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The Deal Hunter's Guide To Finding Cheap Flights
Do you know how to find the cheapest flights? Do you know the cheapest cities to live in with Airbnb? Do you know where to find error fares and flight price glitches?
In this article, I explain how you can find cheap flights. It is one of the most in-depth guides I've written and covers:
- How experts find error fares (and the software they use)
- The 17 cheapest destinations in the world
- Understanding advanced tactics: Fuel Dumping and 3X
- Why you should search for flights incognito
- Flight comparison tools compared and reviewed (Skyscanner is not the winner)
- The ITA Matrix: Will you do it?
- The apps which help you save
- New tactics to get cheap upgrades to business class
When deal hunting for airfares you need to make sure it's going to a cheap destination. How much is the hotel? Is it cheaper on Airbnb? Where are the cheapest cities?
Nomad List was created by Pieter Levels to answer these questions. It reveals the cheapest cities to visit and live. You can sort cities by the average price of an Airbnb.
Cheapest Cities in the World with AirBnB
- Kollam, India - $6 per night
- Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine - $7 per night
- Huizhou, China - $8 per night
- Cirebon, Indonesia - $8 per night
- Saratov, Russia - $9 per night
- Jundai, Brazil - $11 per night
This list shows you the cheapest cities in the world when staying with AirBnB (median average). Compared to UK rents, it'd be cheaper to live permanently in one of these AirBnBs abroad than stay at home!
However, finding flights on a budget to India, China and Brazil is difficult. Not impossible (we'll explore error fares, the best air fare blogs, and search engines in a bit) but harder than say, Europe.
Thankfully, Nomad List offers more options:
Cheapest Cities in Europe with AirBnB
- Osijek, Croatia - $14 per night
- Lublin, Poland - $14 per night
- Krivoy-Rog, Ukraine - $16 per night
- Izmir, Turkey - $19 per night
- Nis, Serbia - $20 per night
- Thessaloniki, Greece - $21 per night
- Ploiesti, Romania - $21 per night
- Granada, Spain - $24 per night
- Sofia, Bulgaria - $24 per night
- Yereven, Armenia - $25 per night
- Nicosia, Cyprus - $25 per night
This list shows you the cheapest cities in Europe with a warm climate (more than 25C average) for AirBnBs. To see more, and filter by more options including best for Tinder, legalised weed, safety and fast internet, take a look at Nomad List.
With these cheap locations in mind, you can now set up price alerts and keep your eye out for cheap flights. When you spot one, you know that the destination is cheap, so you can book one quickly with confidence.
Nomad List shows the cheapest cities in Europe to stay based on average prices of AirBnBs
In the next Ryanair flash sale you can be prepared. You can quickly scan the promotional flights and see which destinations match. For example:
Flights to Sofia, Bulgaria in the Ryanair sale
Here flights to Sofia, Bulgaria were reduced to just £14.99 one-way (about £32 return). You know this is one of the cheapest cities in Europe to stay in so you can book quickly before the offer goes.
Prepare your list of target countries using Nomad List and have it ready for the flash sales and error fares. It will enable you to move fast without hesitation.
When are the cheap sales for flights?
Every airline has a number of sales throughout the year. EasyJet and Ryanair are favourite discount airlines amongst Latest Dealers, but British Airways, Virgin, W!ZZ and all the others also have discounted periods too.
- Note - W!ZZ offers a discount club for frequent flyers. You can get €10 off every flight. It only works if you travel more than three times a year, as annual membership costs €29.99
How to find error fares and price glitches for plane tickets?
Error fares from the UK come about once a week. My favourite way to find them is to follow these web pages and then share them on Latest Deals:
- Pirate Holidays Error Fares
- SecretFlying (from London)
- Jack's Flight Club (email newsletter - use alias details)
What causes an error fare?
There is one main reason for flight glitches: The Fuel Surcharge. As Secret Flying explains, the price of a plane ticket is divided into three parts: the base fare, tax, and fuel surcharge.
The fuel surcharge, outlined in red, is a large part of the total price.
Error fares normally happen when this fuel surcharge is discounted by accident. This can happen for a number of reasons (and yes, you can manually find them):
- Self-Dump: When more than one airline is present on a ticket, for example Virgin and EasyJet, the fuel surcharge may be eliminated.
- Online Travel Agency Glitches: Sometimes there are computer glitches when processing tickets by the online travel agencies.
- Human Error: Mistakes in pricing, multiple currencies and marketing.
How to find error fares yourself by exploiting the fuel surcharge
You can find error fares for cheap flight tickets. SecretFlying and other blogs use the same technique, called Fuel Dumping or "3X". It is complicated and takes time to understand, and then even more time to find an error fare that works. Only pursue this course if you really want to find an error fare for the sake of deal hunting. If you just want a cheap holiday, it's much easier just to keep to flight search engines and flash sale events (see below). Plus, it's easier to wait for the experts to find one and I've linked to four of the best resources above.
To find your own error fare, you need to learn how to use ITA Matrix. This is the data source of many flight search engines and is now owned by Google. I explain the ITA Matrix later, keep reading
Read these articles in order to understand how to find your own error fares:
- SecretFlying - Fuel Dumping: The Basics
- Travel Codex - An Introduction to Fuel Dumping
- FuelDumping3x - Fuel Dumping For Dummies
- SecretFlying - Fuel Dumping: Step-by-Step Guide
- Travel Codex - Finding and Booking a 3X
- Travel Codex - Variations and Advanced Strategy
If you're a deal hunter looking for simple cheap flights the next part is for you. Here I review each of the major flight search engines, explain the pros and cons as well as the tactics to find some seriously cheap flights. Once you find one, don't forget to share it on Latest Deals to help others.
- Search in private: how prices go up if you don't
- Best flight search engines
- ITA Matrix
- Apps and last minute flights
- Best blogs to learn about air miles and reward schemes
Search for flights in private browsing (incognito)
Have you ever noticed the prices for flights change within minutes or when you return to take another look? You're not going crazy. Online travel agents may increase the prices each time you repeat a search to give the impression they're selling fast and you need to book. They also know you're very interested in that location and could probably charge you more.
The best way to avoid this is to search for flights in private. With Google Chrome, File > New Incognito Window. With Safari, File > New Private Browsing.
Plus, flight comparison sites are against this policy and you should notify them if you spot it. Just send them screenshots of the prices increasing to their contact pages.
You may not of heard of Kiwi and there's a reason why I'm starting with it first. Kiwi checks if it's cheaper to fly with separate airlines, rather than just one. For example if you're flying from London to Thailand, it may be cheapest to go with Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur, and then Thai Airways to Bangkok.
Most flight comparison engines do not do this. Rather, they only look at trips with one airline the whole way. Kiwi's extra check means you may be able to save money - and it may also be faster.
The prices you see are the prices you get. Unlike SkyScanner, Kayak, or Momondo, Kiwi is different because you book on the website. It doesn't take you to the airline, nor an online travel agent. This makes things easier as you know when researching the prices you see are what you'll have to pay. There's no extra checks needed. Plus, Kiwi also offers some extra benefits...
Kiwi Guarantee - Booking your trip via two separate airlines may be a great way to save money, but it also comes with risk. If the first leg of the journey is delayed or cancelled, there's no onus on the company to help you get to your second separate flight. It's all on you. The Kiwi Guarantee solves this: if you miss your connection because your first flight was delayed, cancelled or a schedule change, Kiwi will either pay for an alternative flight or refund you the difference. Plus, it'll contribute for the transport to get to another airport, overnight stays and food.
The Kiwi Guarantee helps if your flight is cancelled, delayed or has its schedule changed.
Kayak is a great way to find cheap flights. It gets data from more sources than many other air fare search engines (read ITA Matrix below) and often finds the cheapest fares, even beating Google Flights sometimes.
It also lets you compare its own results with competitors such as Expedia and Booking(.com) to make sure you really are getting the best prices.
Unlike SkyScanner (below), prices are more up-to-date so you know what you're getting. Not quite 'live', but less cached.
Kayak has an Explore page which lets you find the cheapest flights throughout the year. It works in a similar fashion to SkyScanner's "Everywhere" and "Anytime" options, but displays it all on pretty map (Kiwi does this too):
Where can you fly to? Kayak shows you the cheapest flights on a map.
This is a nice way to find cheap flights and book something spontaneous (just want to get the f**k out? See the GTFO app below). It's also a great tool to use in conjunction with the Budget Nomad plan.
It has the reputation amongst air fare deal hunters as a geeks tool in a good way. It has many options taken from the ITA Matrix such as Wi-Fi Only Flights and whether the plane is a narrow-body jet or not. You can also look at prices with baggage included (Google Flights does not let you do this).
Finally, Kayak has a nifty price prediction feature telling you if now is a good time to buy or not. Using a complex algorithm and historical price data it can look at trends and estimate whether you should buy now or wait.
- Did you know if your air fare drops in price after you buy it, you can get the difference back? Many airlines offer Price Promise guarantees. To take advantage, set up an email price alert for your flight. Read the policies for easyjet, British Airways, Virgin and Ryanair.
- Kayak makes money by referring you to online travel agencies. Some of these listed have terrible reviews and customer experience. Plus, they may list a cheap price but add an administrative fee at the end. Omega seems to be the worst culprit, and I recommend filtering these options out of the results.
Kiwi vs. Kayak?
When comparing the open explorer maps of Kiwi and Kayak I found differences of prices in both. Kiwi was cheaper for some, Kayak for others. It's best to use both to get a true comparison and make sure you're hunting the best air fare.
Google purchased the largest data source of air fares in 2010 called ITA. It's where most flight search engines get their data from (including Kayak). It then created Google Flights which has become one of the best ways to find simple cheap flights.
People love it because of it's user interface is simple. It also has a simple 'explore' function:
- Select your budget 'under £100'
- Select your interests 'beaches'
- See all the destinations which match
However, the power really comes when you know what you want. It also has a multi-city itinerary option if you want multiple stops.
Get price alert emails with Google Flights
The flight search engine mostly connects you direct to the airlines (there are fewer online travel agents) for a simple booking process, but watch out for the additional fees they may try to add on top.
Google Flights connects you direct to the airlines, with fewer online travel agents present
SkyScanner is the UK's leading price-comparison tool for flights. It enables you to find cheap air fares and is perfect for the once-a-year holiday. Search where you're departing from and want to go, and it'll show you estimated prices.
However, there are some limitations:
- SkyScanner does not show you live prices. Instead, it shows cached (old) prices until you manually request them. This leads to a frustrating experience where you're being told it's the cheapest, but upon going through to the website you find it is not.
- SkyScanner makes money by referring you to online travel agents. These agents may display a cheap price and then have a £40 fee at the end. You go back and forth looking for cheaper flights.
SkyScanner was innovative within the cheap airfare market by having a fun feature letting you search 'everywhere' at 'anytime'. In other words, just find me the cheapest holiday!
SkyScanner lets you explore the cheapest options
This got the search engine a great reputation for bargain flights and opened the masses to finding their own discount fares.
For most people SkyScanner is fine. It'll ensure you're not being ripped off and you can get a good price. But for deal hunters it's scratching the surface.
Momondo is the flight search engine most similar to Skyscanner. It's been built to be very similar in style and function, and gains its data in the same way. However, prices displayed do vary. Also, when reading blogs for air fare deal hunting, Momondo is nearly always that which is linked to. I do not know whether that's because Momondo pays these blogs a higher commission than SkyScanner does (all of the flight search engines with the exception of Google Flights pay commission), or whether one can genuinely find more error fares on it.
SecretFlying and Jack's Flight Club, for example (read above), always uses Momondo for their error fares. There seems to be a little quirk in that it has separate subdomains for each of its languages (German, Spanish, Swedish and more) and sometimes visiting the site in a different language can show cheaper prices.
It has a better explore function than SkyScanner for whimsical nosing around, but overall the main site functions are very similar.
The Trip Finder pages shows cheap destinations based on interest, such as 'romantic'
The ITA Matrix was one of the original air fare and pricing systems. It's the building block of many search engines today including Kayak, Orbitz and Bing Travel. In 2010, it was bought by Google for $700 million and is the backbone of Google Flights.
It is the source of data for many flight comparison engines. They get the data and then present it to you in a prettier form:
Kayak uses ITA data and shows you the cheapest trips on a map
When using flight price comparison engines or online travel agents, understand that nearly all of their data comes from these sources. The only difference between them is the user-interface and marketing: how the website looks, ability to filter, and how they're sold. Other data sources include ATPCO and SITA.
Super advanced and seasoned air fare deal hunters use ITA Matrix for its advanced itinerary options. Google Flights, its owner, does not have the same functionality (although this is always changing). For example, imagine you were planning a multi-city journey from London to Barcelona, Barcelona to New York. Perhaps you want to visit some friends in Barcelona. The ITA Matrix allows you to customise your layover stay. Other flight comparison engines do not let you do this.
If you learn to use the ITA Matrix properly, you can find some real bargains.
There's a steep learning curve and only worthwhile if you're traveling often. If it's for your annual holiday, you're better off sticking with Kayak or Google Flights which use the same data anyway, just in a prettier way. If you do want to explore ITA Matrix more, here's some advanced reading:
- How to use ITA Matrix by Upgraded Points
- Plan The Perfect Itinerary - ITA Matrix Advanced Routing Codes
- How To Book Flights Found With ITA Matrix (read this tutorial)
- How To Use Hipmunk to Book ITA Matrix Flights
GTFO App by Hopper
GTFO stands for Get The F**K Out and is an app that shows you last minute flights. Choose your departure city for example, London, and it shows you a list of destinations and the prices for flights over the next 48 hours.
Hopper uses clever algorithms to predict prices. Based on historical data it recommends when the best time to buy a ticket is. You won't find many apps telling you not to buy a ticket.
For example, when searching for autumn flights between London and Barcelona, Hopper said, "Prices will probably rise about £11 after September 15" and "at least £53 after October 8".
You can also set up price alert notifications so if your flight drops in price you can save money.
- Do you know of any good apps for cheap flights? Let me know
CheekyWeekend is a very well designed website that looks for cheap flights leaving on a Friday and returning Sunday. From the UK to Europe, explore deals and plan short holidays that don't require taking any time off work.
You sign up for free and you can see the deals for the next month. If you want to see more deals further in the calendar year you need to become a paid member, which costs a small monthly fee.
All this flight information comes from SkyScanner. So you can find the same deals there (without signing up to be a member) - but CheekyWeekend makes it simpler for you. Great for when you just want to get away.
How to get a cheap upgrade to business class
If you want to get a cheapish upgrade to business class, one of the best methods is to bid for it. Many airlines now offer the ability for you to bid on empty seats 24 - 48 hours before take off.
Usually, you receive an email before take-off inviting you to bid, but otherwise you can use the directory on PlusGrade to navigate to the right part of the website.
How much should you bid for an upgrade?
Travel blogger Bethaney Davies has successfully upgraded multiple times. She explains this guiding formula to help steer you in the right direction:
- Calculate the regular cost of a business-class seat. Then subtract what you paid for the economy fare and aim for around 20 percent to 40 percent of that price.
Often the airlines suggest a minimum bid. One tactic is always to go slightly above the minimum with the understanding most people will put the least amount in.
Which airlines let you bid for upgrades?
- Air Lingus
- Air China
- Air Mauritius
- Air New Zealand
- America Airlines
- Austrain Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- Copa Airlines
- Czech Airlines
- El Al
- Estonian Air
- Garuda Indonesia
- Malaysian Airlines
- Sri Lankan Airlines
- TAP Portugal
- Virgin Atlantic
- Virgin Australia
I hope this guide is helpful in your deal hunting efforts. If you find a cheap flight or an error fare, please share it on Latest Deals to help others.
This guide is really just scratching the surface of how to get cheap flights. There is a wealth of information on other traveller forums, especially in regards to using air miles, points and rewards.
For further reading I recommend: