The Only 3 Real Ways To Find Cheap Flights

The Only 3 Real Ways To Find Cheap Flights

Last Updated on September 11, 2020

There are so many articles on ways to find cheap flights that it is a task in itself to sort through and figure out what works and what’s just written as filler so they can add another 3, 5 or 38 ways onto a list. Here are few examples that make me roll my eyes.


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About Me

Kien Lam  

I'm Kien, an international photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. After quitting my job in finance, I've traveled to over 70 countries in the last 10 years finding the coolest experiences to check off my bucket list. I hope to help you find your inspiration with my photography and tips to travel the world.

  1. Don’t Always Fly Non-Stop. Really? You mean I can save money if I choose a less convenient flight that requires a layover somewhere?
  2. Use Budget Airlines. Thank you Captain Obvious and I’m not talking about the Captain Obvious from the Hotels.com commercials. But really, did you know that you can save money if you use a budget airline option?

Why Cheap Flights Don’t Apply To You?

I’m an international photographer and filmmaker. To do my job, I have to fly around the world and unless a company is flying me on their dime, every single flight comes out of my pocket. It is in my best interest to find the cheapest flight. I’m signed up for those cheap flight mailing lists and I get facebook posts about cheap flights almost everyday. The truth is, I ignore them 98.9% of the time because unless you are really have no plans and will fly anywhere that has a cheaper than usual flight at a specific time, those deals won’t apply to you.

Sometimes they do, but I like to buy things when I’m ready to buy things. It’s the same as buying things just because they are on sale. You might be saving money on that item IF you were already planning on buying it. If you weren’t, you didn’t save $50 off $100 – you just $50.

Occasionally, there will be some post about error flights. Those are indeed super cheap, but again, unless you can just willy-nilly pick up and fly to that specific place at a specific time, it won’t apply to you. And by the time you get it it, the deals are already gone or the airlines won’t honor the deal.

So the trick behind finding cheap flights is that there is no trick. Whether it’s you or someone else doing the leg work, it takes work to save money and it’s time consuming. Luckily, what you save is usually worth the time spent on researching your options. Once you know what you’re doing, it gets a lot easier.

These are the legitimate ways I find cheap flights for myself and my friends and family.

View from airplane window

Finding Cheap Flights Tip# 1: Research, Research, Research

Finding cheap flights is a combination of knowing where to look and hoping that your travel plans align with whatever deals happens to already be available. That’s the gist of it. You can do all the research you want, but if you need to get from Managua to Big Corn Island in Nicaragua on a September 25, you’re limited to a handful of flights provided by La Costena on that date.

On the other hand, if you are flexible, the research takes more time, but you can find the best price/time combination to get you to your destination using readily available online services like Matrix by ITA Software, Skyscanner’s Everywhere Search, and Kayak’s Travel Hacker.

The Matrix by ITA Software is a very powerful and intimidating-looking site where you can find and filter for a combination of different flights. It’s pretty easy to use, but difficult to master. Upgraded Points provides an excellent and in-depth guide on using the software, including more advanced searches with airline routing codes. I would skip this one if you aren’t interested in meticulously finding multiple legs of flight codes and playing around with a bunch of different date and route combinations

Screenshot of Matrix by ITA Software

Expert Tip: Skyscanner is a search engine that collects information about flights across different travel search providers and gives you some of the best live prices for flights. I highly recommend using this site, but if a fare looks too good to be true, double check. After you’ve found a flight, Skyscanner provides several options to book that flight. Sometimes, I will see one option that will be drastically different from the others. In theory, most of the sites should be similar depending on whether they charge a service fee or not. Some of these end providers might have rules in their fine prints that you may or may not be ok with. Read this fine print before you book. I’ve definitely paid a few dollars more to go with a trusted site that I’ve used in the past.

For me, I don’t really mind. This is where I start my research and the first thing I do use the option to “see calendar of lowest fares” to search for different combinations of return and one way fares. I search for a couple of different months out to see the range of prices for this particular route.

Kayak’s Travel Hacker page is another great resource especially if your plans are open. Using their data, they’ve compiled lists after lists about the best time to fly to certain locations, as well as price ranges so you know if you’re looking at a good deal.

For 90% of my searches, I actually start in reverse and look at Skyscanner first. One way or another I’ll end up here since I can’t book my flight on the Matrix software anyway. It’s just a way to narrow down what to search for on sites like Skyscanner. I like the option to be able to search for a whole month’s worth of prices. More often than note, there will be a a bunch of prices that are similar, and then one or two dates where it drops significantly.

This gives me a good starting point to see if there are certain days of the week that that particular flight is lower for. Usually, it means that there’s a couple of carriers that are operated limited flights per week. Continuing on will show me a bunch of options. I compare this side by side with another date that’s more expensive to see if the cheaper flights are actually worthwhile. Sometimes it’s a 40 hour flight with 3 connections that leaves you at an airport in China for 16 hours.

By now I have a pretty good idea for what I think is a good price. Saving a bit more is nice, but I’m not greedy. Good prices can go up, so I will book if I like the price. That’s probably one of the best bits of advice I can give you.

On Skyscanner, I also like the option of just putting “Everywhere” into my destination to get an idea of what the low prices are for different locations. I do this when I have no plans and just want to see if there’s somewhere new…or familiar, that I want to visit.

Skyscanner Screenshot

Finding Cheap Flights Tip #2: Different Sites Offer Different Prices

Have you heard of Vayama? Fareboom? Ovago? GotoGate? MyTrip?

These are just a handful of the different buying options when you go to purchase a ticket on a site like Skyscanner. It’s a little strange the same flight can have a huge difference in price options. Incredibly, I’ve had a high rate of success with these cheaper flights. But I’ve also had my share of frustration when I go to book a cheap flight and then either get no confirmation of a purchase or the price changes at the last minute. Let me try to explain.

These Online Travel Agencies (“OTAs”) all fall under a similar category as Expedia. Skyscanner will list a bunch of different OTA buying options, even though sometimes they are the seller, or have a partner that buys and sells you the ticket. The behind the scenes is a bit more complicated to understand. In any case, they have backend deals with airlines that effectively give them “options” to buy tickets from an airline’s inventory at a certain price. These prices fluctuate all the time, so their agreement fluctuates as well. Sometimes though, different OTAs will have different timeframes and agreements on their prices. In these cases, one OTA might still have access to a cheaper flight that the other one doesn’t. They are effectively buying the ticket from the airline when you are buying the ticket from them. It’s supposed to work in real time, but sometimes prices change just as you are buying and you’ll only find out just before paying.

OTA-Vayama-Scam-Not-Chart

Still, in general, they are legitimately cheaper. In fact, a lot of the times, it’s cheaper than buying direct. So what’s the catch?

It’s all in the fine prints. There are a lot of rights that you give up when you purchase your ticket through these sites. Sometimes you lose the right to cancel within 24 hours. Sometimes you pay a lot more for any changes, including small typos like the wrong letter in a name. Their customer service lines are usually non-existent. They have a lower margin of operating loss error, so many have gone bankrupt during the 2020 pandemic leaving the customer SOL. Bigger OTAs like Expedia have their own rules that differ from the airlines, so they are similar to the smaller OTAs in that way. The difference is the amount of money they’ve spent on their brand to build trust. They spend money on their customer service teams to resolve problems in a timely manner. You don’t get this with some of the smaller ones.

The bottom line is this: when everything goes right, you won’t have a problem with most of these names that you’ve never heard of. I’ve booked through Vayama now at least 10 times and I’ve never had a problem. It might take a while to get a confirmation and sometimes I don’t have an option to buy luggage until I’m at an airport, but usually not a big problem. The same goes for a few of these other guys. However, I have had friends who wanted to change a ticket and found that it would cost twice as much as the ticket itself to make a change. They ultimately forfeited their tickets. You just need to read the fine print.

Finding Cheap Flights Tip #3: Fly When Others Cannot

Some people believe that the day of the week you book a flight will determine the price. There is NO basis to this. Prices will change for any number of reasons, and sticking to a fixed rule like only book on a Tuesday does not guarantee the best prices. However, flying out on a Tuesday does seem to return some of the better fares.

It’s all supply and demand. Think about when most people CAN and WANT to fly. If you are going somewhere for the weekend, you want to get out as soon as you can on a Friday. Flights from 2 pm to 10 pm on that day will be in high demand. The same with the return flight. If I’m popping into Vegas for the weekend, I’ll probably try to fly out as late as possible on Sunday or as early as possible on Monday morning.

When I fly, I try to avoid flying when most other people fly. That means flying on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. I usually start my search with these dates. It’s not always the cheapest as some airlines and routes only fly on certain days. Holidays will affect this as well.

The time of day will also determine the fare. If you’re on a heavy commuter route, early morning and late afternoon flights will generally cost more. Consider a contrarian view on a flying and travel when others cannot.

Bottom Line: I personally Tuesday and Saturday to be the best days to fly for the cheaper flights. It’s not always the case, but it’s always a good starting point when you’re searching.

I Lied…Do Sign Up For Those Flight Deal Mailing Lists

I know what I said earlier, but it doesn’t hurt to spend 5 sections scanning these emails every once in a while to see if anything catches my eyes. Most of the time I’m not interested in a random alert for $300 flight to Toronto for a $450 to Paris, but sometimes I might be.

There are people and companies out there who dedicate all their time to scan through and look for the best flight deals and pricing errors. And you can sign up for their free mailing list to get daily alerts on all these deals they find. If you’re a spontaneous traveler, this is perfect for you. The thing is, they don’t really give you the best deals. Those are reserved for their paid mailing list. I’ve never seen the point of paying for one because I don’t fly to random locations as often as I would like to think I do. Usually there’s a specific range of dates where I need to go somewhere and my entry/exit rarely aligns with some of these ultra specific deals that saves you $50 bucks.

I hate mailing lists, but here’s two that I recommend if you want to give it a shot.

Scott’s Cheap Flights. This is pretty straight forward. There’s a guy named Scott and he finds cheap flights. Some of these are sales, and some are pricing errors, so he’ll also let you know how long he thinks the deal will last. If you are flexible, you can take advantage of some pretty massive discounts, which in turn means you can afford more mango smoothies and massages.

TravelPirates. Arg! These guys will send you a compiled list every few days of travel deals. They also include deals on accommodations, so that might save you some time on researching there. There newsletter is pretty to look and they have a search engine that allows you to look up search for a specific date on these deals.

If you don’t mind more potential junk mail, subscribe to your favorite airline’s mailing list. This is one of the more useful options.

You’ll get a lot pitchy deals that are irrelevant sometimes, but sometimes you’ll get notified of sales that you can actually use. This happened recently with Southwest and I booked two separate flights to LA for $35 each. Airlines will also know your airports that you fly into and out of regularly, so the deals are a little more targeted.

Note: There are Facebook pages that show some of these deals, but with their algorithm, you’re either going to see only a few posts or you can choose to see every post and flood your feed with flight deals. It just doesn’t work, unless you click on these deals everyday and indicate to Facebook that you’re interested.

And That’s All She Wrote

Really. The cat’s out of the bag. I hope you found some of this useful and can get some good deals for the next time you travel. Subscribe to my mailing list if you’d like. It’s on the left side of the screen, just a few scrolls up. I don’t have any regularity to when and what I send, but if something is relevant and useful, I’d like to share it with you guys. If you need some travel ideas and inspiration, jump to my Bucket List and see if anything cool jumps out at you.

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