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How to find cheap international flights

Article created: May 19, 2007
Article by: Jeremiah Faith
Summary: Transatlantic airfare can vary drastically even amongst people on the same airplane. After years of flying between Boston and Italy, I've developed the following strategies to lessen the load of international airfare on my wallet: 1) travel in the off-season; 2) don't limit your ticket search to orbitz, travelocity, and expedia; 3) if you might change flight dates or cancel your ticket, don't buy the ticket from companies like orbitz, expedia, and travelocity; and 4) fly to your main destination from within Europe.

My girlfriend’s from Italy, and we live in Boston on very small graduate student salaries. Because of these two factors, we spend 10-20% of our annual income on flights to Italy from Boston. After doing this for a few years now, we’ve come up with a few basic strategies for getting to Italy as cheaply as possible. These tips pretty much apply to all international travel from the US to Europe. I’ve not flown to other international destinations, so I don’t know if they apply to other areas of the world. Here are the strategies we use:

1. Travel in the off-season

Ok everyone knows this strategy. It applies to domestic flights too. However, I think it is even more important for international flights. We can get tickets to Italy from Boston for as low as $500 in January - March. In June, we pay at least double that amount. Being from cold Boston, I actually like visiting southern Europe better in the winter than in the summer. I can get a break from the Boston cold, and the European museums and tourist areas are much less crowded in the winter. I find it preferable to shiver 15 minutes waiting to get into the Vatican in February than to sweat for 2 hours waiting to get into the Vatican in June.

2. Don’t limit your search to orbitz, travelocity, expedia, etc…

For international flights, the big airline ticket search engines like orbitz don’t provide an easy or reliable way to search for flights around the days you’re interested in. If you’re flexible with your dates, you can often save a few hundred dollars, but the only way to figure this out on orbitz is to brute-force try all of the combinations of dates.

More and more, the airlines themselves are providing really good ticket searches. If you search on the British Airways or Lufthansa websites, they’ll provide you with the prices for several days before and after the days of your search. These price tables they provide can really help you narrow down which days are going to be the cheapest to fly. Often times, the cheapest days are similar for other airlines, so you can always go back to orbitz and search the cheap days for all airlines simultaneously once you find them out.

3. If you might change flight dates or cancel your ticket, don’t buy the ticket from orbitz, expedia, etc…

When you buy your ticket from one of the primary flight search engines like orbitz, it can be difficult to figure out the cancellation and ticket change policies for the airline you’re buying the ticket from. You can often buy the ticket from the airline company’s website for the same price as it is on orbitz. If not, at least go to the airline’s website and check out their policies. These policies can vary quite a bit from company to company, so you might be better off buying a more expensive ticket with a more flexible exchange policy if you think you’ll need to change it.

4. Fly to your main destination from within Europe

If you’re the spontaneous type and preferably an experienced traveler, you can often save a lot of money by not flying to your main destination from the US. Europe has much cheaper discount airlines than the US, so all you really need to do is fly to a city where you can connect to your main destination with one of those cheap airlines. On Ryanair, EasyJet, or Vueling, you can often find round trips for less than $100 (sometimes less than $40).

This strategy is particularly effective during the high season where ticket prices can be almost double at certain destinations. I don’t suggest grabbing a connecting flight on a budget carrier immediately after your flight from the US lands - that’s a recipe for disaster. If your US flight is late, you might have a heck of a time ever getting to your main destination. What my girlfriend and I do is look for little mini vacations to new cities that we think would be fun. We search for cities we would like to see, and if one of them is much cheaper than our main destination, we look into taking a one or two day trip there before we hop on a cheap European flight to our main destination.

In the end, the price of booking the budget airline ticket and the hotel at your first city might bring the cost of your trip back to about the same as if you’d bought the original expensive ticket to your main destination. But if you like to travel and see new places, you do get to see an extra city almost for free.

We’ve done this once by taking a $500 ticket to London rather than a $1000 ticket to Rome. We had a great time in London. We’ve also applied this method domestically by going Boston→New York→New Orleans. This June, we’re going Boston→Madrid→Rome, which also cut our initial ticket price in half.

Based on my experience with this cost-saving strategy, I do have a few caveats: 1) I would not do this if you can’t get your US→Europe flight direct - you’ll end up spending most of your time catching airplanes rather than seeing new cities; 2) I would not do this if you don’t like a little extra stress, because doing this mini-vacation does complicate things and requires a fair amount of extra planning and hotel booking; 3) the budget airlines don’t always fly into the main airports, so it may be more difficult to find transportation to/from the airport; 4) budget airlines are certainly less comfortable than the typical US carrier (the US equivalent would be Southwest, but I’d say even Southwest is a little better than RyanAir); 5) even if you like traveling, you probably will not like the trip home; at the end of your stay at your main destination, you’ll probably be ready to get back to normal life, but instead you have to spend at least a few hours at some city you just visited - that’s my least favorite part of this strategy. and 6) Like I mentioned above, this strategy is a little risky since you’re not flying with the same company for the whole trip. If something happens where you’re first flight arrives after your European domestic flight leaves, you could have one heck of a time (and expense) getting to your main destination. So make sure you have at least a couple days in between the flights, and don’t try it in the winter months if you’re flying or arriving at a place that gets lots of snow.