When booking flights, many variables can change your ticket price dramatically.
If you’re the type of person who prefers saving hundreds of dollars instead of spending it, take the extra 10-15 minutes to follow the eight steps above.
By using Google Flights, checking surrounding airports, looking for mistake fares, and considering budget airlines, you’ll always find the best prices on flights.
And don’t forget, if you’re not yet earning and using frequent flyer miles, what are you waiting for?
Getting the best deals on paid flights is great, but not paying for flights is even better!
How do you search for flights? What steps do you take to try to get the best deal? Let us know in the comments below.
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None of that automatic “read more” stuff you’ll see everywhere else on the internet!
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