A Penny-Pinching Traveler’s Guide to Booking Crazy Cheap Flights

Forget your preconceptions; travel doesn’t need to be expensive. With new booking technology, cheaper transportation options, and handy online resources popping up every day, there are a gazillion ways to make travel work for you, no matter your budget. A bed in Bangkok could cost you as little as $4 or as much as $1400, a meal in Madrid could set you back anywhere from $2 to $200, and an excursion in Ecuador could cost $50 or $5000. You have a remarkable amount of control over most of what you spend while traveling, but if there’s one cost that’s significantly less flexible, it’s airfare.

Air Milford, Milford Sound scenic flights, New Zealand

Flying over New Zealand’s glorious Milford Sound

Flights often eat up the majority of a travel budget, but don’t let their pricetags deter you from traveling. Inexpensive travel starts with cutting costs on your airfare, and who doesn’t love having those extra bucks to spend when you touch down? Here are a few of my best tips for inexpensive travel that I’ve discovered jetsetting around the globe.

Let the fares dictate your travels

If your schedule is sufficiently flexible, why not put your itinerary in the hands of the airfare gods and plan your trip around cheap flights? As a student and later teacher in Spain, I consistently had three, four, or even five-day weekends, meaning I was always looking for a chance to hop over to another country. Of course, student and teacher budgets are limited, but remaining open-minded about my destination enabled me to spend my weekends gallivanting around Europe.

Sure, there were some trips where I wanted to be in a specific place at a specific time, like when I traveled to England for the Stonehenge Summer Solstice Festival or met travel buddies in Vienna for a tour group reunion, but my overall flexibility has allowed me to snag some incredible flight deals over the years. Use a flight comparison engine or look directly on an airline’s website, insert the dates you’re available, and play around with destinations – in some cases, you may even be able to set the destination as “Any.” You’ll be blown away by the offers you find when you’re keen for anything and anywhere.

Celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge

Know when to book your flight

Spontaneity can be a ton of fun when you’re traveling, but, if you’re on a tight budget, the more you can plan ahead, the more you’ll find yourself saving. Giving yourself plenty of time to research your travel options will allow you to discover the very best deals out there. The challenging part is knowing the ideal time to book. Should you wait to see if fares drop? Snatch up this deal before it disappears? Studies have shown that airfares are the lowest 47 days in advance, so aim for this sweet spot.

Timing is everything when it comes to flight booking, so figure out the perfect time to fly as well. Avoid peak seasons like summer and Christmas, and research whether your destination has any of its own peak times like local festivals. Mid-week flights, particularly Tuesdays and Wednesdays, will always be cheaper than Fridays and Sundays. Many routes boost fares for business travelers, so avoid times when most people fly for work, such as early morning and evening.

London

Exploring London in the off-peak autumn

Don’t disregard budget airlines

If I had to limit this list to one suggestion, it would be this. Despite all the complaining I’ve done over the years about Easyjet’s ridiculous baggage restrictions or Ryanair’s incessant in-flight advertisements, let’s be real: without these discount airlines, I wouldn’t have been able to afford a tenth of the unforgettable trips I’ve taken. Sure, you may end up wearing thirty-two layers of clothing or battling fellow passengers for that last aisle seat, but these airlines get you exactly where you want to go, and they do it for a fraction of the price.

I mean, I’ve booked a handful of international flights for under €10. Ten euros! To see a whole new country! Most people spend more than that in one meal. As long as you research and abide by the airline’s requirements, you’ll be just fine.

Menorca, Spain

Flashback to that time I found flights from Madrid to Menorca for just €7

Consider nearby airports

Even if you’re dead set on traveling to or from a particular location, your options remain far from limited. Airfares vary dramatically based on factors like time of day, day of the week, and airline, so having flexibility in just one of these areas may help. On top of all that, once you begin to think outside the box and consider other easily accessible airports you can fly to or from, you’ll be finding unbelievable flight deals in no time.

Major cities are often serviced by multiple airports, and prices may vary quite a bit from one to the next, particularly if different airlines operate from each. Most airports lie far from the city center anyway, so why not expand your radius a bit to see if there are airports in the area that offer cheaper flights? For example, if you’re traveling to Liverpool, the public bus from Liverpool John Lennon Airport will get you to the city center in about the same amount of time and for around the same price as a train from Manchester Airport. Visiting Vienna? Bratislava is less than an hour away by train and often offers far cheaper flights.

Liverpool, England

How about that time I found a flight all the way from Sofia, Bulgaria to Liverpool, England for only €20?

Master the art of sleeping on the go

Sometimes saving big bucks on airfare requires major sacrifices, particularly when it comes to your sleep schedule. The cheapest flights are often at odd hours or have long, overnight layovers, so avoid exhaustion by converting yourself into a dozing doyen. I’ve met plenty of people who say they can’t sleep while in transit, but, believe me, with enough incentive, you can train yourself to sleep anywhere.

Packing the right equipment can go a long way. Invest in earplugs, an eye mask, and a comfortable travel pillow. Bring plenty of layers to wrap around you and stay warm; a sarong or microfiber towel can serve as a nice blanket without taking up too much space in your luggage. If you have a long layover, find a quiet spot in the airport away from foot traffic. Some airports, like Doha’s, even have designated quiet rooms!

Sleeping in airports

A night spent in Milan’s airport. Can you guess the age of this picture based on my phone?

Research other transportation options

If all else fails, compare airfares to the cost of taking a bus, train, or boat to your next destination. Certain routes will be pricey no matter how many travel hacks you attempt, so it’s up to you to decide whether the splurge is worth it or if you have decent alternatives. Keep in mind that other modes of transportation may take significantly longer and aren’t always as comfortable, so decide if you have the time and patience for those or if flying’s your best bet.

During my travels in Southeast Asia, I noticed that most fellow backpackers were relying primarily on trains and buses to get from point A to point B, while I stuck mostly to flights. These travelers were able to get the absolute cheapest deals by choosing ground transportation, but, in many cases, budget airlines got me there for a similar price. Sure, spending only $10 to get to my next destination was tempting, but when I found a flight for $40 and could get there in one hour instead of fifteen, heck yes that extra spend was worth it. You’ll need to weigh all of these variables for yourself, but remember that you do have options.

Banaue, Philippines

Well, that’s one mode of transportation. In Banaue, Philippines

No matter how much you’re willing or able to spend, if you’re dreaming of seeing the world, there will always be a way to make it happen. With a bit of strategy, you can fly just about anywhere without breaking the bank. I’ve been blown away by the number of places I’ve been able to see even on a tight budget. I hope you get a chance to as well!

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