Unless you are lucky enough to live in Europe, travelling abroad will likely mean purchasing a plane ticket. Air travel will probably be one of the largest expenses in your trip budget, perhaps even the largest.

The information below and a little research could help you shave hundreds of dollars off your international airfare.

Be flexible

The first rule for saving money on airfare is to have some flexibility with your dates. Sometimes flying a day earlier or a day later can save you $50 to $150 or more on a return flight. Typically tickets are cheaper mid-week (Monday to Thursday) and possibly Saturday. A good rule of thumb: the less people are flying to your destination on that day and month, the cheaper the price.

Use search aggregators

The first thing to do once you’ve determined your destination and approximate dates, is to go to a site like kayak.com and do a search. If possible select “My dates are flexible” or “3 days before and after” to see results that span a week or so.  If you have to select a specific date, chose a Wednesday to see how low prices get.

Sites like Kayak are called aggregators because they search many other sites (usually consolidators, not the airlines themselves). When you select a flight, it takes you to the appropriate consolidator to book it. There are many other aggregators such as Momondo, Hipmunk and Mobissimo. To make things more complicated, you may find different fares for the exact same flight on these sites. So if you intend to find the absolute rock bottom airfare for your route, you’ll have to check them all out. Each time.

If you don’t know where to start, BookingBuddy.com is an aggregator of aggregator and actually lets you check several of them from a single search. You can even set up alerts and receive an email when a good fare is found on your route.

Another good one is AirfareWatchdog.com. After you subscribe, you will receive regular emails with cheap flights departing from your chosen city. This is how I found my $904 US return ticket Toronto-Bangkok in the fall of 2013.

There is also Skyscanner.net. Unlike many aggregators, Skyscanner includes flights from discount airlines such as Ryanair. (I’ll talk more about discount airlines in a future post.)

Book with the airline (if it’s the same price)

Once you’ve found a flight that looks good, always check the airline’s website for comparison. Occasionally, the airline will have a web price lower than the consolidators. If the prices are similar, you may want to check the booking conditions, such as fees for cancellations or changes. It may be easier to deal with the airline directly if you need to make changes later.

For example, in 2012 I booked myself a flight to Quito, Ecuador on the Avianca web site (Colombia’s airline) after finding a good fare with this airline on an aggregator.

Waiting for my connecting flight in Bogota, Colombia

Waiting for my connecting flight in Bogota, Colombia

Extra tips

Booking flights can be the most frustrating part of planning a trip, because prices can change from one day to the next, and sometimes within a few hours. Here are a few extra tips that may help:

  • Try to book your international flights between one and three months in advance.
  • Flights that leave at inconvenient times, such as very early morning, or flights with long layovers also tend to be cheaper.
  • Flights with more stopovers tend to be cheaper. (Make sure you have enough time to make your connections. In some countries, such as the USA, you have to go through customs when transiting.)
  • Flights with a stopover in the USA tend to be cheaper than those connecting through Europe. (Give yourself a minimum of two hours if connecting in a US airport.)
  • Subscribe to the newsletter for the airline(s) you fly the most to be alerted to their sales. Most of these sales last only a few days.
  • Look at flying a cheaper route into an alternate airport, and then reaching your final destination using a low-cost airline, train, or bus. (More on low-cost airlines in the next issue.)

Get a mile-earning credit card

Apply for a credit card that lets you earn miles with the frequent flyer program of your country’s airline. For Canada, it’s Air Canada’s Aeroplan. If your country has more than one flagship airline, then pick the one you’re likely to use the most often. Even if the card has a fee (TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite charges $120 a year) you’ll still come up ahead if you charge all of your expenses to that card and then use the reward miles to fly somewhere. Of course make sure to sign up with the corresponding frequent flyer program; it’s free.

In fact, since joining is free, you should probably sign up with the frequent flyer program of every airline you fly, even if you do not use it very often. You may be able to transfer the points to another program, or use low levels of points to purchase merchandise.

Next week I’ll write about discount airlines: where to use them, and what to watch out for.

Ever got a really good deal on a flight? Where did you go and how did you find it?

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