Summer’s here, which means that the urge to catch a flight and escape to a quaint beachside setting, bustling city, or charming mountain town is stronger than ever. But traveling can cost major $$$, and let’s face it, babysitting gigs or after-school jobs don’t always pay the big bucks. You might not want to drain your entire savings account on one trip, either. The good news: Traveling on a budget is super doable and the first step is knowing how to find cheap flights.
Sure, you could road trip or hop on a train or bus, but if you’re traveling long distance or vacaying for just a few days, flying is the best way to get there quickly and safely. There are tons of online sites to find cheap flights, such as KAYAK, Skyscanner, Expedia, Hopper, and Google Flights. But we talked to the experts to get *all* the tips and tricks on booking inexpensive airfare (and no, we don’t mean browsing in Incognito mode). Text the group chat and get packing because here’s exactly how to find cheap flights.
Be flexible on dates and destinations
Of course, this might be tough if you’re limited to school breaks and summer vacation. But if possible, be flexible on the dates you want to travel. Kayla Inserra, KAYAK’s consumer travel expert, says that it’s typically cheaper to fly midweek, like on a Tuesday or Wednesday, rather than a Sunday or Monday. Demand is oftentimes higher leading up to the weekend (Thursday/Friday) and after (Sunday/Monday), which means that airfare is usually more expensive.
Travel booking sites like KAYAK and Expedia offer a flexible date feature, which lets you check prices up to three days before and three days after your intended dates to fly. “This will help you avoid the most expensive days if you have some wiggle room in your schedule,” Vivian Tu, ex-Wall Street trader and personal finance expert known as Your Rich BFF on TikTok, explains.
Don’t have a specific destination in mind? Erika Kullberg, attorney and personal finance expert known as Money Lawyer Erika on TikTok, suggests Google Flights. “Select your starting point and click explore — make sure you leave the destination blank,” she advises. “Hit the date and click ‘flexible dates.’ Then, you’ll see the cheapest flights that fit your criteria.” (Check out her full breakdown of this tool here.)
Tu also recommends Skyscanner’s “explore everywhere” feature. Just select the option from the dropdown menu under “To” and see the cheapest destinations to travel to during the days you want to travel.
Don’t book last-minute
Plan your trip in advance, as fares tend to increase within seven days before your desired travel date, Inserra says. But if you are looking to jet-set sooner rather than later, she recommends that you book your tickets at least two to four weeks from your date of travel.
“Even booking within 8 to 10 [days] puts you in a better position than [booking within] 5 to 6 days,” she adds. “We really see prices start to skyrocket for both domestic and international [flights] within that 7-day window.”
Know how much you should be spending
Depending on the origin airport, destination, and time of year, flight costs vary. But knowing average costs could help you in your planning. Inserra notes that the average domestic flight costs $486, while the average international rings in at $1,250. Again, these fares will change based on where you’re going and when.
“It’s helpful to see how a specific route has been priced in the past, to get a sense of if it’s a cheaper or pricier cost than average,” Tu says. “Google Flights, Expedia, Kayak, and Hopper can all help you do this.”
Beware of additional costs on budget airlines
You might be thinking, cheap flight = budget airline. But that’s not always the case. These low-fare carriers often sneak in extra charges for seat selection, carry-on baggage, and on-flight snacks and beverages. All of these fees added up plus the actual flight fare could end up costing the same as a major airline like JetBlue, Delta, or United.
“What folks don’t know — but will eventually realize when they get nickel and dimed — is that sometimes cheap is expensive,” Tu explains. “While the flight ticket itself may be extremely affordable, these budget airlines often charge for EVERYTHING (and I do mean everything) else. A carry-on bag, water on the flight, printing your boarding pass, or having a human person help you at their check-in counter — all of these things [can] cost extra.”
Kullberg notes that budget airlines also might not provide the same protections as larger carriers. “For example, many of the major U.S. airlines (including American, Delta and United) will offer complimentary hotel accommodations to passengers affected by an overnight cancellation or delay that was controllable (meaning the airline’s fault),” she explains. But low-cost carriers might not have this safeguard in place.
Consider two one-way tickets instead of a round-trip flight
While it seems obvious that you’d book a round-trip ticket for your vacation, sometimes, it’s cheaper to buy two one-way tickets from separate airlines. “These days, ‘hacker fares,’ aka buying two lower cost one-way tickets on different airlines, could save you a significant amount vs. booking a round trip ticket with one airline,” Tu explains.
Close the Incognito window
One of the biggest myths of ticket-buying is that browsing in Google’s Incognito mode will help you find the best deal. But it’s simply not true. “Airlines and third-party sites don’t know what browser or device you are searching on. So, the prices won’t change,” Inserra explains. “If you do see a price that changes, it’s just a fluctuation in price that’s happening in real-time from the airline, which does happen.”
But if an Incognito window is your preferred way to search, that’s completely fine, too. “There’s no harm in clearing your cookies or searching for a flight in your browser’s incognito mode,” Tu explains. “So if it makes you feel better — go for it!”
Search for student discounts
Don’t sleep on student discounts. Some major airlines and flight search engines, such as KAYAK and Student Universe, offer special, lower-cost airfare to tons of hotspots. You can check out those sites here and here. Bon voyage, besties. ✈️
Leah Campano is an Associate Editor at Seventeen, where she covers pop culture, entertainment news, health, and politics. On the weekends, you can probably find her watching marathons of vintage Real Housewives episodes or searching for New York City’s best almond croissants.