How to Find and Book Cheap Flights in 2021 – Tips for Finding the Best Deals
Finding a good deal on a flight may be the most important part of planning a trip, but most people do it wrong. I took the wrong approach for many years, and it cost me thousands of dollars. I believed all of the myths such as the best prices are only available early on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. I constantly cleared my cookies and only searched for cheap flights in incognito mode in my browser. Even after doing all of that, I was not finding good deals.
I came to realize I was not being flexible. My strategy was to pick a date and a destination first and then find a flight. The correct way to do it is to pick a cheap destination and then find the date with the lowest price. While it may sound backward, it works.
Here are my tips for finding cheap flight deals.
I always start and end my flight search with Google Flights. It shows fares from all of the major U.S. airlines, including Delta, American, and United. The notable exception is Southwest Airlines, which you will have to go directly to their website to search. The best part about Google Flights is it lets you book directly with the airline as opposed to an OTA (online travel agency). While OTAs (Expedia, SkyScanner) may be cheaper, you will have to go through their customer service for any changes as opposed to the airline.
Google Flights is powerful because it offers a ton of filters to help you find the cheapest and best fare. Here are a few.
- Departure City or Airport (pick up to 7)
- Destination City or Airport (pick up to 7)
- Date Search (view prices for every day in a month)
- Class (economy, first, etc)
- Type of Ticket (roundtrip, one way, etc)
- Stops (non-stop, 1 stop or fewer, 2 stops or fewer)
- Price (sort by the price you want to pay)
- Time (decide when you want to fly)
- Airlines (select them all or only pick 1; it’s up to you)
- Connecting Airports and Layover Duration
All of those features allow for maximum flexibility when planning your trip, which is the key thing to getting a cheap flight deal.
The Vacationer Tip
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Figure Out Your Destination
You can skip this step if you are set on a destination, but I think it is worth doing. Enter your home airport in Google Flights and click the search button. A list of various destinations will appear along with the flight price on a map. This is a great way to find cheap destinations from your home airport. For example, I entered Philadelphia as my departure city and was presented with a variety of roundtrip flights for under $100. A few examples are Miami for $44, Orlando for $45, and Atlanta for $46.
Use that information to find a cheap destination that interests you. If you are really flexible, you can enter up to seven nearby airports that you are willing to depart from before clicking the search button. I also entered airports in New York and Washington D.C. since those are not too far from where I live. That is the absolute best way to find the cheapest possible destination, but you must be willing to fly out from a different airport. This is especially important when flying overseas because costs are often much greater.
Finally, click one of the dates and then click the “Flexible dates” tab. That allows you to open the search even more to find the absolute cheapest flights from your home airport for a wide variety of dates.
Figure Out Your Dates
Picking dates is often the first step for many people, but it is the wrong one. To get the cheapest flight price, you must be very flexible with your travel dates. Assuming you have a destination, use Google Flight’s calendar to view prices for various dates. You can easily adjust the number of days in your trip to see different pricing. Use Google Flight’s Date Grid for a narrowed-down view of the cheapest and most expensive dates.
Adding or subtracting a day from your trip can make a huge difference in the price. Google Flights may even alert you if slightly changing your dates can save you money, so be on the lookout for any popups.
Book Immediately — You Have 24 Hours to Cancel
The 24-Hour Cancellation Rule is one of your best tools for scoring cheap flight deals. Mandated by the Department of Transportation, this rule allows you to cancel non-refundable flights within 24 hours of booking that are arriving to or departing from a United States airport. The flight must be booked seven or more days before departure. Here are a few things to know.
- The flight must be booked directly with the airline (OTAs may or may not honor the rule)
- Includes U.S.-based airlines and foreign airlines (as long as it takes off or lands on U.S. soil)
- Tickets can be canceled or changed
- Carriers are required to either allow customers to cancel within 24 hours and receive a full refund or hold the reservation free of charge for the same time. They do not have to do both.
This is powerful for a few reasons. The first is it gives you time to research after you think you found a good deal. Flight prices change many times per day, so you may not have time to do all of the due diligence necessary before booking. The second is it allows you 24 hours to find an even cheaper price. While the flight price you booked may check out to be a great deal, there is a real chance you find an even better one before the 24 hours are up.
Remain Flexible the Entire Time
Here are other factors to consider before booking your flight
Consider a Different Departure and Arrival Airport
Departure Airport: Flying direct from your home airport to your intended destination is ideal, but it is not always the cheapest option. Consider flying or driving to a nearby airport if flight prices are significantly cheaper. I did just that for my recent trip to Glacier National Park. Flights from Philadelphia, PA to Kalispell, MT were significantly more expensive than flights from New York City. I decided to drive 90 minutes to LaGuardia Airport to save a few hundred dollars on the flight. Even after factoring in gas, tolls, and parking I still saved hundreds of dollars. The best part is my flight from Laguardia was direct while all of the flights from Philadelphia had connections. Consider all costs before flying from a nearby airport, including your time.
Arrival Airport: The same thing can be done for your arrival airport. While flying directly into Orlando, Florida for a Disney World Trip makes the most sense, it may not be the cheapest option. For example, Tampa International Airport is less than a 90-minute drive to most Disney World locations. At times, flights to Tampa Bay are cheaper than flights to Orlando. In that case, you would factor in additional gas costs as well as possible additional rental car costs.
I recommend going through that process every single time you book a flight. In some scenarios, the cheaper flight out of or into a nearby airport may not be worth it after factoring in other costs. Costs to consider include gas, rental cars, taxis and rideshare, and your time.
Consider All Airlines
You must be willing to fly with all airlines to get the cheapest flight price. That includes budget airlines like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines. In many scenarios, the budget airlines will have the best prices — at least on the surface. Consider additional baggage and seat selection fees when calculating the final price.
Consider a Fare with a Connection
Direct flights are always better, but they are not always cheaper. Consider all flights when booking, even those with connections. Here is an example of prices for a few roundtrip flights from Philadelphia to Phoenix.
- $221 for 2 Stops
- $338 for 1 Stop
- $359 for Nonstop
Opting for the flight with 2 stops saves $117 over the flight with 1 stop and $138 over the nonstop flight. The flight with 1 stop only saves $21 over the direct flight, but it is still cheaper. Time is money, so it comes down to how much you value your time. In the above scenario, it may make sense to opt for the flight with 2 stops because the savings are pretty significant.
I have come across many other examples where flights with 1 stop are hundreds of dollars cheaper than the nonstop equivalent. Those are the ones you want to find and book if you’re looking for the cheapest flight possible while also not wasting time. While you can save a lot of money booking a domestic flight with a connection, the savings are many times much greater when booking internationally.
Consider All Days and Times
As previously detailed, flexibility is the most important factor in finding the cheapest possible flight. Find the destination and then find the dates. Part of that includes being willing to depart and arrive on any day of the week. It also includes being willing to fly any time of the day — and that includes undesirable times such as very early in the morning or overnight.
While there is no set rule, flight prices are usually cheaper when flying on Tuesday and Wednesday. For weekend travel, Saturdays are usually cheaper than Sundays. Please note, that is true for days actually flying. For booking, there is no best day.
Consider the Offseason and Non-Holiday Dates
Summer and the holidays are the most popular times of the year to travel. With the popularity comes expensive flight prices. For the cheapest flight prices, avoid the heart of summer — the middle to the end of June through the first few weeks in August. The end of August is my favorite time of the year to take beach vacations because of the low prices. For the holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve tend to have high flight prices.
Steer Clear of Common Cheap Flight Myths
From clearing cookies to only booking on Tuesday mornings, here are some common cheap flight myths to avoid.
Myth: Clear Your Cookies to Find Cheaper Flight Deals
This myth sounds logical on the surface. You search for a flight and the airline or OTA “saves” your search with a browser cookie. They then know where you want to go and only show you more expensive prices.
There is not a shred of truth to this one. While clearing your cookies will not hurt you, it is not going to get you a cheaper price. On the other hand, failing to clear your cookies is not going to increase your flight price. I have tested this myth numerous times, and clearing cookies has never helped me score a cheap deal.
You may have found a good price on a flight and repeated the search only to find it went up. Flight prices change by the second, and there is nothing you can do to control them. The price simply went up, and clearing your cookies will not bring back the original price. That is why it is smart to book immediately when you see a great deal on a flight — plus, you also get 24 hours to cancel.
Myth: Only Search for Flight Prices in Incognito
This myth is similar to the cookie clearing myth. You search in incognito mode and the airline or OTA cannot track you. Thus they have no knowledge of your previous searches and cannot jack up the price on you.
There is also no truth to this one. Even if airlines were tracking you, it would not influence the price. Like the cookies myth, I have tested this one a lot. Searching for prices in incognito has never netted a lower price than searching in non-incognito mode. Remember, flight prices are dynamic and often change multiple times per day.
Myth: Tuesday Morning is the Best Time to Find Flight Deals
While cheap flight deals can and are often found on Tuesday, there is no evidence for it being the best day to book. Cheap flight prices are available 24/7, with no time being the best. Believing the myth can be harmful if it deters you from searching for flights on other days. Continue searching on Tuesday, but understand there is nothing special about it.
Myth: Cheap Prices Can Be Predicted
You may have seen guides on other websites with the cheapest times or days to book based on prior prices. While those prices may come back, they could return at any time. In other words, historical cheap prices for a certain flight or destination have little bearing on future prices.
Other Tips to Find Cheap Flight Prices
While the basic formula of finding a cheap destination and then find cheap dates for that destination remains the same, here are other helpful tips.
Track Prices with Google Flights Alerts
Ideally, you are finding a cheap destination and booking it based on the cheapest dates. If you are dead set on a destination and particular dates, I highly recommend using Google Flights’ price tracking feature. To activate, choose your destination and dates and turn on the “Track Prices” option near the filters. Google will alert you of price changes via email.
Opt for Roundtrip and Open-Jaw Flights Over One-Way Fares
Always opt for roundtrip flights over one-way flights. For example, it is usually cheaper to book a roundtrip flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles than to purchase two separate one-way tickets. Another option is an open-jaw flight if you want to visit multiple destinations.
An open-jaw flight means the return flight home is from a different airport than you initially landed in. Using the above example, the first leg of the trip would be Philadelphia to Los Angeles. If you booked an open-jaw flight, the return flight home to Philadelphia would be from a different airport or city, such as Phoenix or Las Vegas. That allows you to see another location without having to return to the initial airport. Since it is all on the same itinerary, it is cheaper than booking two separate one-way tickets.
Work a Long Layover Into Your Plans (Stopover)
Long layovers are usually not ideal, but they can be beneficial if you want to briefly see a new city or location. Also known as a stopover, it is a layover that lasts 24 hours or longer where you leave the airport. Flights like these are often cheaper, and you get the bonus of spending the layover time exploring instead of at the airport.
For example, I want to fly from Philadelphia to Hawaii, but I have also never been to San Francisco. I could book a stopover flight with a long layover (24 hours or more) in San Francisco to check out the city for a day or two before flying to Hawaii. Not every airline offers stopovers as an option, so you may have to create a custom one.
Always Book Mistake Fares
Mistake fares are exactly what the title implies — mistakes. Such fares happen due to a variety of reasons, but the bottom line is they are not the price the airline or OTA wants to sell the flight for. An example is a roundtrip flight to a Caribbean country for $100 or less. While mistake fares are pretty rare these days, they still happen.
If the mistake fare is available directly with the airline and an OTA, you should book with the airline. The OTA acts as a middleman, so your odds of securing the mistake fare when booking directly with the airline are higher. Additionally, booking directly with the airline guarantees you can take advantage of the 24-Hour Cancellation Rule.
There is a chance the airline cancels the mistake fare after you book it. For that reason, you should hold off on booking any lodging, rental cars, and activities for a few weeks after booking the mistake fare.
Look for Hidden-City Tickets
Hidden-city tickets are fares where you skip the last leg of a connecting flight. For example, you book a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with a layover in Phoenix. Since your intended destination is actually Phoenix, you simply skip the flight to Los Angeles.
Obviously, it only makes sense to do this if the fare is cheaper than flying direct. Skiplagged is my resource for finding hidden-city tickets. The airline will cancel remaining flights on your itinerary after skipping one, so keep that in mind when considering hidden-city ticketing.
Consider Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) Stacked with a Cash Back Program
While I prefer booking directly with airlines, I do see value in using an online travel agency. Popular OTAs include Booking.com, Expedia, and Travelocity, so you may have already used one. SkyScanner, which aggregates other aggregators, is another well-known one.
OTAs are nothing more than a middleman when purchasing airline tickets, but there is value. Here are a few potential benefits.
- Prices may be cheaper than booking direct
- You can potentially earn cashback with a program like Rakuten or BeFrugal
With potentially lower costs come a few drawbacks.
- Cancellations and changes may be more difficult
- You deal with the OTAs’ customer service as opposed to the airlines
- The OTA may not honor the 24-hour cancellation rule
It comes down to how much cheaper the OTA is compared to booking directly with the airline. If it is only a few dollars, or even $50, it probably makes sense to avoid the OTA. If it is $100 or more, it really may make sense to use the OTA. If there is a chance you want to change or cancel the flight, you should avoid booking with an OTA. While the OTA may still help you cancel or change your flight, the process may not be as smooth as working directly with the airline. Additionally, some OTAs may not honor the 24-hour cancellation rule.
You may even be able to earn cashback on flights when booking through an OTA. My favorite cashback sites are Rakuten and BeFrugal.
Use a Travel-Focused Credit Card
Many travel-focused credit cards offer major points or cashback when booking flights. My preferred card for booking flights is The Platinum Card® from American Express (Terms apply. See Rates & Fees). It earns 5x points on flights up to $500,000 per calendar year booked directly with airlines and amextravel.com. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is another good one. It earns 3x points per dollar spent on flights. Additionally, it has a $300 yearly travel credit that can be used on flights.
The best way to score a cheap flight is to be flexible. Choose a cheap destination and then find the cheapest dates for the destination.
Unfortunately, there is no one best day to book flights. A common myth says Tuesday is the best day, but there is no evidence to support it. The good news is cheap flight deals are available every single day of the week.
The best weekdays to fly are Tuesday and Wednesday. The best weekend day is Saturday.
No. Airlines use complex algorithms to decide flight prices, and your personal search history is not a factor.
For domestic flights, you should book between 3 to 12 weeks out. For international flights, I recommend booking 6 to 28 weeks out. While it is possible to book the last second and find a deal, I do not recommend waiting.
The 24-Hour Cancellation Rule allows you to cancel a non-refundable flight within 24 hours of booking. The flight must take off or land on U.S. soil, and it must be at least 7 days from departure.
I recommend Google Flights, but a variety of online travel agencies (OTAs) exist. Please note, Southwest Airlines does not show up in Google Flights or most OTAs.
In most cases, booking roundtrip is cheaper. For some airlines, two one-way tickets are the same price as the roundtrip fare.
An open-jaw flight is a roundtrip flight that returns from a different airport. Here is an example:
New York to Chicago
Minneapolis to New York
Since this is considered a roundtrip fare, it is most likely going to be cheaper than booking two one-way tickets.
Maybe. While connecting flights are usually cheaper, they come at a cost — your time. Do the math to see if the cheaper price makes sense for the additional travel time.
The Vacationer’s Final Thoughts
As long as you are flexible, finding a cheap flight deal is pretty easy. Remember, find a cheap destination and then find the cheapest dates for that destination. Be willing to fly at all times and from nearby airports. If you do that, you can save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on your next flight.
The best part of our advice is it will not cost you a penny. Use Google Flights or an OTA to easily find prices from various U.S. and foreign airlines for free.
Editorial Disclosure: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.
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