Generally, people are shocked at how little we pay for airfare. As digital nomads, we travel differently than most people. Since we don’t have a “home base”, a lot of our trips are open-ended. This allows for a lot of flexibility to find inexpensive flights (as well as some challenges – not having a return ticket has gotten us into trouble), but even non-digital nomads can benefit from what we’ve learned over the years. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite tips, tricks, and tools to save money on airfare.
Frequent Flyer Programs
This is simple: Sign up for every program. Even if you aren’t particularly loyal to one airline, the miles can add up, although they add up more quickly if you stick to one. Use a tool like AwardWallet to track your various reward miles.
Have Flexible Dates
When you fly is probably the biggest factor in fare prices. Not necessarily the old wisdom of “flying on Tuesday” is cheapest — we haven’t consistently found that. First, the obvious: don’t visit a destination in the busy season. Want to go to New Orleans? Don’t go for Mardi Gras. Flexibility is key.
Don’t plan on departing and returning on specific days, before you’ve booked a flight. Most search engines allow you to search for flexible dates, so you can compare how the days differ. Flight search websites like Adioso allow you to search an entire month at a time. The full month view is our starting point for planning our next trip.
Pick a Different Airport
Low cost airlines realized long ago that they can avoid costly fees by flying into smaller airports, and these cost savings often result in cheaper tickets. Choose “search nearby airports” to when doing a flight engine search to see the differences.
Mix Big Carriers and Budget Carriers
Flying around Europe is cheap. Really cheap. You can find RyanAir or EasyJet flights that run 20 euros or less. So, when we’re heading to Europe, we often just look to get anywhere in Europe, knowing we can hop on a low cost airline to finish the trip. One of my current favorites is Norwegian Airlines. You can often fly NYC to Oslo for less than $300 US on Norwegian. Then, just it’s just a matter of finding a discount carrier to the final destination. Some flight search engines don’t include the discount carriers, so you may have to book the flights separately. Make sure you leave enough time for flight delays to catch your next flight. Or just plan a couple of days in Oslo before heading on.
When to Buy?
There’s lot of information out there on the “best day of the week to book a flight”, but not much of it seems to agree. We don’t stress over that. But, last minute flights are rarely the cheapest. We try to book at least two weeks ahead for domestic flights and four weeks for international.
Round Trip vs. One Way
For various reasons, many airlines charge less per leg for a round trip than a single one way trip. If you’re flying one-way (as we often do), you can book the round trip without planning on using the return trip. And, if you’re not planning on using that flight home, you can use the search engines to pick a horrendous, multi-stop, long layover return flight that often drops the price of the whole round trip. Hell, you’re not going to be on it, right? (note: there can be consequences for this, in terms of points, etc.)
Of course, check the particular airline on this. Discount airlines (Southwest, JetBlue, RyanAir, etc.), typically have different pricing models, and each leg is priced separately, so a one way flight on these airlines is often cheaper.
This technique takes advantage of “hidden city” fares. Flights to less popular destinations are often routed through more popular hubs, and sometimes those flights to the final city is less expensive than a flight just to the hub. For example, if you want to fly go to Atlanta, and find a cheaper flight that connects in Atlanta to Charlotte, why not book that flight and just not board the last leg? Doing this, checking baggage is not an option. And, this technique definitely violates your contract with the carrier, so read the fine print about the consequences. The savings can be significant, thought, and there’s even a search engine that will find these flights for you: Skiplagged.com
Fares change all the time, and many flight search engines offer automatic notification via email when a trip fare drops. We’ve had success with Airfarewatchdog.
Leverage Social Media
Great deals get sold out quickly, so relying on luck on catching a sale, or getting an email notification on time, is a crapshoot. Following the search engines, or the airlines themselves, on Twitter can give you near real-time visibility into sales. Social Media is often the best way to find “mistake” fares (hey, even the airlines make mistakes, right?) – if you manage to book a super-cheap fare posted in error before it is fixed, the airlines will often honor the price.
Always fly Alone
No, we don’t really do this. We almost always fly together. But we shop for one traveller at a time. If you get a rate you want, the airlines will almost always honor it for more than one traveller, but if you plug multiple travelers into your initial search, and they are only offering up one “cheap seat”, you won’t see that rate.
Insure against Problems (or complain when they happen)
There are all sorts of regional rules and passenger “bills of rights” regarding delays and the airline’s responsibility, some identifying compensation amounts for delays and cancellations. Needless to say the airlines don’t advertise this, and the claim process can be problematic. Some companies offer cheap, easy insurance that takes care of the claims process for you. Even Warren Buffet has an offering.
Not into insurance? We’ve sent nicely worded “feedback” emails to airlines when we’ve had an extended delay, and have often received vouchers or credits. It can’t hurt to ask, right?
Pick your Search Tool
Beyond searching the individual airline sites (never our starting point), there are dozens (hundreds? more?) of flight search websites. Many use the same the underlying engines, and will yield the same results, so often it’s just a matter of person preference. Below are some of our favorites.
Very simple interface, and allows you to search by cities, countries, and geographical regions. The site also lets you search an entire month at a time.
Google purchased one of the original flight aggregators ITA Matrix (which still can be searched), and this is Google’s entry into the flight search engine world. Fast results and lots of flexibility.
Visual person? Kayak Explore let’s you pick your origin, when you want to go, and gives you a map of how much it will cost to get to just about any destination in the world. This is a fun option if you’re in the “I just need to get away, I don’t care where” camp.
One of the websites that doesn’t just use an existing engine, but “scrapes” airlines websites to get fares that aren’t submitted to the database.
Want a good fare, but the 33 hour travel time with 3 layovers just doesn’t appeal to you? Hipmunk allows you to rate flights by “agony” level, taking into account not just the monetary cost but also the personal cost. They remind you that the cheapest flight is rarely the “best” flight.
Don’t want to just fly? Want to compare different transportation options? Enter your origin and destination and Rome2Rio will suggest routes and prices in flights and alternative transportation. They currently include flights, trains, metro, buses, and driving (even including ride sharing). This site even includes commute time to and from airports and train stations. We usually use Rome2Rio to compare alternative options to flying for short distances. Is it worth showing up 2 hours ahead of time at the airport for a 2 hour flight? Maybe not…
Do you have suggestions for saving money on travel costs? Do you have other must-use search tools or websites? Share them in the comments!
Other helpful tips from fellow full-time travelers: