How to spend less on airline tickets is a very popular subject. Several websites offer advice that is generally good and can save you money.
In recent years I traveled internationally quite a bit. It quickly became apparent that I had to spend less on airline tickets or face ruin. By trial-and-error, I came up with my own unique solutions. These are presented here.
Methodically Select Best Route
A better route is the one that allows you to spend less on airline tickets. There are usually so many possible routes leading to your destination that a methodical approach is necessary to find the best one.
The approach taken here is based on these assumptions:
- Keep the number of segments (legs) of your itinerary to two, if possible
- Work on the longest leg first – this is key
- If beneficial, get separate tickets for each direction of travel and even for each leg
- Opportunistically use low-cost airlines or airline discounts, if available
This strategy has served me very well. You’ll find details and how-tos below.
Contrast this with the conventional method of searching through 15+ search engines, then digging through a deluge of results. A chaotic – and mostly unsatisfactory – process.
Buy One-Way Tickets
Travel on one-way tickets. I do it almost routinely now. This works best for travelers with flexible itineraries and schedules, such as retirees, students, etc. (see my post on the subject.) Return tickets are probably better on short trips (say, up to two weeks). But not always. I recently purchased two separate one-way tickets for a ten-day overseas journey. That allowed me to pay with airline points one way, and use a price deal (of a different airline) on the return.
Begin with Flight Search Engines
These are fare aggregators, such as KAYAK, Orbitz, etc. I have become disillusioned with their service. It feels like they optimized route selection algorithms to increase your pain and suffering. They never seem to offer a straightforward route, even if one is available. Instead, their three- or four-leg routes are a contortionist’s dream. (This is true for inexpensive tickets, pricey tickets offer good routes.)
The impression they give is that you can’t have a low price and a convenient route at the same time. That impression is false: you can!
Nowadays, I use search engines only to get an initial overview of my itinerary: to see what is available. Then I go to specific airlines for a better deal.
Minimize the Number of Legs
Many routes consist of two legs because a direct route is not available. Usually, one leg is long (e.g. hop over an ocean) and one short (local flight).
This is not unlike the hole-in-two in golf. (Getting the golf ball into the hole in two strokes.) The first strike is long to get in the vicinity of the target, the second one is short and precise to sink it.
My approach to quickly finding the best route is quite simple: begin with the long leg first. That’s it!
Starting with the long-distance flight has these advantages:
- There are fewer of them, so it’s easier to find a good one.
- They are more expensive, so the potential for cost savings is greater.
- When you find a good one, 80% of your work on the itinerary is done.
For example: searching for the best itinerary from Warsaw to Denver. Once I found a good direct flight from Paris to Denver (representing the long leg of the journey), the work was practically done. Finding a cheap connecting flight from Warsaw to Paris was trivial.
With this approach, you typically end up with two legs only. This is good because having a single stop simplifies your time schedule.
Optimize the Long Leg of Your Trip
You know you have to find a good flight for the long leg. (To clarify, a good flight is cheap, nonstop, and with convenient departure/arrival times.) How to do it?
Focus on long-distance flights from either end of your trip: the departure or the destination. Not somewhere in the middle of your route. (That invariably leads to three or more legs.)
Firstly, you must obtain the list of all long-distance direct connections from your departure and destination airports. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Let’s demonstrate it in examples.
Example 1: Travel from Europe to Panama City, Panama. The cities with direct flights are:
AMSTERDAM, MADRID, PARIS, FRANKFURT, ISTANBUL.
Example 2: Denver to Europe. The cities with direct flights are:
LONDON, PARIS, FRANKFURT, MUNICH, ZURICH.
- It’s easy to obtain lists of direct connections (google it or use FlightsFrom.com)
- Lists are usually very short (so it’s easy to check them all out)
- Some results may surprise you (e.g. Istanbul)
Secondly and lastly, visit any flight search engine to get a list of flights. Select: “Denver to Paris” (for example), check nonstop, and see what shows. The whole search is quick and efficient (despite the best efforts of the search engine to obfuscate). If a good flight exists, you’ll find it.
Use Different Airlines for Each Leg
Multi-segment routes offer the best opportunity for cost savings, simply because airlines overcharge for them. Meaning that the price for a two-segment flight is often higher than the sum of prices for each segment.
For example: a non-stop return flight from Warsaw to Chicago costs $992. Extending the same flight to Denver costs $1,397. The difference is $405. Meanwhile, there are several flights from Chicago to Denver for less than $150 that could save you $250.
This is the business model of Kiwi.com. To lower costs, they combine segments from different airlines into a single ticket. Additionally, they offer a guarantee in case a flight delay causes you to miss the next flight. Kiwi.com definitely rose above the crowd by offering this unique and useful service.
However, you can do this yourself and save even more. It’s not difficult. In fact, flight delays are not much of a problem if you give yourself enough time for layovers. (Also reduces your stress level and blood pressure.) It helps if you do not have checked-in luggage.
Low-Cost Airlines = Spend Less on Airlines
The cheap, no-frills airlines are common everywhere. Now some of these airlines have entered the transcontinental market. If you can find one, they offer very good value.
I have flown over the Atlantic with one of them, the Norwegian Air Shuttle. They advertise as the World’s Best Long Haul, Low-Cost Airline. By and large, it’s a valid description. My cost was $325 (285.58 Euro). On this route, a typical ticket costs $1,500 to $2,000.
Three things to keep in mind when flying with low-cost airlines:
- When they say low-cost, they mean it (check my receipt),
- When they say no-frills, they mean it too (checked-in luggage and food are extra)
- They came and go (another low-cost, WOW Air, recently bankrupted)
If money is no object for you, this post will be of no interest. No need to strive to spend less on airline tickets. You’ll simply find the best itinerary and pay. For the rest of us, good luck in applying my tips! Happy travels!
Saving on airline tickets is a neverending quest. If you have any tips to contribute, I would love to hear from you. Any comments are appreciated!