How to find cheap flights in 2020

airplane

Travel hacking is huge these days, and so is finding cheap flights. There are dozens of search engines specializing in finding flights to where you want to go, and ‘cheap flights’ is one of the most widely Googled terms for travelers. All of this may make you wonder, how can I get in? How can I get those cheap flight deals that my friends brag about? Turns out, you have several options.

Way back when we were kids, air travel was simple. Typically, you booked a round trip flight through one airline, breezed through the airport without having to take your shoes off or dissect your bag at security and came out unscathed on the other side. Flights are more complicated today. Besides the long security lines and hidden baggage fees, not to mention tightened restrictions on size, many people often fly a variety of carriers in one trip through codeshares.

Really though it’s not all bad. Flight costs are cheaper than they used to be and our options to find the ideal deal are ever increasing. Searching for flights is now a career for some people. It makes total sense. Flights are likely to be a significant part of your travel costs and any money you save here can be used to extend your trip even further.

Here we describe the best ways to find cheap flights in 2020. Not all of them may be relevant to you, but you’ll get a good idea of the secret behind those people who regularly fly to fun destinations for cheap.

Do not choose your destination

We know this one is not always applicable but it certainly is ideal if the opportunity arises. Flight prices constantly vary, and can only be predicted to a certain extent. The more flexible you are the more likely you will get the Dirt Cheap flight you dream of. If you’re hell-bent on going to Paris for Christmas, let’s assume you’re not going to find the deal you want.

But if, instead, you like to remain open-minded, register to a bunch of online flight newsletters (including ours 😉 ) from flight blogs, airlines and others and await your moment. You may have a rough set of dates and a project in mind, but it’s only when the cheap flight offers come in that you’ll know. These are most likely the best deals you can find.

If we remember, that’s how Iceland became popular. When flight prices plummeted, people took advantage and now it’s one of the hot places to visit at the moment. Similar occurrences are developing in destinations such as Guadeloupe or Ecuador.

Use the internet to score cheap flights

Using the web
Use the internet to your advantage when searching for cheap flights.

Though it can be more complicated to book through several airlines than just one, the cheaper flights usually make up for the extra research. Our saving grace is that many search engines do some of the research for us. Sites like Google Flights, Skyscanner and Momondo are great places to start. You input the city you want to leave from and where you want to go, plus the dates you’re interested in, and they search through thousands of options to find cheap flights for you.

Definitely search for cheap flights across several search engines. Kayak and Google Flights generally don’t find the best deals anymore, but sometimes they surprise us. Kayak lets you dictate which other engines you want it to look through, like Expedia and Cheap-O Air, but they sometimes overplay their independence. Kiwi.com is another worthy place to look with a pleasant interface. We used them to buy our one-way flight from Mexico City to Las Vegas.

Of note, many flight search engines now allow you to include the price of luggage in the search. Clearly something we appreciate!

Let others do the work for you

Scott’s Cheap Flights has blown up recently. A team of people (versus an algorithm) search 24/7 for great flight deals and if you sign up with them, they’ll notify you of deals in your region. Do you travel a lot and are willing to pay a little cash? Scott’s Cheap Flights offers a premium version where you can get alerts on the very best deals for a fee. We have used the free version, but keep in mind, this works best when you have a flexible schedule. They’ll also alert you of mistake fares, which are airline flight prices offered at a mistaken price. Usually, the airline catches them quickly, but when they happen, Scott’s Cheap Flights will let you know.

Start looking early…

Do you have a destination in mind but haven’t settled on the dates yet? An app called Hopper is pretty good at monitoring flights and predicting whether prices will go up in the next couple months, stay the same, or lower. It’ll advise you to buy now or wait accordingly. Our only issue with the app is that it is a bit slow and forgets to send you notifications when things happen. We’re hoping this means it is searching every available place for a great deal!

How far in advance should you book your flights? If you pose that question to Google you’ll get loads of studies and analytics that promise if you buy x number of days early, you’ll be getting the best deal. The truth is, there is no way to absolutely know when the best time to buy your flights is. Studies give a general trend of prices, but airlines randomly give promotional fares and discounts, or the economy in the country you are going to tanks, and suddenly flight prices are way lower than when you bought your tickets.

It’s not an exact science

According to Forbes, the best time to buy is dependent on season. For winter flights, they suggest 62 days in advance, for spring it is 90, for summer the magic number is 47 and for fall, look at 69 days in advance of your flight date. Other sources also agree it varies by season, but give different numbers. Smarter Travel claims it’s 54 days, period. Cheapair.com did an extensive study and found the worst thing you can do is buy last-minute flights, starting two weeks before take off. Flying “standby” with cheap tickets is a thing of the past.

Overall, use the advice you’re given as guidelines, but don’t go into the game blind: do your own research via search engines. Buying 43 days in advance instead of 47 may save you one hundred or more dollars.

Hidden fees

Airplane
Airline fees can come in the form of choosing seats, entertainment, food, baggage and more.

The “hidden fees” that airlines tack onto seemingly low-priced tickets are air travelers’ biggest complaint. Hidden fees are where an airline advertises a low-cost ticket, but then adds lots of extra fees, possibly making your flight more expensive than the pricier tickets you were trying to avoid.

Airlines know most consumers don’t look at the fine print, and that’s where they hide these fees. That Spirit Airlines ticket you bought at a huge discount may add a $50 checked luggage fee per leg. This means if you have two layovers that’s $150 down the drain each way. Hidden fees are currently becoming worse: some airlines now charge even more for carry-on luggage while reducing the carry-on size restraints.

Another despicable fee they like to tack on? Checking-in. While some budget carriers say you can do it online, their apps sometimes don’t like to work and we’ve been left forced to pay many times, for the simple printing of a boarding pass. The Mexican budget airline VivaAerobus charges $12 to print your boarding pass at the counter, so if you have access to a printer, it’s worth printing that pass in advance. Other fees include choosing your seat, cups of water, customer service and, more recently, Ryanair suggested charging for use of toilets on board the plane.

Interestingly, some of these practices are illegal in many countries and it’s only recently that class-action lawsuits are taking off to bring a bit of justice in the air. Regardless, you should read our Ultimate Packing Guide so you know how to best avoid those nasty fees.

Booking method fees

Some airlines even charge for how you book. According to The Jet Setter’s Guide, Allegiant charges a processing fee up to $8 for credit card purchases and a $13 “electronic carrier usage charge” for tickets purchased outside of an airport’s ticket office. With United Airlines, if your carry-on is an inch larger than the required size, you’ll pay a fee to check your bag plus pay a $25 service fee.

As for buying a flight with points or miles, that “free flight” will probably have fuel and airline charges tacked on that you have to pay extra. Generally, We have to pay $9-$20 extra in fees on top of our reward tickets, although we have heard of people paying much more. Continental and Delta charge $75 for using miles to buy flights within three and 22 days of the flight, respectively, according to Airfare Watchdog.

So…

So what should you do to avoid some of the fees? Unfortunately, you’ll have to let go of some comfort. Depending on the airline, you may have to forego food, drinks, technology (Netflix now works offline!) and choosing your seat in advance. Some fees like fuel surcharges are unavoidable, although Southwest doesn’t charge an extra fuel surcharge, and Jetblue doesn’t charge fees for using miles, according to Money Crashers.

Pack light, and pay for any baggage at the time of purchase, not at the airport, as baggage fees may double or triple when you pay on the spot. Some airlines like to do the opposite so take your time researching!

Know your plans

Also, be absolutely positive you are booking the correct flight date. Where airlines used to all issue refunds or no fee for flights changed within 24 hours, now many airlines are more strict. No, the law hasn’t changed, they are still required to do it for any transaction occurring on U.S. soil. Let’s just say the right lobbyists filled the law with loopholes and more than ever, a feeling of injustice looms over air travel.

Once you buy the flight, you’ll be charged to change or cancel, even if it’s minutes after you book, if you don’t book directly from the airline’s site. We never buy refundable flights because they are so much more expensive, but if your plans are tenuous you may consider this. We once bought tickets to Iraq five months in advance, but a few weeks before our flights were due to depart, a travel ban on all flights into Erbil prevented us from going. In this case, we were able to get a refund, thankfully.

Bottom line? You won’t be able to avoid all the fees, but do your research and read the fine print before booking. Also, check out passenger reviews. Airlines aren’t your enemy, you just have to be savvy to their game. Print your boarding pass in advance, bring some snacks, and make sure your bags are the right size. By planning well in advance you could save hundreds of dollars in added fees.

How to use credit cards to get free flights

airline board
More often than not, airlines will let you pay for flights with credit card reward miles or points.

Credit card churning is an essential part of travel hacking. This is when you get a credit card that offers a good sign up bonus, get the bonus, cancel the card before the annual fee creeps up, and do it all over again with a different card. The bonuses are generally things like, get 30,000 bonus miles when you spend $3000 in the first 90 days. Cards often raise or lower their bonuses, so it’s best to be patient for the card you want to become a great deal rather than just good.

For example, last year I had seen the Delta Gold Skymiles card with a 60,000 mile bonus for spending $3000 in three months. By the time I was ready to apply for it, the bonus had gone down to 30,000 miles. I’d much rather have the 60k! So I waited a while and within a month, Delta was offering their enhanced bonus again. That extra 30,000 could be the difference between a domestic one way and a roundtrip international flight!

Sounds too good to be true? Truth is, it is really good and you’re better off in the game than left out. We routinely use these points to fly for free, add extra destinations to our extended travels, and visit destinations we otherwise couldn’t afford.

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Which credit card to get for travel hacking

So, which is the best travel credit card to get? It varies, based on what you want and what bonuses banks or programs are offering at the moment. Check out The Points Guy, Nerdwallet and creditcards.com for up to date info.

Basic principles to get free flights from credit cards

  • Keep the machine going. One bonus reached? NEXT CARD. Don’t pause, keep going. This way, you’re maxing the flow of travel points.
  • Keep in mind that there is a limit to the number of cards you have before your credit starts to be affected. In general, don’t have more than 5-6 cards per year.
  • It’s almost never to your advantage to buy miles, no matter how tempting programs make it seem.
  • Never pay an annual fee. Get cards that have the fee waived for the first year, and then cancel them before the fee activates.
  • Put every little expense on your card, that way no dollar is wasted.
  • But this is Dirt Cheap Travel Guide. We’ll assume that, like us, you don’t easily spend $3000 in three months. Get friends and family to help! Know somebody who’s doing some house improvement? Ask them to put the expense on your card. Just give them a big hug afterward.

Keep track of your cards and miles. When you have several cards, it can be tricky to remember when to cancel or use them. Forgetting to cancel one before the fee kicks in can seriously hamper your rewards value. We have heard a lot of good things about Award Wallet, which keeps track of your miles for free, although we personally just use Excel. Creating a simple Excel spreadsheet is the best option we have found for keeping track of our miles. It’s thorough, simple and free! This way, no surprise fees ever and free flights forever.

The main takeaway

airplane taking off
An airplane takes off into the sunset.

Finding cheap flights can be a big job before your vacation. You have to research, monitor and ultimately take a gamble on the hope that you’re getting the best deal possible. Thankfully search engines, programs, and helpful sites make your job a lot easier.

As people who travel on a tight budget, flights are often the most expensive part of our adventures abroad. We are always searching for better ways to find cheap flights because the system constantly changes.

Airline trends change, fees appear where things used to be free, and we periodically see airlines excel or go downhill in value. Lawsuits happen, sales come up, economies go down… there are thousands of tiny events that change the airline world, and it’s hard to stay in the know, but we try!

Do you have additional advice on scoring cheap flights? Have you tried our methods? Let us know in the comments below! We’re constantly updating our articles to give you the most accurate info possible but we appreciate your own insight!

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How to Find Cheap Flights in 2019




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