How to Find the Cheapest Flights & Best Travel Deals in 2018
At 18, Cristal Dyer left Australia on her first solo trip, venturing to South America where she volunteered for a year. Since then, Cristal, who’s originally from Trinidad and Tobago, has become a full-time traveler.
On the Postcard Academy podcast, she shares her secrets to finding the cheapest flights and other travel deals. Subscribe to the podcast to hear the whole story (Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Overcast | Spotify).
Set alerts for error/mistake fares
"An error fare is a pricing mistake by the airline, or sometimes by the travel agency,” Cristal says. “It can be a computer error, but often it’s human error, so it could just be someone who’s forgotten to put a zero in — instead of a $1,000 flight, it’s $100."
Cristal’s three tips for snagging an error fare:
- Set alerts to get notified of error fares as they happen. You can set up notifications on sites like Secret Flying and TravelPirates, though then you’ll get notifications for all their deals. Cristal’s favorite way to score an error fare is to set an If This Then That (IFTTT) alert to get notified as soon as an error fare goes live. IFTTT is a service that connects your websites/apps/channels and automatically acts when a formula is triggered. For example, if you connect Facebook and Twitter, and you want Twitter to automatically update your profile photo when you change it on Facebook, you can set up a recipe/formula for that. For error fares, Cristal set up a formula to get an alert sent to her phone when Secret Flying sends a tweet using the phrase 'error fare.'
- Here’s the formula she uses: https://ifttt.com/applets/37951669d-error-fare-from-secretflying
- Also, sign up for Scott's Cheap Flights to get daily email alerts on international flights.
- Know your schedule. How flexible is your boss? Can you take vacation anytime or only specific periods during the year? Are you traveling alone or with someone? If you’re not solo traveling, how flexible is your travel partner’s schedule? Can you book on their behalf? Will you feel comfortable doing that?
- Don't hesitate. Error fares can last for as little as 20 minutes. "A recent one that I missed out on was to Peru, which I was very upset about. I took too long trying to decide: ‘Do I want to go? I’ve already been there.’ So I hesitated, and I missed out on it. Sometimes they can last longer; I’ve seen some last up to day. Usually, it’s within an hour.”
Some airlines don’t honor error fares, so wait until you have the tickets before booking anything else for the trip. Cristal advises waiting at least 48 hours. If the airline/agency decides not to honor the error fare, you should get reimbursed. And don’t call the airline/travel agency to confirm the error fare you found — they’ll shut it down right away and you’ll ruin the fun.
I love how error fares alleviate vacation decision paralysis by telling you where to go to get a fantastic deal. If you like this kind of gamble, you can also check out Google Flights’ Explore Map. Add in your dates, from where you want to leave, destination ‘Everywhere,' and your interests if you like (food, beaches, etc). Then click on the map. On this page, you’ll see some sliders and can narrow by price. Hover over the red dots to see the flight prices for the cities.
More flight deals
In addition to Google Flights, Cristal’s favorite sites to compare flight prices are Momondo, and Kiwi.com, which has replaced by go-to flight site, Skyscanner, for people with more time than money. Kiwi searches for the cheapest travel deal for you, even if it means a layover in which you have to check in again for your connecting flight. But travelers swear it saves them hundreds of dollars, and if you miss a flight due to a delay or cancelation, Kiwi will reimburse you (up to a certain point) and help get you on the next flight as long as you contact Kiwi directly. You can also play travel roulette with Kiwi by choosing to go Anywhere.
These search engines don’t always capture every price (for example, to fly Southwest, you have to go to their site), but they are a pretty great start. And if you have a preferred airline, don’t forget to check flight prices directly with them, and to sign up for their loyalty program. My favorite airline right now is Norwegian. I just checked flights from Providence, Rhode Island to Dublin, and Norwegian has fares cheaper than what I found on Kiwi.
Best time of year to travel
“Consider traveling in the shoulder season,” Cristal advises. “With most locations, they’ll have high season, and they’ll have a low season, and then there’s this little-known season called the shoulder season, which is in between those two seasons. Usually May and November are considered the shoulder seasons, but different destinations will have their own special shoulder seasons, depending on the weather, and when most people go there. For example, I know in Costa Rica, there are seasons just for going to see turtles. So, if you want to see the turtles hatching, or the turtles popping out of the ground, then they have their own special seasons, as well.”
Cristal’s November trip to Paris was in the shoulder season. “Summer’s over, the beautiful fall weather is disintegrating, and it’s starting to get cold, but it’s not their high season of Christmas yet. The Christmas markets actually start mid-November, so you get to go to the Christmas markets without all of the crowds. If you plan it well enough, you can go and see the sights that are more indoor. Paris is chockful of museums, and that’s going to be my itinerary when I’m there, so the cold isn’t really going to affect me too much. The prices of the accommodation are around a third cheaper in the shoulder season. So, you get the advantage of less crowds, and cheaper accommodation."
Busing it…or maybe not
Once the plane touches down, what do you do? Cabs can be expensive, and cities are fighting Uber (boo-hiss, London!).
"I love Rome2rio,” Cristal says. "Their website and app are really good, and actually give you a breakdown of how much each specific thing will cost. So, it would say that if you caught a train, it would cost you $100. If you caught a bus, it might cost you $50. And it also gives you rental car prices. So, sometimes, I’ve surprised myself and seen that to rent a car is cheaper than catching public transport.”
Finding and booking accommodation
When it comes to researching accommodation, Cristal likes TripAdvisor. "It’s old school, but I love it, because I love reading reviews, and I love being able to understand what I’m getting myself into. So, checking both hotels and regular BnBs, and then also comparing it to what I can get at an AirBnB.”
Personally, I love renting apartments and usually go via AirBnB. Yesterday, a friend told me that when she stayed at one she asked the host if she'd wave the cleaning fee, and she did. I’d never thought to question these fees but it makes perfect sense if you’re staying one night and are hardly there — some of those fees are absurdly high! And AirBnB isn’t always the cheapest option. During a brief stay in Rome, I once left a somewhat dodge apartment and went to a hotel I found on Hotels.com that was cheaper and also had free breakfast.
If you hostels are your thing, Cristal recommends Hostelworld. "They have a review system that’s actually better than TripAdvisor because you can’t review there unless you’ve stayed at the place. So you know you’re getting actual reviews from real people.”
Looking for luxury? If you’re in Canada, try SellOffVacations. "My family love staying in all-inclusives, and I’m always like, ‘How can you afford it? They’re so expensive!’ but my cousin told me about this website where they have last-minute deals for people who want their flights taken care of, their accommodation taken care of, even food and drinks, if you stay in an all-inclusive. They also have regular hotels, and sometimes, they include transport to and from the airport. I can’t wait to book something through it and have a bit of a luxury vacation myself.”
Budgeting for activities
“I try and plan around the best experiences that I can have, but for a lower price. In New York, the Met has a suggested admission price, and people don’t realise that you can actually get in for just a dollar. Most people will just pay the suggested donation price (which is $25). If you do a little bit of research, you can find some of those awesome experiences for a cheaper price.”
How do you find out what’s happening in a city? “I read travel blogs. I know that the information’s super current. Another good option is Facebook groups for expats. I volunteered last year in Wahaca, Mexico, and I knew I was looking for a grassroots opportunity, so I jumped into the Expats in Mexico Facebook group, and I was like, ‘Hey guys, coming to visit, do you know of any opportunities?’ and I would do a similar thing if I want to find out what’s happening in that area. So, ‘Do you know of any cool, local opportunities?’ Maybe some little festivals that they wouldn’t have posted on the big tourism websites, stuff like that.”
Other resources to save money
Travel insurance — "I use World Nomads. They are very flexible. I’m always in and out — I don’t know where I’m going to be. But with World Nomads, I can start a policy, end a policy, as I need to. So they’re super flexible.”
Phone plans — "I tend to buy local SIM cards when I travel. So, I’ll research the best options. Some countries are harder than other countries, and some countries are ridiculously expensive. Canada is a good example, I’m paying about $50 a month for 2GB, but some places are super cheap, and I often find it’s the best option, to get a local SIM card. It’s easier, and I don’t have to figure out, ‘Will this work in this place?’ I just know it’ll work, and I’ll be able to be contacted."
Travel groups — "Solo Travel World posts really good deals for solo travelers if you want to take tours. I know that sometimes you get charged a supplement if you want to go on a tour by yourself. So they work with tour companies to actually find great deals for people who are traveling by themselves, so you don’t have to pay more.”
Thank you, Cristal, for these fantastic tips to save money and still travel well. Get in touch with Cristal on her travel blog, Tofu Traveler, Facebook, Twitter, and follow her adventures on Instagram. Definitely check out her Insta stories — she puts in more effort than most to craft a great story and offers a back-stage-pass to wherever she is.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years working, living in, and traveling around Europe.