5 Steps to Booking a Cheap Flight Online
Booking a flight can be one of the most stressful parts about travel! Airfare is expensive and, with variation in prices, we often worry that if we buy right now, prices could drop and we’d be the person who paid the most money for the flight. “Maybe if I wait just a little longer, prices will drop,” we say to ourselves.
I used to spend hours upon hours searching for the right price. I’d search multiple websites, second-guess myself, and worry about what happens when the prices drop. I would hold off on buying, waiting for that perfect moment. It was like trying to time the market – it simply doesn’t work. 99 times out of 100, you lose out. On a recent trip from Austin, a one-way ticket on American Airlines was $206 USD. The next day it was $149 USD and a BETTER route. When I checked a few hours later, it was back to $206 USD.
You can’t predict prices. The best day to book is usually today.
Last year, I went to visit the folks at Google Flights, and over lunch they told me about a study they did of thousands of flights. They found the average drop price is about $50 USD. That means if you wait, you’re most likely to save about $50 USD but might be stuck with a price that is hundreds higher. (This excludes sales and mistake fares.)
As someone who doesn’t go a day without searching for airfare to regions all over the world, I can tell you that you can’t second-guess yourself. If you’re comfortable with the price you paid, you need to accept it and move on, even if airfare drops.
In the past, I’ve explained how to finding a cheap flight – the theory and strategy to use when searching for a flight. Today, I want to show you how to put that into practice and walk you through how I book my tickets.
For this article , I’m going to look for a flight from Sydney to Hong Kong or NYC to Athens in March for 8-10 days. (Note: Prices reflect the day of search on 11/11/15.)
First, I’ll look at deal websites like Holiday Pirates or The Flight Deal to see if there are any fare sales going on. Sometimes there are, most of the times there aren’t.
After that, I start with the ITA Matrix, an amazing tool that allows for complex searching and that every flight junkie I know uses. While it only searches major airlines (no budget carriers here), it has a calendar option so you can see prices over the course of the month and provides a solid baseline on prices.
Sydney to Hong Kong:
The cheapest flight to Hong Kong is $507 USD on China Airlines via Taipei for 10 days, though further research revealed a direct flight on Qantas for $524 USD. The cheapest flight to Athens was $698 USD on Turkish via Istanbul for 10 days (there are no direct flights).
Next, I go to Skyscanner and Momondo to compare prices and see if there are any budget carriers flying the route I need.
Sydney to Hong Kong on Skyscanner:
Sydney to Hong Kong on Momondo:
Both of these search sites brought up a much cheaper flight on the budget airline Scoot. You’ll also notice Momondo brought up a cheaper SYD-HKG ticket on the same flight. That’s another reason to check multiple booking sites. You might find a cheaper price for the same flight elsewhere!
NYC to Athens on Skyscanner:
NYC to Athens on Momondo:
With the NYC flights, both Skyscanner and Momondo returned the Turkish Airways flight, though Momondo prices it cheaper at $657 USD.
Next, I visit Google Flights to search regional fares. For example, if I’m flying to Athens, I’ll see what flights to nearby airports might be cheaper. It may be cheaper to fly into Paris and take a budget airline to Athens. Though you’ll end up booking two different tickets on two different airlines, you can sometimes save hundreds of dollars. I booked a flight to Dublin and then flew Ryanair to Paris, saving me $200 USD instead of taking a direct flight.
On the Sydney-to-Hong Kong route, there are not a lot of alternative airports to choose from, so the $340 USD on the budget airline Scoot is the cheapest option we would find.
However, for NYC to Athens, we have plenty of options, since there are a lot of airports and budget carriers in Europe to choose from. (Pro tip: If you aren’t a junkie like me and know which budget airlines fly where, visit the airport’s website to get a list of airlines.)
Looking at Google Flights, the cheapest flight is $725 USD with two stops, worse than what Momondo returned! However, leaving and returning two days later (I’m flexible) brings up a $605 USD flight via Kiev:
That’s a big improvement. Next, I zoom out and look at the region. I see that leaving on the 6th there’s a $416 USD flight to Stockholm and then another $168 USD flight to Athens. Though this saves $21 USD, when you factor in immigration, checking into a new airline, possible delays, and your time, it’s not worth it. This doesn’t produce anything cheaper without extremely long layovers. I don’t believe saving $21 USD is worth an extra 20 hours in an airport. Though I have used this method to save money in the past, in this case, booking two separate flights isn’t worth it so I move on.
After looking at these three websites, I may look at Kayak or Orbitz just as a safeguard. It doesn’t take long to enter in a few dates and if the prices they return are similar to what I got before, I close out the browser and move on.
Next, I’ll visit the airlines’ websites to see if there are any cheaper deals to be found. In order to encourage consumers to book directly with them, airlines often have cheaper prices listed on their website. For Scoot, the price wasn’t cheaper. With Ukraine International Airlines, the price came up a lot cheaper:
You may wonder why I didn’t just go to the airline directly. Because the airlines don’t always have the cheapest flight. In this case they did but on the flight I just booked to Laos, Laos Airlines’ website was $50 USD more than what Momondo returned!
After booking the flight, I make a note to check back in 23 hours as you have 24 hours to cancel a flight without penalty, so right before that time is up, I’ll clear out my browser’s cookies and do a quick search to see if the price dropped (see my Austin example above). I’ll either rebook or keep my flight based on what I find.
After that, I don’t give a second thought to it, even if two weeks later there’s a sale or I see a cheaper price pop up somewhere. You can’t know the future or when a sale will come. You can only make your best decision with the information at hand at the very moment you’re booking.
Maybe you’ll spend 10 hours searching to find some obscure website that is $5 USD cheaper. Maybe your flight will become $200 USD cheaper the next day. Maybe there will be a sale. Maybe the price will go up! In the end, it is not worth worrying about. First, you’ll be frozen with potential buyer’s remorse if you worry about future prices. You’ll never buy a flight because you’ll always be wondering “what if?” and, in the end, you’ll wait too long — and probably pay more. Second, how much is your time worth? Maybe I could search more, but I’d rather use those extra hours to enjoy life, plan a trip, work on my blog, or relax at the beach. My time is more valuable than a slight drop in price will ever be.
If you’re spending more than an hour booking a flight, you’re spending too much time. This entire process from start to finish took me 40 minutes. After that, I went back to watching Narcos on Netflix. I never second-guess myself on flights. You’ll go crazy if you do. Spend 30-40 minutes finding and booking a cheap flight at a price you’re OK paying (Still too much money after all of this? Go somewhere else), and move on with your life.
As much as I love staying in hostels, there is something nice about the luxuriousness