How to Book Cheap Flights
One of the most common questions for new solo female travelers (or even the more veteran among us!) is how to book cheap flights. Airfare has gone wild since the pandemic and there is so much bad advice out there. The good news is that booking cheap flights can actually be very simple. The bad news is cheap airfare requires something that many travelers aren’t willing to embrace: flexibility! But I’m going to show you exactly how I booked a round-trip flight from the US to Paris for less than $500 (even including all the taxes and add-ons and hidden fees), so you can see just how powerful a tool your flexibility can be!
Table of Contents
6 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
Step 1: Sign Up for Flight Deals Newsletters
There are loads of companies that have devoted their entire business to finding great deals on flights. Many offer free newsletters, but it can also be worth it to pay for a subscription. Either way, when you sign up, you’ll receive tons of emails every day highlighting the best priced airfare routes from airports near you.
One of the best newsletters, Scott’s Cheap Flights, has recently rebranded to Going. Other good choices include Dollar Flight Club, Matt’s Flights, and Jack’s Flight Club.
Step 2: Pick Your Destination Based on the Deal
It’s become a popular chorus on social media recently to “choose the deal, not the destination.” If you want to travel and don’t have a lot of money for it, I cannot stress enough how important this is!
A coworker once asked me how to book cheap flights and I geared up to rattle off a bunch of advice, only to hear her say she *had* to go to Denver and it *had* to be in three weeks. (She was going to a friend’s wedding.) Unfortunately, in a situation like that, the only thing I could say to her was “Sorry girl, you’re screwed.”
If you are absolutely locked in to a specific destination at a specific time, the only thing you can do is book as early as possible and hope the price doesn’t drop in the future. (Or keep an eye on Google Flights as it continues testing a price guarantee feature.)
If, on the other hand, you plan your travel around the best deals you can find, you will always be able to book cheap flights to anywhere.
For my trip to Paris, I noticed an email from one of my flight deals newsletters highlighting a $300 round-trip base airfare.
I’ve been to Paris a couple times before. I probably wouldn’t have set out to visit again, but that deal was too good to pass up and I know there’s enough that I haven’t done in the city that I’m still going to have an amazing time.
Step 3: Search Flights on Skyscanner
I have spent hours upon hours testing the same routes across different flight search engines and I’m terribly sorry to the Google Flights stans… Google Flights is very good, but most of the time, I get the best deal on Skyscanner.
What I love about Skyscanner is the Everywhere feature, which is another good starting point if you have dates in mind but are flexible with your destination as you can find the cheapest flight for a date.
But it also shares with Google Flights the easy ability to scan a whole month at once for the best price. Sadly, Skyscanner has done away with its Cheapest Month feature, so it takes a little bit of legwork to find the actual cheapest date for your route.
See, here’s the tricky part with the flight deals newsletters. They are an amazing heads up that there’s a deal out there. But frequently, they give a huge range of when that deal is available, like March to August 2023. That’s not super helpful in finding where in that six-month span the lowest price is actually lurking.
So this is where Skyscanner comes in. You’re using the flight deals newsletter to choose your destination because you know there is a cheap airfare available currently. You use Skyscanner to search that route and browse month to month for the cheapest dates.
Step 4: Check Your Itinerary Before Booking
Once you find the fare you were looking for, don’t rush to book it! You want to pay careful attention to these things:
- How long the flight is
- Whether there are any connections, and how long those connections are
- What time the flight arrives in your destination
- How much the same route costs on a major airline
You want to look at flight duration because there might be a limit to what you personally tolerate. If you can’t stand the idea of a 22-hour travel day once your connections and layovers add up, you might rethink this particular trip.
Even if you’re okay with a longer door-to-door travel time, you need to pay attention to your connections. With delays and cancellations more common these days, it’s actually a really good idea to pad your itinerary with a longer layover if you can’t fly direct.
For my flight to Paris, I unfortunately have just a 1-hour layover in Reykjavik which is very tight to begin with. If my first plane gets delayed, I could be in real trouble.
As a solo female traveler, I am always keenly aware of what time a flight is going to land in my destination. I do not venture into strange cities outside daylight hours. If my flight lands at night, I will either spend the night in the airport or I will book a different flight.
Finally, it’s worth actually checking the cost of a major airline for the same route so you understand how much you’re really saving. Many of these bottom dollar airfares are possible because they are with budget airlines on a super scrimped basic economy class. A major airline is more likely to include some amenities in the base fare that the budget airline will charge you extra for.
Which brings me to…
Step 5: Start the Booking Process to Check Add-On Costs
My base airfare to Paris was about $300 round-trip, which is mind-boggling. But by the time I was done booking, I was actually paying about $500 round-trip. This is still a very good deal on airfare! But it’s not quite as amazing as $300 round-trip.
Play Airline, a low-cost carrier based in Iceland, charges extra for anything more than a personal item. So I’m paying $114 more for my carry-on backpack.
Because my connection in Reykjavik is so tight, I felt it important to sit in an aisle seat near the front of the plane so I can deboard as quickly as possible. Seat selection cost an extra $55.
And then there are all the extra taxes and fees that all airfares get hit with.
It’s important for you to start booking so you see how those costs actually add up. Don’t rush.
Step 6: Complete Your Booking
If you’ve checked all the details and this still feels like a good enough flight for a good enough price, go ahead and book it!
Congrats – you just booked a cheap flight and you’ll be able to do it again and again.
Should You Search for Flights in Incognito Mode?
This is a terrible piece of advice floating around online that I myself perpetuated for years before getting set straight by a former airline employee.
Many people believe that cookies attached to your flight search history artificially drive up the costs and you will somehow magically find cheaper airfares simply by switching to a private browser or incognito mode.
I know how tempting it is to believe something that simple could give consumers greater control over flight costs, but it’s just not true.
If searching the same route over and over was what increased the flight cost, then how do you suppose travel agents or the companies running those flight deal newsletters ever find cheap airfare? These folks are doing nothing but searching airfares all day every day and they never have trouble finding great deals.
What’s really happening is this. Even though we the consumers only see a few flight classes (economy, business, first, etc.), on the back end, the airline actually has dozens of booking codes that price every seat on the plane individually.
Your flight search will return the least expensive fare available. If you see a flight priced at $150, it could be that only one seat on the plane is left with that particular booking code. If somebody books that seat while you’re refreshing your search, you’ll be shown the next available seat with a higher price.
If you want to keep searching in incognito mode, that’s fine. It’s not detrimental to your flight costs. It’s just not the magic bullet so many on the internet claim.
How to Book Cheap Business Class Flights
There are three ways to get good deals on business class flights and most of them start with the specific airline you want to fly with.
The first is to sign up for that airline’s email newsletter so you get notified of any major discounts they have available.
The second way to book cheap business class flights is to sign up for that airline’s loyalty program. It’s usually free to sign up and start earning status with them. When you reach an elite status with an airline, you can redeem points for a free upgrade, but any amount of membership or status can work in your favor if you want to try and ask for a free upgrade.
You could also get an airline’s credit card and earn frequent flier miles that way. (This is best covered in another blog post though!)
The final way to book cheap business class flights is to bid for an upgrade. All you do is check a little box indicating you would like to be considered for an upgrade and enter how much you would be willing to pay. If the airline doesn’t sell all the business class seats on that flight, they’ll open it up auction-style to the folks who selected that bid for upgrade option. If you win, your credit card will be charged in the amount you bid and you’ll receive your upgrade confirmation. If you aren’t so lucky, you don’t get charged anything and keep your original booking.
Can I Just Ask the Flight Attendant for a Free Upgrade?
I mean, technically yeah, you can, but they’re flight attendants… not fairy godmothers. Some airlines have hard policies against upgrading anybody to Business or First Class if they didn’t pay and aren’t part of the loyalty program.
But if you really, really want to give this a try, show up early, be nice, and use this script from upgrade queen Gabby of Packs Light with the gate agent. (That’s the gate agent, not the flight attendant!)
A Final Word on Booking Cheap Flights
I hope it’s clear by now that booking cheap flights (and even scoring upgrades) is all about your attitude. Staying flexible and grateful for the privilege and opportunity to travel at all makes booking flights so much less of a headache! There are amazing places to experience all over the world. If you stay focused on that, you will always be able to book a cheap flight anywhere worth going.
Lots of great tips especially the insight on if Incognito mode truly helps or not. I love following the deal when I can because it really is the best way!
Oh this is so helpful! Thank you!