Budget Travel Tips For Booking Cheap Airfare

Updated: Nov 28

If there's one thing every traveler has in common it's that we all want to pay less for airfare!


This isn't to say I've never paid up for a better seat, departure time or preferred airline. But all else equal, we're all looking for ways to get the sticker price down on a flight to that dream destination!


Airplane on runway with sunny skies

Much of the allure of saving on airfare comes from that fact that we all know it can be done. We've all heard stories about people getting international flights to exotic destinations on the cheap, but actually finding these deals requires a little bit of effort.


Sadly, the major airlines aren't going around handing out super discounted flights to people!


That's where this guide comes in.


I'm going to highlight some of the tips and tricks I use to get the best possible price on my flights. No matter your travel budget, paying less for flights lets you travel more. It's a no brainer.


So without further ado, let's jump into it!


You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!

 

Be Flexible on Dates


Being flexible with dates is one of the best ways to save on airfare. Sometimes adjusting your departure or return dates by even just a day can save you hundreds of dollars.


If you're serious about saving on airfare you need to enter trip planning with a little (or a lot) of wiggle room on dates.


Looking outside a plane window

You'll find some airlines only offer certain flight times on different (but not all) days. Not only can you end up saving some serious coin, you can end up with more preferable flight times!


Visit During Shoulder Season


This tip is less about being flexible on dates and more about determining the most budget friendly time of year to visit a particular destination.


When there's less demand for flights you'll find more opportunities for saving on airfare.


A nice thing about booking with this mindset is you'll usually save on hotel accommodations as well! Booking travel during shoulder season is one of the best ways to lower travel expenses.



Be careful however. Depending on the destination and what type of activities you want to do, the season could cause some areas to be closed. Visiting certain mountain towns in the summer can make for beautiful hiking weather, but the ski slopes are likely to be closed.


These examples are more obvious, but when it comes to the Spring and Fall the answer may be less clear.


Be Willing to Fly at Less Appealing Times


I'll be honest, the more I travel the less willing I am to utilize this strategy.


When planning an upcoming trip to Guatemala the absolute cheapest cash pay return flights left Guatemala City at like 2:00am. Nope. Not worth it to me!


Luckily, we stumbled into some better flight times for dirt cheap when scanning nearby dates for reward points on Delta.


While this is one of my least favorite personal tools, that's not to say it isn't effective.


Photo of arrival board at an airport

In the cutthroat world of saving on airfare tough decisions must be made! Don't let that crappy 6:00am departure keep you from your bucket list trip!


Don't forget how these oddball departure or arrival times will affect your logistics getting to the airport.


Will you need to book your hotel an extra night to make that 2:00am departure? What about rush hour traffic? Should you book transportation ahead of time if you're heading to the airport at 4:00am in a country you've never visited before?


Airport logistics are important and can really dictate the flow of your first and last day on vacation.


Utilize an Airline Credit Card


This is a no brainer. Everyone who is serious about saving on airfare should have at least one airline credit card at their disposal. But remember, these usually carry an annual fee. So unless you're traveling very frequently it may be hard to justify having more than one.


You can usually recoup the annual fee via free checked bags after traveling once or twice with that airline.


If you're not someone who typically needs to check a bag, factor that into your card decision. Naturally I would suggest picking an airline that you fly frequently with adequate flight options departing your nearest airport.


From there it's all about the perks. Perks perks perks.


Miles earned from spending, signup bonuses, lounge passes, buddy passes, upgrades, all the frills that help make flying a little bit more enjoyable. If you pay your bill every month you should come out nicely ahead on these perks, especially if you're using it as your every day card to earn miles.



If you're someone who likes to have a light meal or drink before your flight the lounge passes that some airline credit cards offer are extra gravy.


Airport food and booze are expensive, let the airline pick up your tab!


Keep an Eye Out For Reward Point Deals


This option is best utilized in conjunction with staying flexible on your dates. I alluded to a Guatemala flight earlier where we ended up realizing all of the really cheap flights involved flying at some of the worst departure times I've ever seen.


We thought about just pulling the trigger on some more expensive cash flights since we weren't getting the value on point redemptions we thought we should.


Just before pulling the trigger we decided to flex our dates around (+/- 1 day on the front and back end).


Voila! It was like magic. By shifting our trip by 1 day suddenly we had dipped into some heavily discounted reward flights. I ended up booking two roundtrip tickets on Delta Comfort+ for 33k points each.


I couldn't believe it! Much better than the $700 or more we would have spent on each ticket going the cash route.


Those tickets would've been slightly cheaper if I hadn't upgraded to Comfort+ but I felt like the flight was lengthy enough and the upgrade was cheap enough to grab it on this occasion.


If you have some points handy AND can be flexible on dates, you can find some really opportunistic flight deals!


Signup For Airline Loyalty Programs


Start building clout with the airlines as soon as you can. As you fly with each airline for the first time be sure to create an account and sign-up for their loyalty programs - it's free!


Ticket counter at airport

While it can be difficult to passively generate miles without an airline branded credit card, the flights you book can still rack up some serious airline miles.


Think of these loyalty programs as airfare piggy banks. Unless you're a power traveler, it will probably take some time to accumulate enough points for a free flight. Be patient, but don't miss out on free miles.


Scan Google Flights


This tip works best if you're searching on a desktop computer. The Google Flights page works slightly differently on a mobile device.


This tool allows you to either pick specific dates, or more flexible options like "1-week trip in the upcoming 3 months" to scan flight prices on a map.


The easy to use interface is really what makes this tool so powerful. Set your departing airport and you can quickly scan flight prices to destinations, literally, all over the world.


This can be especially useful when trying to travel to a geographic region, where you're flexible on the specific destination.


Planning a beach vacation? Why not quickly scan through flights to every major destination in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean at the same time.


What about a trip to Europe? Getting from North America to Europe is usually the most expensive part. Once you're there hopping around by plane or train is relatively inexpensive.


Using this tool could help you locate the cheapest port of entry for reaching a different continent!


Once you've identified a flight be sure to check rates across other platforms such as Booking.com to ensure you get the best price!


Setup Flight Tracker Alerts


This tip is all about taking the headache out of manually tracking flights. Instead of constantly going back and refreshing the same flights over and over and over again, just setup an alert!


Google Flights is great for this. The further out you're planning the more effective this tool can be.


Full flight from passenger seat on plane

It can be helpful to get a feel for what a particular route normally costs when setting up this alert. Check some flights prices in the weeks preceding and after your ideal date. Some flights are seasonally more expensive so keep that in mind.


Comparing summer prices to winter prices can be a moot point depending on where you're headed.


Check Cheap Flights XYZ


Some people swear by these websites. The ones where you hear stories of people finding incredible deals like $99 roundtrip flights to Europe or some exotics beach destination.


A popular cheap flight finder is Scott's Cheap Flights and another is CheapOAir.


I must say I like the interface on Scott's Cheap Flights (clean, easy to navigate).


Once you've created an account you'll be asked for things like your home airport, other airports to follow and what type of deals you're after.



This is one way to setup flight tracker alerts, since they'll be sending you deals related to places you'd like to visit. The key here is flexibility. If you're tracking multiple destinations, across multiple airports without a specific time you'll need to be flexible to capitalize on these deals.


Drive to Nearby Airports


Searching for departures at nearby airports can be a great way to save on airfare depending on where you're geographically located.


Living in Cincinnati I have quite a few options within a two hour drive (Dayton, Columbus, Indianapolis, Lexington, Louisville). If flight prices out of your home airport look elevated, be sure to consider nearby options.


While there might be hidden costs here (like fuel or differences in parking) the real tradeoff is time. It may be difficult to justify saving $50 bucks if it requires 4 hours of driving roundtrip.


The longer the flight, the bigger the price difference and the more people you have traveling in your group the more appealing this option becomes. If we're talking about $75 of price difference per ticket for a family of four, it might be worth the inconvenience factor!


Lay Over For the Evening


Flying direct to your final destination is great, but it isn't always an option. Layovers are often unavoidable.


While layovers are USUALLY an inconvenience, sometimes you can use them to your advantage. This is especially true with overnight layovers. I'm not necessarily suggesting you sleep on a bench in airport (sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do).



But, if you can pair a cheap hotel (perhaps a reward night) with an overnight layover you can end up saving some serious coin on flights.


Why is this a thing? Chances are you're getting in to your layover city on less appealing, late arrival. You're also probably leaving super early in the morning, again, on a less appealing departure time.


Empty seats in an airport

You save in this scenario because you're taking flights that aren't in high demand. If it makes sense logistically, you could spend a day (or two!) in the connecting city to check out somewhere extra on your travels. We just turned an unfortunate layover into a bonus stop that can help you save!


Book Separate Tickets


To be clear this tip refers to booking separate ONE WAY tickets. This isn't suggesting you book your CONNECTING flights on separate airlines.


When booking your one-way tickets (with a connection) on the same airline, that airline is responsible for seeing your checked bags through to the final destination and ensuring you get there.


For flights delayed or cancelled on a single reservation, that same airline is responsible for getting you booked on a subsequent flight.


If I try flying to Atlanta on a discount carrier, and then book a separate ticket from Atlanta to my final destination on Delta, I would run the risk of that first flight being delayed or cancelled. At that point I'd be S.O.L. when it comes to boarding my Delta flight on time.



I'd be on the hook for any change fees to push the Delta connection back! And those are usually not cheap.


Additionally I'd be responsible for getting my checked bag off that Frontier flight and checked on towards my final destination. When booking separate one-way tickets, you won't have this issue.


Sometimes flying out on one airline and back home on a different one can save you some serious moolah! It can be a bit more labor intensive to check whether it's cheaper to book a round trip ticket or separate ones, but this is the tradeoff.


This can be applied to a single airline as well. You can book your outbound tickets today and try booking your return tickets a month later in hopes the prices on the return leg will be cheaper down the road.


Just be mindful that this last strategy can go against you as well.


Keep an Eye Out for Airline Route Sales


Ever see those e-mails, mostly from discount carriers, touting super cheap one way routes to certain destinations?


That is the bread and butter of this tip. If you subscribe to airline e-mail distributions these will be delivered directly to your virtual front door!


The biggest thing when it comes to route sales is you'll generally need to be flexible. The cities are specific and the dates are limited.


A lot of times these come from discount airlines where you'll also need to pay for carry on or checked bags as well. Be sure to factor that into the cost, since it can add up and vary widely by traveler.


Have a Preferred Airline


There is definitely value to earning status with an airline. Even a Delta Silver Medallion Skymiles Member (their lowest tier) can expect frequent upgrades.


Photo of Delta aircraft about to takeoff

But even for those of us traveling on a monthly basis, it can be difficult to earn status with any given airline paying for flights alone.


For starters - you probably won't be able to, or want to fly the same airline every time. This can make it difficult to accumulate enough mileage for a status upgrade in a given year.


Be strategic about your choice of airline credit card, especially if you only plan to keep one card in your wallet. The American Express Delta Platinum card offers a great way to generate extra miles and status with the big dogs like Delta!


But Don't be Too Airline Loyal


Be strategic about having a preferred airline that you hope to achieve status with. It's a nice perk to have, but unless you're traveling frequently it could be hard to justify paying up just to 'maybe' receive an upgrade.


Even though I prefer to fly Delta, when it makes sense, I always explore my options. Your preferred airline should be the default option only when prices are comparable. After all, we're here to save on airfare!


Check Multiple Sources Before Booking


There are an endless number of places you can actually book your airfare.


For starters, you can always do so directly with the airline. Sometimes this is the best way to gain points and ensure certain credit card perks like trip insurance are included on your ticket purchase.


You can also book via Google Flights, credit card travel booking sites, discount airfare sites like CheapOAir or general travel providers such as Booking.com. Even if you think you've found a good deal through one of these avenues, it's wise to shop your rate elsewhere.


Frontier flight at airport gate

Different websites may advertise different prices for the same flight. Don't forget to double check prices across service providers before pulling the trigger to ensure you get the best rate.


Don't sit on that great deal too long though. Flight prices can fluctuate frequently!


Transfer Points From Other Reward Programs


Some point programs, especially the generic credit card ones, will offer you the ability to transfer your points to and from different brands.


This is a great way to back door some extra airline miles into your favorite airline loyalty program. For example, American Express offers you the ability to transfer Amex points into the Delta SkyMiles program.


You'll need to do some research though if you want to maximize value from these points.


Recall that I suggested you check multiple sources before pulling the trigger and booking your flight. Amex and other credit card programs will usually let you book flights within their programs using those same points.



Since costs and point valuations can fluctuate across loyalty programs, you should identify the flight and total cost BEFORE transferring over your points.


Sometimes it will make sense to leave them in the credit card program. Sometimes it will make sense to transfer them over. An underlying theme on a lot of these tips is you still have to do your homework and be flexible to maximize value!


Fly Into a Nearby City


Most people are more likely to think about departing from a nearby airport than they are flying into one near their final destination.


This makes sense if you think about it - most people are familiar with the cities and airports in their surrounding region, but don't always know as much about the entire region they're visiting. As opposed to the specific destination city.


Looking out an airplane window during taxi

Listen, extra logistics suck, I get it. But if you're looking for a deal this can be a great way slash your airfare costs. This can be an especially powerful tool if you're already planning to rent a car. Chances are the airport that is cheaper to fly into will also have cheaper car rental options.


If you aren't planning to rent a car you can often find buses or trains between major cities. Uber or a Taxi can be an option in a pinch, but that cost might offset a good chunk of what you're otherwise saving on airfare!


Track Your Flight Further in Advance


This is a really useful strategy that everyone should be employing. It's also easy.


Don't wait until the last minute to book your flight! You're usually going to have fewer options and you're likely going to pay more.



The further out you start tracking and researching flights the more chances you'll have to save. As soon as you're set on a destination (or have a set weekend, with flexible destinations) you should be tracking flights.


If you're tracking flights further in advance, you can really leverage some of the tips we discuss here. Set up tracking notices from your closest departing airports to your final destination, along with any nearby alternatives.


Pay For Bags Ahead of Time


Some airlines charge different amounts depending on when you declare what your check and carry on luggage will be. Usually the discount airlines are the only ones charging for carry on bags, which is something you need to be extra mindful of when booking those super low advertised fares.


Baggage size tool at airport

Bags can add up, especially since you have to get those bags to your destination and back. Do your best to plan how much luggage you'll need to bring in advance and pay ahead of time.


Airlines typically charge the highest amount if you wait to declare your bags until you reach the airport. You'll generally get the best rate when booking your tickets, or at least ahead of your departure date.


Pack Less


This tip can really be interpreted a few ways.


You can outright pack less stuff! If you only need a carry on this will save you from needing a checked bag.


Some airlines include a carry on free of charge, while discount airlines will generally charge.


Optimizing your luggage is a great way to cut back on airline fees.


Traveling with multiple people? Be strategic and you can combine belongings into a single checked bag.


Does everyone need to bring their own bottle of sunscreen to the beach? Four bottles of bug spray for camping trip? Less is more!



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