One thing that affects me the most is whenever I run into friends or acquaintances, I hear the same things: “I wish I could go there” or “You are so lucky!” or “Maybe I’ll get there one day, I’d love to”. YOU CAN. You absolutely can. The only thing stopping you is your own fear of going someplace very unknown, not your finances. Most people from my hometown take a vacation once a year to “the beach”, whether that be in the Carolinas or Florida, not realizing that they could spend the same exact money (or less!) on a vacation to Thailand or India or someplace else they always wanted to go. If you really, REALLY and truly don’t want to go anywhere but Florida, that is 100% fine by me. It’s you, you reading this, who wants to go to some exotic locale but…doesn’t. Most people tend to think that leaving the hemisphere is not only terrifying, but completely out of their price range. That is simply not true. I’ll let you in on a little information: Our recent airplane tickets to Morocco, round trip from Atlanta, cost $440 each. Still don’t think you can go anywhere?
For as long as I’ve had travel on the brain, I’ve been trying to travel hack. A lot of people, myself included, can’t afford a $1,100 flight to Paris, but I bet they could if they stumbled upon a $390 flight jumbled in all the $1,100 ones. Travel “hacking” isn’t necessarily a hack per se, but it’s knowing what the resources are out there available to you and how to utilize them.
I can spend hours scouring websites and options and routes and prices. It takes a lot of patience and definitely some time, but very little skill. I’m not anyone special, but I am savvy when it comes to getting the best travel deals. Generally, flexibility in your plans is key in getting the best price and being able to jump on something at a moment’s notice. The nature of the airline industry is up and down and up and down and sales here and sales there, so know that even if you miss a good deal, another one is likely to pop up.
I have set methods and websites that I use and I’m going to spill all my secrets with you because I am so over people thinking you can’t travel! As long as you get over that fear of the unknown, you’re golden. Always keep in mind, however, that anytime you use these resources and you see something you like, they go lightning fast. If you don’t buy them same day, there’s a very good chance it will be gone. Sometimes they hang around for 48 hours or so but not always. (Headings have links and all prices quoted are roundtrip, per person)
Let’s start with flights.
#1. Secret Flying
Secret Flying is one of the first sites I ran across ages ago. There is somebody sitting in a cubicle somewhere doing all the legwork for you. This site isn’t too customizable, but once you’re there, click “USA” (or your home region) and it will give you all the best deals of the day for departures from any city in the chosen region. For example, at time of writing, some recent deals are Miami-Amsterdam for $399, Washington DC to Manila, Philippines for $597 or Boston to the Cayman Islands for $290 over Christmas. Don’t live in anywhere near those cities? Not a problem. We’ll hit on that later.
Remember how I told you flexibility is key? Well those dates listed above are, usually, the only ones available with the listed price. A lot of times when you click on them, it will direct you to a site called Momondo which I love, but it will have it’s own topic in a bit. If the price doesn’t generate, it’s not available anymore and try another one. Then book. It’s as easy as that. Occasionally Secret Flying will post “error fares” which are glitches in the airline booking systems. I’m talking flights from New York to Nairobi for $200. Not only are these flights gone within an hour or two because they are corrected, there is always a chance the airline won’t honor them. If you do find one and jump on it, do not make any more plans, accommodations or otherwise, until you have your official confirmation from the airline. Even if you get a confirmation email from the booking site, always try and pull your reservation up in the actual airline’s website. If it’s not there, find all the confirmation codes you can and give the airline a call and ask about it–but never, under any circumstances, mention the words “error fare”! If they have it and it’s honored, YOU WIN! If they don’t, womp womp you get your money back and better luck next time.
All the flight deals is one of my go-to favorite sites. This one is like Secret Flying but you can customize it any way you wish. You put in your home airport (you can put several) and choose the region of the world to which you’d like to see deals, or all of them if you aren’t picky (I’m not!). When I’m searching, I put in Nashville and Atlanta. If I’m searching to Asia specifically, I also use Chicago because there are some killer deals from Chicago to Asia.
Nashville doesn’t produce nearly as many results as ATL or ORD, but as you can see within the last hour are several deals to Paris, Quito, Taipei and Edinburgh.
When you scroll down a bit, you can see on the right is where you can choose the region, and the results get older. The older the option, the more chance of it being gone. The green checkmark means that there are still some verified dates available, however it may or may not be for the price you’re seeing, especially if the deal is older than a day or two.
When you click on “see dates”, a calendar appears below. This is for the most recent Atlanta to Paris option. You can see that there are several months with several dates available (with a little explanation at the bottom). If you click on the price for a date you’d like, return dates appear with the prices to choose from. You just click on what you want and it will take you to the booking site. (We will get into actual booking sites later) Personally, I think $686 roundtrip from Atlanta to Paris is just okay. It’s certainly an alright deal, but I’ve seen it in the $400-500s before, so I’d pass on this one.
Another example, let’s take Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is less of a major hub, especially for international flights, so deals don’t come up as often, internationally or domestically.
Scrolling through the deals it seems there are a few a month unlike Chicago which has several per day. However, the deals are excellent. $245 to Barbados or $99 one way to Europe sounds pretty good, you just have to jump on it when they do show up. Luckily with All the Flight Deals, you can subscribe to the deals from your airport(s) and they will email you when they pop up.
#3. ITA Matrix
This one probably isn’t as familiar, but I love it. It isn’t pretty, but it’s the most powerful. It’s now run by Google and you will also see several links around that try to direct you back to Google Flights saying it will be faster or whatever. Don’t fall for it. Google Flights is nice, sure, but waiting a few extra seconds for the Matrix to generate what you want is worth it. It can pull a month of fares, plus it can do very complex itineraries that other sites just lack.
You can’t book within the Matrix, however. You will need to take your new information and book in Priceline or another booking site. Once you click so far, you can actually see the exact breakdown of your ticket and it’s so sad. A $556 ticket from LAX-Bangkok, for example, is actually only $110. The rest of it is all taxes, fees and surcharges. Makes me want to cry.
Because the Matrix can pull up a month of dates, I like going to this one first to get an idea of when I’d like to go somewhere. For the above example, I chose Atlanta to London for the month of August – Look at those price differences! If you were to put August 4-9 (even with the +/- 3 days option) into Kayak or Expedia, you’re only going to get prices that are well over $1,000. That’s enough to make anyone feel traveling is out of their budget. But because you now know about this lovely Matrix software, you can see that you can get a ticket for up to $773 LESS just by changing your dates.
#4. Miscellaneous Booking/Search Engines
Sites such as Kayak or Expedia are the well known ones, but I also very much like Momondo and Skyscanner. I actually use Kayak most often for quick searches (especially domestic) because it pulls up flights from all the sites. I never, ever JUST use Expedia or Priceline because you won’t get a comprehensive search. Those sites, Kayak included, are limited in what they bring up, as in they don’t show Southwest or some other low-cost airlines.
Momondo just may be one of the best when it comes to searching for international flights. Skyscanner ranks right up there, but Momondo usually tends to find cheaper fares. Below, I’ve done the same search (LAX-Kuala Lumpur, September 6-14) in the Matrix, Momondo and Kayak.
You can see that the cheapest prices in each are $656, $628 and $710. You’d automatically want to go for the Momondo price of $628, right? Wrong. This is where some of your tireless research is going to come in. Kayak (sometimes) and Momondo are going to direct you to third party sites where you actually book and pay for the tickets. Some of those sites are, well, not as reputable as others. These particular Kayak results let you book through Kayak or JustFly. I know because I know, but both are non-shady. The Momondo results give you several different booking sites with all ranges of prices to choose from. Hop2, Flightsmojo and Cheapfaremart are ticketing sites that I have never even heard of, so always do your due diligence and do a quick Google search like “Hop2 reviews” just to see what kind of site you’re getting into. Because I’ve done this for quite a while, typically when those Momondo sites pop up I know which are good and which aren’t, but the ones above in those results? Nope. No idea. A quick search about Flightsmojo produces no results while Justairticket has an 8.6/10 and 3,200 reviews. I’d feel fine booking with Justairticket. If all the results that pop up are shady or have bad reviews, no amount of savings would cause me to book those tickets. But that’s just me. Always do your research on unfamiliar booking sites.
Not the sexy summer ones, but different airline segments. For the sake of this next search, I’m going to use Kayak because it’s fast and easy. The husband and I would like to try and go to Bali this fall. We need something relaxing in the rice paddies so I’ll use this possible future destination as our example. I chose October 1-11 as completely arbitrary dates and I’m also using Kayak’s +/- 3 days option.
Nashville-Denpasar, Bali: $1,377. There were some cheaper, but they had three 15 hour layovers. No thank you. So going from my home airport directly to the far flung place I’d like to end up is costing a fortune. And that’s ridiculous. It’s also a mistake that most people make when searching for exotic destinations. Don’t think this is the end all be all price because this is where the fun begins. It’s also where you’ll need to hunker down with your laptop for a while because you’re going to be doing some hunting. Have a pen and paper next to you also because it can get convoluted.
Okay, first things first, let’s try another, bigger airport close by. In my case: Atlanta.
Atlanta-Denpasar: $995. Better! For two tickets that’s a $764 savings. That’s a lot and all we have to do is drive to Atlanta. But, I think we can do better.
When I want to go overseas, which is most of the time, I think about the cities on each coast that could get me there the cheapest. LAX/San Fran/Seattle to Asia, NYC/Boston/DC to Europe and Orlando/Miami/Ft. Lauderdale for South America or the Caribbean. Chicago is a huge hub and right in the middle so you can get great deals either direction. Because I’m checking for Bali, let’s check two separate legs: ATL-LAX and then LAX-Denpasar.
ATL-LAX: $172 with Frontier
LAX-Denpasar: $596. Now that $995 flight is $768. So all we have to do is drive to Atlanta and book two separate segments to save $454 on two tickets. But total from the Nashville option we are saving $1,218 on two tickets! This is where, personally, driving 4 hours to Atlanta is WELL worth it. But can we do better???
This is where you also need to think about big hubs near your destination. For example, if you want Paris, also check London. Again, I know because I know, but Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are two really big hubs in Southeast Asia near enough to Bali, so let’s try those.
LAX-Kuala Lumpur: $507
Neither one of those seem worth looking for another leg from there to Bali, so scratch. Chicago options?
Chicago-Kuala Lumpur: $621. Okay we may be onto something because I know how cheap flying from Kuala Lumpur to just about anywhere in Asia can be.
Kuala Lumpur-Denpasar: $112 (with AirAsia, your best friend). Our flight is now $733. But it’s two extra hours of driving to Chicago to save $70 on two tickets. Meh. The Atlanta option is probably best.
Do you see how it keeps getting cheaper and cheaper? You just have to search, search, search using all the above resources until you find something you like and decide what your money and time is worth. It started out at $1377 and it came down to $733 just by doing some research. This is just even a regular day, that’s not incorporating any kind of deal from Secret Flying or All the Flight Deals. If we were to do that…
Let’s use a Secret Flying deal from today. New York-Paris: $358. The dates are for winter, but don’t disregard Paris in the winter! I clicked on Dec 7-14. The deal is still there, however you have a long layover in Lisbon. If you look at the very next result down, there is a non-stop on Norwegian Air for $368! Jackpot! A quick Kayak search shows me that JetBlue has Nashville-New York for those dates at $182. That means that my trip to Paris from my home airport is a very good $550. When I search Nashville-Paris directly for the same dates it’s $767! So if you look on Secret Flying and you don’t think those Houston or Seattle or Charlotte deals are any worth, just check and see how much it costs to get to those cities in addition to the deal and more than likely it will be way less than from your city to your desired destination directly.
But here’s the most important thing when booking separate legs of flights – ALWAYS make sure your flight times align. If you arrive to NYC at 1pm, schedule that second leg to London at 5pm. If you have any baggage you will have to pick it up and recheck and you’ll want time to make sure it all goes smoothly. If you have no baggage, check in online, and get your boarding pass on your phone like I do, then you won’t need to worry as much, you just go to your next gate. But just always make sure your dates align and your times align to give yourself plenty of time in between. Keep in mind arrival days also. If you are going from Seattle to Tokyo, but found a better deal doing two legs Seattle-Seoul and Seoul-Tokyo, remember that you arrive in Seoul the next day, so don’t schedule that second flight for the same day you leave the United States.
I hope all that made some sort of sense. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
#6. Know your hubs/airlines
Knowing good and bad airlines and bigger hubs can help a little. Chicago-Asia deals, although excellent, are usually found through China Eastern, an airline that I refuse to fly with because of their awful, awful reviews. So when they do pop up, as long as they aren’t on China Eastern, I’ll consider them. I also prefer to fly non-US based airlines if I can. Not because I’m anti-American, but because airlines based elsewhere are generally better and have better on board amenities. For legacy carriers I love Japan Airlines, Asiana and Virgin. I hate AA and United, Delta isn’t too bad and actually I liked them a little more on the flight we took recently rather than the Netherlands based KLM. For low-cost you can’t beat Southwest or AirAsia. I’m dying to fly Singapore Air or Emirates. It’s just all in the comfort and amenities and for the most part, American carriers just…lack.
As for the hubs, I rarely search for flights out of Nashville for international. It’s a fortune. If your home airport is smaller, search for the closest, biggest hub to you and just drive or find a cheap flight on Spirit or Frontier to that big hub. This may seem like duh-worthy advice, but maybe it’s never occurred to some people to try the different segments.
Look up the big hubs near where you’re going. Like I mentioned above, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are big hubs in Southeast Asia. For East Asia, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul are good places to look. Europe has the big hitters like London and Paris but don’t rule out looking into Rome or Amsterdam either. Other continents do way better at low-cost airlines than the United States, so once you get at least near your destination you can typically find very cheap flights onto where you’d like to be.
A list of some well-known low cost carriers are:
Americas: Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, WestJet
Asia/Australia: AirAsia, Jetstar, Peach, Cebu Pacific (Asia is legit chock-full of them, these are just not as regionally situated. SpiceJet, for example, is mostly inter-India with a few nearby destinations like Dubai)
Europe: Ryan Air, WOW Air, Easy Jet, Norwegian (dozens of others)
Africa and South America have several also, I’m just not familiar with them. You can find the whole list here.
Now let’s move onto accommodation!
I LOVE Agoda and Booking. I find they have the best best deals for accommodation. Each day, different hotels are discounted and when you sign up with Booking as a Genius Member, you get an extra 10% off everything. I usually find a place I like and then pit them against each other and just book whichever site is cheapest that day, but I love them both. They have WAY more options than regular booking sites and just always seem to be cheaper. Let’s check Ubud, Bali. Heaven in the jungle and hopefully a destination this fall.
So that’s an incredible villa all to yourself and that is your own private pool…for $57 a night on Agoda. It’s $67 on Booking today so I’ll go with Agoda. How I love Southeast Asia! If you don’t want a private pool and just want a room…
…That place is on major sale at $18 a night. Yes that’s 1-8. (Normally it’s $64). So let’s say you spend 7 nights in Bali and jump on the $18 a night deal because, let’s face it, that place looks amazing – If you fly out of Atlanta like in the deal above, all in all your Balinese vacation is going to cost you roughly $1,662. You want to add in the cheapo food there and a few massages or yoga classes you MAY have $2,000 in it. Even if you aren’t flying from Atlanta, you can still find a similar price if you search enough. I’m pretty sure that your typical annual beach vacation costs more than that.
I’ve talked about AirBnb before, but I really do love it. If you are seeking a much better alternative to a hotel room, are maybe wanting to save a little money by having a kitchen so you can cook things, then AirBnb is for you. You get an entire apartment in ideal locations for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room.
The photos above are apartments in Dublin, Ireland. They are both in the very city center in great locations. The top row is super cute and $44 a night! If you are wanting something a little fancier, the bottom row is $149. We will splurge on accommodation once in a while, but usually we travel as cheaply as possible and so row #1 works just fine for me personally.
Having a credit card that gets you travel points is one of the best ways to get cheap flights. We paid for our flights to Morocco with the bonus points we got for getting the Chase Sapphire, one of the best travel cards on the market. I love following The Points Guy. I don’t think he ever actually even pays for his airfare, First Class or otherwise, he just uses points. He has learned the complicated ins and outs of points and credit card hacking and it’s all I can do to even begin to understand what he’s talking about sometimes. But it’s really the way to go if you can figure it out. I’ll stick to building my point wealth on my Sapphire for now.
Extra quick tip: Seat Guru. A lot of people already know of Seat Guru, but you may not. You can put in your flight# and see the exact plane you will be flying on, what amenities there are, your seat pitch, in-flight entertainment and more. You don’t need a flight# though, you can just browse airlines and see what they offer if you’re deciding between a few.
I hope you maybe learned a few tips and tricks. I know it sounds intimidating (and time consuming) but once you learn the sites and build your own methods, you’ll learn that those places that you tell me you wish you could visit? Well, you can go. Just step outside that comfort zone, do some searching and book that ticket. You will be more upset on your death bed about the things you always wanted to do and didn’t, when there really was nothing stopping you. Especially when you know now that it’s not the money.
Do you have any of your own sites or hacks that you use? Or suggestions to add with what I already do? Let me know in the comments!