How to Book The Cheapest Flights Like A "Travel Hacker"

One of the biggest parts of your Disney vacation budget is probably flights. Whether it's domestic or international, you'll want to find the lowest fares, which can easily save you hundreds (if not thousands) on your trip.

Before we proceed, this post is not about using points for your flight. We cover using points to specific destinations in these other posts:

Additionally, our post on doing Walt Disney World for free always includes how we'd pay for those flights with points.

The Basics

These are techniques that everyone can and should be using.

Tip: Book your flight using a card that earns bonus points on air travel, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred (2x on travel), Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x on travel), Citi Prestige (3x on air travel).

Check Google Flights & Kayak

Google Flights is, next to the ITA Matrix software on which it is based, the most powerful tool for finding the best rates on flights. It searches across airlines and booking sites and has a handy interface that allows you to easily see fares across different time periods. Kayak is one of our favorites, mostly because of its "Hacker Fare" feature. Kayak will show rates that combine flights on different airlines to get you the best deal.

Finally, Momondo is widely considered to be one of the engines that searches a wide range of options.

Check The Other Usual Suspects

Expedia is the most notable search engine here. We're also big fans of Skyscanner.

Check Specific Airline Websites

Airline websites are usually the worst place to book a flight as far as price goes. We usually only book this way when we've confirmed they are showing us the lowest fare (in which case we like having the flight instantly available for management on our profile). But there is one big exception for domestic flights...

The only way to book Southwest Airlines online is through Southwest.com. It's likely that failing to check Southwest.com is the way we've lost the most money flying around the U.S. There are probably other airlines like this in the U.S., but we don't know them. Internationally, we suggest doing a Google search for "[country] low cost airlines" to see if there are any that aren't appearing in your standard searches.

Fly Southwest? Check out our Guide to the Southwest Companion Pass

Go Incognito

We run into problems with website cookies all the time when booking Disney hotels, but some say even more important to start "fresh" when booking flights. Cookies are little files stored on your computer that websites use to remember you.

Different web browsers have different options that allow you to browse without any of your old history or cookies involved. The theory here is that if a site sees you really want a flight, they might raise the price on you.

A Google Chrome "incognito" window.

A Google Chrome "incognito" window.

Nomadic Matt calls this a myth, and we're inclined to agree. But it is still sometimes helpful to go incognito just to speed up searches and avoid errors. The flip side is that sites will often offer you package deals based on your history, so sometimes you don't want to be incognito.

On Google Chrome, this mode is actually called "Incognito". On Firefox and Safari it is "Private" browsing. You can typically open a new Incognito or Private window by visiting File -> New Incognito / Private Window.

Look Out for Basic Economy and Low-Cost Airlines

We don't think you need to avoid basic economy or low-cost airlines. We think they can be a great way to save (especially with our tips on surviving low-cost airlines). Personally, we're fans of low-cost airlines over basic economy rates. Both require you to carefully parse details of baggage limitations and up-charges, but on low-cost airlines customers are treated (mostly) equally.

frontier airlines.jpg

When flying basic economy, you're the lowest class customer. On low-cost airlines, you'll typically earn miles in their pretty bad programs, but flying basic economy you'll earn nothing. On low-cost airlines, you're not discriminated against in determining your boarding group, while in basic economy you'll board last.

Don't Talk To Us About Days Of the Week

There are no sound studies (that we are aware of) that demonstrate certain days or times are better for searching for flights. The reasons that are offered for why some days are better than other are usually outdated and sometimes just made up. Airlines use sophisticated algorithms for setting prices, which change throughout the week, independent of day.

More Advanced Methods

Not quite "Advanced," but these are the ways to book tickets if you've got a little bit of extra time, skill, and willingness to try new things.

Follow The Deal Sites & Track Price

The Flight Deal, Secret Flying, and Airfare Watchdog are three of our favorite sites. These websites track the best deals on flights, but many of these come and go within minutes, so you'll need to be quick to grab the best rates. If you've got your dates, you can set up specific price alerts on sites like SkyScanner. We also have a collection of routings bookmarked on Kayak that we get emailed to us regularly.

Book An Error Fare (or Mistake Fare)

An error fare is exactly what it sounds like: an airline sells a ticket for a rate they didn't intend. We booked a flight last year from Oslo to New York on TAP Portugal business class via what may have been an error fare.

We flew transatlantic on a TAP Portugal fare that looked like a mistake!

We flew transatlantic on a TAP Portugal fare that looked like a mistake!

There are lots of ways error fares happen, and sometimes airlines don't honor error fares, so it's important to hold off on making further plans until your error fare is confirmed. Secret Flying is our favorite sites for catching error fares.

Try Skiplagged for Hidden City Ticketing

Skiplagged is a website that helps you find lower rates on flights using a method called "Hidden City Ticketing."

Hidden city ticketing works like this: You buy a flight from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale where you have to connect in Atlanta. Then, when you arrive in Orlando, you just don't get on the second plane to Fort Lauderdale. This is a good way to save money when flights to less in-demand destinations (Fort Lauderdale in our example) pass through in-demand hubs (Atlanta in our example).

There are a few downsides to hidden city ticketing:

  1. You can't check bags. If you check luggage, the airline sends it to your final ticketed destination.
  2. You can't buy round-trip tickets. In our example, you're not coming back from Fort Lauderdale! And if you book Fort Lauderdale to Chicago through Orlando expecting to get on in Orlando, think again! The airline isn't going to let you on the plane.
  3. Airlines don't like it. This is technically a violation of the contract of carriage you make with airlines. They have the right to charge you the fare difference if they find out you didn't just miss your flight. Could they do more to you (like mess with your loyalty account)? Probably. But this is incredibly rare.

We like Gary Leff's recent post on hidden city ticketing.

Book in Foreign Currencies

We don't know the exact reason for this, but it's fairly common for rates to vary by $10 or ever $20 depending on the currency you book in. On round-trip flights for four, these savings can add up. For the most part, there's no good way to know the best currency ahead of time.

You can try checking the site with different country settings if you want (this is a good example of when to use an incognito or private browser to avoid cookie problems). If the settings aren't changing the currency, try visiting the foreign site directly (e.g. thaiairways.co.th instead of thaiairways.com).

Usually we find these savings when a deal site tells us about them.

Mouse Hacking Tip: Only do this using a card with no foreign transaction fees.
Try a foreign currency for a better rate.

Try a foreign currency for a better rate.

Add a Night for Better Rates

We recently did this with the Citi Prestige 4th Night Free perk, were we added a night (for free) in order to fly in late and save on flights. It will be rare for singles and couples that adding a night at an airport hotel (or Disney hotel) can actually save you money. But a family of four may very well find themselves better spending a night in an airport hotel and catching a morning flight pays off.

If you can't make the math on adding a night work, consider cutting one. Maybe instead of flying home at noon on the 28th, you could fly home at 9PM on the 27th. Consider how much more you were really going to get done in that time and whether it is worth the cost of the more expensive flight.

Flexibility if the most important tool to getting the best fare. Someone who is completely flexible with dates, times, destinations, and airlines will always fly awesome fares. As you get more rigid ("I won't fly that airline," "I can't wake up before 5AM!") your options get more limited.

Use Google Flights to Identify Long-Term Trends

While most information on timing ticket purchases is garbage, about two months out tends to be the best time for booking domestic flights. Exceptions to this abound (weekend and holiday travel, for instance). We've gotten great deals just a week or two before our flights, too.

When we're uncertain whether to book a certain fare, though, we'll usually pull open Google Flights and look at the cost of the flight for months into the future. They even have a handy "price graph" feature.

A Google Flights price graph.

A Google Flights price graph.

This allows you to see what sorts of fares you can expect throughout the year. Keep in mind, though, non-peak seasons will always have lower fares (and peak seasons higher fares). 

(Note: In writing this post, we wound up booking a flight because we saw it was at a low points on the price graph. See you in March, Chicago!)

Truly Advanced Methods

Here's an example of Gary Leff (again, we're big fans) talking about the hoops he jumped through looking for a low fare. But where did he end up finding the best fare? Momondo, one of the first places he looked.

The internet has greatly leveled the flight booking game when booking with cash. Remember, every site wants to offer the best deals and thus has a huge amount of incentive to find those deals for you. These sites employ teams of experts who interact with these systems all day long to bring you the best rates.

The flip side is that there is a ton of hidden value when booking with points. These bookings have to be made through airline websites, which means no one is earning a commission finding you the best rate or flight plan unless you pay them.

What tips for saving on flights do you have?

Book cheap flights like a travel hacker! We've got everything you need to know to save money on flights! From Disney vacations to international trips, don't give a penny extra to the airlines!