Travel

The Secrets to Scoring Astonishingly Cheap Flights

Scott Keyes is helping all your globe-trotting resolutions come true

Photo: Jeremy Irish/Twenty20

Every year, we make resolutions to travel a little more while trying to stay true to our freshly minted Excel budget sheet. Luckily, for all the aspiring globe-trotters out there, these two promises don't have to be mutually exclusive.

For the past seven years, travel expert Scott Keyes has been mastering the art of scoring the cheapest flights and turned his knowledge into a wildly successful email list that sends the week's best deals to more than 300,000 subscribers. Think round-trip flights from San Francisco to New Zealand for a measly $285, or jetting from New York to New Delhi for just $212. His weekly emails are free, but those with a more serious travel itch can sign up for a premium list for more frequent and exclusive fares.

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Unlike most of us who hate the ordeal of booking plane tickets, Keyes relishes in it. "I enjoy spending six to 10 hours every day searching for cheap flights," he confesses. So who better to ask than the guru himself about how to book your next budget adventure?

 Choose Your Flight First

Most of us plan vacations in this order: Choose the destination, throw out a few dates, then hunch over countless browser tabs looking for the best flight. "Typically, this results in high prices," Keyes explains.


The secret? Rearrange your process. Plan your trip around whichever cheap flights are out there, and then pick a city that appeals most to you. You can then see which of those destinations have the fares that work with your schedule.

And Keyes's favorite tools for flight finding? "Google Flights and Momondo," he divulges.

 There's More than One Way to Get to Your Dream Destination

We've all had those coffee break daydreams of spending Christmas in Paris—as if flying into the City of Light on a whim was ever that affordable. Europe is home to a number of low-cost airlines, however, so Keyes advises booking a flight to a neighboring city (or even a less expensive country). In the case of Paris, this might mean flying into maybe Marseille or Frankfurt, depending on the available discounts at the time. "Be willing to hop a budget flight there in order to take advantage of a great deal," Keyes says.

You can use the same trick with your departure city: Major areas like NYC and L.A. tend to be the lucky beneficiaries of most of the flight sales, but a $20 bus ride from, say, Washington, D.C., to fly out of JFK can be worth the hundreds of dollars in savings.


 On Taking Advantage of the Fat-Finger Discount

Occasionally, Keyes sends out too-good-to-be-true deals known as mistake fares, like airfare from New York to the Philippines for a paltry $174. They're most often caused by errors on an airline's part when entering prices or miscommunication between partner carriers, but as great as they are, they're the fleeting unicorns of airline sales.

"It's rare that they last more than 12 hours, and often last as little as 60 or 90 minutes," he warns. There's no specific pattern as to when these mistake fares occur, so subscribing to flight alerts like Keyes's email list helps you book these fares before airlines fix their mistakes.


 Early Birds Get to Fly

Unfortunately, it's harder to score discounts on last-minute getaways. "In terms of how far in advance, I advise one to three months for domestic flights and two to six months for international flights. Any closer to the travel date, and the price tends to jump; any further out, and you're missing out on potential future sales," Keyes reveals.

And to bust some common myths: No, turning on private browsing or clearing your cookies doesn't work. Nor does waiting until 2 p.m. on Tuesday to book. Live and learn.

 It All Comes Down to Flexibility

International travel can actually be quite affordable, but not if your plans are rigid.

"If you've picked out your city, picked out your dates and don't have flexibility, 95 percent of what you can do to bring down the cost of airfare is already out the window," Keyes explains.

His favorite destination of the moment is Spain, which has "plenty of cheap flights these days" and "is an awesome place to visit, whether it's Seville or San Sebastián."


If you're locked on a destination, consider shifting your dates. For a weekend getaway, try searching flights that are Thursday to Sunday or Saturday to Tuesday. A simple shift in dates can halve flight costs sometimes. And don't be afraid of long layovers; the cheapest way to fly from New York to Hanoi might require a 22-hour stopover in Tokyo, but you'll save buckets on airfare and get an awesome addition to your itinerary.