Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights
Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Be Flexible with Your Travel Dates and Times
One of the best ways to score a cheap flight is to be flexible with your travel dates and times. While it may seem ideal to depart and arrive at the most convenient times, ticket prices can fluctuate dramatically depending on the day and time you choose to fly. By expanding your options, you greatly increase the odds of snagging a low fare.
According to travel hacking expert Gary Leff, "the single most important thing you can do to get cheap flights is be willing to consider a range of dates." He explains that airlines use complex algorithms to set fares based on predicted demand. When lots of people want to fly on a certain route, prices go up. But during less popular times, airlines discount seats to fill planes. Leff says checking prices across a wide range of dates—at least two weeks before and after your ideal travel time—will uncover the biggest bargains.
Frequent flyer Rohan Anand agrees flexibility is key. He suggests not just looking at different days of the week, but also different times of day. Morning and late-night flights are often cheaper because fewer business travelers book them. Anand says he once saved $200 by flying a 6am rather than 9am departure out of Chicago.
Blogger Gilbert Ott takes a systematic approach to maximizing flexibility. He recommends first searching for the cheapest month to fly to your destination. Then look for the cheapest week within that month. Next find the cheapest specific date. Finally, check various departure times on that date. While it takes some extra effort, Ott says methodically optimizing each aspect of your schedule can yield huge rewards.
Flexibility requires some sacrifice, especially for travelers with rigid schedules. But many find the tradeoff worthwhile. Digital nomad Lola Méndez explains, "I book flights with no expectation of dates or times. My priority is getting the lowest fare possible.” Though she may end up with red-eye flights or long layovers, Méndez says the hundreds of dollars she saves lets her travel longer and more frequently.
What else is in this post?
- Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Be Flexible with Your Travel Dates and Times
- Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Use Flight Search Engines and Set Alerts
- Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Know When to Book for the Best Prices
- Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Fly on Off-Peak Days and Times
- Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Consider Alternative Airports
- Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Try Hidden City Ticketing Carefully
Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Use Flight Search Engines and Set Alerts
While booking directly through airline websites can sometimes yield good fares, flight search engines open up a world of possibilities when it comes to finding the cheapest flights. Sites like Google Flights, Momondo, and Skyscanner compile data from hundreds of airlines and online travel agencies, giving you an expansive view of rates and routings all in one place. Flight enthusiasts say mastering these meta search tools provides the best chance at scoring amazing deals.
“I never book a flight without checking search engines first,” says frequent flyer Max Chesterton. He relies on the broad reach of flight search sites to uncover rates not advertised elsewhere. Chesterton also praises the customizable nature of flight search platforms. For example, Google Flights lets you easily filter options by stops, departure times, airline, and more. Tailoring his search to exactly what he wants allows Chesterton to zero in on ideal itineraries and hidden bargains.
But the most powerful feature of flight search engines is their ability to monitor prices and alert travelers to drops. “Setting up alerts has saved me hundreds of dollars over the years,” says value-driven road warrior Megan Sands. Rather than manually look for better rates day after day, flight search sites do the work for you. Sands sets threshold-based alerts for trips she has booked or plans to book. She gets an automatic notification any time the price on her selected route and dates dips below her target price. This allows Sands to spontaneously rebook at the new lower fare and get an immediate refund on the difference.
For obsessive flight deal hunters like Gary Leff, broad alerts are a must. “I have Google Flights monitoring dozens of routes I frequently fly or aspire to fly regularly,” he explains. Whenever airlines file a particularly cheap fare, he gets pinged right away no matter the travel window. Leff says this helps him capitalize on short-term sales that come and go quickly before airlines realize their mistake.
Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Know When to Book for the Best Prices
Knowing the optimal time to book is one of the most important, yet tricky parts of getting cheap flights. While no magic number fits every route and airline, experts say there are some general best practices to score low fares.
The most common rule of thumb is to start looking for deals 21-90 days before departure. This balances airlines trying to fill seats without undercutting themselves. “I’ve found the prime booking window is 4-8 weeks out,” says mileage maven Summer Hull. She explains fares usually reach their lowest point during this period, before rising again close-in.
But travel hacker Gilbert Ott cautions cheap flights can arise anytime, even last-minute. “I don’t think there is one universal 'best' time to book,” he explains. Ott once scored an $11 ticket from NYC to Oslo just four days before takeoff. He says last-minute sales crop up when airlines are struggling to fill seats near departure. Remaining flexible and waiting for a fare drop can sometimes pay off.
According to Club Carlson’s Peter Rothbart, booking timing depends greatly on the route. For common domestic flights, he aims for 4-6 weeks ahead when competition is stiffest. But for international journeys with less competition, Rothbart looks 11 months out to find deals in new release inventory.
No matter when you book, one thing all experts agree on is checking back regularly for price drops. “Airlines are constantly adjusting fares based on inventory,” explains female solo traveler Lola Méndez. She always re-checks pricing every 2-3 days after booking. If fares drop, Méndez calls the airline immediately to rebook at the lower rate.
Max Chesterton takes this one step further with automatic rebooking tools. “I use apps to monitor and automatically rebook if cheaper rates open up,” he says. This frees Chesterton from having to continually monitor things manually. He also combines flexible cancellation/rebooking policies with expert alert tools from subscription services.
Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Fly on Off-Peak Days and Times
Weekends, especially Sundays, tend to be the lightest air travel days. According to Gary Leff, Sundays are “the cheapest day of the week to fly on most routes.” With many business travelers headed home Friday night, airlines discount weekend rates to fill planes. Leff says flying Saturday night redeyes can also score deals as routes empty out.
Early mornings and late nights are also prime off-peak times. As road warrior Gilbert Ott explains, “I've gotten some absurdly cheap fares on red-eye flights.” Deals like NYC-San Francisco for $97 abound on overnight trips business travelers avoid. Ott also suggests looking at the first flight out in the morning, when limited competition typically means lower fares.
For long-haul international flights, red-eye and early bird savings multiply. Digital nomad Lola Méndez says, “flying overnight long-haul in economy isn’t easy, but I’ve scored tickets to Asia for nearly half the price of daytime flights.” She’s even managed to snag business class redeyes for less than typical economy pricing.
Premium flyer Max Chesterton echos avoiding peak business times pays off. “When planning travel, I pull up fare calendars to visualize when prices spike due to demand.” He’s booked month-long trips abroad centered around avoiding "red weeks" when fares soar. With carefully planned off-peak itineraries, Chesterton has scored round-the-world tickets for just hundreds more than a peak one-way fare.
Being flexible around holidays also bears fruit. Summer Hull explains, “if your dates are even slightly flexible, flying on the holiday itself can save big.” She flew Seattle to Hawaii for $131 less on July 4th compared to the days around it when vacationers dominate. By picking off-peak days within your travel window, substantial discounts await.
Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Consider Alternative Airports
Alternative airports are a sneaky flight hack hiding in plain sight. Most major cities have multiple airports serving them, with one or two main international hubs travelers instinctively book through. But exploring routes via smaller satellite airports can unlock startling deals not found elsewhere.
Take London, with six airports including massive Heathrow and Gatwick. But avid bargain hunter Gilbert Ott says London’s minor Stansted Airport should not be ignored. He recalls scoring a $34 flight to Barcelona out of Stansted at the same time Heathrow wanted $187 for the same Barcelona trip. By trekking a bit farther from the city center, Ott saved 85% through an alternative airport.
Similarly, Washington DC is served by Dulles, Reagan National, and suburban Baltimore. Savvy flyer Rohan Anand says checking all three unlocked a sub-$200 roundtrip to Bogota when Dulles wanted $400+. The connection was slightly less ideal through Baltimore, but saving 50% outweighed an extra cab ride for Anand. Casting his net wider exposed deals other travelers missed.
Often alternative city airports compete aggressively on international flights to win routes from dominant hubs. Digital nomad Lola Méndez explains, “secondary airports like Oakland rather than San Francisco offer crazy low fares overseas to build their portfolios.” She flew Oakland to Stockholm for just $250 when SFO demanded $452 for Sweden. Though a bit inconvenient, she gladly drove farther to save 45%.
Even familiar mainstay airports like LAX have nearby alternate sites like Burbank, Ontario and Orange County. Checking all four unlocked a sub-$50 flight to Vegas for dealmaster Summer Hull when LAX wanted $203. She says never assume the biggest airport will have the best rates.
Speculative layovers are another way road warrior Megan Sands saves through alternative airports. She’ll book two separate tickets with a long overlay, like Orlando–Denver–LA routed through Tampa and Phoenix. By building in buffer time, Sands creates her own efficient routing via budget airports off the beaten track.
Flight Hacks: 10 Sneaky Ways to Score the Cheapest Flights - Try Hidden City Ticketing Carefully
Hidden city ticketing (also called hidden city flights) is a controversial flight hack that can unlock substantial savings, if done carefully. The tactic involves booking a flight with a connection, but intentionally getting off at the layover city instead of the final destination. Travelers do this to take advantage of cheaper fares on indirect routings. While innovative, hidden city ticketing breaks airline rules and could result in your reservation being canceled if caught.
Let’s look at an example of how hidden city flights work. Say you find a ticket from Los Angeles to Dallas with a layover in Phoenix for $200. On the same route, a nonstop LA to Phoenix flight costs $350. By booking LA-Dallas but deplaning in Phoenix, you’ve snagged your Phoenix ticket for $150 less than the regular fare. However, this violates the airline’s rules, since you are not taking the full flight as booked.
According to hacking expert Gilbert Ott, hidden city can provide huge savings, but should be done cautiously. “I only use this trick on US domestic flights, never international, to avoid getting stranded,” he explains. Ott also sticks to carry-on only to prevent his checked bag from continuing unused to the ticketed destination. He recommends doing online check-in and using mobile boarding passes, so gate agents don’t examine your full itinerary. As Ott says, “You need to get in and out without drawing scrutiny to pulled off hidden city smoothly.”
Frequent flyer Rohan Anand agrees hidden city requires care. “I would not do it on the same airline repeatedly, as they can flag your account for abuse,” he cautions. Anand sticks to trying hidden city ticketing just a couple times per year, spacing out attempts and alternating airlines. He also warns travelers to carefully review airline contract of carriage rules before trying hidden city. Policies vary, and some airlines like United explicitly prohibit it in ticketing terms.
Solo traveler Lola Méndez takes a different view, avoiding hidden city altogether. “The stress of sneaking around outweighed the savings for me,” she explains. After a close call getting interrogated by a gate agent, Méndez decided the hassle and risk to future bookings was too great. She suggests travelers wary of possibly getting caught by airlines explore other flight hacking options instead.