Finding Cheap Flights
The biggest obstacle many people face when it comes to travel is finding and booking affordable flights. Flights are expensive, but they don’t have to prevent you from travelling. What’s more, although the flight is typically the single biggest expense of any adventure, it is also (typically) booked well in advance of the other expenses you will incur on a trip.
When it comes to finding the best flights, two traits are more important than anything else: creativity and flexibility. So you live in Grand Rapids and want to go to Madrid, Dec. 3 – Dec. 10? Chances are, visiting a travel agency website and typing in those exact dates with those exact airports is not going to result in the best price or itinerary. Being flexible in your dates, departure and arrival airports, and adding a little creativity can go a long way.
Searching for Flights
Rather than sticking to one travel website, I tend to take a multi website approach to my search (and end up with too many tabs open). Additionally, although I cannot verify whether it’s true or not, it can’t hurt to search in private/incognito mode in your internet browser. According to conspiracy theorists, websites know via cookies that you’re searching for flights continuously and will start to raise prices on you (they assume your demand for a flight is high and cost resistant).
I usually start with Skyscanner. I like this site because it allows for the most general searching. Skyscanner allows you to search in more generic terms, like “US to Spain,” then giving you price estimates for more specific departing and arrival airports. It also does not limit you to specific or narrow date ranges. You can search entire months or years. I especially like the “cheapest month” feature, which will find the cheapest month to fly from point A to point B. Although these features are great for getting a general idea, they aren’t always 100% accurate, and searching in such wide terms tends to make for slow browsing.
After I’ve gotten an idea from Skyscanner and narrowed down my airports and dates of choice, I then move on to Kayak to cross reference. Once I’ve picked a few options for departure/arrival airports and dates, I’ll then plug those airports into Kayak, making sure to click “+/- 3 days.” This will give you fairly accurate prices within a 6 day span for both departure and return. I’ll also start to get more picky about the layover times, how many connections, and specific departure/arrival times. Although a flight may be substantially cheaper than the rest, it may also involve 30+ hours of travel and multiple connections. Although this does represent the best option from a cost perspective, a week long jaunt in Spain won’t be much fun if you tack 40 hours of travel on to each end of the trip (one recent search had me overshooting Madrid all the way to Istanbul, only to fly right back, and all for only $100 of savings!).
One last thing to consider is multi destination tickets. This search option can often expand your travel horizons, allowing you to visit multiple cities in one trip, travel overland between different destinations and catch another flight, and many other options. We recently had a great find with this feature, where a flight to Cape Town (from Michigan) was essentially free. We are already going to London and Scotland next June for around 10 days, with plans to go to Cape Town later in the summer as well. Rather than flying to London and back, only to fly to Cape Town a few weeks later (a flight which almost always connects somewhere in Europe), we found a multi destination flight that Michigan to London, 10 days there, then London to Cape Town and Cape Town to Michigan later. The additional flight to Cape Town only added $100 to a return flight Michigan to London.
Booking Cheap Flights
After settling on a flight or two, you now have a couple options. You can book it through Kayak, which will often redirect to another site like Expedia. Alternatively, you can go directly to that airline site and see if the price is the same there (it’s always easiest and most convenient to book directly through the airline you’re flying, although frequently not the cheapest).
Since Leeann and I are still students/under 26, we have another great option, STA Travel. With the purchase of a $25 ISIC card, renewable annually as long as you’re a student/under 26, you can get massive savings on flights. Additionally, STA offers great features such as book now pay later, reserving certain flights for as low as $49, thus locking in the price. If plans change, you’re only out that initial deposit. Their options for multi flex are also great, allowing you to pay a one time change fee up front, giving you much more freedom in changing your flights in the future. In my experience, the people are also very easy to work with, and equally as creative in finding you the option that works best with your travel goals.
Cheap Flight Itinerary
Once your flight is booked, the next step is to log on to that airline’s website (make a free account with them if you don’t already) and find your itinerary. Here you can preload all your information, travel preferences, pick seats, and check in to the flight when the time comes. I typically download the airline app to my phone as well, as you never know if you will be by a computer when the time to check in comes. I also utilize electronic boarding passes, so having the app is a necessity.
My favorite part of the whole process is picking the seats. Some things to consider: How long is your layover? Are you a paranoid flyer like I am? Comfort? Food? Are you traveling with a companion? A great rule of thumb when traveling with someone else is to pick a row of 3 that doesn’t have anyone in it yet and select the aisle and window seat. Chances are, no one will pick the seat between you and you’ll get the row to yourself. If you’re not so lucky, I’ve never had any problems switching an aisle or window seat for a middle seat with someone. For a trip that has a layover, for the first flight I will pick a seat close to the front (even paying the small fee to upgrade if I have a short layover). This way, you can be one of the first people off the plane and get to your next gate quickly.
For the flight to the terminal destination, I like to be near the back of the plane, especially for long international flights. Why you ask? Well, I must admit I am paranoid about flying, and I like to be close to the rear exits. There’s also that supposed data that the back of the plane is safer. More importantly, if you’re in the back of the plane, you get fed faster. This part of the plane is also usually the last to fill up, so you’re chances of not having a seat companion are higher. I also have this completely anecdotal theory that the back of the plane is where the “cool kids” sit. The families of four with screaming children always seem to be in the middle to front area of the plane. The back of the plane always seems to be more chill and quiet.
Flying international comes with some great perks such as free alcohol, multiple meals, and your own personal movie screen with lots of new and old movies! Airline food tends to be hit and miss, but in my experience, they are in order of deliciousness 1. KLM, 2. South African Air, 3. British Airways, 4. Avianca, 5. American Airlines, with Avianca and AA very much bringing up the rear. I’ll let you know how Iberia is in a few weeks. Avianca, on the other hand, had by far the best and newest entertainment system. I once had a KLM flight that spent an hour rebooting its entire system, leaving me without my very much needed pacifier of video distraction.
Best Luggage for Long Flights
This brings us to the topic of luggage. We will cover this in detail in our upcoming post on luggage, but I will just say here that I am very adamant (much to the dismay of my wife) about only bringing carry ons. Don’t be that member of the group that slows everyone down waiting endlessly for their checked bag that probably will never come (I know that’s an exaggeration, I’m just bitter about the checked luggage I’ve lost).
A word on airline miles, rewards clubs, and credit cards
We will cover this in more depth in an upcoming post, but in general, the airline rewards credit cards that are non specific to any one airline tend to be the best, such as the Capital One Venture One card (learn how we got $600 towards travel for free here!). In the age of air travel that we now live and our limited budget, it is unrealistic to expect to fly the same airline every time. Additionally, I’ve flown KLM more than any other airline and racked up a pretty substantial mileage balance, that I’ve unfortunately found to be almost useless.