How to Find the Cheapest Airfare

There are an overwhelming number of websites and other ways you can book a flight. In this article we'll try to sort it all out and give you the best "insider" tips and tricks for finding the best deals. Figuring it all out may take a little effort, but the pay-off is worth it.

You may already know that booking your hostel with Hostelz.com's price comparison features is the cheapest way to find a place to stay, but here's how you can also save money on your flight. This is a simple step-by-step guide to everything you need to do to get the cheapest airfare possible.

Find out When and Where to Fly

When you're planning an overseas vacation, often your travel dates and destination are flexible, and you just want to know how you can get to Europe, southeast Asia, or some other general area for the lowest price possible. Currently there is just one way to do that, and it's one of the best "insider" tools available for researching flights.

That tool is the website Matrix Airfare Search from ITA Software.

ITA is a software company (now owned by Google) that actually powers many of the flight booking sites like Orbitz, Kayak, HipMunk, and others. Because ITA is a software company, not a booking website, you can't actually book tickets on their site. But they do make the Matrix tool available for anyone to use to research flights, and it's extremely powerful. For example, using the "nearby" link when choosing your departure and destination, you can tell it to search for the cheapest flights from any airport within 100 miles of you, to any airport within 1000 miles of Paris. You can select "See calendar of lowest fares" to then see the lowest date the travel on. This is extremely useful for finding out when and where to fly to.

When to Book the Flight

There is a belief that it's always cheaper to book your flight as early as possible to get the best price. This is often no longer the case. Prices for overseas flights are usually more expensive if you book too far in advance, and prices gradually come down, but then eventually spike upwards again as the travel date nears. The sweet spot for the lowest rates for international flights are typically 5-6 months before your departure date.

For example, for peak season (summer) travel to Europe, the sweet spot to find the lowest fares is typically around February through April. But you'll usually still find rates that are nearly as low any time from 8 months before your flight up until about 2 months before. For domestic flights, the cheapest prices are typically 2-3 months before the departure date.

But if you're wanting to book a flight for a trip that is only a short time away, don't despair. There are often cheap tickets available for flights that haven't filled up in the last month or so before departure. But your options may be limited. You may need to fly to a city that isn't your primary destination and then take a short-haul flight or train, so check all of the possibilities with the ITA Matrix (see above) to find the best options.

Update: A new Wallstreet Journal article reports that you may find slightly lower fares if you make your booking on a weekend. Airlines make their lowest fares available on weekends for pleasure travelers, but keep the prices a little higher on weekdays when business travelers are more likely to be booking flights. But the difference is small, so if you're ready to make your booking today, it's probably not really worth waiting until the weekend.

Flying for Free or Reduced Fair

What about being an "air courier" to fly for free/cheap? You may have heard stories about this online. You used to be able to volunteer as an air courier to get free or cheap flights overseas by carrying packages and documents for courier companies. But sadly, this type of courier business has been replaced by regular express mail in recent years, and this is no longer an available option.

Currently your best option for flying for free or reduced fair is using credit card miles, and it's easier than you may think. Many credit cards offer bonus points just for signing up. If you use a point-earning credit card for your daily purchases, most people are able to earn enough points for a free or reduced cost flight overseas every couple years or so. As long as you pay off your credit card balance in full every month, there's no reason not to use one of these cards to earn free air travel.

Our current favorite travel rewards card is the same one you'll see recommended by many travel experts, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. They give you a large sign-up bonus, and after that it's easy to earn points and use them to book flights. But a huge advantage of this card is that it's designed for use while you travel also. It has no foreign transactions fees (which is rare), and the card has a chip embedded in it, which makes it more useful in Europe where chip cards are often required (well, it's "chip-and-signature", which isn't as useful as "chip-and-pin", but it's still better than only having a magnetic stripe card).

Booking a Flight

If you're using credit card miles as described above, you'll use the credit card's rewards website to book your flight. But if you aren't using reward miles, you can book it anywhere. There are quite a few flight booking websites, but mostly you'll find their prices tend to be similar or often identical.

One exception is GetGoing. They offer an unusual "pick two, get one" deal where you pick two different cities you would want to fly to, and they don't tell you which one you actually got until after you book it. It sounds strange, but it's a technique for airlines to weed out business travelers and to give pleasure travelers lower rates. In some cases you can save 20% or so off what you would pay anywhere else for the same flight.

Update: Unfortunately GetGoing is no longer in business.

Aside from that, Kayak is a good starting point. It lets you easily find the cheapest price among the booking sites (similar to what Hostelz.com does for finding the best hostel booking price). Another one that may be worth trying is Skyscanner, especially if you are flying shorter routes such as between European countries.

How to fly cheap in Europe with Ryanair?

Ryanair is a legendary European low cost airline and a source of budget travellers’ folklore.

As it is also the continent’s largest, it could be quite a challenging task to find a local flyer who has never been on one of the yellow harp-decorated services. The destinations are mainly within Europe, with the addition of North African country Morocco.

Ryanair is like that cheerful and cheeky enterprising neighbour who likes to post calendars with half-naked air hostesses in his garage. Familiarise yourself with his rules, and you will get a better deal than anywhere else. Be foolish and you will end up paying for different extras and fines more than you spent on the actual tickets. So what does one need to do in order to reap the most benefits off the low cost carrier?

Some of the following advice is applicable to flying with other cheap airlines too.

Do you really need that big luggage?

Your aim should be travelling light, which means only with cabin luggage. For every piece of checked-in luggage you will have to pay extra.

For example, a piece of checked luggage not heavier than 15 kilos would cost you anything between 15-35 euros per flight (depending on low/high travel season), while a piece weighting up to 20 kilos could "lighten" your bank account by 25-45 euros. And I have mentioned here only the cheapest fees, i.e. those charged at the time of buying your ticket online. If you change your mind later and decide to pay your checked luggage fees at the airport, be prepared to pay three or four times more than online.

Travelling light is particularly important to those budgeters who plan to take a few flights as the checked luggage fees will multiply by the number of flights taken. For short trips, particularly during the summer months, the allowed volume of cabin luggage is more than enough. Plus, having left big suitcases at home, one gets to go straight to the boarding gate instead of wasting life away at the luggage drop queues.

The cabin bag – weighted and measured

Certain considerations exist while packing your cabin luggage. First, measure the bag/suitcase itself – make sure its dimensions are within the airline’s stated limits. Not all cheap airlines have the same cabin luggage dimension allowances, so if you successfully flew with one airline using a certain bag this does not necessarily mean that you will be able to take the same bag on another airline.

Then, weight your packed luggage – the total weight has to be under ten kilos. Any overweight, and you will be invited to generously open your wallet again at the airport. (Again, remember, the weight allowance for the cabin luggage depends on the airline. Don’t assume that the next airline’s weight allowance will be the same as a previous one’s).

Another important point with this particular carrier is that all – that means all - your belongings, including that newspaper you are going to read during the flight and that two-metre-long plush crocodile you bought at the airport, have to fit into the one measured and weighted piece of cabin luggage. Any unfitting items will have to be thrown away or paid for as excess luggage (20 euros per kilo at the time of writing).

A friend in need…

Finally, of course, according to international security rules, any toiletries you take with you have to be in up to 100 millilitre bottles, put together in a transparent zip bag; no sharp or flammable objects; no liquids; and no packets that a friendly stranger you met at the airport has asked you to carry for him/her in your luggage.

Are you sure you know where you are flying to?

The question might seem obvious but with cheap airlines the case often is that they fly to more remote, smaller airports.

So, for example, if you are flying to Stockholm Skavsta, or Paris Beauvais, or London Stansted, add at least one more hour to your travel times to be spent in an airport shuttle, plus some extra expenses.

Check in online – and print your boarding pass

Nowadays all Ryanair passengers are required to check in online.

This can be done anytime between 15 days and four hours prior to your flight. Checking in only is not enough as one also have to print his/her boarding pass. Colour or black-and-white version not so important, as long as the boarding pass is on an A4 format sheet of paper. If you don’t have the magic paper with you at the airport, another substantial, 40 euro, fine will be imposed on you.

Beat the queues

While waiting at the boarding gate, do not try too hard to stand right at the front of the queue.

Although Ryanair planes are free-seated, being the first in the queue does not necessarily mean being able to pick the best seat. Of course, sometimes the plane is right outside the gate. More often, however, after having passed the gate you will find a shuttle bus waiting to bring you to the airplane, in which case all the previous strategic queuing tactics lose their point.

So relax, sit down and enjoy yourself while the others are standing.

Eat before you travel

Cheap airlines are no-frills airlines.

This means no dinner on board included, even if you are flying for over four hours. There is a menu inside the in-flight magazine, offering mainly bread-based fast foods and some drinks and snacks. If you are a healthy eater you might want to eat before/after you fly, or be like one of those weird people and bring your own snacks.

Once you learn the rules of the game travelling with Ryanair can be extremely affordable; and entertaining - if you enjoy watching people. Otherwise, bring something to read, and perhaps also a pair of ear plugs as there will be a series of snacks, duty free items, raffle tickets sales, and a bunch of fellow passengers from all walks of life – stags, hens, football fans, students and businessmen; elderly couples and sugar-high children – on the often heavily-packed, democratic Ryanair's board.

We'll be updating this article over time, and we welcome your suggestions. Enjoy your trip!

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