I do not claim to have very many areas of expertise. I am decent at a lot of things but it is rare that I call myself an expert in anything. Actually, I think I only have two areas that I am willing to self-proclaim expertise in: sleeping and international travel planning. One of the aspects of travel planning I get asked about most is how to book the perfect plane tickets. So I am dedicating this post to the process that I go about when booking international flights.
Choose Your Destination
The first thing that needs to be considered is: are you going somewhere specific or do you just want to get out of the country? When I am planning a trip, I usually have some ideas of where I want to go, but I find it is best to let the price of plane tickets balanced with the cost of staying in that country be my guide. (I will discuss more about this balance later). When we get time off of work and we know we have a chunk of time to globe trot, the first thing I do is get on the Kayak Explore application.
Kayak Explore is the best place to get a rough estimate of how much it will cost for you to go where. Poke around the map and you can choose options for when you want to travel such as: seasons, the entire year, or a specific month. This can serve as a rough—and I do mean rough—guide to the places you can get to within your price range and some rough timing. This tool is really just a way to narrow things down from anywhere on the globe to specific regions. You can also cross-reference this with Sky Scanner, which has a search “everywhere” option.
Book Your Flight
Once you have decided a region you want to visit or a specific country, then there are many websites to use in order to insure that you are getting the cheapest flights. These websites are the best for long intercontinental flights. They work for in-country flights or small, cross-country flights as well, however I have found that there are sometimes small, local airlines that do not show up on the major websites that can be better if, say, you want to fly from Kolkata to Kathmandu. These are ranked in the order in which I use them and in order of my preference. But it is important to check them all so as to make sure that you really are getting the best deal.
- Kayak.com – This website is the love of my life (don’t tell Davo). Besides the Explore option, it also offers just straight, plane ticket searches. This website searches most of the major airlines in the world and comes up with the cheapest flights found for your destination. It then links you to the website that it found the flights on, and you can book from there. Genius, really. Make sure to look at other options. Flexibility is the key to cheap tickets. There are places on this website that show you the cheapest days to fly on in specific months, etc. It is really wonderful, and you can do a lot with this website.
- Orbitz.com – This is the first website I use after kayak.com in order to make sure that there is not a better deal on Orbitz. Sometimes, even though Kayak is the greatest thing in the world, this website finds a way to make it a little cheaper. So, I always like to check before I book. This website also scans the web for different flights on many different airlines.
- Expedia.com – Generally I have found that this website is better for domestic US travel, but I still always check it before I buy international plane tickets. Sometimes it will surprise you with the best deal!
- Price of tickets vs. cost of country. Some countries cost drastically more than others. For example, it might be much cheaper to fly to London than it is to fly to Delhi, however, it is much more expensive to stay in London that it is to stay in Delhi. So even if you are footing a huge bill to get to a country, you might end up saving money in the end because of the small cost to stay in that country.
- Land travel. Some times it best to fly into a major city and then bus or train to the place you want to go. The bigger the airport, the cheaper the flight, and if you are willing to take the extra time to bus or train overland you can cut a lot of cost and see more of the country! (See our Thailand post about the “sitting with fan” train.)
- Booking small in country flights. If you are flying within one country or to a neighboring country, check with locals or people you know who have been to the country. Oftentimes there are small, cheap airlines that are not easily found on the Internet.
- Order of events. If you have multiple destinations in your travels make sure to try as many permutations of the order of destinations. Sometimes it is much cheaper if you fly to one place first and then the next rather than vice versa. For example, Davo and I got to go to Iceland because I figured out that if we added Helsinki to our trip we could take save hundreds on the flight from Reykjavik.
A few other technical notes (from Davo) on optimizing your buying/shopping experience. Occasionally, the cheapest flight on Kayak will have a notice under it saying “Only 3 seats left! Book now!” I was recently looking at booking such a flight, but waited too long and it disappeared the next day. However, a day or two later the flight reappeared for the same price with the same notice. (I’m guessing that it’s an advertising ploy, where the airlines only release a certain number of tickets each day at a certain price). If the site gives you such a warning then the flight disappears, there’s a chance that it will reappear. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that, but if you’re not pressed for time in booking the tickets, it might be worth waiting a day or two to see.
Additionally, I’ve read (although I have no direct experience to confirm this) that ticket-booking websites sometimes track visits to their site. If they see that you frequently search for airline tickets, they won’t display the cheapest flights. Apparently, if you clear your browsing history, cookies, etc., you will get cheaper flights. It might also work to use the incognito/private browsing mode available in your browser. Again, none of this is confirmed, but it might be worth trying.