I fly 150,000 miles a year – here’s how I find the best deals on airfare
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Being a professional travel photographer, I flew about 150,000 miles a year, even as a college kid.
As one could guess, flights are probably my biggest expense right now, behind my photography equipment. While I do love to use miles, my last-minute trips often don’t allow me to use points through transfer partners. One of my go-to tools to help me find those “cheap flights” is actually one of the most basic search functions on the internet: Google.
I am someone who splits pretty evenly down the middle on last-minute fares booked with cash and trips booked well in advance on points. I don’t do much in between. The only common denominator is that I use Google Flights when planning travel.
Now, I don’t always use Google Flights to book flights, but I do use it nearly every time as a search tool to find the best-scheduled flights, routes, planes flying those routes, cheap fares and fares buckets are available, especially on last-minute adventures.
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Overview of Google Flights
You have more than likely heard a thing or two about Google Flights. It’s is one of the most straightforward search engines, but it can really pay off if you make use of its more complex features.
Before we go further, it’s worth knowing that while most of the world’s airlines have their fares posted on Google Flights, a few don’t. Some of the most notable airlines missing from the list are Air China, China Eastern, Eastern Airlines, RyanAir, Southwest Airlines, Thai Airways, Philippine Airlines and Volaris, along with a limited number of other carriers (mostly low-cost).
Some of my favorite uses of Google Flights that other websites and airlines don’t always show are calendar views, multiple airport searches and map-based searches. It’s an easy and all-inclusive engine to search your flights to see how different dates, times and airlines match up against each other.
While you can’t purchase your flights straight off Google Flights, I usually navigate to my selected airline’s website after using it to find my desired time and flight fare. And then with airlines that don’t display with Google Flights, like Southwest, you’ll need to go to that airline’s website directly.
How to use Google Flights
Finding good deals isn’t easy, even for the most advanced points and miles gurus.
One of my favorite places to turn to is Google Flights “open search” feature. Using this feature, you can search from your desired airport and then just leave the destination blank.
You can then choose filters that allow you to see cheap, nonstop flights. You can also select airlines, preferred times, duration and most, importantly, which cabin you are booking.
After hitting search, you will find yourself with a map highlighting fares. Airlines offer dynamic pricing, so flight prices often fluctuate even between similar dates. This is a tool that many TPG team members take advantage of when the direct way home is too expensive and they are forced to come up with creative stops. Alternatively, it can be a way to just spot somewhere to fly that is within your budget.
One of the strategies I turn to when hunting down those cheap fares is looking for flights from one leisure destination to another. For instance, Honolulu to New York on July 27 is $325 one-way with two stops on United.
Not great, not horrible.
However, Honolulu to San Jose, Costa Rica, is only $284 each (Note: saver award availability will be much better from San Jose back to New York than it is directly from Honolulu). If you have a few extra days, combined with a few extra miles, this is a great way to use one of those deals, especially when you have a hard time finding a cheap ticket home.
This won’t work for everyone, but for those who want to take the extra time and see some different spots along the way, it’s an option.
Tips for finding deals on Google Flights
Using Google Flights doesn’t necessarily mean you always will get a deal on flights. But, if you’re willing to do your homework, it’ll usually mean you can end up with below-average ticket prices. Here are my favorite tips and tricks that I keep in mind when roaming the site.
Be flexible on your dates
Being flexible with your travel dates is hugely important when hunting down the best deals. Using the calendar feature, you can compare how much different flights cost. Just remember, the same flight can be $150 cheaper on a Thursday than it is a Friday, so double check all the dates around your departure.
Two one-way tickets
Sometimes purchasing two one-way tickets can be cheaper than buying a round-trip ticket.
It may take some extra time, but always compare the two options when booking. For me, this means often flying one airline to my destination and another one home. While it’s more confirmation numbers to keep track of and it could impact some trip protections, you can find yourself saving a few hundred dollars more often than you’d expect if you can accept those trade-offs.
Pay one way with miles, one way with cash
This is a trick that I use when I don’t have enough miles to cover an entire trip. I find two one-way routings to and from my destination. I cover the more expensive one with miles and pay for the cheaper one with cash.
Avoiding holidays may be the best way to find more affordable flights.
Holiday travel tends to be the most expensive type of travel even if you book it way out in advance. When looking to book your travels, take advantage of dates that may not be as appealing to others if you have date flexibility. For instance, instead of going to Hawaii in August right before school starts, wait until late September or October for discounted fares.
If you or your kid’s schedule necessitates traveling around the major holidays, try to go where others aren’t. This may mean exploring mountain towns in the summer or Europe for Thanksgiving.
Certain markets are cheaper
Leisure markets often have more affordable fares. For instance, tickets from Hawaii to Puerto Rico with a stop in New York City are often much cheaper than flights from Hawaii to New York directly. I don’t recommend using the hidden city trick, but instead making two vacations out of one and using your savings for a night or two in that second leisure market.
How I used Google Flights for my summer travel
I use Google Flights every time I begin planning for a trip, so it should come as no surprise that I used some of the aforementioned tricks when finding flights home from Hawaii.
I had a one-way award ticket already booked to Hawaii in July but did not have enough miles in my United MileagePlus account for a round-trip ticket.
I hopped onto Google Flights and used the open search map feature on a few dates following my arrival. I really only had one qualification for my flight home: If flying on a red-eye, I wanted a lie-flat seat. So that helped me begin my search.
Using the calendar tool, I checked the entire week to find the cheapest fare and made sure my routing had lie-flat seats. I found a route in United’s beautiful Polaris cabin from Honolulu (HNL) to Newark (EWR), which was perfect.
Being points rich and cash poor, I decided to use my Google Flights research and then search the American Express Travel portal to see if I could avoid using cash.
In the American Express Travel Portal, I found that the flights cost 72,675 points. If I were to pay with points while holding The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, I would receive a 35% discount off that ticket (capped at up to 1 million points per calendar year). That’s 25,436 miles off bringing my ticket to 47,239 miles one way. This ended up being the best way home(ish) in a lie-flat seat, so I booked it.
While there are better redemptions with Turkish Miles and Smiles for only 25,000 miles round-trip, I accrue status with United as if this were a full-fare ticket, so I am quite pleased. I also would then be able to use miles to get home a lot easier from Santo Domingo than Hawaii.
Is there a day of the week when flights are cheapest?
Yes and no. Sadly, there’s not a one-word answer for this one. Generally, more people tend to travel on Fridays and Sundays due to demand. It is reported that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest, but that is not always the case. If your plans are firm and you need to travel on those generally more expensive days, consider using points to soften the blow on the wallet.
Should I clear my browser when searching flights?
Personally, I have not found that clearing my browser or searching on incognito makes a difference.
However, I have found that using a VPN to change my location does affect the prices of tickets. This tactic really isn’t one that I would look seriously into as it rarely changes more than a few dollars in my experience.
Should I book flights in advance or last minute for the best deals?
In my experience, I have found that the cheapest flights are usually found three to five weeks out. However, if you are traveling around peak holidays this could vary a bit.
If your desired flight is empty, sometimes flight prices will go down closer to departure. But it’s a bit hard to predict the load factors of aircraft, to say the least, so I would generally recommend purchasing flights in at least a month or so in advance.
There is a feature that allows you to track your flight prices on Google Flights and be notified when your saved flight changes in price. This is a super helpful tool when flights are getting expensive as travel resumes.
Google Flights is a great cheap and free search engine to find desired flights for your travels.
It is straightforward yet effective at so many different things. I’ve saved thousands of dollars using Google Flights to find the cheapest routings for years. So whether you are just trying to find what airplane is flying the route or compare prices between airlines, Google Flights is my go-to search engine time and time again.
Featured image by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy
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