Is there a trick to finding cheap airfare? Well, yes and no.
I know that’s an annoying answer. But after years of ticket searching practice for short and long trips in diverse parts of the world, I would say there are various tricks you can use depending on your individual circumstances. What worked for your friend when he booked his vacation may not work for the flights you need for your long term travel plans.
Some airline industry experts maintain that it really does make a difference which country you are booking from, how many times you have searched for the same flight on the same search engine, if you’re flying on a weekday or weekend (not always more expensive!), how long your trip lasts, time of the year, etc. Add to that those many, mysterious airline industry factors we will never understand, and no wonder searching for a good value ticket becomes so frustrating!
While I can’t guarantee you’ll always find super cheap tickets with my strategies, what I can do is give you a foundation to work with–some tips that you can customize to your own specific itinerary needs.
Start with the right search engines
To begin with, I almost always search for airfare with Google flights, Kayak and maybe sometimes Skyscanner just to see if there are any other different route or other low cost airline options. Kayak and Google Flights will not always show you all of the low cost airlines that fly to your destination. However, Skyscanner might show you very cheap ticket results from some lesser known ticket booking sites, so proceed with caution if you use one of those sites. You can also book directly through the airline website (this is the best option for airlines like Norwegian so you can add on the extras before you purchase the ticket) once you find the flight on Google or Kayak.
I still don’t know for sure whether or not flight search engines and airline websites track your searches so you get a higher price each time you search for the same flight. After reading many conflicting expert opinions and having some experiences where this did seem to be happening, I now usually try a combination of searching in incognito mode on my browser, searching on my phone and then on my laptop to check for any differences in price, or ask my boyfriend or a friend or family member to do the same search–especially if they are located in another country! You might really see a difference in the fare if the same search is conducted in two different countries.
Stopovers, direction and time limits
You’ll also find that the direction of your trip affects the price. For example, a one-way ticket from Miami to Buenos Aires usually turns out to be much cheaper than a ticket from Buenos Aires to Miami. I usually buy a round-trip, but there have been times when I needed a one-way ticket. Same thing applies with US to Europe vs Europe to US–the latter tends to be more expensive for one-way tickets. Not a rule, but an observation on my part.
For those who can really plan out their long term travels much in advance, here’s something that might interest you. Several times over the span of the last 5 years, I have found that I can fly from Europe to US and then South America and then back to Europe for about USD 1,100-1,200 total on major airlines like Delta or United. Crazy, right?
To find such a fare, I used the multi-city search function on Google Flights or Expedia. But the key here is that I am RETURNING to Europe at the end of my trip, to the same city. Apparently, that makes an airline happy, something to do with completing the circuit perhaps? However, when I tried to find this same cheap triangle fare starting from the US and returning to the US, it didn’t happen. So apparently, your origin country does matter.
Another factor I’ve noticed that helps keep the ticket price down is the length of your trip. Are you spending 90 days or less outside of your origin city? For example, if I fly from Europe to visit the US for just one month, then return to Europe, my ticket will likely cost a lot less than if I had stayed out of Europe for over 90 days / 3 months. Again, this is something I’ve seen during my own searches, and I don’t know why this really happens.
Why everyone should try low cost airlines
I’d like to show those of you who feel hesitant about low cost airlines to really reconsider—especially if you are on a budget. And who isn’t?
Perhaps you’ve read bad reviews for low cost carriers (aka ‘budget airlines’) regarding seat size, delays, expensive add-ons, etc. Well, you know, paying for a more expensive ticket on a commercial airline doesn’t usually mean you can avoid those same problems—especially as some of the bigger airlines are now trying to cut costs by cramming more seats into the same old airplane! In that case, may as well get a cheaper ticket if you’re going to get the same reduced amount of legroom.
But crossing the ocean is an expensive but necessary journey for many travelers, and I’ve found there are several low cost options to do this cheaply, including several ‘Trans-Atlantic low cost carriers’ like Norwegian Airlines, Aerlingus and WOW Air. I’ve heard that WOW does the job but is a seriously no-frills voyage, and I did fly Aerlingus a couple times from Boston to Dublin nonstop, but Dublin wasn’t a very convenient landing point for me to travel from within Europe. So that led me to try Norwegian Airlines.
My enthusiasm for Norwegian Airlines started when I discovered a couple years ago that I could fly from NYC to Europe for under USD $250 one way! I got to Copenhagen from JFK for $230, including my meals, seat reservation and a checked bag–things that are usually extra on all low cost airlines, which Norwegian technically is.
Somehow, Norwegian has found a way to undercut most of the airlines flying from the east coast of the US to Europe with ridiculous fares like $99 for a one-way ticket from NYC to Oslo or London Gatwick (their other European hub besides Oslo). Of course, you do need to try book the ticket several months in advance if you can, as the fares will usually go up closer to the date as seats run out.
Bear in mind that the absolute cheapest airfare for a route does not include checked in baggage, seat reservation or a meal. So usually for about $60 more, you can grab the fare that’s the next level up.
Since this spring, Norwegian started a new seasonal nonstop route to London Gatwick (LGW) from Austin, my homebase airport (just a quick aside: where else but the Austin airport would you get live bands playing on a stage next to a craft beer bar?!) I couldn’t believe this great news–it was the perfect route for me to travel to Europe. I managed to snag their lowest priced one-way ticket for $210, plus $90 for the seat reservation, meals and checked bag, bringing my grand total for this 9.5 hour trans Atlantic flight to just $300. Of course, the fare will depend on the season, as always, so the earlier you can book, the better. (In case you were wondering, no I didn’t get any free flights from Norwegian! Their routes just happen to work really well for my travel plans, and their price to quality ratio is excellent, which isn’t easy to find in the world of airlines.)
For those flying from the US, I’ve found that a cheap Southwest or JetBlue one-way ticket (subscribe to their newsletters to know about their sales first!) will get you to NYC or LAX to catch a very affordable Norwegian flight to London Gatwick (LGW), Oslo (OSL), or Bangkok (BKK) airport.
An alternative ocean voyage
If you have some time to spare (which you might if you’re a digital nomad and slow traveler), there is another, more exciting option for your trans-Atlantic journey that doesn’t involve airport security or flying! You can take a re-routing cruise ship for your ocean voyage. This is the clever concept behind longtime digital nomad Johannes Voelkner’s Nomad Cruise, an approximately 10-day all-inclusive ocean cruise specifically for digital nomads, with workshops, lectures, activities and lots of digital detox fun, since wifi is not too reliable (and is very expensive) in the middle of the ocean.
Although I haven’t yet been on one of these cruises, I find it to be a really smart way to meet like-minded travelers, cross the ocean in a fun, educational and inspirational environment–and at an affordable price. It’s also set up for those digital nomads who travel to follow the summer: cruises leave Europe sometime in October headed for South America, and leave South America sometime in May headed to Europe.
Here are the low cost airlines I can recommend
Once you are in Asia or Europe, you can hop around for very little money via low cost airlines. I recommend trying Rome2Rio to get an idea of your options for transport. The website compares the length of the journey, schedules and prices for bus, car, train and plane journeys.
Low cost airlines that I can recommend from experience flying all over Europe include easyJet, Ryanair, Wizzair and Vueling. Within the Middle East and Asia, I can recommend FlyDubai (Emirates’ low cost carrier, so you know it’s good!), JetStar, Pegasus, SpiceJet, Indigo, Air Asia and two low cost carriers from Japan just because they have cute names: Peach and Vanilla. A little fun fact: these two low cost Japanese carriers will soon be merged into one airline—how adorable and delicious! 😉
Read the fine print!
Before you book any low cost airline tickets, always look up the baggage policy online and thoroughly check the size and weight limitations for both carry-on and checked-in bags, since these low cost airlines are usually very strict and will charge you extra if you go over. Lately, carriers like RyanAir and Wizz Air are starting to charge you if you want to take something bigger than a personal item on board, so be sure to read up on this new policy! Don’t show up at the airport without having read the rules for boarding passes and baggage and check-in time online, and don’t assume that you can talk the agent out of charging you for a half kilo overweight bag.
I recently wrote an article for Shermans Travel about some of the longest low cost flights in the world, which might give you some further insight into what to expect onboard as far as amenities and seat sizes. If you prefer to take your own snacks and food instead of buying a meal, great! But there are some low cost airlines that won’t allow you to bring food with you, so check the onboard policies carefully.
A final word
As cheap as low cost tickets already are, these airlines still manage to offer periodic sales and discounts–sounds good, right? If you want to be the first to know, ALWAYS SUBSCRIBE TO THE AIRLINE’S EMAIL NEWSLETTER. I currently receive newsletters from WizzAir, Vueling, Southwest, JetBlue, Lufthansa and Norwegian. You can also follow them on social media if you want. Just be sure to follow all the low cost airlines that will take you to the destinations you’re eyeing for your next vacation or long term travel plans. Now go book something!!