Over the last 4 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around 50+ countries. I often get asked how I afford to travel so much. The truth is that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive in this day and age. While how much you spend at a destination depends on multiple factors like the location itself and how boujee and/or crazy you want to get, the actual act of traveling/flying can be dirt-cheap. It can even be free if you are familiar with the concept of “Travel hacking”.
I have spent countless hours researching how to fly for cheap, and have knocked down my methodology for finding the cheapest flights possible down to an exact science. Good news is that you don’t have to spend years figuring this stuff out, because I’ll break down those methods in this post with screenshots guiding you through each step. Given how fortunate I’ve been with chances to explore this planet, I think of it as my moral responsibility to help others find the same opportunities. At the very least, I want you to be able to give less to Airlines and use those extra dollars for a better cause: like buying cheap pints for your new friends at the next hostel.
I also made a video where I screen-shared my process of finding the cheapest flights for upcoming trips and went through everything we are about to discuss here. Check it out if you are having trouble following any of the steps in this post, if you prefer this content in video format, or if you just want to see me talking to a camera whilst having a good hair day.
This article will be split into 3 parts:
- Finding the cheapest flights for fixed date(s)
- Finding the cheapest flights with a flexible schedule
- Intro to Travel Hacking: Skiplagged and Airline Miles
I recommend reading them in the order I have them listed.
Finding the cheapest flights for fixed date(s)
Google Flights: Enter your travel dates and departure city, and explore the Price Map
To start off, head to the Google Flights homepage, enter your home city/departure location and travel dates, and hit the “Search” button Without entering a destination. This should look take you to a Price Map which shows you a good estimate of the prices for flights to all major destinations during those dates. You can navigate the map and zoom in/out accordingly to investigate prices for cities that don’t show up in the zoomed-out, default view. In the screenshot below, I provide an example of my destination options for a future trip I am currently planning for Spring Break for my upcoming semester of graduate school. Take note of any location where the price is written in a green font (London in the screenshot below), as this indicates that prices are currently lower than usual for flights to that destination.
Even if you have a destination picked beforehand, I still recommend going through this step. It allows you to check if flights to any nearby cities are significantly cheaper. I am actually hoping to visit Nicaragua on those dates. But if I zoom in on that map region (screenshot below), I can see that flights to neighboring cities of San Salvador (El Salvador) and San Jose (Costa Rica) are $140 cheaper than any flights to Nicaragua. In previous trips to El Salvador and Costa Rica, I stayed at hostels where accommodation costs ranged between $5-15 per night. So needless to say, saving $140 would be a very lucrative option for this trip, and I may change my port-of-entry if flight prices to Nicaragua don’t drop.
Pick a destination, and check if changing dates by 1/2 days makes a big price difference.
Once you settle down on a destination city from the Price Map in Step 1, click on the city name (on the map) to see different flight deals for that destination. While a lot of us (myself included) don’t get to travel whenever we want, it is often possible to fly a day early/late, and that can often make a big difference in prices. After your results show up, all you have to do is click on the “Date grid” button under the search parameters. This shows you a grid of how changing your dates by a few days would affect your round-trip flight prices. For my planned Nicaragua trip, it seems that pushing the trip ahead by 1 day makes a HUGE difference. Changing my dates from 13th-22nd March to 14th- 23rd March instead results in a whopping $103 price drop.
Switch over to Skyscanner
Once you finalize a destination and dates that you like on Google Flights, the next step is note down that info and go to Skyscanner.com. While Google Maps is great for getting a rough idea of which locations will be cheaper to fly in/out of and what dates have better prices, Skyscanner is better for finding the actual cheapest flights for those dates and finding the best deals. For the optimized dates for my planned Nicaragua trip, Skyscanner managed to find flights that were an additional $40 cheaper! (screenshot below).
Note: In the video that I linked earlier, I switched the order of Steps 2 and 3. That should lead to the same outcome, and the only difference is that you’d be optimizing dates in different platforms (Skyscanner instead of Google Flights)
I’ll provide another example using summer flights to Jakarta, Indonesia, that I have been eyeing. A round-trip to Jakarta (from LA) for my travel dates is listed at $734 on Google Flights. Once again, switching over to Skyscanner reduces that price by $62 to $672 (screenshots below). The price-difference across these platforms aren’t always close to 10% of the price, but I almost always save at least $5-10 by switching to Skyscanner.
Check how prices to your destination compare to usual prices
Final step. If you go back to Google Flights, below the “Date Grid” button we discussed in Step 2, there is an panel you can expand to see how current prices compare to typical prices for that trip.
In this case, it states that $ 471 is typical for a round-trip from Los Angeles to Managua, Nicaragua. If this panel had indicated that the cheapest prices on Google Flights (and the cheapest prices that you found on Skyscanner in Step 3) are higher than what is typical AND if you are months away from your trip, it might be a good idea to hold off on buying those tickets and wait to see if prices drop. It’s a risk that may earn you a reward, but won’t necessarily. It is entirely possible that even though prices are higher than usual right now, they may go even higher as you get closer to your trip. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s in the green slider area and you know for sure you will be purchasing these tickets soon, get the tickets ASAP. If it’s in the yellow, use your best judgement.
Tracking prices for flights that are currently expensive
Now, if prices are indeed much higher than what is typical and your trip is not coming up in the next several months, the smartest thing to do is often to track the flight prices. If you are logged into your Google account when using Google Flights, all you have to do is click on the button that says “Track prices” (screenshot above). You will automatically start receiving regular emails from Google about any significant changes in flight prices for the trip. I happen to have been tracking prices for the Nicaragua trip, and below is a screenshot of a sample notification email I received a few weeks ago. I should mention that it’s not a bad idea to manually check up on the prices of flights-of-interest regularly on Skyscanner. While Google’s price-tracking system is very convenient, it can miss temporary price drops at times.
Another option for tracking flight prices is to use the app for Skiplagged. This app has a sweet feature where you can pick travel dates for a destination, pick a flight price threshold for how much you are willing to pay, and then opt to receive push-notifications if the prices ever drop below your preferred price.
Finding the cheapest flights for flexible date(s)
Having very flexible dates for a trip all but guarantees lower costs for flights. If you have a flexible travel schedule, you can use the same tools we already discussed to make the most out of it.
If you pull up Google Flights again and change travel dates to “flexible dates”, it provides you options for a variety of potential trips. This includes options such as “Weekend trip in the next 6 months”. This is where the really ridiculous deals start to show up. By flying on days and weeks when most people don’t fly, you can (as demonstrated below) get New York-Athens round-trip tickets for $329 or New York-Barcelona round-trip tickets for $270.
With flexible dates, even Skyscanner lets you view a price map (Skyscanner doesn’t allow this feature for fixed dates). However, the options for looking at trips here are slightly more limited compared to Google Flights. You have to pick a month and can only see prices for that month. Staying true to form, Skyscanner does show you better deals here as well, with the same NYC-Barcelona RT tickets dropping to $221 and the NYC-Athens RT tickets dropping to $311. As a rule of thumb, no matter what site you are buying your tickets from, I recommend going over to SkyScanner to double-check for cheaper prices before you make a purchase.
Travel Hacks: Skiplagged and Airlines miles
Using what we have already discussed, you can follow a simple step-by-step process and find the cheapest flights for any trip. However, there are a few more complicated tricks that can save you even more money. These do require a bit of research to understand, so I will just briefly touch on them, and guide you towards resources where you can learn more.
To explain what Skiplagging is, I will quote this article:
“Skiplagging” is a travel technique where you save on airfare by booking a ticket through the place you actually want to go and get off there. Sometimes it makes business class cheaper than economy.
You do this because it’s cheaper to fly through the place you want to go, than to the place you want to go. Let’s say the Super Bowl is in Dallas, and flights to Dallas are impossibly expensive, but flights to San Diego via Dallas are super cheap. You’d just book a ticket to San Diego via Dallas, and get off in Dallas and walk out of the airport. Easy!
If you go to Skiplagged’s homepage, you will see plenty of examples of this. As I am writing this article, I see the following deal (screenshot below) being promoted on the homepage, which suggests that you could save $55 while flying to Tokyo on Jan 14th by Skiplagging.
Examining this deal further shows that $325 is the price for a trip to Beijing with a layover in Tokyo, compared to $380 for the cheapest direct flight to Tokyo on that date. This may seem unreasonably but prices like this exist because they allow Airline Companies to maximize their profit by capitalizing on demand levels.
Disclaimer: There are a list of things you need to be careful about before you try Skiplagging, and I suggest reading more about them here and here, and making an informed decision for yourself. Do your due research. Please don’t check your luggage for a trip to China, and get mad if you are unable to collect it in Tokyo.
To be honest, I have personally never “skip-lagged”. But I know of seasoned travelers who seem to pull it off regularly. I have used the Skiplagged app regularly, however. As I mentioned previously, it’s really good at instantly notifying me of price-drops/pricing-mistakes for trips I am eyeing. Helped me find a pricing-mistake that got me $150 RT flights from Los Angeles to Panama City, Panama in 2016.
Traveling with Airlines Miles and Credit Card points
Disclaimer: Check to see if this applies to your country before doing too much research into this. I know it definitely works in the US, and works to an extent in countries like Australia and Canada
This one is a little more complicated than everything we have discussed so far. So I recommend using resources like this, these sub-reddits   and websites like Nerdwallet as great places to start understanding how to obtain credit card miles and what they mean. In layman’s terms, by signing up for travel credit cards and by hitting (usually fairly achievable) initial spending targets, you can get rewarded with Airlines miles and travel credit that can save you thousands of dollars on your travels. Yes, I said thousands, not hundreds. Using American Airlines miles that I have amassed over the years, I have flown 3 times to Europe for a total of ~ $100 USD (and $75 of that was a late booking fee I could have avoided). I literally flew to Rome for 5 dollars and 60 cents in 2018, took a round-trip to New York from LA for $12 a few months ago, and did a lot more travel for free by using Airline miles. I talk more about that in the video I linked earlier. So despite the complexity of this topic, if you want to travel a lot (or even a little), I believe this is something worth learning about. Obviously, do understand what you are doing before you start trying to rack up Credit Card bonuses. If you cannot responsibly handle your finances, this might not be the best move for you. If you are financially responsible, then nerds like me from Nerdwallet.com can help you expand your travel horizons a lot further.
If you have any questions about anything I said, the quickest way to get a response would be to comment here or even better, comment on the video I made for this on YouTube. Speaking of which..
Follow me on YouTube/Instagram
I love to make travel vlogs and videos offering travel tips on YouTube like this packing-guide I made for backpacking through Europe. Feel free to follow me there if you dig what I am doing:
I am also on Instagram, where I share some of my favorite travel stories and photos:
I hope this post was helpful. Cheers!