Let’s debunk some flight-booking myths.
There’s no special day to book flights—booking on a Tuesday doesn’t magically make prices drop.
And, contrary to popular belief, browsing in private, using a VPN or clearing your cookies doesn’t make that much of a difference in price. You might save 30 bucks, but when I’m hunting for cheap flights, I’m not trying to save tens of dollars—I’m trying to save hundreds and sometimes even thousands.
If you want to save the big bucks, you need some pro-level flight hacks to find cheap flights.
I’ve been booking flights for over a decade and, over the course of this time, I’ve saved a lot of money using a variety of tricks.
But you won’t master these overnight—it may take some time. So bookmark this page and come back to it before you book your next flight!
1. Look into Hidden City Ticketing
Say you want to go from New York to Dallas but the direct flight costs $300. But, there’s a flight from New York to Las Vegas with a layover in Dallas which only costs $200. Book yourself the cheaper flight and simply walk out of the airport in Dallas.
Sneaky, isn’t it?
You saved yourself $100 and you have the satisfaction of knowing you cheated the airline. Perfect.
But let me caveat this option by explaining the risks:
- First of all, this only works if you have carry-on luggage. Checked baggage will be checked all the way to the final destination so you’d eventually have to go to Vegas to pick it up (not ideal).
- Secondly, airlines do not like this at all (especially United). If you do it too often with the same airline they’re likely to notice and might take measure to punish you. They could invalidate your membership points, ask you to pay the difference for all flights you’ve taken, close your frequent flyer account, bump you off flights, or outright refuse you service.
If you don’t use hidden city ticketing repeatedly on the same airline and the same route (in essence, if you don’t establish a trackable pattern), Skiplagged is the site to use to find these fares.
2. Book an Open-Jaw Flight
Open-jaw flights are flights that fly into one airport and return from a different one. For example, if you are planning on traveling across Europe, you might want to fly from New York to London and then back from Athens to New York.
If you draw the flight path on a map, it’s basically an open triangle, or you might see that it resembles an open jaw.
With open jaw flights, you can take advantage of the cheapest possible flight instead of limiting yourself to only flying into or out of one airport.
For example, New York to London might be the cheapest flight you find from the States to Europe, but Paris to New York might be the cheapest flight back. Instead of booking a round-trip, make your way to Paris and fly from there instead!
Because these tickets are priced as round-trip fares even though they’re not exactly round trip, you won’t have to pay extra fees, like fuel surcharges, twice. These additional charges can sometimes add hundreds onto your ticket cost.
The more complicated, but significantly more comprehensive option is the ITA Matrix.
With the ITA Matrix, instead of letting the OTA software tell you what flights you can book, you get to tell the OTA what specific flights you want. If you know how, you can search for hidden flights or force connections that the computers don't want you to make.
You can use these advanced features to do things like “segment runs” to help you reach status with a frequent flyer program—and that’s only the beginning. The options are literally endless, and if you want to dive deep into travel hacking, studying the ITA Matrix is the best thing you can do for yourself.
It’s important to note, however, that you won’t be able to book flights through the ITA Matrix. Instead, take the flight numbers and plug them into another booking site to make the purchase, or try BookWithMatrix.com, a tool designed specifically for booking flights from the ITA Matrix.
3. Look for Mistake Fares
Surely an airline would never be so foolish as to publish a mistake fare though…right?
Actually, airlines make mistakes all the time! I mean, have you seen the headlines recently?
I’ve seen round-trip flights from the U.S. to New Zealand for under $500. I also have a friend who flew to Spain for $150. Mistake fares are real, and they are amazing.
Prices for airline seats aren’t determined by someone sitting at a desk. They’re determined by a piece of software that automatically updates their websites. But, due to the complexity of pricing airfare, this software is known to glitch.
Luckily for us, there are websites who report solely on these mistake fares. Try these ones to start:
4. Search for “Hacker Fares”
It’s a myth that you’ll always get the best deal by booking a round-trip ticket with the same airline.
“Hacker Fares” might sound like some kind of nerdy computer magic, but they’re actually quite simple. Instead of booking a round-trip ticket, you book two one-way tickets with two different airlines.
For example, you fly New York to London with United because you found a really cheap one-way ticket, and then you fly back with Norwegian because, again, it’s the cheapest flight.
I don’t know why they gave such a simple process such an advanced-sounding name, but this is one of the easiest tricks to execute with the least amount of research involved.
Some flight search engines, such as Travelocity, automatically include hacker fares in their searches. But, regardless, if you’re booking each leg with a different airline, you’ll need to book them individually.
And if they aren’t included in your search, you’ll have to go lone wolf and find the fares for yourself.
5. Search the Local Airlines That Serve Your Destination
A lot of big search engines do not list low cost, local carriers, often because, in order to keep costs down, these small airlines don’t want to pay commission.
This means you’ve gotta do the research yourself.
Google the airport to which you are flying, and make a list of the small or lesser-known airlines that fly in to it. Then, search on the airline’s website directly. You might find a flight that’s pleasantly cheap!
Admittedly, this option requires a little more effort. There’s no cheat to get around it, but, it’s worth it for the money you save.
6. Book One Passenger at a Time
This doesn’t always make your flight cheaper but it’s worth trying, especially if you are traveling in a group. If you book five tickets all at once, you may find that the price per person is higher than if you booked one or two at a time.
Because airlines price out seats differently based on a slew of external factors, some end up drastically cheaper than others.
Flight search engines aren’t able to combine differently priced seats in your booking, so all five seats will come at whichever price has enough availability—not necessarily the cheapest.
If you have the time and patience to book flights one person at a time then this increases your chances of getting the best flight for each person.
7. Book Multiple Legs on Your Own
If you aren’t pressed for time and you have an iPad filled with movies, there’s no harm in spending a little longer in transit. Especially if it ends up saving you a sizeable stack of cash.
Often, flying direct is more expensive than flying with a layover, and most search engines will show you both direct routes and those with a change so you can compare the price.
Alternatively—and this is where things get really fun (and cheap)—you can do it yourself.
If you want to fly from New York to Copenhagen, for example, it might be cheaper to fly to London first. From there you can usually find a cheap flight with a low-cost carrier that will take you to Copenhagen. It’s a little bit more work—and you’ll have to recheck your baggage—but again, it’s worth it if it saves you money.
But, I offer this advice with two words of warning:
- Really long layovers are hellish. I’m talking 15 hours in a small airport that you can’t leave with a bad WiFi connection and limited snack options. In these cases, it might not be worth it. Stick to large airports and get yourself a Priority Pass for access to a lounge.
- Short layovers can be dangerous, especially if you are transiting through the U.S. A friend of mine recently flew from London to Dallas to Cancun, with a two-hour layover in Dallas. This was a big mistake. With her British passport, she had to join the “other” queue and ended up waiting three hours to get through customs. This resulted in a missed flight, a night in the airport and a miserable start to her vacation.
In the case of flying internationally, when you have to clear customs, I recommend three hours as the minimum time for a layover.
8. Book Round-Trip Tickets and Only Fly One Way
While aforementioned hacker fares are perfect if the airline sells cheap one-way tickets, not all airlines work like this.
Let’s For example, say you wanted a one-way, direct flight from London to Lima, Peru with British Airways. If you try and book this as a one-way flight it will cost you the equivalent of about $1,600. However, if you book a return flight the price drops to about $700… total.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the face of it, but such is the world of airline pricing.
This isn’t exclusive to British Airways, though. A lot of airlines charge significantly more for one-way tickets. Sometimes one-way will be cheaper and sometimes a round trip will be. You’re going to need to check both.
According to USA Today, there are a few reasons for this:
- A round-trip ticket is more convenient for the airline when it comes to scheduling (they know you’re going to be on that plane coming home).
- One-way fares tend to appeal to business travelers whose tickets are paid for by corporate departments that care more about convenience than cost.
- Round-trip travelers are usually tourists who are more interested in finding the cheapest fare, so the airlines cater their prices appropriately.
The next time you see an extortionate one-way ticket, see if the price drops with a return ticket. If it’s cheaper, purchase the round trip and then abandon the return leg.
Or, if you have open plans and aren’t sure of your return date, it might still be cheaper to keep the return flight and just pay the change fee once you know.
9. Sign Up for Credit Cards on a Regular Basis
Credit card bonuses are the easiest way to rack up large amounts of points and air miles with the lowest amount of effort. Credit cards regularly offer 50,000-100,000 points just to sign up for a new credit card, which is, conservatively, equivalent to a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Europe.
And before you interject, no, signing up for new credit cards doesn’t hurt your credit score as much as you think. You might notice a small ding at first (literally just a couple of points), but that evens out after a couple months.
Remember as well, lots of these credit cards have referral bonuses. If you have a friend or relative who could benefit from a few extra air miles, give them your referral code. You’ll both be rewarded with points.
Unfortunately, this only works for residents of the United States. There isn’t much of a points system like this elsewhere in the world.
10. Use Your Credit Card to Pay for Everything
Following on from point nine, once you have a credit card use it for literally everything. Whether it’s a $5 or $500 purchase, collect every point you can. Think Pokémon, but for airline miles. Gotta catch ‘em all!
That said, make sure you’re able to pay it all off at the end of each month. It’s easy to lose control with a credit card, and if you don’t have the self-discipline, it’s best not to use one.
Once you’ve racked up a hefty chunk of points, you can redeem them for travel. Use your points to book flights, hotels, cruises and car rentals.
Rack up enough points and you could be looking at an incredibly cheap—or even free—trip.
11. Transfer Points to Travel Partners
Rather than using your credit card’s travel booking portal, some credit cards let you transfer your points to a variety of different frequent flyer programs to get better deals. This may get you a better redemption value, although be sure to check as sometimes the credit card travel booking portals do actually have the best deals.
For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points are the best if you want to transfer to travel partners. The program has 13 partners, many of whom will give you better redemption values than the Ultimate Rewards travel center itself.
12. Use Different OTAs to Search the Same Route
Not all OTAs give the same results. I usually check at least three different sites before I decide which flight to book.
Use the following booking engines to get you started:
- Google Flights is a visual flight search that allows you to see prices laid out on a map as well as on a calendar. Use these data points to find the cheapest flight route on the cheapest day.
- Skyscanner has a ton of flexibility with regards to its search options, including being able to search different dates, entire months or cheapest months. This way, if you know which route you want to take but have some leeway with times, you can plug it in here and figure out when it’s cheapest.
- Momondo shows you “best flights,” which are a combination of lowest price and shortest travel time. But what makes Momondo unique is its ability to search multi-city destinations and filter your results by departure and arrival times, layovers, layover durations, airports, flight quality, air carriers and even aircraft. You can also use the trip finder for inspiration and to search by your budget, too.
- Kayak searches thousands of flight operators and shows prices from carriers and third-party sites. With the Kayak Explore feature, you can view a user-friendly map of flights based on location, price, duration of travel and more. If you already know your route, you can play around with cheaper nearby destinations to find less expensive alternatives.
And after you’ve checked the OTAs, make sure you check the airline’s website itself as well as your credit card’s travel booking portal. You never know what you’ll find in there!
13. Purchase Through Airline Shopping Portals
If you are a member of a frequent flyer or airline rewards program, you should be buying everything through their shopping portals.
Many frequent flyer programs even have browser extensions you can install that will let you know how many points per dollar you can earn when you book. For example, if I book on Booking.com through the United MileagePlus program on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card, I earn three points/dollar at United plus three points/dollar at Chase.
That’s six points per dollar!
But it’s not only travel. If you’re moving to a new apartment and shopping at West Elm, or if you’re buying new ink cartridges for your printer, you’ll often get two times, three times and even up to 15 times points just for shopping through their portal.
Then, once you have enough, use those points to score yourself some cheap flights or upgrades. Even if the price is a little higher than, say, on Amazon, the point multiplier can make those couple extra dollars go a long way.
Saving money on flights is an art—not a science. It takes patience, perseverance and a little bit of know-how.
Don’t settle for the flight options you’re given—get crafty and creative. Use these flight hacks to help you find the cheapest flights all over the world. The time you put into learning how to utilize them can pay off fast. Real fast.
Heck, an hour of research today could save you hundreds tomorrow.
What’s the cheapest flight you’ve ever scored—and how’d you do it? Let us know in the comments below!