How I Find Cheap Flights

Denali! Photo credit: nps.gov/dena

Denali! Photo credit: nps.gov/dena

I currently am very sick…. with the travel bug. Since my honeymoon this May, where we went to several countries in Europe, travel has been limited to the Minnesota area. Nothing against the state that I live in, but local travel usually doesn’t have the same excitement level as a trip across the country or overseas. I’m feeling antsy for some action.

The good news, fun is on the horizon! I’ve booked a flight to visit a friend from college in Fairbanks, Alaska! I’ve started planning potential activities (Denali!) already, even though the trip is months away.

Arguably even better than the actual trip itself is the price I paid for the flight, that is, if you are as obsessed with deals as I am. Flights to Fairbanks from the twin cities hover around $600 or more on average, with a “good deal” being around $450. What did I pay, you’re wondering? Well, drum roll please ……………….

$302!

This is a big deal to me! I’ve been looking at flights to Fairbanks on and off for years knowing that one day my wife and myself wanted to visit our friend. A cheap flight to Fairbanks had nearly become my “white whale”. Perhaps $600 doesn’t sound like that much for a fun trip? For some context: after I graduated college, I was in AmeriCorps making around $800 a month for nearly two years. Understandably, the idea of paying $600+ to visit him in Alaska seemed an impossible dream.

Even now that I have a real person job at a non-profit that pays slightly more, my student debt is paid off, and I have savings, the flight to Alaska still evokes that impossible feeling. How did I make the impossible possible and find such a good price? Prepare to be disappointed because the answer is super boring: patience and flexibility. Having both of these while looking for flights will aid you greatly, let’s see how!

PATIENCE

I know, I know, being patient is never fun. The earlier you start looking for flights the better the odds are that you’ll find a steal. Flight prices fluctuate wildly, and it pays to watch them carefully for a while before buying and wait for a significant dip. I can’t pretend to fully understand why ticket prices are always changing; I honestly think the airlines spin a wheel or consult a magic 8 ball*, but we should all be taking advantage of it instead of the other way around.

How far ahead should you start looking? 2-3 months will give you a good chance at a deal, it’s fairly easy to get a ticket 20% - 30% below the average price without becoming too obsessive over it. Still, for the best odds of a mammoth deal like half price, I’d recommend glancing a few times a weeks as soon as you know you want to travel. As is, over 6 months before your trip. If you notice prices falling, start being vigilant and checking once a day.

This may sound a bit tedious, but I find that I’m so excited about my potential trip that it’s exciting to check my flight options often. Even if you aren’t weird enough to find this fun, force yourself to stay on top of it! Remember to be patient! If you can wait until the flight is at half price, that’s double the trips you can take for the same money!

FLEXIBILITY

Step number 2 to landing great flight prices is to have some flexibility in choosing them. How flexible? 5 different kinds of flexible!

  1. Airline: What’s that, you refuse to fly Spirit? Too bad, so sad! If you’re taking short flights across the U.S., “bargain” airlines are often (but not always!) going to be your best bet. This is deserving of a post itself, but the savings of these airlines far outweigh the “costs” that people perceive.

  2. Date of trip: Don’t commit to the date of your trip until you buy the flight tickets**. If your date is locked down it will make it all the harder to find the best bargains. At most, think of what season or month you want to travel before you start searching for flights. This is where planning ahead and being patient is crucial as well.

  3. Flight time: Sometimes flights are cheaper because the times are not ideal. Everyone’s tolerance for very early or late flights is different, but push your comfort zone a bit if you have to. That being said, don’t make yourself miserable either. Also consider layovers, as they can push the price down too. My return flight from Fairbanks has a 24 hour layover in Seattle, which I consider a perk rather than a hassle!

  4. Destination: If traveling for fun, be open to where you are going! When I was in AmeriCorps as I mentioned above, I took a vacation (if 4 days can be considered that) to Denver***. Why? Because I had never been there, and the flight was $80. Turns out, Colorado is an awesome place! Discover something new, even if you know nothing about your destination!

  5. Spending your money: One of the great parts of having savings is that we can spend money when the need arises without fear of upcoming bills. It could be scary or impossible for someone who is living paycheck to paycheck to pull the trigger on flight tickets, even if they are a great deal. I know this isn’t a “quick tip” that everyone can apply right away, but I want to illustrate that living debt-free and having savings have lots of little perks that may not always be apparent.

OTHER TIPS

  • Don’t check baggage: Even when it is free, you don’t need to. I find that it makes traveling more complicated and inherently stressful, which is the opposite of what I want while out exploring the word. On my 3-week honeymoon in Europe**** I fit everything in a daypack, and you can too. And to any of you naysayers who love clothes and makeup, my wife also brought one backpack!

  • Use Google flights: I saved the best for last, because this tool will save you a lot of time searching the internet on flights. The best features include exploring destinations without a set date, a calendar overview of price changes, and intuitive search tools. No, I don’t work for Google, but I have yet to find a flight search website to yield as consistently good results as they do. When you’re bored (at work), play around with it and see what deals will inspire your next trip!





*I believe it actually is partly do to people buying and cancelling their tickets, creating weird supply/demand issues? Maybe something about fuel prices? If any of you have more insight I’d love to hear it!

**Of course, there are exceptions such as needing to travel for a friends wedding or other event with a set date.

***This was a notable trip as it was my first experience on a commercial airline. Just 4 years later I’ve lost track of how many flights I’ve been on, and I’m happy I’ve come so far!

****For those wondering, the tickets cost $313 each.