A Beginner’s Guide to Flight-Spotting

When I share my findings of a $69 one-way ticket to Brussels, $210 to New Zealand, or flights within Europe as low as $9, many are unfortunately baffled that you don’t need to dish out thousands – or sometimes even hundreds – of dollars to travel abroad. Ever since my Iceland find in March, I’ve picked up the hobby of “flight-spotting” and found countless amazing deals, including for friends and family. I’ve begun receiving more requests to explain how exactly I find them. First then, I’ll give an overview of the sites I use and then will provide more general tips on how to find the cheapest flights available. Please note that this guide is back from May 2016, but I hope to update it at a later point!

FLIGHT-SPOTTING SITES

Secret Flying

My personal favorite! Secret Flying is very user-friendly, providing a frequently-updated list of excellent flight deals. It is not US-specific and allows you to easily filter deals by region or search for a specific route. You then click on a specific deal to see for which dates it is valid for. Another helpful and time-saving feature is that expired fares will be labeled as such.

Secret Flying

As you can see in the screenshot above, Secret Flying deals can sometimes be customized. Oftentimes, multiple airports will be included in a deal (with separate sets of dates listed for each). Meanwhile, the example above depicts options for an open jaw flight, or a flight where you have to find your own transportation between the two middle cities.

Secret Flying has some of the most remarkable deals, as it is known to feature error fares. And to that end I’ll make two important notes. First, do know that while they sometimes do, airlines are not guaranteed to honor the fare, though you would get your money back if they do not. Second, absolutely do not call the airline, as this will greatly lessen the chances of your fare being honored!

Travel Pirates

This site appears to be featured less, but can be quite helpful. In fact, it was the Iceland deal on Travel Pirates that started this whole thing! Travel Pirates is also unique in that it specializes in not just flights, but also in hotel deals, cruises, and vacation packages. You’re also able to filter your search accordingly. Its packages are excellent for those looking for a great deal but are less into the actual planning.

TravelPirates

An example of a Travel Pirates vacation package.

The Flight Deal

I use The Flight Deal less often, but have to give it credit for finding me the $210 round-trip to New Zealand! It allows you to sort deals based on departure city, though the default city list is a tad short. Though I have not used these features, it also allows you to search for deals on hotels and rental cars. Notably, The Flight Deal also has separate sections for deals on miles (sorted by airline), credit cards with travel benefits, and even travel tips.

FlyerTalk – The Mileage Run

One of the most highly-recommended spotting websites and usually where the best deals break first. Keep in mind that that many of the “Mileage Run” deals are crafted to maximize frequent flier miles and may not always be ideal for travel. For more travel-friendly deals, this subthread is more useful. Beware though, of all the jargon and acronyms used! I definitely recommend keeping this directory of airport codes on hand. If you’re not comfortable with this yet, I recommend starting with one of the more user-friendly sites listed above.

Note: Aside from Secret Flying and The Mileage Run (to an extent), many of these spotting sites are US-centric. I would really like to feature sites geared toward other countries and regions of the world as well, so if you know of any please just leave a comment!

FLIGHT SEARCH ENGINES

Can’t find a specific deal? These are some of the best sites for finding flights on your own!

ITA Matrix

The ITA Matrix is a remarkable, yet lesser known flight-searching tool that powers both Google Flights and KAYAK. While you won’t be able to book flights directly here, the ITA Matrix provides many advanced search options. These include viewing a calendar of lowest fares, changing your sales city, and filtering based on the number of extra stops allowed.

Skyscanner

Skyscanner has been my go-to search engine for the past year and has a lot of excellent features – especially for flexible travelers. Perhaps my favorite is that you’re able to type in your origin city (or even country!) and simply search for the cheapest flights to “Everywhere!” Moreover, you’re not just able to use flexible dates, but can also search for “Whole Month” or “Cheapest Month.” If you search based on month, you should also be able to see a fare calendar that allows you to pick the cheapest dates. Skyscanner also allows you to sign up for price alerts on a particular route!

Skyscanner 2

Example of a search from the U.S. to “Everywhere” (the list goes on).

Airfarewatchdog

Though I’ve used it less, Airfarewatchdog also has an excellent price alert feature that you can use for a particular route. In addition, it maintains a unique list of the Top 50 Fares at any given time, which is handy for spotting error fares!

Other Sites

Other sites I’ve used include KAYAK (allows students to compare with StudentUniverse prices), Expedia (searches for flight + hotel packages as well), and Momondo.

STUDENT DEALS

Remarkably few of my college friends knew that there are flight deals and websites geared (and priced) specifically for students!

STA Travel

My friends and I have used STA Travel and saved quite a lot. It certainly appears to be the cheaper of the two sites and offers an amazing $49 deposit deal for people like me who like to change the travel dates around later! The one caveat is that you’ll also be required to purchase a $25 International Student Identity Card (ISIC), which notably does not ship to locations outside the U.S. In this case though (and as I’m currently doing), you’re allowed to mail it to a friend and have them just scan it to you. STA Travel allows you to search with +/- 3 day flexible dates (and then click forward or backward to see additional dates).

Student Universe

The prices here are generally not as good as with STA Travel, though to the best of my knowledge no additional purchases are required. As mentioned before, you can also search for StudentUniverse prices on KAYAK as the two have now partnered.

BUDGET AIRLINES

While of course budget airlines in general will have the lowest prices, I’ve found that searching directly on these three websites has sometimes yielded better deals than on the above search engines!

WOWAir

This relatively new airline is what I just used to fly to Iceland! It has launched amazing $99 flights to and from Iceland, with flights to other destinations in Europe as low as $159. They also have periodic sales, such as their $159 flights to Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. WOWAir also highlights its best deals at the bottom of the homepage, which are always worth checking.

As with many budget airlines though, please be careful with the baggage allowance! For me it cost $38 for a carry-on (in addition to the provided 11 pound one) or $48 for a check-on each way. Also be sure to bring your own snacks and pillows, as really nothing is provided on board. Other than that, I had a very positive experience with them!

WOWAirSpirit Airlines

I haven’t yet used Spirit, but have found excellent deals with them within the U.S. and especially to Latin America and the Caribbean.

JetBlue

A bit more of a high-end budget airline (complete with water and snacks!). While not the cheapest airline all around, for flights within the U.S. I’ve often found the cheapest deals with JetBlue. In addition, over the past couple months they’ve launched numerous one-way flash sales with flights within the U.S. as low as $19.

GENERAL TIPS

1. Be Flexible! 

Though of course sometimes you have a specific engagement, I’ve often friends ask me to find them cheap flights for a very specific set of dates. In order to find a better deal, I highly recommend allowing yourself at least +/- 3 days of room, as fares can vary considerably from day to day. Generally the more flexible you are, the better deal you’ll get. This includes being open to flying out on a weekday (especially on a Tuesday or Wednesday), during a cheaper month (especially October!), or even into a cheaper nearby airport.

2. Try Booking Flight Segments Separately 

Oftentimes, you’ll find that booking two separate cheap flights is far less expensive than booking one flight directly to your destination! However, if you do so, please keep in mind to allow yourself at least 2 hours for your layover (including to re-check your baggage), as you’ll run into trouble and likely not get compensated if you miss your connecting flight.

3. Flights within Europe are Remarkably Cheap!

As an extension of #2, I’ve found that you can save a lot of money by booking a flight to the cheapest destination to Europe and then flying on to your destination city from there!

4. Keep it Incognito

I’ve learned from Thrifty Nomads that the more you search for a flight, the more the prices go up! Therefore, just make sure that you stay in incognito or private browsing mode.

5. Advanced: Try Fuel Dumping!

I have personally not yet tried this technique, but fuel dumping essentially allows you to save yourself a hefty fuel surcharge by attaching your main route to a “strike” city. In other words, you book a short and inexpensive flight from another city to either your origin city or from your destination city onward. The reasoning for and process behind this is explained in better detail by Secret Flying here. While originally very complicated, Secret Flying has recently simplified this process with the launch of their new Fuel Dumping Tool.

If I think of any more tips or learn of any more helpful websites, I’ll be sure to add them here. In the meantime, I hope this guide has helped you to get off to a good start! 🙂 If you have any questions or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment below.

Thanks for reading and happy searching! 🙂