How to Find the Best Flights While Traveling Long Term
As a digital nomad, backpacker, or other long term traveler, you have a lot on your hands. Not only are you constantly hopping from one city or country to another, but you’re also figuring out accommodation, finding things to do, and planning how to get from one place to the next. It’s like a nonstop juggling act of researching, organizing, and doing.
In the midst of it all, though, you’re also trying to save money so you can make the most of your travels.
The problem is, plane tickets can eat up a huge portion of your budget, and when you’re traveling for an extended period, there’s sometimes no way around buying long-haul (i.e. pricey) flights. Even if you’re working remotely while traveling, those costs can still put a dent in your budget.
Fortunately, there are a set of key guidelines to follow when booking plane tickets that could save you hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars per year. Keep reading to learn how to cut back on your flight expenses while traveling the world.
1. Always Be Flexible
The single most important tip to remember when booking flights is to always be flexible.
You can save serious amounts of money if you’re not tied to a certain:
- Time of day
- Length of flight
If you can even give yourself some wiggle room on just one of those aspects, you’ll already be cutting back on costs.
To make sure you get the most savings, let’s dig a little deeper into each of those.
It’s hard to say exactly what day you should buy your plane tickets on or how far in advance to book them. Yes, you might read other people telling you to buy on a Tuesday, or something like 3 months in advance, but in reality, there’s no hard rule.
Instead, the best thing you can do is simply be flexible with your dates. When you’re traveling long-term (versus going on a vacation or holiday), adding some flexibility to your travel dates should be easy.
Let’s say you see a flight from point A to point B going for $600 on a Saturday, for example. That same flight leaving on a Monday instead, might cost $400. Likewise, you might also find that same flight leaving the next Saturday for half the price.
Being stuck to a single day to travel on is what’ll drive your costs sky high. Try to have some flexibility to save yourself money.
Being flexible on your destination can also open up countless doors to savings.
As a full-time traveler myself, I often choose my next destination based off flights. I might want to go to Taipei, Taiwan, for example, but find that flights to Hong Kong are half the price. In that case, I might choose to visit Hong Kong first, and then make my way to Taipei afterwards.
A great example of this is when I was traveling to South America and wanted to fly into Buenos Aires, Argentina. The flights were outrageously expensive, so I started searching for nearby destinations.
I quickly realized flying into the neighboring city of Montevideo, Uruguay was about half the cost, and a ferry ride from Montevideo to Buenos Aires was cheap and fast. So, I flew into Montevideo instead, spent some time there, then headed over to Buenos Aires — I saved hundreds of dollars in the process, and got to visit an extra city.
Similarly, you could also simply choose to fly into a different city within the country you want to visit. Perhaps you want to visit Chiang Mai, Thailand, but find that flights there are double the cost compared to flying into Bangkok. Therefore, you could fly into Bangkok, then make your way to Chiang Mai via train or budget flight, and cut your costs in half.
Time of Day
More often than not, the cheapest flights leave at the least desirable times of day; they might also be red-eye flights. If you’re willing to fly out at 5 AM or get to your destination in the middle of the night, though, you could save drastically on your flights.
Of course, this could mean missing a night of sleep or sleeping in an airport. If you don’t mind roughing it a bit to save some money, though, try searching for early morning or late night flights.
Just like it’s smart to be flexible with your destination, you should also be open to flying into airports nearby the city you’re traveling to. Lots of big cities have multiple airports, and often, the ones outside the city are cheaper to fly into (budget airlines often operate out of them).
If you’re flying into London, for example, buying a flight into Gatwick airport could save you hundreds of dollars compared to flying into Heathrow, which is the city’s bigger airport. Likewise, flying into Bangkok’s smaller Don Muang Airport could be half the price compared to flying into the major Suvarnabhumi airport. In both cases, you can still easily reach the city center via public transportation.
When you’re searching for flights, always check the “include nearby airports” option to pull up results from all airports in the area.
Length of Flight
This is where you can find some of the biggest savings available. If you’re willing to have long layovers (or multiple layovers) while traveling to your final destination, you could save a ton of money.
A 1-layover, 13 hour flight from Dallas Fort Worth Airport to Rome might cost $800, for example. A flight with 2 layovers, though (turning the travel time into 20 hours), might cost $400. If spending an extra 7 hours hanging around airports is worth saving $400, the option is a no-brainer. You might even be able to store your luggage at the airport and head into whatever city you’re laying over in. Consider it a bonus.
2. Book Connecting Flights Separately
Flights with layovers are almost always cheaper when you book those layovers as separate tickets compared to buying them as one.
For example, you might find a flight on a search engine that combines two different airlines to get your to your final destination. Maybe you’re flying from New York City to Paris with a layover in Iceland, and you notice the first leg of your journey (NYC to Iceland) is with Icelandair, and the second leg (Iceland to Paris) is with Aer Lingus.
If you search for two separate flights (one from NYC to Iceland, and one from Iceland to Paris), you’ll likely be able to find those flights at a cheaper total price compared to buying them together.
Do keep in mind, if you’re buying connecting flights as two separate tickets, you’ll need to make sure you have enough time during layovers to make your next flight. If you’ve bought your tickets separately, Airline A won’t help you reschedule your flight with Airline B if you miss it.
So, if you bought that NYC to Paris trip as two separate tickets with two different airlines, Icelandair wouldn’t help you rebook your Aer Lingus flight if you didn’t leave yourself enough of a layover time (or if the first flight was delayed and you missed the second).
There’s always a risk when booking multiple legs of a trip on separate airlines, so make sure you give yourself a decent layover. Also, some flight search engines will let you book separate airlines on a single ticket and will offer transfer protection in case you miss your second flight. Check with whatever search engine you’re using to make sure you’ll be covered.
3. Use Multiple Search Engines
I have a few favorite flight search engines, but when searching for tickets, I always use a handful of different options to make sure I’m getting the best price.
My favorite search engines are:
Each of those search engines gives you a ton of options for being flexible with your tickets. They’ll let you do things like:
- Search for the best prices out of an entire month, rather than on a certain day
- Explore maps to see which destinations are the cheapest to fly into from your originating city
- Book the legs of your journey on separate airlines
- Set price alerts for your travel dates
Beyond those perks, though, those three search engines also tend to show the cheapest prices. That being said, there’s always an exception, so I suggest still checking other search engines.
When looking for flights, I typically start with Momondo, Skyscanner, and Google Flights. After getting an idea of what the cheapest days, times, and airlines are, I’ll then search with booking agents like Expedia or Orbitz.
Once I’ve found the absolute best deals on flight dates, times, and airlines, I’ll head over to those airlines’ websites and search for the flights through them directly. Sometimes, I’ll find that option to be a bit cheaper.
Without having gone through the whole search process, though, I wouldn’t have known which airline to search with in the first place.
4. Know What You’re Willing to Pay
Buying plane tickets is always a gamble. If you buy now, will they go down in the future?
The best answer?
It’s impossible to tell if you’ve bought a flight at its cheapest price point. The best thing you can do is know what price you’re willing to pay beforehand. Then, when you see tickets drop to or below that price, buy them.
It doesn’t matter if you end up buying them 5 months before the flight or 5 days beforehand. If you find a price you’re comfortable with, go ahead and purchase. Yes, there’s always a risk the prices will continue to go down, in which case you might be kicking yourself later. But since that’s always a risk no matter what, if you go into the process with a price you’re comfortable paying, you won’t feel shortchanged if the price does continue to go down.
How Much Will You Save?
Depending on how often and how far you travel, your savings could be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per year. I’ve personally saved thousands using these tips. In fact, the trip to Montevideo, Uruguay I mentioned above saved me $400 alone — not bad.
If you’re trying to stick to a budget while traveling, you’ll likely be looking at options like buses or trains. Often, though, finding budget flights using these methods can be even cheaper (and a lot faster) than traveling on-ground.
Wherever you’re going, always search for cheap flights, even if you don’t think you’ll find any. You might be surprised how little money you can fly for (even internationally).
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About the Author
Kristen Youngs co-operates two online businesses while traveling the world full-time. Visit her website, One Bag Nomad, to learn how to travel as long as you want and build a successful online business, completely location-free. You can also visit her on Pinterest.