How do you get to fly for free?
This one’s simple on the surface: Use points. It’s the earning of those points that can seem complicated and overwhelming. While my best advice is to pick an airline and stick with it, as best you can, finding the perfect frequent flier program requires a little researching, and asking yourself three questions. How easy is it to earn points? (The quicker you earn, the quicker you can spend.) Where do this airline fly? (You want access to places you actually want to go.) And how easy it is to spend your points? (There’s no need to complicate this.) While there’s no one-size-fits-all airline rewards program, there are have a few U.S.-based favorites:
• Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: Alaska is one of the few traditionalists left that rewards you based on the number of miles you fly, instead of how much you spend. Short flights start at just 10,000 miles, so you don’t have to fly that far to start redeeming points.
• JetBlue’s TrueBlue: The perk here is that your points never expire. So as you earn three points per dollar (or six points per dollar, if you book directly on JetBlue’s site), you know that they’re piling up, big time, into a treasure trove of free flights. When it comes to booking said rewards flights, there are no blackout dates.
• Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards: Southwest’s rewards program is strong, especially if you make frequent domestic trips. Your reward comes from dollars spent, based on fare class—that’s six points per dollar on “Wanna Get Away” tickets; 10 points per dollar on “Anytime” tickets; and 12 points per dollar on “Business Select” tickets. When it comes to redeeming there are no blackout dates, not even holidays, and no change fees or cancellation fees, either.
• United Airlines’ MileagePlus: You can earn and spend points on flights with 28 airlines to and from more than 1,100 destinations, thanks to United’s StarAlliace partnership. The huge route network, in and out of the U.S., is key here, and makes the complicated MileagePlus redemption plan worth it. Your best bet is to use the points calculator tool to work out how many points you need to get a free flight, and work backwards from there.
Do flight prices drop on a specific day of the week?
Despite persistent (and conflicting!) myths, there really is no one magic day to book plane tickets. But reliable studies show that one of the best days to book are Sundays, especially if it’s more than 21 days before your trip, and prices on domestic flights dip mid-week, around Tuesday or Wednesday, because there’s less demand for business travel.
How do price trackers work?
To find cheap flights, price trackers are the ultimate tool—just search once, and you can be done. Using services like Google Flights, Hopper, or Kayak, you can set an unlimited number of price alerts for countless destinations. You could set alerts and receive emails about every place you’re considering for your next vacation, and if one of them miraculously drops below your price threshold, you’ll be notified. Sometimes the dream destinations are cheaper than a flight one state over.
What deal sites should I use?
If you don’t want to put in the leg work, you can let the deals come to you. For those even more obsessed, it’s hard to beat the convenience of flight deal blogs like Scott’s Cheap Flights, Airfarewatchdog, SecretFlying, and TheFlightDeal, which are constantly posting deals from around the world. Follow them on social media or sign up for their newsletters.
What booking sites should I use?
Google Flights, Expedia, Kayak, and Priceline are all reliable search sources, and will direct you to the airline’s site or a third party to book the ticket. Though it may not be the ideal, if you have flexible dates or can fly out of nearby airports (rather than your home base) you can usually find a great deal. Many search sites like Google Flights allow you to browse prices for an entire calendar month at a time. By searching nearby airports—say, arrive at London Gatwick instead of Heathrow—you may be able to save hundreds.
Most booking sites will offer the same price, but some don’t have access to tickets from certain airlines. Before entering those credit card details, be sure to search directly on airline sites, remembering that some carriers like Southwest don’t sell their tickets on third-party sites like Kayak. Comparing is the best way to save.
One of the reasons why Southwest doesn’t offer its fares on online travel agents (OTAs) is important: Should your flight get canceled or you need to change or cancel your itinerary, all customer service will go through the OTA and not the airline you’re flying. Big name OTAs—Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, etc.— have been around long enough to have strong customer service that usually won’t derail your trip. But be more cautious with OTAs you haven’t heard of before—and read the fine print—as there may be heavy change fees involved that wouldn’t apply if you booked directly with the airline. (The real time to use OTAs is when you have a complex or multi-destination itinerary, one that requires multiple airlines and would be impossible to book on one airline’s site.)
How long should you wait to book a deal?
The single best way to know a good deal is to periodically search a specific route, getting a feel for what a readily, widely available price often looks like. By putting in this little bit of legwork, you’ll recognize an excellent fare when one (inevitably) pops up. Many deals last fewer than 24 hours, so booking quickly is essential. Be that annoying friend who calls persistently until someone can confirm their dates and get it booked—you may never see a fare that low again.
What’s the 24-hour rule?
If you book a flight and realize it’s not what you want after all, don’t worry. If booked more than seven days ahead of departure, all flights out of the U.S. offer a 24-hour hold or cancellation policy. In plain English: You’ll get all your money back if you change your mind on that trip to Zanzibar within 24 hours of booking. With this safety net, you can jump on the very best deals without fear, knowing that if plans crumble, you’ll get your money back—at the very least.
What is basic economy, really?
The cheapest flights are often basic economy fares, especially on domestic carriers. They offer travelers the chance to skip out on things usually included in a traditional fare, like access to the overhead bins, the cost to carry on, seat assignments, and even printing your boarding pass at the airport; each of those counts as an add-on, and comes with a fee attached. Each airline has a very different system, so read the fine print (or our guide to basic economy before booking. Google Flights will let you know whether or not you flight is basic economy, but not until you’re right about to book, so keep an eye out for the gray label when you get to the pricing page.
When should you fly a low-cost carrier?
I have lots of thoughts about airlines like Norwegian, Spirit, RyanAir, and Wow Air. But sometimes, those $69 transatlantic flights are just too good to pass up. The key here is to keep an eye out for fees, since most of these airlines run unbundled fares that tack on fees quicker than basic economy, where everything from meals to seat selection to carry-on luggage costs extra. Those fees can add up—and make the budget flight cost more than a traditional flight—so read the fine print (again), think through what you’re willing to sacrifice to save, and do the math before you book. If it’s still a deal, and you’re comfortable with the experience you’ve selected (or not), go ahead and book it. It won’t be first class, but it’ll get you where you want to go.
Use a travel agent
Subscribe to every newsletter possible
Most people don’t like to get a ton of email, but travel hackers know that the best deals get delivered there. Subscribe to airlines that service the routes you fly most. You’ll also want to make sure you’re on the mailing list of every tour operator that interests you. It’s also worth liking all of their Facebook pages as that’s where many brands announce their promotions or contests.
Churn credit cards
The quickest way to earn free travel is to churn credit cards. Churning is when you apply for new credit cards, spend the minimum amount to get the signup bonus, and then cancel the card before your yearly fee kicks in. This may sound like a pain to some people, but think about the earning potential. Signing up with an Aeroplan affiliated credit card could get you 25,000 points. That’s enough points for a return trip to anywhere in Canada and the continental U.S. Now if you signed up for three cards for a total of 75,000 points, well now we’re talking about a free flight to Europe or Asia.
Agree to be bumped
It’s common for airlines to overbook their flights, so if you’re willing to be bumped, you’ll be compensated for it. How much are we talking about? Well, it depends, some airlines will offer a few hundred dollars in travel credit, and in some cases, they may even offer to reroute you. If you have time to spare, this rerouting may benefit you as you may get an extra day at another destination. Just recently, a passenger on a Delta flight got $4,000 to give up her seat. Now that’s a travel hack!
Use your miles wisely
Too often travellers underutilize their miles. They’ll gladly book a flight and pay the taxes because they’re getting a free flight. The thing is, every frequent flyer program has complicated rules, but if you understand them, you can book some pretty impressive itineraries. I’m talking about a mini round-the-world trip in business class for 150,000 points.
Book your trip during early bird season
Many airlines and tour operators offer incentives if you book during “early bird season.” Generally speaking, this early bird season happens during the fall and winter (as in now), with the deals applying to the following summer. I’ve seen 10% off tours, included meal plans, and even kids cruising for free when accompanied by a paying adult. I should note that early bird season isn’t anything official, but there may be incentives if you book early.
Set up a price alert
Instead of spending hours searching for the lowest airfare, set up a price alert with KAYAK and get the latest prices sent to your inbox. Setting up a price alert is easy. Log in to your account and enter your search criteria. After clicking search, you’ll see a tab near the top of the screen that will allow yo tou track prices. Turn that on, and you’re done.