Type to search

Guides & Tips

How To Book A Cheap Flight

Graphic: Sana Kewalramani

My mom doesn’t know how to book flights correctly. She tried to figure out how much it would cost our family of four to fly to Oslo to visit extended family, and she had the gall to suggest it would cost $2,000 each way for all of us. When I found out she actually proposed this to my dad, thus turning him away from the idea forever, I leapt at the chance to prove her wrong and found $200 round-trip tickets for each of us. $800 versus $8,000? That’s why she now calls me the “Airplane Troll”. There is a method to my madness, and my mom may not ever be as airline-savvy as I am, you can be.

The first and most important tip I can give you is whenever you start researching plane tickets, do it in an incognito window. Travel sites have cookies that keep track of how often you search for tickets or hotels to a certain location, and airlines are known to subtly increase the price each time you look. It’s not that those flights are in high demand and the price is going up; the airline just wants to get five or ten more dollars out of you.

Second, use a variety of flight search engines. My favorites are Skyscanner and StudentUniverse, but Google Flights, Kiwi, and CheapoAir have also turned up relatively good results. StudentUniverse is the site I used when I booked my flight tickets to Tokyo for study abroad. If you want to start an account and use them multiple times, their rewards system is nice. They frequently offer promo codes and members get access to secret deals, plus their customer support is wonderful for anxious flyers. Skyscanner is how I got a $100 ticket to London for spring break, and a $180 return flight from Amsterdam. Before you buy through these sites, check the airline’s site directly. You might be able to save $12-$20 in site fees. Remember, all of these should be visited in that incognito tab!

Be aware of when you buy your ticket, as well as when you’re buying your ticket for. By tracking when people buy tickets, flights can go up and down in price multiple times in one day. Skyscanner recommends checking on Tuesday mornings, since sites tend to put new deals up on Monday nights. Checking late at night and early in the morning, before the internet traffic starts getting back, seems to be the best bet. What day you want to actually fly on is important as well. Flying out on a Tuesday or Thursday will be far cheaper than flying on a weekend. Booking during a weekday results in lower prices as well. Some sites, like Google Flights, let you look at a price map or choose a range of dates; these will allow you to view the price on the day you originally planned, but also the flights around that day. If it doesn’t impact your schedule, try to be as flexible as possible with the day of the week.

Many people have heard that buying six weeks ahead of the trip is the “absolute cheapest.” I’m not going to definitively dispute that, only because I plan my trips pretty far in advance, and have never bought only six weeks out. Spring break was four months away when I bought my tickets, so for the sake of experiment I decided to look up what they would cost if I wanted to leave last-minute. I looked up a one-way economy flight to from New York City to London (it tends to be cheaper to buy each flight independently and flying out of New York airport is cheaper to fly out of than Philadelphia). By using price calendars on Skyscanner, Google Flights, and Student Universe, my cheapest option would be in just over a week at around $170. For comparison: my NYC to London flight booked in mid October was $100. If I wanted to leave in the next few days, I’d be paying three times that amount.

A note of caution: these tips only apply if you want the absolute rock bottom prices, which means you aren’t going to be as comfortable. Some sites will let you upgrade from economy to basic economy, but doing so triggers taxes in the country you’re flying into. When I fly to London, I’ll only be carrying my backpack, with the bare essentials in it because I don’t want to pay extra for checked baggage. My flight home won’t have an in-flight meal. When I flew from Tokyo, I boarded last and sat in the farthest back row. I’m comfortable roughing it, and I’ve traveled a lot with only a backpack, but I know that’s not for everyone. Some things are worth splurging on, however I would say that it’s fun to try and rough it while you’re young and still can. And remember, in this case, it is about the destination, not the journey!