Most people see travel as contingent on one key choice: do you want to get there cheaply, or do you want to get there quickly? Traditional budget-friendly options such as trains and buses can take you just about anywhere on the continent.
Unfortunately, between the frequency of stops, inefficient routes, and lengthy layovers, you can expect a train or bus to take significantly longer than a car trip.
This leaves planes as the only practical option for most business travel, and only appealing option for vacationers who don’t want to spend half their time in transit. The cost of flights can be a tough pill to swallow, however.
Flying can often be a miserable ordeal — one that people pay high prices to experience. Between delays, cramped seating, and the ordeal of security checkpoints, the price of flights can sometimes feel like a cruel joke.
However, if you know what you’re doing, techniques and tools do exist to mitigate the expense of airline travel. If you’re looking for flight deals, the four strategies outlined below can take you just about anywhere you need to go.
#1: Go Budget
In recent decades, budget airlines have proliferated. Instead of just a few carriers with limited regional routes, you can now find budget flight deals to practically anywhere in the United States, along with a growing number of countries around the world.
You have to practice care and discernment when you fly budget.
Budget airlines not only cut costs through less legroom and fewer amenities but charge extra fees for everything from carry-ons, to the freedom to choose your seat.
Before you book a flight with a budget airline, review their fee terms very closely.
Should you need to have a carry-on, or if your suitcase exceeds a certain weight limit, pay the extra fee at the time of purchase.
If you get caught at the gate without having done this, you will pay even more money.
Also, check the location of the destination airport. Budget airlines will sometimes service airports at a greater distance from town, and thus necessitate more travel once you arrive.
All that said, if you know the ins-and-outs of the fee structures, you can find amazing flight deals if you go with a budget carrier. A list of popular budget carriers here in the U.S. includes:
#2: Do Your Research
Before the advent of flight search engines, the only way to shop cheaper fares was to contact airlines individually, or work with a travel agent. Now, with some basic information and the click of a button, you can easily compare prices across a huge number of carriers.
Keep in mind, though, that these services aren’t “free”. Flight search engines take a cut of the ticket cost, and therefore display inflated prices. Certain search engines — like Expedia — charge more than others, or will not display prices from budget carriers. A good list of reliable, lower-priced flight search engines would include:
You can also save a great deal of money with flexible dates. Many people swear by the wisdom that flights on Tuesdays are the cheapest, though facts don’t really support this. However, travel during the workweek is generally cheaper than travel on the weekends.
If you’re planning a vacation, Skyscanner actually lets you compare flight deals across different days, weeks, and even months.
One more topic for research, error fares, can sometimes land you absurdly cheap flights. Airlines are not perfect, and technical glitches and human error can occasionally lead to reduced fares listed for sale. Of course, the airline must honor the price, regardless of how low.
AirFare Watchdog and Secret Flying are two websites that locate and aggregate error fares. Make sure to give them a visit, as you never know when you’ll get lucky.
#3: Travel Rewards and Flight Deals
Cheap flights are great and all, but when it comes to saving money, nothing beats free. Airline and travel rewards cards allow you to use points to purchase flights.
Airline cards are tied to one particular airline, while travel rewards allow you to fly with a variety of carriers. You generally accumulate points through use of the card. Some cards offer large sign-up bonuses, though, often enough for a free flight once you’ve met basic spending thresholds.
To maximize reward points, you should use your card as much as possible and pay it off every month. Whether it’s a trip to the grocery store, new computer, tank of gas, engagement ring, car repair, or night on the town, purchases large and small will enable you to accumulate the points you need to fly for free.
If you’re not very familiar with rewards cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great choice to get started. Spend $4,000 with the card in the first three months, and you’ll qualify for 60,000 bonus points, more than enough for a domestic flight.
#4: Be Sneaky
Two final tips require a little sneakiness. The first relates to your method of finding flights, while the second informs your choice of destination.
Most people do not realize that frequent searches for the same destination will lead to inflated prices. Cookies in your web browser track your searches and inform carriers or search engines to gradually raise fares in an attempt to encourage panic purchases.
If you have ever noticed airfares rising as you research a destination, this is the reason.
To disable these cookies and prevent inflated prices, always research airfares in “incognito mode”.
All the major browsers have some way to enable this, and its use provides a simple way to keep down the cost of your travel.
In Google Chrome or Safari, simply press Command, Shift, and N simultaneously to enable this browsing mode. For Firefox, the keystroke is Command, Shift, and P.
The last of our flight deals centers on the phenomenon of “hidden cities” in airline travel. Sometimes, a flight that connects in a city is cheaper than if the city was your final destination.
For example, if you want to fly to Chicago and found a cheap flight with a Chicago layover, you would simply disembark and leave the airport.
The one catch to this strategy is that airlines hate it. While perfectly legal, the technique requires some concessions to uncooperative carriers.
For example, you wouldn’t want to check baggage, since it would continue to the final destination without you. You should also not practice this trick with a carrier you wish to build a rewards relationship with. To find hidden city prices, visit skiplagged.com.
Whether you want to travel in six months, or need to fly somewhere tomorrow, you can always find flight deals online. Flexibility in carrier choice, openness to budget airlines, and the use of the tools outlined above will open up a whole new world of thrifty flights. The key is simply knowing where to look.