Over the last decade, the discipline of travel hacking — strategically using credit cards and loyalty programs to get jaw-droppingly cheap flights — has upended travel costs for long-term travelers.
But not everyone has the time or patience to manage an entire portfolio of frequent flyer profiles, and not everyone is in a position to sign up for a new credit card every time they want to fly overseas.
Fortunately, the infrastructure created by travel hackers has made it fairly easy for anyone to get access to incredibly cheap flights — it’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
And, yeah, a little strategy and patience are required, but it’s doable. Promise.
The trick is to build as much flexibility into your travel plans as possible. The more flexible you are, the more likely you’ll be to find discount flights.
1 – For the Very Flexible Traveler: HackTheFlight.net
If you have a destination in mind but no dates set — or even if you just want to travel but haven’t quite begun your research — then your best bet is to bookmark HackTheFlight.net.
This site aggregates a variety of feeds from people who track discounts and error fares daily. Every hour or so, that network of feeds will turn up a discount flight or a package deal. You can zero in on your country or city of departure for deals more applicable to you, but it’s also worth looking at the big feed for opportunities you might miss when you narrow your scope.
The key here is to check the site at least daily, because deals and error fares don’t last long. And when you see something that suits you — maybe it’s a $200 round-trip flight from New York to Madrid, maybe it’s an all-inclusive in Punta Cana — you need to be ready to pounce.
Just realize you’re beholden to the deal’s terms, so it might be a Thursday out and a Tuesday return. That’s not the cleanest schedule when you’re trying to book time off work, but if you have that kind of flexibility, you can find some borderline insane deals here.
2 – For Travelers With Static Itineraries: Matrix Airfare Search + Flightfox
If you’re not in a position to re-align your schedule to whatever deals come along — maybe you have a long weekend or a two-week break already penciled into your schedule — then there’s a two-step process that can still save you lots of money, potentially
First, head over to ITA Software’s Matrix Airfare Search. There are so many variables in this site’s flight search engine that you’ll be able to get a fairly precise feel for how much plane tickets cost for your travel dates.
And that’s all you need at this point. You’re just price shopping, not booking yet.
So, play around with departure times and multi-city itineraries until you feel confident you’ve found the cheapest advertised price.
Then, head over to Flightfox, a service that employs a network of dedicated travel hackers who guarantee they can beat any advertised price you find for your itinerary. The service charges $17 per person per itinerary, but if you’re flying internationally or along less-than-popular routes, that service charge should be a fraction of what you end up saving.
It’s impossible to predict savings on any given itinerary because of the variables involved (and your own ability to be flexible), but it’s worth pointing out that Flightfox’s hiring process includes a task in which candidates must create an itinerary that’s 20 percent cheaper than any advertised flights for a given route.
On a common route such as New York to Dubai, 20 percent translates to savings in the hundreds of dollars.
If you don’t have the time to coordinate frequent flyer points or credit card bonuses, this is a reliable way to still save yourself significant money every time you fly.
About the author
Casey Meehan writes about personal finance and investment strategies at his blog Stock Hax. He is also the founder of Epic Presence, a digital marketing agency in Chicago.