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How To Find Cheap Airfare

My strategy for getting through the pricing tiers, the hype, the misinformation, and the BS to find cheap airfare.

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There are a handful of trick and tips that any traveler can use to find the cheapest airfare possible without putting an enormous amount of effort into it. The following is some advice on how to fly for less.

Understanding airfare pricing procedures

The algorithms that airlines use to price their tickets are complex. Keep in mind that there are roughly ten different pricing tiers on each flight for economy class alone, and only around 10% of these tickets will be at the cheapest fare. This means being one of the lucky passengers that lands one of these cheap seats is not only a matter of chance, but is also a true art form. Now, I’m not going to get into the specifics of airline pricing here, but I will say that competition with other airlines, the date and time you book your fight, supply and demand, as well as the simple luck of the draw plays into what price pops up on your computer monitor when shopping for a flight.

Where to buy airline tickets

I have to admit that finding cheap airfare is no longer the art it once was. I can remember having to dig through the depths of the internet in order to uncover deeply buried super cheap plane tickets. Now, as the major airlines, ticket brokers, and comparison sites like Kayak have, for the most part, consolidated their efforts, and the chances of finding the “oddball” cheap fare has greatly decreased. But, on the other hand, getting a good idea of the price range for flying to a particular destination and buying tickets has never been easier.


Generally, one big airfare comparison site has just about the same prices as all the rest. Now, there is sometimes variation, but the times that I now see big differences are rare. So what booking engine you use is a matter of personal preference, but quickly checking a couple more won’t hurt. I usually begin my flight searches with Kayak, and then do quick checks on Momodo and Skyscanner.

Now, keep in mind that many of the smaller and/ or budget airlines don’t list their prices on these big comparison engines, so if you’re really into getting the best fares you’re going to have to do some leg work and also check on these airlines’ own sites as well.

Another thing to look out for are deals that airlines sometimes only offer if you book through their website. So, when you find yourself interested in grabbing a flight that you find through a comparison engine, opening a new window in your browser (or better, using a second computer), and doing a quick search of the airline’s own site may save you a little cash.

Contrary to this tactic is that fact that some airlines sometimes offer special deals only for users accessing them through the comparison engines, so the advantage can go either way depending on circumstance. My advice is to check them both.

I usually browse a couple airfare comparison engines just to get a good idea of what I’m going to have to pay for a flight in a particular range of time, and then I try to find these flights cheaper through more specified means.

When to buy plane tickets: don’t buy at the last minute, but not too far in advance either

Aim to purchase a flight between three and a half months and three weeks prior to your departure date. Booking earlier or later than this and you’ll pay more.

Last minute cheap flights are a myth.

A multitude of individuals have told me many times over the years that you can get super cheap airfare by buying your ticket at the last minute. Though it’s not my impression that any of these people have actually done this. But, believe me, I’ve tried and tried, and I must admit that 13 years after I began traveling I’ve never landed a super cheap last minute fare. In point, planes are all too often packed these days, so the “once upon a time” last minute deals that used to help airlines fill their flights are no longer necessary — and they now even boost their price roughly 10 to 14 days prior to departure to take advantage of business travelers who don’t know their schedule far in advance, and are often less likely to care about dropping the extra cash for a flight. Now, if you try to book a flight right before departure date the airline will be likely to assume that you’re a business traveler flying on your company’s dime, so don’t try this method.

But don’t buy too early either.

Many airlines don’t start managing their prices (i.e. pricing competitively with other airlines) for a flight prior to four months in advance, so you’re not going to have access to the cheapest flights until you’re inside of this window.

Know the best time of day and week to buy a plane ticket

There are many myths surrounding this tip, including “buy just after midnight because that’s when the fares are cheapest.” These “insider tips” are often BS. Though you can use airline price changing habitsto guide when you push the “purchase” button.

Generally speaking, the cheapest days to buy a plane ticket are at the beginning of the week. Some analysis say Tuesday at 3PM is the best time to buy a flight. I’m not so sure about this, but I know that looking for flights on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday will generally produce cheaper results than later in the week.

Keep in mind that airlines generally change their prices at various points throughout the day as they try to match or beat their competition, so keeping on top of this game will often mean getting a cheaper fare. I advise looking for price changes around midnight, in the morning, and in the mid-afternoon, though this is only my speculation.

Book one ticket at a time

If you are flying with other people, airline booking systems are programmed to give everyone in your party the same fare, even if cheaper fares are available which one or two of you could of had otherwise. To make sure everybody you’re traveling with gets the best priced flights, purchase them one at a time and worry about seating later. This minor hassle could save you a decent wad of cash in the end.

Fly at the right season

The first rule to finding cheap airfare is to be aware of the seasons and know when the prices of flights rise and when they fall for your departure and arrival points.The key is finding when the fewest other people want to travel your path.

For example, Costa Rica is a prime location for people from the USA/ Canada/ Europe to visit on their holidays, so the country is usually packed full of people from these countries during the summer months, December, as well as during college spring break. During these times the cost to fly to this country skyrocket. But if you go there in January, February, October, or November it is rather easy to find dirt cheap airfares.

Likewise, be aware of the yearly college schedules of the country you’re flying in or out of. Countries like the USA and Canada have huge amounts of foreign students, professors, and researchers piling into them just before university semesters begin and trying to get out of them when the semesters are finished. So trying to go to these countries at the end of August and the beginning of January, and leaving them in early December and June are bad bets for finding cheap airfare.

Another thing to be aware of are local holidays. In point, you do not want to be flying to or away from China during their national holidays when then entire country seems to trying to travel. Attempting to book a flight in or out of here during this time is a sure shot way to add hundreds of dollars to the fare.

The same goes for all other destinations in the world: know the culture and yearly schedules of your departure and arrival cities, and, if you can, fly when the demand is lowest.

What are the cheapest days of the week to fly?

It is a myth that flying on a weekend is more expensive than on a weekday. While it is true that the most expensive flights tend to be on Sundays, Saturday is actually one of the cheapest days of the week for flying. But Wednesday is generally the cheapest day of the week to fly. If you can, aiming your flights to depart on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Saturday will often save you hundreds.

Use air travel hubs

As you plan your air travel routes around the world one thing to keep in mind is to use air travel hubs. Generally, a region of the world will have a big city that serves as it’s prime flight hub, find it and use it. Competition at the larger airports generally keep the prices down. So look at a map and figure out what cities near your destination will be the cheapest to fly to. It may be a good idea to fly into one city and then bus it to your final destination, or even take a short hop on a budget carrier.

Learn how to combine air travel hubs with budget carriers

Knowing how to combine air travel hubs and budget airlines is another way to keep flying as cheap as possible. There is nothing that says that you can’t make multiple flight bookings en-route to your final destination, so think about building your own trips.

In point, if you are planning a multi-leg air journey to a distant destination you can often get there cheaper if you plan your own route rather than just plugging your start and end points into Kayak and taking what pops up on the screen. The strategy works like this: you fly to a cheap air travel hub that’s in the region of your final destination and then you connect onto a budget carrier from there.

Remember, many budget airlines are not hooked up to the big flight comparison engines, so you need to find the ones that service the route you wish to travel and go directly to their sites to buy tickets. Go to this list of low cost airlines to find budget carriers by country.

For example, whenever I go to Europe from the USA I often book two or three separate flights rather than just buying one ticket. I will first take a budget airline to an air travel hub in the east of the USA, then take the cheapest flight to another hub over the Atlantic (usually Dublin, London, or Reykjavik), and then take a European budget carrier from there to my final destination. This method saves me hundreds and can be applied to many other destinations in the world that have budget airlines.

Be clever and avoid high baggage fees

This almost goes without saying: airlines are using the weight of your baggage to make money. Avoid paying high baggage fees by traveling light and not carrying heavy items in your checked baggage. One trick for working around this is to carry your heaviest items in the pockets of a coat or a vest. Up to now, airlines are not weighing passenger’s clothing, so stuff those pockets. It is amazing all the things you can fit into the pockets of a fishing vest.

Know when to pull the trigger

Knowing when the push the purchase button for a flight is one of the tricks of the traveler’s trade. I know how disheartening it is to find a cheap flight and then losing it because you hesitated at the time of decision. In point, airfares seem to be changing by the minute, and if you don’t hit those good fares when you get them they’ll be gone. It’s my impression that the airlines want you to feel this pressure to make a quick purchase and then have to cancel your flight and lose a good portion of what you paid for it.

So I usually spend a day or two just browsing flight prices to get a good baseline figure of what I’m going to pay. Then I sit down at the best day and time for buying a plane ticket with my debit card ready, and as soon as I find a good priced flight I line it up in my sites and buy it.

Don’t consider air courier travel, it’s dead

I looked into courier flights around seven or eight years ago, and they seemed like a hassle for the amount of money they would have saved me on airfare. Basically, a courier flight is one in which you give up your checked baggage allowance in exchange for a discounted plane ticket. Companies use couriers when they want to ship some goods fast, and, as you can’t fly baggage without a passenger, they need people to fill the seats. This was once a good way to fly if you were super flexible and didn’t mind traveling on someone else’s timeline. But honestly, for the most part, courier flights were not really that much cheaper than discount air tickets, so I was never really too enthusiastic about trying it. I sort of regret not having the experience, as today air courier travel is just about dead.

“Because of changes in the air freight industry and worldwide concerns about airline security in the wake of 9/11, air courier travel is, effectively, a thing of the past. Yes, there are still places that advertise ‘courier’ flights, but the prices they are asking are seldom competitive with those offered by airfare consolidators or bucket shops.” -Kelly Monaghan

On the homepage of courierlist.com, the dagger in the heart of the air courier industry is evident:


In point, improvements in shipping services such as FedEx has made courier flights obsolete, and their price schemes are now such that it isn’t really worth it for the traveler to consider. Air courier travel is dead.

Sign up for email alerts

When air travel websites give you the option to sign up to receive email alerts for price changes to your destinations, take them. This will make the work of finding a cheap fare a little easier, as when there’s a significant drop in the price of a route that you’re scouting you will receive an email about it. Fare Compare has an excellent email alerts system, and Airfare Watchdog has another.

Finding special deals

Keep a lookout for special deals or promotions that airlines offer from time to time. Sure, the often sound like gimmicks (they often are) but sometimes they’re for real too. Vayama often has excellent promotions from time to time.


Comparing airfares is now easier than ever, but finding the cheap flights is perhaps more difficult. There are now so many prospective fliers out there independently searching for flights, competing with you for the cheapest seats, that you really need to know the tricks of the trade to get some leverage. Following some of the advice here will help give you this critical advantage.


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Filed under: Air Travel, Budget Travel, Travel Resources, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

7 comments… add one

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  • LarryB_in_SEA January 16, 2013, 5:11 pm

    Another thing I’ve found useful is to clear your cookies before doing another search. Sometimes you’ll see a completely different (lower) price. Or just fire up a second browser (not browser window, completely different browser) that you haven’t used to search for that particular destination yet.
    This keeps the airline from knowing which prices they’ve already presented to you and skipping showing lower ones later.

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  • Vagabond Journey January 17, 2013, 10:36 pm

    For sure, this is real good advice.

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  • Jackq7a January 30, 2013, 12:14 pm

    Ok Wade, I am going to say that 99% of the time buying at the last minute is a bad idea. That said, I just scored some dirt cheap domestic tickets on China Southern buying them less than 24 hours in advance. 460 rmb for a 1600 mile flight. I was watching the tickets and every day, they would drop the price. 1 week before departure they were 1600 rmb. I couldn’t buy in advance because I was waiting on the embassy and I was prepared to suck it up. I was surprised because that is the opposite of the way things go. I think two factors were at play 1) The holiday season so no Business travelers this time of the year and 2) Xinjiang isn’t a big destination during Chinese New Year. I guess that could be a tip for people .

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    • Vagabond Journey January 30, 2013, 8:21 pm

      @Jackq7a Good call. Yes, I guess there are holes in the pattern here. I too have been looking for cheap flights out there, and they’ve been incredibly hard to find. Hmm, for the reasons you state this may be an excellent time to take that trip.

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      • Jackq7a January 30, 2013, 9:10 pm

        @Vagabond Journey Yeah, I was shocked because it went against rhyme and reason. I’m just glad I got the deal. Going against the travel flow can save you some money.

      • Vagabond Journey January 30, 2013, 9:52 pm

        @Jackq7a Definitely. One good thing about the airline industry is that it can immediately adapt to supply and demand ratios.

  • Steven September 16, 2013, 8:23 am

    What about flying standby? Have you tried this? I met a flight attendant from Lufthansa last year in Lima. Lufthansa doesn’t fly there, so he just went to the airport and got on the waitlist. He was disappointed the first day, but got on a plane the next. I’m not sure many people know this option exists. Obviously it wouldn’t be a good strategy if you are in a hurry or in peak season.

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