Flight prices change constantly based on a number of factors, and they’re impossible to predict. If you think you’ve found a way to game the system, it’s more likely that you’ve just gotten lucky. But even if there aren’t any magic tricks, there are some things you can do to maximize your travel deals for grad school visits and holiday travel.
We called up Scott Keyes, founder of flight deals newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights and travel expert, for some tips on snagging unbeatable airfare deals. As long as you’ve got patience, flexibility, and a little bit of creativity, chances are pretty good you can get a better deal than the first flight you find when you start your search.
1. Search Flights To and From Nearby Airports
Being as flexible as you can afford to be is essentially Keyes’s cardinal rule for finding flight discounts.
“We often have more flexibility than we think we have,” he says. Case in point: The best deal he says he’s ever gotten was a $144 round-trip flight between New York and Milan. When he found that deal, he was living in Washington, D.C. But it was hundreds of dollars cheaper for him to take a $20 bus ride to NYC and fly from there than it would have been for him to fly from his home airport.
You can apply this technique to your own travel plans within the US. Say you live near Yakima, Washington, and you want to visit the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Flying between two smaller airports means you’ll have more connecting flights, which means a pricier flight ticket. If you were to fly to Seattle first on a separate ticket, which is a much bigger hub, you could save hundreds of dollars over booking a single round-trip ticket from your home airport.
2. Use Flight Search Engines to Find Deals
Checking airline sites one by one will eat up all your time. Google Flights is the main tool of choice for Keyes, and it’s a good one because you can see low prices on their calendar even before you lock in a set of dates. You can also use it to quickly compare prices between multiple cities. Keyes says he usually starts there when he’s researching flight prices, then moves on to booking sites like Momondo and Skyscanner, which occasionally offer lower prices than you can find with the airline. Always check Southwest separately, since their prices don’t show up on search engines.
3. Check for “Hidden City” Hacker Fares
It’s sometimes cheaper to “connect” through your destination city than to make it your final destination. For example, maybe it costs $400 to fly from Boston to Denver, but $350 to fly from Boston to Los Angeles with a stop in Denver. You’d book the latter flight and stay put in Denver instead of getting on your connecting flight to L.A.
You can find these “hidden city” fares on Skiplagged, which will search for routes that include your destination as a stopover. “Airlines really don’t like it,” Keyes says, and you can find horror stories of people losing their airline status when they’ve been caught ditching flights to save money. “But it’s not illegal, and I’d argue it’s not unethical—when you buy an extra large pizza, you don’t have to eat every slice.” Further, those stories are rare, Keyes says; as long as you’re not doing this all the time, everything typically works out just fine.
There are two major disadvantages to this approach, so flier beware: First, you can’t check any luggage, because your suitcase will end up in the final destination on your boarding pass. Second, you can’t book a round-trip ticket, because the airline will automatically cancel the rest of your journey if you don’t show up for any leg of it.
4. Book Holiday Flights in the Opposite Season
Holiday travel (including spring break) is one of the most expensive times to fly. This is the one time it’s almost always cheaper to checkout and book as far in advance as you possibly can, rather than waiting to see if prices fluctuate.
“Rather than booking a month in advance like most people do, try to book in the opposite season,” Keyes says. “When you’re at your July 4th barbecue, that’s when you should be booking your Christmas flights.”
5. Consider One-Way Flights Instead of a Round-Trip Ticket
When you’re flying within the United States, it’s not usually much cheaper, if at all, to book a roundtrip ticket than two separate one-ways, Keyes says. So, exploit that. See if you can get a special offer by booking one-way flights on two different airlines rather than a round-trip all in the same place.
6. Buy a Refundable Flight as a Contingency Plan
Most airlines allow you to cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking for a full refund, for any reason. If you need to book a last-minute trip for a grad school interview, booking the cheapest flight you can find at first glance can give you a bit of extra time to play around with piecing together a more affordable route.
Some airlines will also let you pay an extra service fee for making a flight completely refundable or changeable. Keyes says he uses this method when he’s booking domestic holiday travel: Because Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge any change or cancellation fees, he’ll often buy the cheapest Southwest flight months in advance then watch to see if prices drop or if another airline pops up with a better deal. This way, he knows that no matter how prices change, he won’t have to pay more than the flight he already booked.
If he finds something better, he cancels that flight and requests a refund. If he doesn’t, then he still wins, because he already found the best deal. Keyes suggests setting a calendar reminder every few weeks to check in on prices. Be sure you understand the fare you’re booking, too, since cheaper fares generally come back to you in the form of travel credit instead of a refund on your credit card.
7. Trade Your Time For Money
Hands down, the best way to get a better flight deal is just to be more flexible with where, when, and how you’re flying. Searching for a cheaper flight deal can get addicting, and getting a “better” fare can drive you to extreme lengths. Keyes said he once flew from Washington, D.C., to Newark to Boston to Chicago to L.A. to Denver, just to save $50 to $75. “I would never do that today, because I’ve got a little more money and I value my time over my money,” he says. “But back then, when every dollar was incredibly important, I was glad to be able to trade time for money.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.