Flight deals are abundant these days, and now is a good time to start planning travels for the rest of the year. Here are my main tips on how to find the best flight deals and plan your ideal trip around them!
“Wow! Direct flights from Houston to Istanbul for $500? Where’s my wallet?”
I was sitting in my bedroom in my host home in Rio de Janeiro looking for flight deals when I’d stumbled upon one to Turkey that I couldn’t pass on. Eyes wide with excitement, I reached for my wallet, pulled out my (then) debit card, and bought the flight without thinking twice.
For weeks I’d been watching these ticket prices rise and fall around $750. Though $500 is nothing to sneeze at, once the price dropped this drastically, I knew it was the time to buy.
I’m sure in your Facebook news feed you’ll occasionally see posts with headlines along the lines of “Houston to Europe for $200 round trip!” If travel has been on your mind and you’re willing to be flexible, planning trips around cheap flight deals can often be a worthwhile strategy to maximize your budget. Read on to find out how I find dirt cheap flight deals and the strategies I use to plan trips around them.
1. Have a rough idea of where and when you want to go
The world is a huge place, and there are flight deals to many corners of it. Having an idea of a few places you’d like to visit can help you narrow your list and tailor your searches. One thing to consider is timing – flights are bound to be cheaper to destinations where it is not the high season for tourism. If you have a specific set of dates in mind (e.g., a spring break, or a long holiday weekend), do some research to figure out what regions are in their “shoulder seasons” at that time.
Another thing to consider is how much money you want to spend while traveling. I’ll talk about budgeting specifically a little later in this post, but as you look for flights you should be thinking about destinations that fit your budget. For example: if you’re hoping to go to a place where you can easily spend less than $50 a day, Latin America or Southeast Asia may be good choices for you. Scandinavia and Western Europe may be less feasible, depending on how you like to travel.
Expanding your search to flights in nearby airports can be helpful as well. For example, I found a great points deal (35k points round trip + $140) from Houston to Madrid in late 2016. However, since I’d already been to Spain, I decided to use that as a launching point to then head to Morocco. I found a flight from Madrid to Marrakech for $56 round trip, so all in all my trip cost me less than $200. The round trip flights from Houston to Marrakech were over $1000 at the time.
Top resources I use for finding and booking cheap flights:
2. Sign up for relevant flight alerts
Once you’ve decided a few places you’re dying to go, it’s time to set up flight alerts so you don’t miss the best deals. There are two types of subscriptions you can use – location specific ones and newsletter alerts. Location specific services, such as Airfare Watchdog, will have you enter some basic location information (e.g., airports you want to fly out of, flight routes you want to follow) and will send you personalized updates when there are good flight deals to and from those locations. Newsletters are much more generic – these just involve submitting your email, where you’ll receive periodic newsletters with flight deals around the country. I use both of these, but if you are sensitive to spam email, I would recommend choosing 1-2 sites that work best for you.
Resources I subscribe to for flash flight deals:
- Airfare Watchdog
- The Points Guy
- Johnny Jet
- Escape Houston/Dallas/Austin (relevant only for Texas residents)
- Airline-specific newsletters (I subscribe to Star Alliance airlines and Southwest)
3. When you find a flight, try the ‘buy now, think later’ principle
I discussed this briefly in an earlier post, but this principle is one of the best ways I’ve been able to convince myself to “take the plunge” and buy plane tickets for cheap, even when I’m not sure I can go.
Here’s how it works: check the airline’s policies on canceling flights, and if they have a 24-hour full refund cancellation policy (many US carriers do per federal regulations), then go ahead and buy your ticket. This strategy is risk-free, and if you decide within the next few hours that you have terrible buyer’s remorse, you can always cancel the ticket for a full refund – no strings attached. More often than not, I’ve found that one I’ve paid for a ticket, I’m mentally sold on going. Some examples of trips that I’ve booked on this philosophy are Turkey, Chile (both times), Costa Rica, Mexico City, and more. The prospect of upcoming travel is just too exciting for me!
4. Purchase your flight directly on the airline’s website
When booking travel, I’ve found that it’s best for logistical and sanity purposes to book with the airline directly. Why? Well, when you need to change your flight details, or your trip gets delayed, it’s much easier to get things sorted out when you’ve booked directly with the airline. Once you get third parties involved, you often have to jump through hoops to get to the right person. When you book with the carrier, they are 100% responsible for you since there was no ‘middle man’ involved.
Another reason to book with the carrier? They often have promotions and sales throughout the year that you can take advantage of. In the past few months alone, I’ve seen fare sales that include $200 round trips to Iceland, $400 round trip flights to New Zealand, and $450 round trips all over Europe. Last December, I found tickets to Havana, Cuba for just $120 round trip due to a fare sale on JetBlue — less than the price of a one-way ticket from Houston to Dallas on most weekdays.
Planning Your Trip
5. Set your budget and make plans based on it
By now you’ve already chosen where you want to go, and you’ve found a great flight deal that you took advantage of. Congratulations! Now you can start planning your trip.
Your entire plan should revolve around the amount of money you are willing to spend. You’ve already chosen a destination based on this criteria, but you should continue to keep it in mind as you plan where you’re going to stay and what you’re planning to do.
Map out every expense you anticipate, including hidden ones like airport transit, currency exchange, etc., then add a bit more for miscellaneous expenses. I usually tack on anywhere from 15-30% for unforeseen fees and payments that come up. Travel is unpredictable! Figure out what you’re willing to ‘splurge’ on (food? hotel? activities?), and what you’re willing to cut back on in order to stick to your budget.
6. Figure out where you can cut paying for things altogether
Do you have a friend who lives in your destination who would be willing to let you sleep on their couch? Are you willing to try Couchsurfing? Do you have hotel points that you can use to book a few nights? Can you eat three meals a day in the hotel’s elite concierge lounge? Figure out ways you can use your resources to cut your expenditures. If you’re going for an outdoors vacation, try camping for a few nights. If you have a wide network of friends, see if they have any relatives or connections in the cities you’ll be visiting. Meeting up with locals is not just a way to save some money, but it can also make for a more meaningful travel experience. Which brings me to my last point…
7. Use your network
In Brazil, when I visited Recife, I stayed with one of my boyfriend’s cousins, who I’d never met. In Vietnam, I explored the city with one of my college friends’ cousins. After my Patagonia trek, I stayed with some friends of my trekking partner in Santiago. And when I go to Spain, I’ll be staying in Madrid with someone who works at the same company as me, in a different office. All of these experiences have led me to new friendships and incredible, memorable local experiences. That’s much better than just hitting the main tourist stretches.
Your network is much larger than you think it is, so use your resources online and in person to find locals virtually anywhere it the world. Ask friends who have shared photos in your destination if they know anyone. Post a Facebook status. You might be pleasantly surprised with what connections (and lifelong friendships) can surface from simply reaching out.
And that’s it, you’re on your way! Do you have any other secrets you use to plan a trip based on a crazy flight deal? If so, share them in the comments!