How to find the Cheapest Flights

by | 12 Nov | Travel Tips | 2 comments

Once upon a time, air travel was out of reach for many; while it broadened people’s horizons and made the world a much smaller place, it was also very expensive. If you’ve flown for many years you probably remember a time when air travel was exciting and people got dressed up for the occasion. With improvements in technology and increased competition, the price of air travel has fallen dramatically since its early days. This has taken some of the excitement and spectacle away (air travel is no longer the “event” it used to be) but the upside is that affordable flights are available to everyone!

cheap southwest flightsImage credit: Joseph De Palma, on Flickr

While some people still like to spring the extra cash for a premium or business class “experience”, the majority of air travelers would rather spend less on the travel expenses and leave more money to spend on their actual holiday.

So how can you ensure you get the cheapest flights possible?

I’ve combined my own experience with plenty of research and come up with the best advice below to help you spend less on your flights and more on your holiday! If you’ve got a favourite tip for finding cheap flights, please share it below in the comments for everyone to benefit!

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Tip #1 – Book as far in advance as you can
This one is fairly obvious, but it’s also the one that can save you the most money. If you can plan your trip well in advance (though let’s face it – that’s not always possible) you’re more likely to pick up a bargain; 4 months out has the cheapest prices on average. Studies of historical airline prices have shown that prices usually start rising 60 days before the departure date. The closer you get to the date, the higher the price will go.

Tip #2 – Be flexible with travel dates
If you don’t have to travel on a specific date, you can often pick up some bargains. Flying mid-week can save you hundreds of dollars! Wednesday is typically the cheapest day to fly, with Fridays and weekends being more expensive because of higher demand. It also pays to avoid traveling during peak season. When “peak season” is will depend on your destination, so do a quick Google search before you plan your trip.

Tip #3 – Bigger airports are usually cheaper
If your nearest airport isn’t very busy, consider flying from a bigger, nearby airport for international flights. E.g. international flights coming in and out of Sydney might be $200 cheaper than flying out of Brisbane, but you can get a domestic flight from BNE->SYD for as little as $59! Similarly, consider alternative destination airports nearby to where you actually want to go.

Adioso is a great search tool for this kind of thing. You can see in the screenshot below I searched for flights from “Brisbane, Australia to California, USA in October, returning 2 weeks later”. This is a really flexible search – not only does it search multiple dates, but it searches multiple locations! Searching by state instead of city I can see that it’s almost $400 cheaper to fly into LA instead of San Francisco, which may be a factor in your trip planning (maybe you could fly to LA and then road trip to San Fran in a rental car).

adioso cheap flights

Tip #4 – Consider hand luggage only
If you’re going on a short trip, consider taking hand luggage only. Most low-cost airlines charge extra for baggage, so you’ll save a few bucks if you fly with hand luggage only.

Tip #5 – Use some magic to predict the price!
Okay, it’s not technically magic, but it may as well be! Bing used to have a great “Price Predictor” tool, but sadly it was killed off recently. Not to worry, because Kayak has a similar “Price Forecast” feature for the US and UK. It looks at trends and historical data to predict if the price is likely to rise or fall, and whether you should book now or wait to get the cheapest price.

kayak price forecast

Tip #6 – Check at least 2 comparison sites
There are countless airfare comparison websites, but keep in mind that some are better than others. The most well-known one in Australia is Webjet, but they’re far from the best. I recently looked for flights to Japan, and noticed that the Webjet fees are huge – in addition to the displayed prices, you’ll be charged the normal processing fee by the airline, but Webjet also charge a “Processing Fee” of $30 and “Booking Price Guarantee” fee of $22. No thanks, I don’t want to pay an extra $52 to book my flight with you!

The other problem, not just with Webjet but with most comparison sites, is that they don’t actually compare all your options. Many comparison sites won’t show all airlines (especially the low-cost/no frills airlines) and they often don’t get access to exclusive specials that the airlines save for themselves. This was the case when I was looking at flights to Japan. Webjet said the cheapest price was about $1,100 return (plus all their fees), but when I checked the Jetstar site, they had flights for only $500 return (a limited special offer they were running).

Comparison sites are definitely worth a look, as they sometimes have really good prices. On the flip side of the Japan example above, I’ve also found flights cheaper on comparison sites than I have on the airline’s own website. It pays to check a few sites and see what deals are available.

My favourite comparison websites are:

Tip #7 – Check the airline website directly
It pays to check the airline’s own website, as they often reserve exclusive special deals for their own customers (as seen in the Japan/Jetstar example above).

Tip #8 – Watch out for sneaky checkboxes
Airlines have a habit of pre-ticking the checkboxes throughout the booking process. Things like seat selection, carbon offset, ticket insurance etc may all be pre-selected even if you don’t want them. Look carefully, because you can usually remove these to save a few unnecessary dollars on your booking.

finding cheap flightsphoto credit: Doug Waldron

Tip #9 – Booking fees can be avoided
Some websites offer many different payment options, but some methods may attract more fees than others. Payment by Poli, direct deposit/bank transfer or PayPal may not attract any fees, or lower fees than paying with a credit card.

Tip #10 – Cheap flights aren’t always cheap
The very cheapest flights, especially on low-cost carriers, often don’t include lots of things that the more expensive fares do. In-flight meals and baggage usually cost extra, though it may be that you don’t need them (so why pay for them?) depending on where you’re going and for how long. The other thing to watch out for is the fare flexibility. Cheap tickets are often very inflexible – if something comes up or there’s an emergency and you need to change your flight, you may not be able to (or may have to pay fees that are worth more than the ticket)! This is one of many reasons to get good travel insurance.

Tip #11 – If it’s all too much work, get an expert to do it for you!
Let me introduce you to a great website called FlightFox – just enter your trip details (even complicated multi-city journeys) and you’ll be put in contact with an expert to help you find the best flight. They’ll “build, refine, and help you book a customized itinerary” for just $49 (well worth it if they save you lots of money, time or hassle).

Tip #12 – Use frequent flyer programs
There are plenty of frequent flyer programs out there, and even if you don’t fly regularly, you can still earn points. Most airlines have partnered with a bank to offer a credit card that will earn you frequent flyer points. Assuming you can manage your money and pay it off on time, this can be a great way to earn points for doing things you already do (e.g. your grocery shopping)! These points can then be used towards your flight cost, an upgrade or even a free flight!

Tip #13 – Know your rights
In the case that the price drops or there is some issue with your flight, it pays (literally) to know your rights. If the price drops significantly after you’ve booked, many airlines will offer to refund the difference. Yapta is a new service that helps with this – it will track your flight details, alert you of any price drops and tell you how to claim a refund. If your flight has been delayed or if you’ve been denied boarding for some reason, you may be entitled to up to $800 compensation from the airline. AirHelp is a new website that aims to help you with this process.


So there you have it! 13 top tips to help you save money on flights (and have more to spend on your holiday). If you’ve got another tip, please share it below in the comments!