Ultimate budget travel guide: How to find cheap flights
What’s the first rule of flight club?
Welcome to another awesome edition of our ultimate budget travel guide series. In this series, we tackle the big travel topics so that you can master the art of budget travelling. Now, let’s take a look at mastering the art of booking super cheap flights.
Back in the dark ages of air travel, people didn’t have much of a choice as to which airline they flew with or how much they paid. They went to a travel agent, paid the required amount of money and likely ended up on the national airline regardless.
Travellers today, however, are spoilt for choice. There are low-cost carriers competing for our hard-earned dollars alongside luxury airlines offering deluxe cabins the size of a tiny home.
Competition is fierce and supply is abundant, so how do you get the lowest price?
Just like the hundreds of websites offering accommodation, there are so many flight-booking tools you can use to land cheap flights. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, so getting stuck in a painful loop of website after website is inevitable.
In order to save you a lot of hassle and heartache, I’ve compiled a comprehensive guide showing you exactly where to find cheap flights and how to successfully book them.
So, grab yourself a coffee and get comfortable. With these tips you’ll hopefully be flying cheaply to your destination with more money in your wallet for the finer things in life… like magnets, flowy pants and staying in the best hostels in the world.
The first rule of flight club…
Without a doubt, the most important rule to remember is that to get cheap flights you MUST be flexible. If you go into your trip with rigid plans don’t expect the booking gods to be too kind to you. You need to be flexible with dates, the time of day you are prepared to fly and of course which airline you use.
What does flying mean to you?
Before you commit to booking – you need to reflect on what you actually want out of a flight by answering these questions:
1) Are you simply interested in getting from A to B, or do you want to experience top class service and comfort?
2) Do you want to get there as fast as possible, or do you want to break up the journey with a layover or a day or two break in between?
3) Do you want to earn frequent flyer points or miles and be loyal to one particular airline, or are you just interested in the cheapest and most convenient flight?
Personally, Maggie and I fall into the category of simply wanting cheap flights no matter what discomfort we may experience as a result. We’ve copped some lengthy layovers and crappy flights during our travels in order to have more money to spend on the actual destinations themselves.
If you plan on travelling with your partner, booking cheap flights can make or break your trip. Depending on your travel style as a couple and how adaptable you are. It could be smooth sailing or a disaster waiting to happen.
I always tell myself after waking up at 3 am to catch a plane that I won’t do it again, that I’ll just book a later, more expensive flight next time so we can get more of a sleep-in. After getting to our destination and having more time and money to spend that day I usually realize it was all worth looking like a Walking Dead cast member for anyway.
For other travellers, they can see the value in spending an extra $400 to get a direct flight instead of enduring a 4-hour layover. This is something I’ll never understand. If you ask those same people would they happily sit in an airport and get paid $100 an hour for 4 hours, they’d jump at the opportunity. Sounds nuts if you put it in that perspective, huh?
Anyway, now onto the tools that will help you find cheap flights.
Google Flights: Speed Dating
Google’s powerful tech-tackles extend all the way to flights, and they have made the user experience very simple. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of Google Flights though, as the actual search engine is feature-packed and also very fast.
The strength of Google Flights lies in its speed and the ability to find the best dates to fly on. Its only weakness however, is that the prices it finds are sometimes beaten by Momondo – which is why I cover that tool below also.
Let’s take a look.
Looks easy enough right? Here’s how to use it.
Note that most other flight search engines work in very similar ways so you can use these steps for nearly any website you like.
Select the right currency
There’s nothing worse than finding an absolute bargain, only to eventually realize that the currency was wrong. By default, most of the time I’ve opened Google Flights my results have been in US Dollars, which looks great until you realize how much it actually is in Australian Dollars. To select your home currency, click the three lines to the left of the word ‘Flights’ in the blue bar at the top of the page, then select your currency in the dropdown.
Fill in the blanks
This is the easy part. Once you’ve filled out where you want to go and the estimated dates, Google Flights will tell you the exact price for those dates and also give suggestions based on there being a potentially cheaper flight a few days before or after.
For example, I’ve done a search from all Melbourne airports to Los Angeles’ LAX airport. It’s a return fare and I’ve chosen the dates purely as an illustration.
Choose your outbound flight
Now that you have a rough idea of the price for your chosen flights you can have a play around with changing the date and seeing what kind of savings you can make.
If these are your exact dates – your best option is to look at booking the outbound direct flight with United Airlines for $1,321 AUD. Just hope that it doesn’t get overbooked and well, you know what happens to passengers who volunteer to leave and then change their mind… too soon? Moving on.
Note that it is asking you to pick an outbound flight during this step, but the price shown beside is for the TOTAL return fare, not just for the one flight.
If you’re sticking with the first rule of flight club (flexibility) however, the Google Flights ‘Date tip’ suggestion to return 1 day later and save yourself a cool $417 AUD sounds pretty sweet to me. Plus it’s with Air New Zealand and they have the best in flight safety demonstrations in the world.
Choose your return flight
Now that we’ve got our outbound flight sorted, it’s time to choose a return. The corresponding Air New Zealand return flight will automatically populate in green and in our case it is the top result.
You will also note that there are 38 other results available here. Although it says ‘longer or more expensive’ this is not necessarily the case every time. If you click to expand this view you will see that there is another possible flight for this bargain price, and it has layover that is 1 hour shorter than our top result. Perfect!
Completing your booking
After choosing both your outbound and return flights you can now go ahead with the booking. The accuracy of this price, $905 AUD for return flights from Melbourne to Los Angeles is not 100% guaranteed with Google Flights, or most other flight search engines for that matter. You still have to go to an external website to complete the booking and usually this will be the actual airline’s website as you can see from the image below.
The other results are largely from OTAs (Online Travel Agencies) and these are a mixed bag. I’ll cover these later in another section. In this case, it is far cheaper to book on Air New Zealand’s website directly. Google Flights also gives you fair warning that additional baggage fees may apply and this is typical of modern airline pricing anyway.
If you aren’t ready to book on the spot, you have the option of tracking the price of your flights via email notifications. This is a fantastic feature but generally, the sad truth is that flights usually go up and not down.
Getting funky with it
Are you ready for the fun stuff? If you are truly embracing flexibility and can travel whenever you want, there are ways to find even better results with Google Flights. The easiest way to do that is to use the three advanced search options.
When you click on either the outbound or return date, the Calendar feature magically appears and shows you a view of the next two months at a glance. The results below are from attempting to change our outbound date from August 29th (highlighted) to something else.
Conveniently, the equal lowest price is always highlighted in green – which here is $852 AUD for September 11th through to 13th – cheaper than our previous result of $905 AUD.
When we try to change the return date only, the lowest price is still only $905 AUD as demonstrated below. This is an important thing to note if perhaps one of your dates if flexible but the other is not.
You can also skip ahead to future months and tweak both the outbound and return dates to see if your results get any cheaper.
A little clunky and slower than Calendar view, the Flexible Dates matrix is nice for travellers who want to visualize their results in a different manner and who are flexible but only with a few days either side. It takes too long to populate for my liking though.
The Price Graph feature is great when you know the exact length of your holiday but you are flexible with the start and finish date. For example, if you have exactly two weeks off to enjoy a destination, just drag the slider along the bottom and select the most appealing dates. The graph will always tell you the cheapest price for any month shown with the number written alongside the dotted line. In our case, the magical number is $852 AUD. You can also see that taking this 2-week holiday later in the year will cost you a lot more, as the graph steadily increases.
Other advanced tricks
If you want to really save time and use the full capability of Google Flight’s search engine, you can start inputting airport codes (eg. Los Angeles is LAX) into both the outbound and return destination search bars. You are allowed a maximum of five airports in each, so the combinations can get pretty elaborate. Just ensure that you separate each code with a comma.
Keep in mind that searching for the name of a city might return more than one airport result. ‘New York City’ for example will return results for all 3 major airports there, so using the code ‘NYC’ (which is not an airport code) counts for three out of your five possible airports.
Also, you may need to write the name of the cities or airports in individually in order to get the three-letter airport code, because after you type in the first full name you can’t usually add an additional one. Consider it a rare chance to use your forgotten friends pen and paper. Or just write it in the Notes app in your smartphone… (Sigh).
Now, onto our example.
Let’s say you want to find results for cheap flights from one of the main transit hubs in Asia to somewhere in Central Europe. The best way to efficiently do this is by doing a bulk search of a few different routes at once.
I’ve decided I’ll be somewhere between Singapore (SIN), Kuala Lumpur (KUL) and Bangkok (BKK) roughly between September and October, and I’m hoping to fly to either Budapest (BUD), Vienna (VIE) or Bratislava (BTS) to start my European holiday. This is how I’d go about it in just one search:
These results tell me that the cheapest flight over this 2-month period is on either October 8th or October 29th and is $305 AUD. You won’t know which one of the code combinations was successful until you click on the date you want to choose.
In the end, it was the below option with Eurowings from Bangkok to Vienna via Cologne that ended up being the cheapest. I could also fly on the same airline into Budapest for only $1 extra too.
Choose your layover city and get an extra holiday for free… kind of
For longer journeys, your layover city can also play a part in your holiday fun. Usually, I don’t care too much where I stop on the way to my intended destination, but occasionally airlines will allow a break of a few days between flights at no extra cost.
Essentially it is like visiting a destination for free because you have to fly that particular route anyway. If you want to explore which cities your potential flight stops at in between, use the ‘more’ button and check or uncheck cities to sharpen your results.
One of the best uses of the holiday layover is when flying between Europe and North America via Icelandair. They allow a stopover of up to 7 days for no additional cost – check out our complete travel guide to Iceland for more details.
Looking for inspiration
If you really have no idea where to go and are simply looking for a bit of inspiration, Google Flights can also come in handy. On the home screen you can try a few different combinations between ‘Dates’, ‘Places’ and ‘Interests’.
The below example is showing visual results for honeymoon destinations in Oceania. You can also try clicking on the world map and moving it around to reveal different prices for other destinations too. Each red or grey spot refers to an airport, so you can find airports that you didn’t know existed also.
Momondo: The Price King
Whilst Google Flights is the master of speed, Momondo is always an essential tool for comparing prices. As a general rule, I always start my flight search with Google Flights, and then when I’ve found the best dates I’ll compare with the results in Momondo.
The search bar is incredibly easy to use and it’s nice to see a splash of colour here compared to Google Flights’ more clinical look.
Cheaper than Google Flights?
With Momondo, the outbound and return flights are already packaged together so you don’t need to choose them separately as you would with Google Flights.
Make sure you wait long enough for all the results to generate; it can take 30 seconds or more sometimes. I’ll forgive you if you start hearing the old ‘dial up Internet’ sound nostalgically ringing in your ears now. You’ll know when the search is complete because you’ll see this little pinwheel to the left of the search results stop spinning.
We know from our previous search with Google Flights that the cheapest we could find from Melbourne to Los Angeles was $852 AUD. Let’s see if we can beat it by using the dates September 4th to 18th.
One of the strengths of Momondo is that it shows you (at the very top of the search) the price for the cheapest, the quickest and the best overall flights. ‘Best’ is a combination of price versus speed and is just according to their algorithm.
As you can see we have managed to find an even cheaper set of flights than before, this time with Fiji Airways for only $808 AUD! The duration of the flights seems fairly long though, so in order to properly check out the details of the stopover the best thing to do is click the ‘See details’ button on the bottom left side of the box.
There are two major things to note on this screen. One, you have an extended stopover on both the outbound and return journey in Nadi so you have enough time to get to a Fijian beach! Two, and more importantly for the purpose of this post, you have to complete the booking on a website called FlightNetwork in order to get the low price of $808 AUD.
FlightNetwork and the other booking sites shown here are Online Travel Agencies, which we encountered earlier when trying to complete our booking on Google Flights. There is more information on these below in the section titled ‘Trusting OTAs?’ but for now we’ll stick with Momondo.
Assuming that all goes well with the FlightNetwork booking, we’ve managed to land these super cheap flights by using Momondo. It isn’t always the case that it will find a cheaper result than Google Flights, but it is definitely worth the time it takes to check it out.
Digging deeper with Momondo
Momondo has a few other handy tidbits of information scattered around the search result screen for you to explore.
The left-hand side of the screen has a sidebar where you can tweak results to suit your needs. If you want to see only flights that arrive before midday for example, you can drag the ‘Time of day’ toggle across to make it happen. You can also select or deselect particular airlines, stopover cities and airports if there happens to be more than one in your origin city or destination city.
Also, please ignore the useless bar graph of ‘Estimated prices’, it is largely inaccurate and very clunky to use, especially for return fares. Just above it to the right, however, is the ‘Flight Insight’ link, which occasionally contains some handy information like cheapest and most expensive days of the week to fly. You can find this out much faster with Google Flights however.
What about Skyscanner?
Skyscanner is a really popular alternative to Momondo. It works in almost identical fashion and the results are quite similar. It ultimately comes down to personal preference for which user interface you like better. I find that prices are very similar due to showing results from most of the same OTAs anyway.
I did the same Melbourne to Los Angeles search with Skyscanner just for the hell of it and the result was very close as expected. The cheapest result was $812 AUD with an OTA called Bravofly. The ‘best’ result according to Skyscanner was still with Air New Zealand however, at a price of $871 AUD.
Kayak: Route Research
As a travel nerd, I’m always looking for resources that make it easier to plan holidays and book cheap flights. Kayak is another one of the many flight and hotel booking websites out there – and the aim of this budget travel guide is all about trying to minimize the resources that you are using; not confuse you with too much choice. The reason I mention Kayak is their ‘Direct Route’ tool, which is hiding way down at the very bottom of the homepage in the footer.
What I love about this is that it shows basically every single flight leaving a particular airport during a given month. For example, if I want to travel out of Los Angeles in September, I simply search for LAX and the search result is a list of flights from the airport in order from shortest distance to longest.
Conveniently, it also tells me the expected duration of the flight, the different airlines that service that particular route, and the nearby airports I can try using as an alternative.
Expanding these results also gives me a chance to look at the days of the week that each airline flies out of LAX, the time of day that they depart, the flight number, and the dates that the particular route is active for during that month.
Try out the Direct Route tool to find out all the different places you can fly to from your home city!
Scott’s Cheap Flights and I Know The Pilot
As far as email lists go, there are two brilliant ones that I swear by for finding cheap flight deals. They frequently deliver hot-off-the-press deals direct to your inbox and some of them are ridiculously good. Scott’s Cheap Flights specializes in international flights only, whereas I Know The Pilot picks up the slack on the domestic flight front. As a digital nomad, my inbox is sacred – so you know that these services both making the cut means that they are both well worth it.
Scott’s Cheap Flights
If you have to pick just one of these, Scott’s Cheap Flights is the one. Scott Keyes is one of those obsessive types who have a real knack for finding cheap flights and even some mistake fares. He got good enough at it that his website became a roaring success and now he has a whole team of worker bees scouring the net to find the best deals every day.
While you can sign up for his premium mailing list for $39 USD annually, the free list is pretty brilliant itself. Supposedly the premium subscribers receive two-thirds of the flight deals and also receive them quicker. No doubt you would make your money back after utilizing just one cheap flight deal per year.
What I love about Scott’s Cheap Flights is that because of their subscription model, they don’t receive any commission from external sources so there is no incentive to spam your inbox repeatedly.
Expect an average of 2 emails per day from Scott’s Cheap Flights and helpful information as to which website they found the flights and suggested dates for when that particular cheap price is possible. I’m getting a lot of great deals on Vietnam and other Southeast Asian destinations a lot lately!
Maggie and I haven’t signed up for the premium service (yet) but we managed to recently book return flights from Sydney to Toronto (with a free 8-day stopover in Vancouver) for only $1120 AUD due to an email alert from Scott and his team.
That’s crazy cheap – especially considering we’re flying over for Christmas!
I Know The Pilot
Another email alert service with a catchy name, I Know The Pilot does a great job of finding cheap flights in your local region. The reason I also use I Know The Pilot is that they are fantastic for alerting me whenever one of the budget Australian airlines are having a sale. Think cheap domestic fares with Tigerair, Jetstar and even internationally with Qantas and Scoot too.
You can visit their website and search for deals as well without needing to receive the emails, but the key to taking advantage of cheap flight deals is to opt for the alerts when they are available and act fast! Conveniently the website is updated frequently to inform visitors of when these deals have expired too.
Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) are something I touched on above when completing bookings through Google Flights, Momondo and even Skyscanner. They are often a little bit cheaper than booking direct with the airline but pose the lingering question – are they legitimate?
The answer is yes, but take caution. OTAs are slightly hit or miss and each one of them needs to be judged on their own merits. There are a few ways to do your research.
Trustpilot and Tripadvisor are good sources of peer-reviews and a quick Google search of “(OTA name here) reviews” will usually allow you to read through what others have experienced during the booking process. Be sure to take these reviews with a grain of salt – most online reviews are negatively skewed and as we know a lot of people like to take to the Internet to vent their frustration when perhaps they didn’t bother to read the fine print.
There is a great FAQ on OTAs to be found on Scott’s Cheap Flights website which goes into further detail. Use your common sense and do your research before committing to purchase any flight through an OTA.
Unfortunately, I’m not referring to the edible, delicious kind of cookies here… but rather the ones stored by your Internet browser. In case you didn’t know, whenever you search the Internet, your browser is looking to personalize the experience for you.
Cookies are tiny text files that are stored in your Internet browser’s cache in order to remember what you frequently search for. They are incredibly helpful for businesses to track consumer behaviours online and therefore help them to better serve their potential customers.
Have you ever wondered why the ads you see in your Facebook news feed are incredibly specific to something you may have just searched for an hour ago? Or why you keep seeing ads for snuggies even though you pinky promise you only looked them up that one time? That is the magic of cookies.
This gives the consumer a sense of urgency and attempts to force him or her into making a purchase out of fear that the previously cheap flights will only increase in price.
There are two distinct ways to combat this.
The first is to delete your cookies and browser history before purchasing any flight. Depending on which browser you use (for example Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome etc.) there are different ways to remove your search history and to delete cookies. This will also vary between Windows and Mac users – it’s best to just Google the process based on what you work with. This will ensure that the browser is not showing you an inflated price due to you being a return visitor.
The second way is to become a full ninja and browse the web in secret. If you’re a techy you might already be doing this by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), however for the less technologically savvy there is an easy way with your web browser. This is also a handy trick for those of you working online too.
Chrome users can simply click ‘File’, then ‘New Incognito Window’ and a black, sneaky looking window will appear. There is also a detective-esque logo on this page that I love. As you can see from the image below, this browsing method ensures that cookies are not collected by the flight booking websites and therefore the prices shouldn’t artificially increase. If you’re a Safari or Firefox user, this is called ‘Private Browsing’ and for Internet Explorer users it’s called ‘InPrivate’.
Lastly, when is the best time to book cheap flights?
This one is always up for debate, but the general consensus is that last-minute flights are almost never going to be cheap. The more time you allow yourself to book a holiday, the better. Don’t end up like those people constantly making travel excuses.
That said, signing up for an email list like Scott’s Cheap Flights or I Know The Pilot will keep you in the loop of any last-minute deals when and if they come about.
It is also worth noting that each part of the world will have their ‘low season’ rates. For example, in Australia, the cheapest time to fly almost anywhere is from the end of September to November. So it’s safe to say that it’s definitely worth figuring out when your destination’s low season lies and trying to plan your holidays during these months if you can.
I hope that you’ve found something new to try out the next time you go on the hunt for cheap flights. Air travel is something that can and should definitely be enjoyed – so the lowest price might not necessarily be the best for yourself and your travel buddies. Always weigh up the pros and cons of each option before committing to any flight purchase.
Have you got any tried and tested resources for finding cheap flights that I haven’t mentioned? I’d love to hear them!
And remember the first rule of flight club. The more flexible you are, the more cheap flights you will enjoy! As for the second rule, screw it. Share this post to as many people as you like, friends, family, you name it. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton would be proud.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nick is a travel-obsessed Aussie, who in 2011 quit his job in banking and has been working whilst travelling ever since. He enjoys the finer things in life, like eating too much Greek food, being punctual and reading European History for Dummies. He speaks 9 different languages (okay, just the swear words) and credits most of his writing inspiration to coffee, late-night cheese binges and the not-so-occasional mojito. Some say he has too many flamingo shirts in his backpack, but we all know that’s physically impossible. His passion is helping travellers explore every inch of the Earth and become location independent so the journey never has to end.
Hey, we're Nick and Maggie!
Pun-lovers, caffeine enthusiasts, and major travel addicts. We created Living to Roam to teach aspiring digital nomads the skills to achieve their own freedom lifestyle. If you dream of travelling longer, working smarter and living happier, this is YOUR place.