Traveling always seemed impossible to me - the costs of flights, food, accommodation, local transportation, and activities just seemed to add up quickly, and I never understood how people could do it long-term, or at all. Then I went abroad for the first time, and I started learning the tricks of the trade. Traveling is one of those things that you just have to do once - one time is all it takes for you to get hooked and to realize that it’s actually much more possible than you ever dreamed!
Of course, I have made my fair share of mistakes - I’ve been caught in those terrible “tourist traps” and over-paid for attractions, I’ve spent double the price on transportation tickets by neglecting to do my research ahead of time, and I’ve wasted money by eating meals right in the most touristy part of the city (where there is both the most expensive and worst quality food!) But like anything, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and continue to do so.
First thing’s first. Exploring a new country doesn’t begin until you, well, get there…
So how can you avoid those outrageous international flight prices?
All of my inter-continental flights have been paid for with air miles, which has saved me THOUSANDS of dollars on flights to Latin America, Europe, Australia, etc.
If you’re not already signed up for a credit card that gives you air miles for every dollar you spend, I would start there. Some credit cards also offer additional points upon signup if you spend a certain amount in the first few months. For example, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card gives you 30,000 bonus miles (enough for a one-way international ticket!) after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Sometimes they have a deal where you can get 50,000 bonus miles (enough for a round-trip international ticket!) after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. Of course, to get those points, you have to spend the corresponding amount of money - I would recommend signing up for the card when you know you have some big expenses coming up anyways - (i.e. right before school starts for college students!) The United MileagePlus Explorer card (and others) also often includes the benefit of having no foreign transaction fees, which is crucial to saving money when you are making purchases abroad!
Aside from getting points with a credit card, you should also try to stick with one airline alliance, like Star Alliance, OneWorld, or SkyTeam. I’ve used Star Alliance/United Airlines for years. Although you might spend a little more on some individual tickets (by selecting a flight with your alliance group as opposed to the cheapest ticket), over time this will be worth it, because you will gradually accumulate air miles and eventually can use them to get flights for free!
Flight Search Engines
Did you know that not all flight search-engines are the same? Many times people miss good deals on flights simply because they are looking in the wrong places. I highly recommend comparing results from several different search-engines and finding out where you repeatedly find the best deals.
My favorite flight search engines are Momondo and SkyScanner. I have generally found the cheapest flights by using these sites. I also love that you can search from your departure city without including any specific destination. This means that if you’re not picky about where you go, you can type in where you currently are, and find the best deals to any location in the world by typing in “everywhere/take me anywhere” in the destination box. Of course, that doesn’t work if you have a specific location in mind, but it can make travel especially spontaneous and exciting if you’re flexible!
Fellow travelers have also recommended Google Flights and Kayak.
Another way to get cheap flights is to use budget airlines! Often times budget airlines won’t show up on the results from flight search-engines so it’s worth it to go to their specific site as well. You can find especially good deals from airlines like RyanAir or EasyJet within Europe….I’m talking international flights as low as $11 - seriously!!
There are of course, a few drawbacks to flying this cheap. One, is that you need to be flexible as to WHEN you travel. For example, RyanAir has really cheap flights, but they only have specific departure-destination combinations for specific days of the week. So, for example, if you can opt to fly out on a Wednesday instead of a Monday, you’re set. If you need to arrive at a very specific time, you might end up paying more for your ticket.
Flying with budget airlines also means no luxury travel. You probably won’t get a meal, and will only be able to take one piece of carry-on luggage (and they are sometimes REALLY strict about this, in my experience!) But if you don't mind having limited leg room for a few hours, I think it’s definitely worth it!
As I mentioned above, many budget airlines will have dirt cheap tickets available, but only on specific days of the week. I recommend selecting “my dates are flexible” option that many flight search engines offer to compare the prices on several different dates.
In general, the best window of time to purchase your ticket is about 6-8 weeks before your departure, or 3 months before if you are going during peak season. However, I would suggest avoiding peak season as much as possible, as these tickets will almost always be much more expensive.
To be clear, I’m talking about longer term travel, not a week-long spring break vacation on the beach. As I will talk about in later blog posts, another aspect of budget travel is traveling SLOW and enjoying off-the-beaten-track locations. If you’re hoping for a week-long spring break on the beach kind of travel, then you will have a lot more trouble finding cheap airfare, as your dates aren’t as flexible (though not entirely impossible if you use the other tips I’ve mentioned).
Smart travel is cheap travel!
Hopefully these tips can help you score some good deals on flights to get you to your destination.
It IS possible to explore a BIG world even when you've got SMALL pockets :)
What did I miss?
Share any other travel-hacking tips for scoring cheap flights in the comments below!
I believe in God's grace through Jesus. I love to learn, in a variety of contexts - reading God's Word, interacting with people from diverse backgrounds around the world, and as a student of Linguistics and Foreign Languages at Western Washington University. Pages of My Passport is dedicated to sharing this journey of learning through written and visual content.