Search engines are getting better and better at showing the cheapest flights possible for your desired trip. But while they are becoming smarter and more efficient, there are still a few tricks that do require a bit of extra human input to save even more money. Here I’ll share some of the tips I use to fly at a fraction of the regular price, but be aware, some of these tips do require a bit of work, research, and patience to find the cheapest possible airfare.
1. Break Up Those Long-haul Flights
If you’re flying somewhere that could require a layover along the way, consider booking both legs separately. For example, if you’re flying from New York to Bangkok, it is possible you’ll have a layover in Dubai – among many other alternative cities. Instead of immediately booking the trip as a single reservation with a layover, search for two separate round trips (or one way, depending on your trip): one from New York to Dubai and one from Dubai to Bangkok.
Usually, search engines try to give you the best flight combinations, and often they focus only on one airline combination. But, with the proliferation of budget airlines that are not always included in search engines, it is often possible to book trips like the one mentioned above with two different budget airlines instead of a single major carrier, for a lower price.
How to know which city you’ll use for your layover? You can do a regular search and see all the airfare options that come up. Write down all the layover cities shown in your results and do a new search for each city on your list (New York-London, New York-Frankfurt, New York-Dubai, etc.). Do this for both legs and see which one combination is the cheapest and most convenient for your trip.
It might help you save time if you visit the departure and destination official site or Wikipedia page to know all the budget airlines that fly to and from each airport. Start your search with the budget ones and move next to the major carriers.
Take into consideration that budget airlines could charge baggage fees not included in the airfare. Additionally, allow more than just a few hours of layover if you’re traveling with two different airlines under two separate reservations. Take into consideration any possible delay, the time it will take you to pick up your bags (if you checked them in), to check in your second leg, and to reach the new gate after passing through security once again. In these cases, it’s good to stay at least one day in your layover and enjoy it!
2. Fly with a Hidden City
This is not a new trick, but more and more people are catching on to it. Sometimes, it is cheaper to fly to your intended destination when it is booked as a layover rather than the final destination. For example, you want to fly from San Juan to Charlotte. It may be cheaper to book a flight from San Juan to New York, with a layover in Charlotte, than a single flight to Charlotte.
But, before you start searching, you must know the following. First, this technique works mostly with one-way flights. Should you book a round trip, once you miss the connecting flight (Charlotte-New York), the rest of your booking (return flight) will be automatically canceled by the airline. For this reason, make sure that the flight you’re missing is only the last flight of your booking.
Second, you can only do this if you’re traveling with carry-on bags only. If you check in your luggage, they will go to the final destination.
Now, how do you find hidden cities? My favorite tool for this is Google’s ITA Matrix. Once you’re in the search engine, input your departure city and date like you normally do. Pick one way or return (only if you’re missing the last leg). Now, for the destination city, you're going to do things a bit different. Instead of writing your destination, you will click "advanced routing codes." Then on the "outbound routing codes" space under the departure city, you will put your intended destination with an "X:" before it. (must be the airport code, X:CLT, for example). Then, write any reasonable destination under "destination" and click the "nearby" link next to it. Then select "within 2000 miles" and check "Select all" at the bottom. Finally, click search to get all the flight options, all with a layover in your intended city. After you see your ideal flight, you must head to the airline's site to book it.
As with everything related to flights, nothing is absolute. Also, check direct flights to your planned city as they may be cheaper on some occasions.
3. Error Fares Happen
This tip is more related to patience, luck, right timing, and flexibility. Airlines publish error fares all the time, but often, these fares only exist for a matter of hours or days. In these cases, once you see an error fare, if you’re sure you want to make that trip, just buy it!
How do you find error fares? There are websites dedicated to hunting and publishing error fares. Among the most popular ones is Secret Flying. They publish the fares from any given departure and destination city combination, and the dates available for each fare. Keep an eye on them and be flexible both on travel times and even destination if you want to save hundreds of dollars on your next trip.
Alternatively, if you’re fixed on a particular destination and time, you can subscribe to the "fare alert" emails several search engines send to alert you whenever the price of your desired route goes down.
As mentioned before, these tips require some work and patience, but they can help you travel for a fraction of the regular price.