How To Find Cheap Flights and A Pre-Booking Checklist
We all know that finding a reasonably priced flight while scouring flight search engines and booking sites can be a daunting process. Why can't all flights just be found on one site? Why can't all flights be the same price every day and stop changing every minute? After lots of practice and research, I'm sharing all I know about how to find cheap flights.
I used to spend days or even weeks trying to find the perfect flight before actually booking one. Over the last years of travel, I’ve got a more efficient approach for finding great deals and I’ve put together a list of things to help you save money on your next flight. Keep reading here for a more detailed guide on how to find cheap flights and a pre-booking checklist to make sure you're covering all your bases.
First I'll start with a few pre-booking questions to ask yourself when you’re getting ready to look for flights. After smoothing out the main one (destination) it might take us no more than one hour to successfully find the cheapest flight, convince ourselves that we’re really doing it, book it and then wait for that always exciting confirmation email.
Tips to Maximize Your Savings
When you're more eager to get away and less focused on a specific destination, you’re definitely going to save yourself a few bucks. If you've got fixed travel dates, try searching for the cheapest destination available in that date range.
Skyscanner is one of our favourite sites for searching flight deals (more on this below). Among other things, it offers a tool to plug in your departure city and lets you search for destinations ‘Everywhere.’ Then it will give you a list of dozens of countries you can fly to starting with the cheapest.
One thing I love about this feature is that you find cool places you never knew existed. Just now I searched Montreal to Everywhere and stumbled upon a place in Columbia I’ve never heard of: San Andres Island. Did you know that Air Transat offers non-stop flights from Montreal to this exotic island? I didn’t. And thanks to Skyscanner, I can book a flight for later this month at only $529 on Flighthub:
At the bottom right of the screenshot, Skyscanner gives a secondary option to booking with Flighthub. In this case, Air Transat is offering the same route for $530. Because the difference is so small, I would probably book this flight straight with Air Transat.
For long-term travellers like us, our initial destinations are usually decided by the cheapest flights. This summer, Fel and I wanted to return to Europe. We had our eyes set on Portugal and Spain but we're always open to pretty much anything. When I looked on Skyscanner, I saw that flights to Poland were drastically cheaper and so we just went ahead and booked a one-way to Warsaw. Now I’ve forgotten all about Spain and we’re ready to explore more of Eastern Europe. Maybe I’ll even get to see Russia this year.
Just like it is with destinations, flexibility is key when landing a great flight. Leaving the day before or the day after could end up saving you hundreds of dollars. Huge fluctuations in prices are usually because of high season, holidays or popular events like Oktoberfest in Germany. If you want to be in a city to celebrate things like mardi gras, carnival and the Olympics, just know ahead of time that you’re not likely going to save money on your flight or accommodation.
To help you find the best days to save on travel, sites like Skyscanner and Google Flights let you browse flight prices for the whole month. Sometimes you’ll see such big price differences in the same month that you’ll find it hard to believe.
So before you request those days off from work, check to see what days are the best for flights and then plan from there. This way you’ll save yourself the money and the headache of trying to find a good deal on very specific dates.
The best time to book is right now. Booking at least 2-3 months in advance for international flights is ideal. For domestic, I wouldn't leave it to less than a month before your trip.
If you're holding over for the last minute drop of price, more often than not you will be disappointed. The laws of supply and demand in the flight world tell us that the closer we book to a specific date, the more we are willing to pay. But that shouldn't stop you from taking a look anyways. There are some pretty good deals for this month and it's not too late to rack up those air miles.
Feeling stumped when all you see are high prices everyday for your specific destination? Try searching for the next city over. Or in some cases (like in Europe and Asia) it doesn't even have to be the next city over. Thanks to budget airlines, you might be able to catch a cheap flight to your original destination for a fraction of the price. Sometimes it may be more trouble than it's worth, but it could give you the opportunity that you didn't originally have to check on a new city before hopping on the next flight.
Lets say you really want to go to Miami but your dates are flexible and you can go anytime. I was just looking for flights from Toronto to Miami and found this one on West Jet for $565 travelling in July:
Seems like a great deal with a direct flight. But after searching again on Skyscanner, I saw that I could fly into Fort Lauderdale this month for a fraction of the price. Yes, it's an extra hour to get to Miami by shuttle but they run between airports frequently and are very affordable so I think it's worth it. If I was able to go to Miami sooner, I'd be saving over $200 CAD to put towards happy hour on the beach.
When I first started travelling, I had the idea in my head that one-way flights were more expensive and not worth it. I would see a round-trip flight across Canada for $600 and then a one-way ticket for $500 and none of it was making sense for me.
But now the majority of flights we book are one-way flights and we've had no complaints. The main reason being that both our dates and destinations are flexible now so we're able to avoid overpaying for a one-way flight.
Instead of a round-trip flight, searching one-way flights could lead to the possibility of flying with two different carriers and potentially saving you money.
When we booked our euro trip for 2015, we were looking for round-trip flights from Toronto to Paris but everything in our price range had too many stopovers. But instead of giving in, we paid attention to the stopover destinations and continued to look for alternative options.
We used Skyscanner's multi-city search to find a flight from Toronto to Geneva and then returning to Toronto from Paris. We ended up finding a great flight for just under $650 CAD. The funny thing was that our flight into Switzerland had a stopover in Paris to begin with!
What I mean to say is that with a little searching and tweaking of your destinations, you might just find a great deal like we did. Another benefit of multi-city flights is that you can often extend your layover and treat it as another city to explore on your trip. Surprisingly, more flights doesn't necessarily mean more money.
One thing to be aware of when booking multi-city flights is that you might find yourself landing at one city airport and flying out of another. Keep your eyes peeled for different airport codes in case your search engine doesn't make you aware of the difference.
Budget carriers are great for short flights if you keep your expectations low and don't mind the lack of entertainment. Not every search engine will list all of these budget carriers (especially in Europe) so keep that in mind when you're searching. Take a look at different budget carrier’s websites before you book to make sure you're getting the best possible deal.
Last year we were feeling spontaneous and booked flights to Morocco from Paris when we saw that they were only $40 each way. But one thing to keep in mind is that most budget airlines will have fine print listing the fees for everything from fees to select your seat to fees for forgetting to print out your boarding pass from home.
Europe: Ryanair, EasyJet and so many more!
Asia: There are many budget airlines in Asia so here’s a wikitravel link that lists them all.
Canada: WOW Air and NewLeaf (sales have temporarily been postponed) are just breaking into the Canadian market. Jetlines and Jet Naked are expected to soon too. Porter sometimes has good deals as well as Air Canada Rouge (we just booked a long haul flight with them to Europe).
USA: Virgin, Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier and Spirit
YVR Deals and YYZ Deals are also great resources for finding deals if you're departing from Vancouver or Toronto. The sites are run by Chris Myden who is always keeping an eye out for deals from Canadian cities. To see if your city has deals, try searching for your airport code _ _ _deals.com
Some of the other big players right now will include: Hotwire, Kayak, Momondo, Hipmunk, Google Flights, Seatguru, Travelocity and Orbits.
Another very useful search engine is Google Flights Explore. It lets you browse deals between destinations, highlights the lowest prices for months in advance and then redirects you to Google Flights for further steps. What I like about this site is that it lets you see prices for different destinations all at once:
The Pre-Booking Checklist
Once you’ve narrowed down your search, keep these 7 things in mind before you press that Confirm button.
1. Did you compare prices throughout the month?
If your dates are flexible, use the ITA Matrix or Skyscanner to look at prices for the whole month to make sure you've picked the best date.
2. Did you check for flights to nearby cities?
Around big hubs like Toronto and Vancouver, it's common to find a cheaper flight leaving from a nearby airport like Hamilton or Abbotsford. And sometimes driving a short distance across the border (like Buffalo and Bellingham) will end up saving you more in the long run. The same goes when arriving to your destination. A city like Paris has nearby airports such as Beauvais-Tillé which services budget airlines and has a shuttle service connecting the two airports. If you find deals in nearby cities, always do the math first to make sure it's still cost-effective.
3. Did you check the price of two one-way flights?
I know this sounds crazy but you might get lucky and find two one-way flights on different sites that are cheaper than a round-trip.
4. Did you check the airline's main website?
Once you think you’ve found the perfect flight schedule, be sure to check the airline's website. A few times now, I've been surprised to see deals offered directly through the airline with prices better than those listed on third-party sites like Expedia.
5. Did you check budget airlines?
Though most search engines claim to include budget airlines in their results, that's not always the case. Check with the budget airlines that service the region you're travelling to and that way you've covered all your bases.
6. Are you getting points for this?
If you're a frequent traveller, make sure you're making the most of every flight you book. If you're loyal to a specific airline, look into their frequent flyer program. If you're not getting any points on your existing credit card, consider switching to one that will maximize points and reward you for flying.
7. Which currency are you booking under?
Always double check the currency on search engines! I was surprised to see how many sights don't disclose right away what currency the price is listed in. Sounds silly but this is especially confusing for us Canadians. We almost booked a flight once because the price was such a deal before we noticed it was quoted in USD and not CAD dollars.
Also, keep track on the exchange rate you're getting from your credit card company. If you're booking flights as you travel, it may be worth booking in the local currency if your bank is giving you a good rate.
Now you're ready to book. So book and don't look back. By using these steps and doing some research beforehand, you'll be ahead of the game and on your way to some big savings. What are you waiting for? Head over the Skyscanner and search Everywhere as your destination. You never know where you might end up next!