I spent most of my adult life planning vacations for a tiny fraction of the price that most people pay. It is not magic or witchcraft, but careful planning. There are no real secrets to getting a cheap trip, and you do not necessarily need to game the points system (though it doesn’t hurt). However, there are some basic tips that can save you money on flights and stretch your budget. These are not your standard tips (such as the myth of booking on a Tuesday), but real life strategies I actually use. Keep an eye out on here as in the coming weeks I will write posts on saving money on Hotels, Tours, and how to best utilize your points.
1. Save Money on Flights by Being Open Minded
The biggest initial expense booking vacation is airfare. The bigger the party, the bigger the expense. This is the biggest deterrent for family travel. However, it has never been cheaper to fly. With the rise of low-cost carriers, airlines dropped their prices to compete. The problem is not all destinations are available at a low price.
An issue why people can’t find a cheap flight is they get set on one destination. They focus on a dream vacation. Whether it be Costa Rica, Rome, or Paris. Being stuck on a single destination leads to a more expensive trip.
Not every destination goes on sale. If you get set on one specific destination and it doesn’t go on sale what do you do? The answer for most people is pay more. Or worse, not take a vacation. However, by not limiting your options you can let inspiration be your guide and jump on the first deal that really sparks joy.
Your dream destination may not be the perfect destination. All of Stephanie and I’s major vacations start with “I have a crazy idea.” Stephanie knows to get excited when I have a crazy idea, because my crazy ideas generally result in a new destination.
For example, we decided to go to Japan on our honeymoon. We loved the idea of going to Japan. Different elements of their culture really speak to us. We were dead set on this, until we found a cheap flight to Iceland. This was before the rise of low-cost carriers and the big Iceland vacation craze. These flights were 1/3 of what we were planning spending for Japan, and we had the time of our life. Our trip to Iceland was unexpectedly one of our best vacations and really set the tone for the travel in our newly defined relationship.
2. Save Money on Flights by Getting Adventurous with Your Routing
Another way to save money on flights and still go to that dream destination is to think outside of the box with routings. If your round trip in and out of your destination are too expensive look for multi city itineraries flying into one city and leaving from another. Or maybe fly to city that is in the same region of your dream destination and use that as a jumping off point. This is one of the biggest pro-tips there is, especially for traveling to Europe. Just get to that region and so many doors open up. Ultra Low Cost Carriers are popping up all over the world, and it is becoming really cheap to fly. Being adventurous with your routing can even save significantly in the peak season.
For example, say I want to visit Rome in June during peak season. While it will never be cheap in peak season, exploring alternative routings can make it significantly cheaper. The cheapest flight from Seattle to Rome is $763 (Yikes!).
However, I can fly to Barcelona from Seattle for $488 R/T. Then take a round trip on Vueling to Rome, a European low cost carrier, for about $59 R/T. Making your trip to Rome a grand total of $547. A savings of $216 per person round trip. Plus, you get to visit Barcelona as a bonus city. That savings can cover a good chunk of your food expense of a couple nights hotel!
When using this strategy, you need to keep in mind the baggage policies of the airlines. In this situation RyanAir was $20 cheaper than Vueling, but they don’t allow a free overhead bin bag. Packing light can save you on pesky baggage fees. Keep in mind a little laundry detergent, is way cheaper than round trip baggage fees.
3. Save Money on Flights by Traveling during the Shoulder or Off-Seasons
Prices can more than triple if you travel during Peak Season. For example, flights to Rome could be purchased in the low to mid $300s several times in the past year, but it required travel in March-April or September-November. The shoulder season is the period between the off season and the peak season. Essentially late spring or early fall. This is easy enough for those who do not have kids and have flexible work schedules. Off-Season travel becomes a lot harder if you have kids or work a job, such as a teacher, that has less flexible vacation time during the school year. However, don’t worry I have a secret for off season international travel for you as well.
Thanksgiving. Domestically, it is criminally expensive to fly to during the time periods around Thanksgiving, but internationally, it is not. Remember that Thanksgiving is only a holiday in the United States. Internationally, it is just another Thursday during the off-season. This means if you keep your eyes open you can find flights over Thanksgiving week (when most kids have off from school) or a fraction of the price of summer. Stephanie and I are seemingly making it a tradition to go somewhere on Thanksgiving. Two years ago we went to Rome on sub-$400 tickets and this year we are going to china on a $300 tour that includes flight and hotels.
Spring break and Mid-Winter Break (it is a thing in some areas) is also a great time to find a really good deal on off/shoulder season travel.
People get concerned about the weather in the off-season or shoulder season. While it is true, that it may be a bit cold or even rainy, you will save significant money on flights and get to view the major sites when they are not mobbed by other tourists.
4. Follow the Deals and Be Decisive
Maybe this should be tip #1, but to get the best price, or a once-in-a-lifetime (well more like once or twice a year) error fare you need to follow the deals. I post some of the best deals on my blog, and more on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, but I cannot capture them all. A great site to keep track of the best flight deals is www.hacktheflight.net (not affiliated in any way). It is basically an aggregator. It automatically compiles the flight deals posted on the best deal websites.
If you see a deal you like, be decisive. We book our best trips on a whim. The great deals sometimes only last minutes, and even the really good deals may not last longer than 24-hours. So, if you see a deal that really sparks your sense of adventure, book it immediately. Keep in mind the US DOT requires airlines operating flights out of the US have a free 24 hour cancellation window on non-refundable tickets. The only caveat is the flight must be more than 1-week away. It always is smart to check the airline’s cancellation policy first, but this will allow you to book your deal while you get your permissions from work, etc. in order.
When you see fares that are too good to be true, those are likely Error Fares, and they can be cancelled by the airline at any time. So it important to follow these 3 Rules, but most importantly book quickly. Error fares do not last long. But they can result in some amazing deals like first class R/T to Vietnam in the $700s (normally $16k) on Cathay Pacific, or R/T between Europe and New York in business on Air Serbia for $510. Being decisive on an error fare can save thousands of dollars.
5. Take Advantage of Free Stopovers
One of my favorite underutilized airline benefits are free stopovers. Airlines understand that people will fly on the cheapest flight. This results in a lot of international airlines being utilized to get to destinations other than those in the airline’s home country. For instance. in just this year I am using England, Serbia, Mexico, Frankfurt, and London as pass-through cities to other destinations in those regions.
To take advantage of this and promote local tourism, a lot of airlines now offer generous stopover benefits. For no charge you can book a flight days later like it was your connecting flight. Allowing you a couple days in their home city without adding additional cost to your trip. Basically, a 2 for 1 trip. The following airlines offer stopovers:
- Finnair: Free Stopovers (up to 5 days) in Helsinki
- Hawaiian Airlines: Free stopovers in Honolulu (unlimited duration) on international flights
- Icelandair: Free Stopovers (up to 7 nights) in Reykjavik
- Wow air: Free stopover in Reykjavik on return flights
- KLM: two Free stopovers in Amsterdam one heading in each direction
- TAP Portugal: Free stopover in Lisbon or Porto for up to 3 nights (on intercontinental flights)
- Air Canada: Free stopover between flights with longer than a six hour connection time
- Etihad: Free Stopover in Abu Dhabi (up to 48 hours), including discounts on hotel and 2 for 1 activities.
- Japan Airlines: Free stopover in Tokyo (terms depend on your flights)
- Turkish Airlines: While they do not offer free stopovers they do offer free tours of Istanbul on longer layovers
- Copa Airlines: Offers free stopovers in Panama city.
- Qatar Airlines: Free stopover including a free night hotel stay with the Qatar+ program.
- Emirates: Free stopover in Dubai, including exclusive hotel and activities deals
- Singapore Airlines: Not free, but starts at $33 and include hotel.
With these 5 tips you should be able to save significant money your flights and get one step closer to the vacation of your dreams.