Finding and Booking your Flight
The holy grail of travel: cheap flights. Save your sanity and accept that it doesn't exist; what exists is fares at good prices you find reasonable to pay. Below I'll give you step-by-step on how to find these fares, without requiring days of effort or PhD in black magic.
If you're flexible on dates and destinations
Being flexible on dates and destinations give you the best changes on finding the best deals. There are two approaches to follow.
Sign up to the airlines' newsletters. If you don't know which airlines you need to sign up, first list all the airports you would be willing to start your trip from. Now for each aiport, google "city airport wikipedia" and open the link to the airports' article in Wikipedia. Scroll down to the "Airlines and Destination" section. Sign up for the newsletters for all the airlines listed there.
If you're not very flexible on dates and destinations
Usually the best time to buy tickets is 10 to 4 weeks before departure date. But this is a game with rules that change all the time, so don't worry too much about it .
From now on, I'll use a real example so it's easier to follow. Suppose I want to go from Miami and visit Portugal, Spain, and France; for three weeks one month from now. I can start in Portugal and end in France, or vice versa. You can easily adjust these step to your particular trip.
Start by using an online travel agent (e.g. Expedia) to learn what is the average price you can expect on the dates and destination you want.
So in our case, I search Miami to Lisbon and Miami to Paris. Based on this quick search, it seems that a reasonable price to pay would be around $950 to $1150.
And if we look for open jaw tickets, i.e. Miami-Lisbon-Paris-Miami or vice versa, it seems that a reasonable price to pay would be the same $950-$1150 as before.
Next step is to expand our list of airports that would still work with our itinerary. Google "country busiest airports", usually a wikipedia article will tell what you need to know. The busier the airport, more chances of finding a good fare.
So in our case, we find that in France, if we landed in Nice it would also work for us. And in Portugal, if we landed in Porto would also be ok.
If you are willing to fly a long-haul with a major airline, plus a final leg with a low cost airline (which sometimes works out to be cheaper) please continue. Or if you don't know if there is a low cost airline that flies to your destination please continue. Otherwise skip to next step.
Note that most low cost airlines don't show on major search engines (e.g. Expedia). You need to search each low cost airline website separately. So to find which low cost airline flies into our destination and from which airport they fly from we will use wikipedia. Just google "city airport wikipedia" and select the wikipedia article on the result. Jump to the Airlines and Destination section from the article. See example below.
Now take note which low cost airlines fly into the airport and where they fly from. If you don't know which one is a low cost airline, just follow the link on the airline. The airline's page on wikipedia will tell you that.
So in our case, we find that Wizz Air flys from Budapeste to Lisbon, Ryanair from Glasgow, Dublin, Frankfurt; and many more. Repeat this for the four initial airports (Paris, Nice, Lisbon, Porto).
At the end of looking at the four aiport articles we end with the following list of additional airports: Budapeste, Glasgow, Dublin, Frankfurt, Zurich, Warsaw, Barcelona, Munich. Note this is just a short version to keep it simple, a complete list would have many more airports.
If you found out that a low cost airline flies directly between your origin and destination, go to their website and check their fares.
Please note that if you go to the option of a last leg in a low cost airlines, you might need a separate visa.
Next step is to expand the list of airport we're willing to fly from.
In our case, we're willing to fly out Fort Lauderdale.
Organize the information and get the airport codes.
In our case, flying from airports:
- Miami, Fort Lauderdale
Flying to airports:
- Primary: Lisbon, Paris
- Secondary: Nice, Porto (from step 2)
- Tertiary: Budapeste, Glasgow, Dublin, Frankfurt, Zurich, Warsaw, Barcelona, Munich (from step 3)
Now translate to airport codes. If you don't know an airport code, just google "airport airport code", e.g. "Barcelona airport code" and it will tell you that it's BCN.
In our case, we end up with flying from airports:
- MIA, FLL
Flying to airports:
- Primary: LIS, CDG
- Secondary: NCE, OPO
- Tertiary: BUD, GLA, DUB, FRA, ZRH, WAW, BCN, MUC
Next step is to use ITA Matrix to find the cheapest fares available.
Go to ITA Matrix. This company was acquired by Google a few years ago, and now they are the engine behind Google flights.
Select the correct tab: round trip or one way. In our case, we select round trip.
Enter the airport codes in Departing from and Destination. If there are more than one airport code in a field, they should be separated by a comma.
Select the "See calendar of lowest fares". In the "Departing" filed enter an approximate date to what you're looking for. In the "Lenght of stay" field enter how many days you would like to stay abroad. In our case, since we said three weeks, let's put 20-25 days. Set the "Extra stops" field to what you prefer. The more stops, the bigger the chance to find a cheaper fare. See complete example below.
And we get the following result in calendar form
We click on the 9th as look promising. For simple return fare, we find a $733 fare that fits our needs, and it's $200 cheaper than our results on step 1.
Now to look for the open jaw version, go back to the main page and select the multi-city tab on the top. In our case, enter the search parameter as below. If the search times out, it's because you have too many airports. Remove some and try again.
And we get the following result. The cheapest fare is $150 from our best result in step 1. Common sense tells me that the two extra low cost tickets needed to complete our flight, plus all the hassle of an extra leg is not worth only $150 - it will be more. If not very clear as in this case, you will have to search the low cost airline and check exact fare to know if the savings are worthwile.
As you can see, in our example, expanding the list of airports and including low cost airlines in the mix didn't uncover any savings. But savings were found by ITA Matrix, looking many combination of dates at one go. This is normal in this process, you never know were the saving will be found, or found at all. But as they saying goes: you gotta be in it to win it!
Now that you have chosen the exact flight you want, search for it on an online travel agency (e.g. Expedia) and directly on the airline website. These days there's rarely a difference (usually just a few dollars due to currency conversion), but eventually there could be a significant difference.
Buy your ticket directly from the airline if possible. If you buy from a travel agent and you have an issue, you'll have two issues instead. The additional issue is that the travel agent will say that the airline should resolve the issue, and the airline will say the travel agent should fix it.
Other tips and tricks
If you are buying tickets for a large group, first search as one person, and then later with the number of tickets you actually need. If there's a price difference, it means not all seats available on the flight have the same price. You'll need to break your purchase in several to get the lowest total cost possible.
You should get a quote from an old fashioned brick'n'mortar travel agent in case:
- you're a large group
- you're a student
- you're planning on going to a destination popular with package tourist, as they'll have access to charter flights
Be very careful with name spelling and dates. Depending on what kind of ticket you bought, it can be very expensive to fix even the smallest mistake.
Use Seatguru to avoid picking a bad seat. These days, in most airlines' economy cabin, you'll need to pay an extra fee for the good seats.
If you'll want to learn more about advanced travel hacks (and stay up to date of the constant changes and opportunities) head to the FlyerTalk.