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Sometimes the biggest barrier to a trip is the cost of getting there. For years and years, I thought a flight to Europe from the U.S. west coast cost approximately $1200 to $1500. But it totally does not! If you’d like to save on airfare by half or more, here are my top five tips on how to do it:
1. Be flexible.
Everyone knows flights are more expensive during peak season and peak hours. But what you may not know is that airlines routinely and sharply discount their fares for sales that may last just a few days. Or even a few hours.
If I had to name a single thing that has dramatically increased my ability to afford more travels, it would be becoming more flexible about when and where I go. Check out Skyscanner www.skyscanner.com and click on “anywhere” to choose a destination on sale. Then find the cheapest days to fly by clicking on the chart.
Or, when choosing a departure date, click on “whole month” or “cheapest month” to weigh your options.
These days, instead of planning a September trip to France for 10 days, for example, I wait to see what’s on sale.
There are lots of sources for sales, but my favorite is Scott’s Cheap Flights. This is how I recently booked nonstop round-trip tickets from LAX to Barcelona for $340 each on Iberia Airlines.
Essentially, you’ll sign up to receive email alerts based on airfare sales for destinations you choose based on your selected departure city. And it’s free! Scott’s team does the deal hunting for you. As I said, deals can disappear fast, so it’s important to act fast.
Scott’s also posts “mistake” fares. (Imagine some overworked airline employee keying in fares who accidentally types “$67” when he means $670. You get the idea.)
I haven’t personally booked a mistake fare yet, but if I did, I’d wait a week before making any related non-refundable travel plans. Occasionally, an airline may email you to say they are rescinding that cheap fare you bought, which is fine, as long as you haven’t made plans yet.
Tip: Scott’s Cheap Flights recommends booking via Google or a search engine called Mondo, but I suggest you book that cheap flight directly with the airline. If your flight is delayed or changed in some other way, you’ll get the best customer service if you made a direct reservation.
2. Fly from other airports.
Increasingly, I fly from LAX instead of from my convenient San Diego home base on long haul flights. Why? Because schlepping that two hours north frequently cuts the cost of my airfare by half or more. A trip to Europe for under $500 is worth it to me.
In the same way, you can watch alerts on fare sales from other cities (sign up for alerts from Skyscanner or the app Hopper, for example) while you wait for a screaming deal. A domestic flight there could be just the ticket (pun intended!)
3. Join one or more airline loyalty programs.
You already have a frequent flier number? Excellent. Now be sure you have one in each of the major airline alliances. Alliances are essentially an agreement among airlines to honor each other’s frequent flier programs.
There are three major alliances: Star Alliance, Oneworld, and Sky Team to which most airlines belong. Here’s a list of them for reference.
Some airlines, like Alaska Airlines, don’t belong to any alliance, but have code share agreements with many, making it easy to transfer miles.
Your goal is to have a frequent flier number with at least one airline in each alliance so you can rack up miles that can then be transferred to their partner airlines as needed.
4. Stock up on free miles with credit card sign-ups.
This is a huge area of opportunity…but there’s a lot to learn to fully maximize that opportunity. So you’ll need to decide the extent to which you’re interested in devoting learning time to earn award flights.
The Points Guy who runs the Facebook Group Award Travel 101 is the master here. I recommend lurking there for awhile to learn new tips from the experts.
These cards come with huge bonus points when certain spending thresholds are met, allowing you to rack up miles for free flights quickly. Many offer double and triple miles for travel and dining purchases, speeding you towards your free flight even faster. They also come with other amazing travel benefits.
Caveat: Do you pay off your credit card balances monthly? If not, please don’t consider this strategy. Credit card interest rates are astronomically high and will quickly erase any gains you make in bonus miles by far. Only sign up for new cards if you trust yourself to consistently pay off monthly balances.
5. Get two for the price of one.
Savvy travelers sneak in an extra trip by planning layovers carefully so they can visit two destinations for the cost of booking one. There are a number of ways to do this, depending on the airline.
The easiest way is to look for a long layover when booking your flight. If you’re heading to Europe from Cleveland via Miami in the dead of winter, why not plan for a half day on the beach? Suddenly, that 12 hour layover is a gift.
When you book a flight on Alaska Airlines, you can build in a free stopover by checking the “multi-city” box (instead of “one-way” or “round-trip.” Read more here (this info on award travel applies to paid travel as well).
Iceland has skyrocketed to become a premier destination in its own right recently, thanks to IcelandAir’s smart promotion of Iceland as a stopover destination from the U.S. and Canada to Europe. In fact, your stopover can be up to seven nights for no extra airfare.
Not just that, but you can even sign up for a “stopover buddy” when you book your flight on IcelandAir, where an IcelandAir employee will act as your personal host for a day. What an amazing way to connect with locals!
They’ll even help you plan a special celebratory event Icelandic style. Like this adorable secret proposal during a dive in Iceland.
More than a dozen airlines offer these free stopovers, including Hawaiian Airlines (Honolulu), TAP Portgual (Lisbon or Porto), KLM (Amsterdam), and Air Canada (Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver).
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel hacking, but a good start to minimizing air fares so you can travel more!