The Theory of Anything, Travel

How 20 Minutes can Save You Hundreds on Your Next Flight: Part 1 Intercontinental Airfare

This is Part 1 in a series where I share my approach to saving money on airfare. This post focuses on intercontinental flights, but these methods work for almost any type of air travel. Look for Part 2: Regional and Domestic Airfare, next week. 

I’ve also created a video to accompany this post showing a concrete example of how these tips can be used to save you money. Watch it here. 


When I’m not busy playing with clay as a grad student, I’m often perusing guidebooks or tweeting about bucket list-worthy destinations from around the world. You could say I have an acute case of the travel bug (I suspect I’m not the only one), and although I haven’t quite put in the requisite 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of the art of travel, I have spent my fair share of time abroad.

As a poor and lowly student, I also fall squarely into the category of budget traveller which means I’ve become quite proficient at paying less for more. Case in point, I once paid $23 for a rather capacious room at a four-star hotel in central Paris.

But finding cheap accommodations is a post for another day. Today, I’d like to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve used to save hundreds of dollars on airfare.

Let’s begin:

How to Find Cheap Intercontinental Airfare

Start Early

It should go without saying that waiting until the last minute to purchase airfare is not the best strategy for scoring bargain flights. Airlines use complicated algorithms to price airfare in an effort to minimize the number of empty seats on planes. That means that as seats fill up, prices rise, and the longer you wait to buy, the more you’re going to pay.

Having said that, prices do fluctuate slightly. Start your search early (as in multiple months in advance) and take a week or two to get an idea of whether prices are heading up or down—or let Hopper figure that out for you.

Keep it to Yourself

The ongoing debate as to whether airlines and ticketing sites track your browsing history is far from over. Some industry experts believe airlines will raise prices if they notice you searching for a specific fare on more than one occasion, others aren’t so convinced.

Either way, it couldn’t be easier to start a private browsing session in your favourite browser, just head to the settings and select the appropriate option. (Look for the InPrivate Browsing, New Incognito Window, or New Private Window options.) Once you end your surreptitious browsing session, simply close the browser window and all your history and cookies will disappear along with it. Since websites can still potentially use cookies to track you during your private browse, it’s best to close all private windows and open a new one when performing multiple flight searches.

If your browser doesn’t have a private mode, simply clearing your browser’s cache, including cookies, before, during, and after your search should do the trick.

Private browsing (such as Google Chrome's incognito mode and Internet Explorer's InPrivate browsing, shown here) helps ensure websites can't track your web browsing habits with cookies.
Private browsing (such as Google Chrome’s incognito mode and Internet Explorer’s InPrivate browsing, shown here) helps ensure websites can’t track your interweb browsing habits.

Be Flexible

The best way to save money when booking tickets is to be flexible. Let price dictate your destination, your travel dates, and the length of your stay and you’ll save a lot. This works especially well when you feel the urge to get out of town but don’t really care where you end up.

To quickly see which destinations offer the cheapest fares out of your hometown, open up Google Flights or the Kayak Explore tool, and view prices to hundreds of destinations with an easy-to-use map interface. (FareCompare also offers a price map tool; unfortunately, it’s only available in the U.S.)

Google Flights (left) and Kayak Explore (right) allow users to view airface prices for hundreds of destinations for a single origin.
Google Flights (left) and Kayak Explore (right) allow users to view airfare prices for hundreds of destinations with the click of a button.

On the matter of when to fly, flights are often cheaper during weekdays when demand is lower; if flying on a weekend is not an absolute must, try a Wednesday instead. Use the calendar and flexible travel date tools provided by many airfare aggregators (more on those in the next section) to see how prices fluctuate with departure date and length of stay. (Adding a day or two to your sojourn abroad can sometimes actually save you cash.)

Note: Another tool I only just discovered as I was writing this post is Hopper. This promising site crafts origin and destination airfare reports on demand. Type in where you are and where you’re going and Hopper will tell you when to fly, what airline to take, and when to purchase tickets. Hopper also has a flight price map similar to the ones I mentioned above; however, one thing that really sets Hopper apart is its ability to report prices that others have paid for specified routes; no more wondering if you’ve paid too much or acquired a steal.

Use Airfare Aggregators

Aggregators, or meta-search engines, don’t actually sell tickets but instead, search search engines. (Make sense?) To put it simply, these tools crawl the web looking for cheap fares; they search all the big players, including Expedia, as well as hundreds of other airline booking portals and third-party booking sites. They do most of the hard work so you can be sure you’re getting a good deal. Some of my favourite aggregators include:

Just remember not all meta-search engines are equal and that no single aggregator will have access to all flights from all airlines. Depending on where your origin is and where you want to end up, some may find better deals than others. Typically, when I’m searching for flights out of Toronto, I’ll start with Google Flights to get a sense of where prices are at, then, I’ll work my way down the list starting with Momondo. It’s rare that I make it past FareCompare without finding something within my budget although I have used TripAdvisor with success in the past.

Try Different Currencies

Even when you factor in the current exchange rate, prices for identical flights can vary wildly based on what currency you use to purchase them. For the same reason that thousands of Canadians do their grocery shopping in ‘Merica every year, it can save you money to buy your next ticket in USD, EUR, GPB, or AUD.

Most times you’ll have to change the web address slightly to match the currency you’re interested in (e.g. instead of momondo.ca try momondo.co.uk for prices in GPB). If you simply change the currency using the (sometimes tiny) button frequently found in the upper right-hand corner of many search sites, you’re only changing the display currency and will still be charged in the original currency upon checkout.

A caution about currencies: make sure you double check what the currency is before you buy! If a price seems too good to be true, it’s probably in USD. Use XE to help you keep track of exchange rates so there are no nasty surprises when your credit card statement shows up in the mail.

Check with the Airlines

Once you’ve found an airfare you’re happy with, do one last search on the airline’s website to see if they offer the ticket for less. Airlines always reserve some tickets to sell themselves, and they frequently have sales that aren’t advertised elsewhere.

Even if the price of the ticket is around the same or a tiny bit more on the air carrier’s booking portal, book it with them. If anything goes wrong on your trip, it’s much easier to deal with the airline directly than with a third-party booking website with limited customer support.

Mix and Match

Not having any luck finding what you want after multiple meta-searches? Try creating your own itinerary and mix and match airlines. Say you’re looking for a flight to Bangkok, but you’re having trouble finding anything under $1200, you could instead book a cheaper flight to Hong Kong and then buy a separate ticket on to Bangkok for much less with a different carrier. (This is a great example of when those airfare mapping tools I mentioned earlier really shine.)

This approach works best when you’re travelling to a fairly expensive destination located in a region with an abundance of budget airlines (more on those in Part 2 of this series). Europe and Asia are great places to mix and match, but be careful to leave ample time between your initial and connecting flights; if your first flight is delayed and you miss your connection, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. (Ideally, leave a day or two between flights and take advantage of a mini layover-holiday.)

Sign Up for Airfare Alerts

I debated putting this at the top of the list because, in my opinion, it’s one of the best ways to find cheap flights. Most of the major booking sites and aggregators now have tools that notify you via email when they detect a price drop on fares for any route of your choosing. However, I’ve found that the best alerts come from Airfarewatchdog.com and  FareCompare. Of the two, airfarewatchdog is by far my favourite. Not only does it alert me to cheap tickets for routes between Toronto and the five or six destinations I’m tracking, but it also sends me daily emails with over 20 of the cheapest fares originating in Toronto to cities all over the globe.

There couldn’t be an easier way to start and finish your flight search than by opening an email. The only caveat is that you have to be very flexible with where and when you can make your escape. I’ve been alerted to RT flights from Toronto to Dublin for under $500 and to fares on the Toronto to Barcelona route for less than $600—both great deals in my opinion; unfortunately, I wasn’t really looking to go to either of those destinations at the time. (Having been to both cities in the past, I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t already had the pleasure.)

Be a Frequent Flyer

While it seems like airlines are becoming more and more reluctant to reward frequent flyers, you can still accumulate “mileage” on major airlines and use those points toward free (used very loosely here) travel. Travel hacking,  as it’s referred to, is the art of quickly accruing frequent flyer miles through credit card sign-up bonuses and other means to score free hotel stays, car rentals, and flights.

This topic really deserves its own blog post, and since I’m a bit of a stranger to the world of travel hacking I’ll direct you to the pros instead.

Consider a Travel Agent

Conventional wisdom dictates that travel agencies should be avoided when on the hunt for cheap seats, but there is a certain class of travel agent that has been known to beat online fares. These benevolent souls are found at ethnic travel agencies in Chinatowns, Little Italies, and Koreatowns across the country. They specialize in serving a very niche clientele and typically only sell fares for less than a handful of airlines to one specific country or region. (They can also help you out with that cruise you’ve always wanted to go on.)

If you’re planning a trip to the Great Wall and happen to live in a city with a large ethnic Chinese population, head to Chinatown and search out the travel agents; they may be able to help you keep a few extra dollars in your pocket.

Commit to It

This advice runs contrary to my second tip: be flexible. But hear me out. Once you’ve committed to buying a ticket and the charge goes through to your credit card—a frequent flyer credit card I hope—do everything in your power to get on that plane. There’s no quicker way to eat up the money you just saved than by being fickle about your travel plans. Date changes can easily cost $100 or more while cancellations can cost you even more.

If you do end up in the unfortunate situation of having to cancel or change travel plans due to illness or the death of an immediate family member, make sure you have trip cancellation insurance. Alternatively, check with your credit card provider as they may offer some form of restitution as a card benefit.

A Few Final Odds and Ends

If you follow the approach I’ve outlined above you should find yourself well on the way to becoming an astute deal hound; however, there are a few final tools I’d like to mention that you may find useful.

The reason I’ve relegated them to the bottom of this post is that I haven’t tried them myself or I haven’t found them all that useful.

First up is Flightfox, a website that pairs you with an airfare expert who will search high and low for the cheapest fare that meets the requirements of your custom itinerary, albeit for a small—usually around $50—fee.

When I first heard about this service I was excited and optimistic; it sounded like a great idea. So when I tried it last year for a multi-city itinerary that included Toronto, Kilimanjaro, and Dar es Salaam I had high hopes—especially since airfare to Africa isn’t exactly a steal. Unfortunately my “expert” wasn’t able to find anything cheaper than what I found using the above methods in 15 minutes. I’m not saying FlightFox won’t find you the cheapest fare, because they will, but I’m my—admittedly, completely anecdotal—experience you’re better off to keep the $50 and search yourself.

Next up, Skipplagged: a site that helps thrifty travellers take advantage of hidden city ticketing, a practice that the airlines don’t exactly encourage. I won’t go into all the details, but you can read more about it here. Oh, and if you do decide to try hidden city ticketing, make sure you do not check your bags. 

Rounding out the list are Yapta and Adioso. The former will track airline prices after you buy, and if the price drops sufficiently, the site will notify you and help get you a refund for the difference. The latter purports to be the most flexible travel search tool on the net. As I said, I haven’t tried either of them, so please let me know if you’ve found them helpful.


Well, that’s it (finally!) for this instalment of “How 20 Minutes can Save You Hundreds on Your Next Flight.” If you made it to the end, thanks! I hope you found something useful you can use when planning your next escape.

Let me know if I’ve missed anything or if you’ve got something to add. 

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