How to find cheap flights

While preparing for their own trip a lot of people have asked me how I find cheap flights. I generally tell them I use websites such as Skyscanner and move on, but they often come back with more questions. More than once I’ve ended up helping them by finding the tickets myself and showing them exactly where to book. This is easier and probably takes the same amount of effort as explaining exactly how I found them. The thing is, doing this doesn’t really help. Next time they need to book a flight they’ll come asking again. So in this article I’ll try to explain some of the general ways to find cheap tickets. Not the kind of ridiculous deals you may find on websites like Secret Flying, but just cheaper tickets for any trip. My advice may mostly seem like common sense, but common sense is probably just the way to do it.

Be flexible

First of all, the big ‘secret’ behind finding cheap flights is that you need to be flexible – either about the time or about the place. Can you find a great deal to that one place you want to go exactly when you have some time off? Might be hard. Can you find a great deal to that one place you want to go? Probably, you’ll just have to ask for the time off after booking. Can you find a great deal at the time you want to travel? Probably, you’ll just have to be flexible about where you’re flying to. That last type of flexibility is actually more useful than you might think (and basically how I planned my entire trip), simply because flying to a certain destination doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay there. You may want to take that ridiculously cheap flight to Singapore when you’re actually trying to get to Indonesia, simply because it’s amazingly cheap to take another short flight to cover the last part. Need to go back to the Netherlands from some far off place? Consider flying to places such as Rome, Stockholm or Madrid and then taking a cheap flight back home from there. You may have to deal with changing airports, though, so I suggest staying in said city for another day or two. See it as a free city trip.

Find the best route

A great way to find those cheap routes is to use Skyscanner, the website I mentioned earlier. This tool has an option to look for flights to ‘Anywhere’, and you don’t necessarily have to specify a certain time frame in which you want to fly. I love the crudeness of this option. You’re somewhere in Thailand and need to go home soon? From: Thailand / To: Anywhere / When: This month. Just pick the cheapest option close to home, book an extra flight (or bus, or train) to get from that place to where you actually need to be, and off you go. The other way around – finding out where to fly from to get to the destination of your choice – is a bit trickier, since it’s not possible to enter ‘Anywhere’ as the place you’re flying from (probably because it doesn’t really make sense anyway). Say I want to go to India but don’t know how to get there cheaply. To find out I do a little backwards search: From: India  / To: Anywhere. The cheapest options are probably also cheap in the opposite direction, which narrows my search down a lot. Don’t forget to do this to create your own layovers on longer flights, for example by stopping in Bangkok before flying onward to Australia.

Be skeptical

I must say that Skyscanner is one of my favourite search engines to find cheap flights, but it’s not always correct. It sometimes misses the cheaper options, doesn’t show what the price would be if you book from a different country (yes, that could actually change a lot) and sometimes it’s just plain wrong because its information wasn’t updated in the past 25 minutes. And although Skyscanner usually checks up on the websites it sends you to, there’s still a chance that these mediators ‘forget’ to mention some costs. Skyscanner is a great way to get the rough outline of a trip, but sometimes it can be better to go somewhere else to see if the price you found is actually correct. Always check the airline’s own website to see what price they offer, but also consult other search engines in case deals just exist through certain mediators.

A search engine similar to Skyscanner is the website Momondo. Like Skyscanner, it has some flaws, but if you combine the two you may just hit the jackpot. Momondo also gives you the opportunity to search for flights going ‘anywhere’, but you’ll have to know the specific dates on which you want to fly. This tool doesn’t only consult the booking websites in your country (as Skyscanner does), but also offers options from different places. You may have to let Google translate the entire web page and you probably have to pay in some weird currency, but it could save you a ton of money. I used Momondo for my flight from Bangkok back to Amsterdam, and bought a flight for the total of 10100 Thai Baht (about €260) on the Thai version of Expedia, while the Dutch version of the same website (and Skyscanner) showed the same flight for over €2000. Yes, seriously.

Searching = learning

Even when you have these great websites to help you find your cheap flights, it still doesn’t mean you’ll immediately find the flight you want. You’ll have to do some research to figure out that it might be cheaper to book two separate tickets instead of one (which may still have a layover in the same place). It could also just be the other way around. You’ll have to do some research to figure out that it might be better to fly to or from a different airport. After a while you’ll start noticing the patterns, which you can probably use again for your next flight. You’ll see which routes are generally cheaper than others. You’ll notice that flights are cheaper in certain time periods. You’ll be able to deduct if a certain price is simply cheap, a great deal or probably a mistake. You’ll realise that you may find different prices if you look again tomorrow. If you put that effort in, just for a few days, you can save yourself a lot of money.

PS: With regards to the cheap flight I found on Momondo (and not on Skyscanner): I actually figured out how to get Skyscanner to show the cheap option, which was by changing the ‘country’ (click on the flag in the top right of the website) to ‘Thailand’. But even then, it’s just too much work to check every single country like that when looking for the cheapest option.  Might be good to check your country of departure and/or arrival, though.

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