Soaring flight prices are the biggest struggle for travelers in the post-pandemic world. Everyone is eager to travel more but sky-high flight prices often stand in the way of that long-awaited trip.
There are many reasons for this current travel chaos from the mismanagement of resources by airlines to the war in Ukraine. But as a traveler, it leaves you wondering how to find the cheapest flights to travel this year. I’ll share 9 simple (and effective) strategies that you can employ starting today to plan your next trip without breaking the bank.
These are tried-and-tested strategies that I have used for my own bookings. I’ve managed to save hundreds on the three trips that I’ve booked through the rest of the year. And I’m hoping to get one more in before the year ends.
1. Plan ahead
I’ve always been a Type-A traveler for the most part. My husband and I start the new year by planning out the trips for that year, roughly trying to decide the times of travel and lengths of those trips as well as brainstorming destinations. It is one of my favorite New Year rituals and gets me really excited for what’s coming.
There’s a great advantage that taking such a macro-level view of your travels provides – you become more intentional. Before you lose yourself in the minutiae of flights and accommodations and activities, taking a long view of things helps you focus your travel efforts in ways that are more aligned with your personality and values, which eventually translates to a more fulfilling experience once you are on the road.
Today’s environment is really conducive to the planners among us. Try to find which trips you’d like to take even four to six months later and start acting on them now.
If you have flexibility with your destinations, you are guaranteed to save more money. Of course, there are times when we are visiting family and friends and our destinations are not up for change. But there are other vacations where we can proactively include flight prices while picking a place rather than making it an afterthought as I’ve shared in this guide for selecting a destination.
2. Signup for flight deal website alerts
The great thing about living in times of incredible technology is that if you are facing a problem, chances are somebody already has a product or service to solve that problem. Websites like Scott’s Cheap Flights and Dollar Flight Club are great at finding amazing deals and sending them to your inbox. You can sign up for the free newsletter or use their paid services and stay up-to-date without much effort on your part.
I personally use these websites to get fresh destinations on my radar that I may not have otherwise considered. Also, try to stay abreast of travel news in general – I love following The Points Guy, the navigator (by Dollar Flight Club), and Daily Wander (by Afar). If there’s a jaw-dropping deal by certain airlines, you are sure to hear about it in one of these places.
This is a pre-pandemic story but it still has a valuable lesson in today’s times. One evening my husband got home from work excited about an amazing deal for Japan flights. Round-trip flights were available for $545 per person from Chicago O’Hare airport to Japan’s Narita airport via Houston. Japan wasn’t exactly on our travel radar at that time and honestly, I hadn’t even researched it in depth before then.
But we had traveled enough to know the kind of things we enjoyed. We loved hiking in the mountains, experiencing new cultures, and using public transport. Quick research convinced us that it was a perfect match! While big cities like Tokyo may get the most limelight, Japan is teeming with greenery and mountains with ancient trails like Nakasendo and Kumano Kodo. We quickly acted on the flights and a month and a half later, we were on our way to Japan. The hundreds of dollars that we saved on flights made a pricier destination like Japan affordable for us.
One thing that I’ve noticed recently is the travel dates on these flight deals are a little further away and the windows are longer. So don’t bank on snagging a month-end deal. Deals usually start from a couple of months and continue well into the mid-next year. If you’re a spontaneous traveler who knows the kind of experiences you enjoy and can make quick decisions, you are sure to find something that you’ll love using this strategy.
3. Use the date grid (fare calendar)
Never book a flight without checking the Date Grid on Google Flights or the Low Fare Calendar for airlines like Southwest. The Date Grid button shows right below the filters on the right-hand side for desktop while you will need to scroll down a little past the departing flights to locate the button on the mobile web.
This opens an overlay with the prices based on different combinations of the arrival and departure dates for that origin and destination. The lowest prices are highlighted in green so you can often find savings easily but just leave a day earlier or arrive a couple of days later. This isn’t something you can see for multi-city flights, only for one-way and roundtrip flights. If you are booking a multi-city flight, you can still use the one-way Date Grid to get an idea of the prices between each of the destinations.
Traveling earlier during the week on Monday (sometimes), Tuesday, and Wednesday are often cheaper than later in the week or weekend. Similarly, flying on Saturday is often cheaper than a Friday evening or Sunday flight. See which option makes the most sense for you. While I love to find the cheapest flights, every now and then I will intentionally spend a little extra to stay longer, like spending more time with family halfway across the world whom I see only once a year.
4. Signup for flight price alerts
Never book a flight in the first sitting, unless it is a straight-out deal. For all other flight bookings, and particularly when your destination is not flexible, search for some tentative dates that work for you using the Date Grid feature mentioned above. Then, toggle the track prices button to sign up for alerts about flight price changes. You can track prices from the macro to micro level – between two destinations for any date, specific dates, or specific flights along with any other filters you may have set.
The trick with setting up alerts is to find a sweet spot where you are getting an overall perspective but you’re not adding too much noise. If you sign up for too many alerts, very soon you’ll start zoning out the alert emails or saving them to read later and forgetting about them. Emails also get clipped at the end and if the alert email is too long, you will have to click the button at the end to open it in a new tab leading to higher chances that you might miss out on a good notification because you just skimmed through the top and didn’t click that button (true story).
Once you have two or three alerts set up for your flights, it’s time to sit back and relax. You’ll be notified when prices rise or drop. If you follow along for a few days, you will get a sense of not only daily fluctuations but broader patterns. In some cases, you might notice prices falling mid-week and then rising again on the weekend. Or vice versa. You can also go back to the Tracked Prices section on your Google account and click on the price history tab of your saved search to look at how the prices are moving in general. This gives you the power to jump in and complete the booking when prices are the cheapest.
5. Leverage miles and credit card points
Leveraging credit card bonuses is perhaps a larger topic that deserves its own post. But I’ll summarize the key takeaways here.
Sign up for the rewards program of whatever airline you are flying on. You will earn miles for your trip by simply taking the extra 2 minutes to register and get the mileage account number. Over time, these miles translate to free flights and are guaranteed to save you money.
Next, be smart about your use of credit cards. Credit cards offer fantastic signup bonuses for airline miles or points that can be used for booking flights. If you are financially prudent and pay off these credit cards every month and are not using them as a way to incur debt, you stand to gain a lot by using this strategy. Simply sign up for a card that offers a good bonus and other perks (like no foreign transaction fee). Then use that card like you for your usual daily expenses to receive the bonus once you hit the specified spending amount. The main thing to keep in mind here is that this will take some time so plan on getting a card at least 3-4 months before you actually plan to use the miles from it for a flight booking.
My husband and I keep a spreadsheet of our travel rewards which includes all of our flight credits (which I’ll cover in #8), miles, and credit card reward points. It also includes the expiration date on each of these if applicable. I know this sounds tedious to organize. But trust me, it isn’t that hard once you get into the habit. Now we can look at that sheet at a glance and know if we need to prioritize booking with a specific airline if its miles or flight credit is expiring soon.
6. Use the 24-hour free cancellation window (for U.S. travel)
So you found a pretty good flight using one or multiple of the above strategies. What next? The next 24 hours are still crucial! If you are trying to take a step further and make sure you have the best possible deal, you will need to keep an eye out for flight price fluctuations especially in the next 24 hours if originating or ending on U.S. soil and the flight was booked at least 7 days in advance.
The U.S. Department of Transportation requires carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty. If you find a better deal within this period, you can book the new flight and then cancel the old flight. Remember to book the new one first and then cancel the old booking whenever possible. However, if you are booking with the same airlines you may not be allowed to book for the same dates or same destinations during the period for which you already have a booking.
Just keep in mind that you may run into some technical glitches whenever you are doing this so make sure the price difference is really worth it. My husband and I recently found a great deal on flights to India from the U.S. on Etihad but were unable to complete the payment due to airline restrictions when booking with another person’s credit card. You can’t change the payment method post-booking so we decided to cancel and book the same flight again.
However, Etihad has a technical issue in their system where a canceled flight is still cached on their backend (yes, you can probably tell I’m an engineer :)). It kept giving an error that we already had a similar booking although we no longer did. Their customer support wasn’t much help either. None of their suggested workarounds allowed us to rebook that flight. By the time their system deleted the older booking, the flight prices had risen again.
This experience isn’t meant to discourage you from using the rule but just want to add a caveat that this is a delicate strategy to pull off, especially when rebooking with the same airlines. Also, some airlines won’t let you cancel online (Etihad didn’t) and you’ll need to plan ahead to account for the long phone waiting times.
7. Continue to monitor prices post booking
Pay attention to the terms and conditions of your flight tickets. Southwest was always loved for its free changes and several airlines have now started offering free changes even if your ticket is not cancellable. I saved almost $200 on a domestic trip to California this fall for two travelers, days and weeks after booking the original flight. How? Well, remember the Google Flight Alerts in strategy #4? I simply did not delete the alert even after booking the flight. Flight prices were higher than usual and I didn’t want to risk them rising further (which they did on most of the days). But there were a couple of days when the prices went down by $65 and a few days later by $30 per person.
This was for American Airlines but you might have a similar process for other airlines too. Once you know there’s been a price drop, just log in and go to Manage Booking. There you can select the flights you want to change. On the next page, you will see a list of options to choose from.
The flights where prices are higher are marked in blue so you will pay more if you select them. But if any flight has gone down in price, including the same one you just booked, it will display that price in green and indicate that it is a credit. You just need to select this cheaper flight and proceed with confirming the change. That’s it! You will receive a flight credit for the difference.
It took me less than a couple of minutes each time to make this change and I saved almost $100 dollars per traveler. But any airline won’t hand us this money on a platter. We need to take charge of our savings and initiate the change.
8. Earn flight credit
Airlines are often overbooked and looking for volunteers to get off in lieu of travel credit and rebook you on a different flight. They may even provide free accommodation at a nearby basic hotel if the new flight is one or more days later. If you have some flexibility in your travel plans, you can use this opportunity for a future flight.
My husband and I earned $4000 dollars in flight credit by volunteering to change our flights two days in a row during the resurgence of travel in mid-2021. The first voucher was for a whopping $1200 per person and the second was for another $800 per person. In fact, there was even $300 on the third day but by then we had earned enough and wanted to get home.
Was it inconvenient? YES. Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY!
I’ll write another post to cover this strategy in detail. The main thing is to decide beforehand if you can take this opportunity and what price point works for you. If you are traveling with one or more companions make sure that you are all on the same page about this. Make these decisions while you are still at home to avoid acting under pressure at the gate. Earlier the agents used to announce this at the gate but now you will often see a notification pop up on your airline app.
The airline may also ask you to select a potential voucher price that you are willing to accept from a list of options. Try to select this amount as honestly as you can to avoid confusion and delays during boarding. Remember that in the end, everyone who volunteers to leave will get the same amount. If you selected $300 and someone else selected $500 and the airline decided to offer $500, you will still get $500. Make sure you are ok with the new flight date and time. Sometimes, the next available flight may not be until a couple of days later so you don’t want to back off before you feel comfortable with the new plan.
9. Don’t miss the forest for the trees
Indulge me as I get a little philosophical here. Using the strategies above will definitely save you a lot of money. But flight prices can be volatile like stock markets (thankfully less than them). There will be times when you will grab the cheapest flights for multiple trips in a row. And then there may be a time when you missed the booking window and didn’t get the best price but still got a good one.
When you’re focused heads-down on finding the cheapest flights, it is easy to feel defeated if you miss that sweet deal. But don’t miss the forest for the trees. Travel is a joy and privilege like we’ve learned especially in the last two years. As long as you are saving money with cheap flights overall, the extra 50$ you paid on that one flight matters much less in the bigger scheme of things.
I say this from personal experience. When I missed that Etihad deal mentioned above, I was bummed. But I found the second-best deal a few days later. Yes, a technical glitch led me to pay more than I had originally hoped. But I caught myself just in time when moping about this loss. I was traveling to my home country after almost 4 years due to the pandemic. I had still managed to get a flight for just over $1000 dollars and had saved at least a few hundred dollars by researching the best times and planning ahead. Was I really going to let regret dampen my enthusiasm for this trip? Absolutely NOT!
And that, friends, was my list of 9 simple (and effective) strategies to find the cheapest flights. Hope these help you stretch that dollar or rupee and continue to make your trip dreams come true even in these high inflation times.
Which of these is your favorite way to save money on flights? I would love to hear and learn more from you about any strategies you’ve used in the comments below!