12 airline hacks for finding free and low-cost flights including how to use error fares, flight alerts, credit card miles, and more.
Many of us have that one friend who is always savings hundreds of dollars by using “travel hacks” to get cheap international airline tickets.
The term “travel hacking” may sound allusive but it’s really just a fancy term for finding free and cheap travel, including flights for less money.
You don’t need to be a genius or spend hours hunting for airline deals – if you know the right places and way to look for discount flights, it can be quick and easy.
That’s why I asked these frequent travelers and bloggers to share their airline hacks on finding free and low-cost flights.
1. Search and set alerts on Skyscanner
Chantell Collins, Budget Travel Babes
My go-to travel search engine for finding airfares is Skyscanner. I love their platform so much, I even became a Skyscanner Ambassador. By using Skyscanner, you can compare the flight prices for hundreds of airlines to find the lowest airfare without any extra fees. Once you’ve found your ticket, just click through to purchase on the airline’s website.
There is also a flight alert function so you can monitor when the price increases or decreases, then book when there is a discount airfare.
How to set up flight alerts using Skyscanner
- Go to the Skyscanner website
- Enter your departure city, destination, desired flight dates, and click “Search Flights”
- Above the list of flights, there will be a blue box that says “Get Price Alerts”
- Enter your email and click on “Create Alert”.
2. Finding error fares
Ruby Escalona, A Journey We Love
In 2015, I managed to get an error fare to The Philippines from New York for less than $250 per person round trip. Considering that flights to Asia from the US cost $1,000 or more, paying $250 was such a good deal. We did this by subscribing to a few websites called Secret Flying, The Flight Deal, and reading a few blogs through BoardingArea. When the deal was announced, it was only available for quite a short period of time.
Way back in the day, airlines were honoring error fare flights. Nowadays, it is a bit of a hit or a miss if there’s a mistake fare. If you’re wondering what an error fare or a mistake fare is, it is usually caused by people loading prices in an airline’s reservation system. Now, we humans are prone to error (like omitting out a 1 in front of the 250), hence a $1,250 fare will become $250, thus a mistake fare is born.
The Philippine trip was a vacation and a family visit in one. I am originally from the Philippines so the mistake fare worked out to our favor.
3. Subscribe to email lists for discount flights
Dan Bagby, Honeymoon Always
Last year I was able to get a round trip from Austin, Texas to Ireland for only $400 using Scott’s Cheap Flights. This service will email you when they find great international travel deals. You can sign up for free or pay a small fee to get more specific offers. I get a couple of emails each day with good deals and if they are out of my airport, I immediately go to Google Flights to see if there is a day or time that works for me.
In the last week I have seen round-trip flights to Europe in the $400s regularly, flights to Hawaii under $400, flights to Costa Rica between $200-$300, and plenty of other deals that will save you a ton of money. Scott’s Cheap Flights is best if for people who aren’t picky about where or when they are traveling. If you live near a major airport you will definitely see a great deal regularly.
4. Get free flights using credit cards with airline miles
Leah Yoder, Yoder Toter Blog
Utilizing credit card points has saved us so much money on travel! We paid under $60 in taxes to fly our family of five to New Orleans and Florida. We saved $4000 on flights to Australia! Most recently, using Chase Ultimate Reward points, we flew our family to Ireland for free!
The trick to using credit card points for travel is to be intentional about signing up for cards. Make sure you have a basic understanding of the most valuable cards – I recommend reading 10xtravel.com and then apply within those parameters. The Chase Sapphire card has been the most valuable for us, as the sign-up includes a 50,000 point bonus which can be used towards travel credit or transferred to Southwest Airlines. Additionally, the Sapphire gives 2x points on all travel and dining.
Southwest Airlines has both business and personal cards. If you desire to travel throughout the US and Canada, these cards can be valuable. Apply for both within the same year and hit 110,000 points, you will earn the Companion Pass which allows you to pick one person to fly for free on each flight as your companion. This has enabled us to use points to only purchase 4 seats instead of 5, allowing our points to take us further.
We don’t believe in using credit cards to amass debt, only to earn us more travel. If credit cards are used strategically, they can earn you plenty of free flights, even enough for a family of five!
5. Use incognito search for flights for less
Marco Ferrarese, Penang Insider
When looking for flights on most search engines and airline sites, never forget to open an incognito tab in your browser. Because if you don’t, cookies are going to burn a hole in your wallet. Think about it – have you ever browsed the web for cheap flights, found a great price but didn’t purchase a ticket straight away? Was the price higher when you came back to it the next day?
It’s all because of website cookies. In other words, when a flight search engine offers you a great deal and you don’t buy it, your IP address and browsing details are recorded. This allows the airline website to remember your browsing history and stop you from seeing the same fare the next time you log in. Tricky, isn’t it?
Well, the simple hack to get around this nuisance is to open any flight search engines in an incognito window. This makes your cookie and browsing history “invisible” and brings the low-cost flights back.
By opening an incognito browser window I was able to save about $150 on a Qatar Airways direct flight from Penang to Doha that didn’t show up anymore when I tried to browse the site without “hiding” myself. So I managed to save, and still make my connection to Italy to go hiking in the beautiful forests of Garfagnana, in the northern corner of Tuscany.
6. Use a VPN for cheap international airline tickets
Sarah Carter, ASocialNomad
If you’re booking a flight through a company like Expedia, you’ll generally get the best price if you book through the website of the departure country. So for instance, if you’re flying from Norway to England you could save money by going to expedia.no rather than expedia.co.uk.
However, Expedia will usually redirect your search to the website of the country that you’re in. Fire up your VPN (by connecting to a virtual private network) then change your location and you’ll see how the rates change.
It really works. I used an ExpressVPN server to show that I was in the USA while trying to book a return flight from Bulgaria to the UK. Without a VPN the cost was 934 euros. With my VPN set to the USA, my flight cost 276 Euros. IT WORKS!
7. Check local airlines for cheap tickets
Alexandra Jur, A.jur
If you live near an airport, check which airlines land there the most as they are will probably be the cheapest option. For example, Eurowings at Düsseldorf or Cologne airport or Ryan Air at Cologne airport or London Stansted.
Being aware of frequent flight paths can save you a lot of money. When planning my trip to South East Asia, I knew that Singapore Airlines fly directly between Düsseldorf and Singapore. I needed to go to Indonesia, so I checked Singapore Airlines to see where they fly from Singapore. I then booked a flight to Surabaya, Java.
8. Access airline staff rates through friends and family
Keri Hedrick, Our Globetrotters
Have you got any friends who work for an airline? One of the many perks for airline staff, whether they are flight crew or work in the head office, is having access to discounted staff flights. These tickets have conditions like blackout dates or needing to fly standby for the ultra-cheap flights. However, staff may also be issued a family and friends’ flight allowance too. These discounted tickets are guaranteed, so no flying stand-by, but they do need to be grabbed early. They also come with conditions so aren’t the most flexible option, but certainly much cheaper than what you’d normally pay online.
A simple dinner conversation with friends about my brother’s upcoming wedding in Canada and whether we could afford the 30-hour journey from the Middle East with three children lead to a discussion about their staff airline ticket allowance not being fully utilized. A quick date search for the cheapest available routes over the Christmas to New Year period resulted in 4 tickets (2 adults, 2 kids, and a lap infant) for the 16-hour flight to San Francisco. The tickets were about 40% cheaper with the discount if we had paid it ourselves. Our kids seeing snow for the first time and not missing an important family event due to expensive flights was priceless.
9. Check the Hopper travel app for the lowest airfare
Lee and Stacey, One Trip at a Time
If you know when and where you want to travel, the Hopper app could find low-cost flights.
Once you’ve entered the origin, destination, and travel dates, it will search for the lowest airfare available. But the clever part of the app is that it indicates expected price increases or decreases by how much and when. This allows you to book your tickets at the ideal time and get flights for less.
The program isn’t infallible as airlines can change prices at any time but we’ve found it to be pretty accurate and worth checking out. Best of all, if an airline has a flash sale, it will alert you to the reduction so you can jump on and book at a great price. We did this for round-trip flights from Houston to Paris via London and paid just over $600 USD!
10. Set Airfarewatchdog alerts
Sue Davies, Travel For Life Now
Airfarewatchdog scours the OTAs (online travel agencies like Expedia, Priceline, Hipmunk) for flights, hotels and car rental deals. It is a consolidator of OTAs so you don’t have to go to each site to check for prices.
This site is best used for domestic searches. Set your home airport and receive alerts for fare drops to any destination that is currently having a sale. Once you put in the information, Airfarewatchdog provides you with over 15 OTA sites. You then select 4 sites to compare. You can prioritize flights by price, number of stops or convenience. You can book directly from Airfarewatchdog. If the lowest airfare is for an airline that I frequently use, I will book the flight on the airline’s website if the price is the same and I get more miles.
I recently used Airfarewatchdog to find a $230 roundtrip airfare to Austin, Texas. I started searching five weeks before the trip and watched the fares for two weeks before booking at the lowest fare.
11. Book direct on an airline’s website
Sierra Dehmler, Passport Voyager
One of my top tips for finding cheap flights and making travel more affordable is to never forget to check the airline’s website and consider booking directly!
Earlier this year, I found nonstop flights from New York to Edinburgh, Scotland for just $99 each way on Norwegian Airlines. Incredible, right? These flights typically cost anywhere from $250-$500 each way, making it a total steal!
I’ve had the best luck with Norwegian Airlines, and have flown with them many times. Their website is easy to navigate and use, making booking a pretty simple process. Never hesitate to explore each airline’s direct booking options, because you can find some amazing deals!
After finding that $99 flight to Edinburgh, I planned an entire 2-week European trip around it. Once you get to Europe, finding budget airlines, cheap buses, and trains to hop between countries are incredibly easy. It’s getting back and forth to Europe that can add up! Finding a $99 flight over was like discovering gold.
Do your airline homework and poke around their websites – you never know where the best deals will pop up!
12. Receive push notifications for discounts and error fares
Denise van Rijswijk, Inhetvliegtuig.nl
When there are incredible deals or error fares for your next travel destination, you should get alerted to it right away. Deals only last for so long, so when there is the one you should book as quickly as possible. Luckily you can get notified of these deals with flight alerts. Although there are a few travel sites offering an automatic email service, the best way to do this is with a custom automatization query. It sounds technical, but it really isn’t. You just need three things: Pushbullet, IFTTT, and good flight deal RSS feeds. With this method, I booked many flights and recently a return ticket from Amsterdam to Bali for only $300.
Pushbullet is a great app that can send push notifications to your browser and to your phone. IFTTT (If This Then That) is a free service that enables you to connect up your websites and apps and automatically acts when a formula is triggered. With these two things combined you can do wonderful things, like setting up automatic alerts for great flight deals, or even get weather notifications on your phone when it’s starting to rain!
Pushbullet has an IFTTT channel, so you just need to set up an account and create an applet that will filter the RSS feeds of your choice and sends them to Pushbullet. Sites like Flynous.com, Fly4free.com, and Faredealalert.com share the best deals every day. When you add their RSS feed URL to the applet, you can filter de deals by adding a keyword. If you fill in “New York”, it will look for all the deals that mention the word New York, and it will trigger the app to send a notification to your phone or browser when there is an amazing flight deal, departing from New York. Use two keywords like “New York” and “Paris” if you just want the best deals for a romantic Paris getaway. It works like a charm!
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BONUS: Look for multi-city flights
Whenever you have vacation time, I find going to two or three destinations for the price of one is an effective way to travel. If you can find flights on the same routes, you can often buy a three-way fair for the same price or just a little more than the two-way fares. In one case, I found a three-way fare on Ukraine International Air – JFK to Kyiv, Kyiv to Tel Aviv, and Amman to JFK for $777. This gave me a chance to not only visit Israel and Jordan (often paired in a single trip), but I also visited Ukraine for 4 days including a 2-day trip to Chernobyl.
Another 3-way trip was JFK to the Maldives, the Maldives to Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka back to JFK on Emirates for $1040. This included a long layover in Dubai which gave a chance to see the city. An incredible deal when you consider it normally costs $1000+ to visit even one of those destinations.
To find multi-city flights using Skyscanner
- Go to the Skyscanner website
- Click on “Multi-city” and enter in the dates and destinations that you are interested in
- If you are flexible with your destinations, open a second Skyscanner tab and search for a one-way or two-way flights from the airport to your home city to destinations you want to travel to, then see where the layover cities are
- Choose a few destinations and dates with the lowest fare then go back to search in multi-city
- By trying different combinations of dates and destinations, you will be able to find cheap multi-city flights.
What travel hacks do you use to save money on flights? Tell us about it below!
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