How I Afford to Travel So Much
Behind being asked about whatever trip I've taken most recently, hands down the question I get asked the most is how I afford to travel.
And to be fair, that's an extremely legitimate question. Before I started making a hobby of traveling (that's fun, can I say that?), I had the impression that traveling out of the country was expensive and unattainable. And depending on your booking habits, it definitely can be.
After my summer abroad last year, I came home with this insatiable fire to travel as far and as frequently as I could, not to mention a new appreciation for just how far you could pinch a penny if you really wanted to.
And so it began- my days of sitting in front of my computer, looking up plane tickets in my free time, half contemplating what would happen if I just ditched a week of school to take a flight to Iceland. Somewhere along the way, I actually got good at finding cheap plane tickets. And so this competition between me and the airline booking services began. I taught myself how to cheat the system, which oftentimes cut the price of my tickets in half.
I'm going to preface this by saying there's a lot that factors into my ability to travel. For one, I am on a scholarship to college, so I'm not funding my education. I'm fortunate enough to get an allowance from my parents. Also, I am able to manage a part time job as well as other random paid projects with my school schedule, so I have a steady source of income that I can put towards living expenses and savings.
All of that said, I take pride in paying for my trips- from flights to accommodations to food to activities. And with an insatiable desire to see as much of the world on a college kid's budget, I learned how to stretch a dollar, that's for sure.
I've left out all the stuff you've heard before (hey, did you know you could open an airline credit card and get free frequent flyer miles?!) and instead listed my best tips and secrets for finding cheap flights below-
- Only look up flights in "incognito" or "private" browsers. Did you know that fare-compare and airline sites use "cookies" to predict your search habits and purchases? They do. Which explains why fares always jump in price the second time you search them. Why? If airlines spot habits in your ticket search, they will infer that you're serious about booking, and then raise the price. You can combat this by using an incognito browser ("File>New Incognito Window" for Chrome and "File>New Private Window" for Safari). When you search for flights in a private browser, it blocks the website from accessing your "cookies" which means no unwarranted price increases for you.
- Airline search engines are your friend. Well, certain ones. Forget about Priceline or Orbitz. Every single one of my flight searches begins (and ends for that matter) on Skyscanner. Skyscanner compiles the rates from every airline and travel fare website, which equals mega money saved for you. To top that off, Skyscanner has a super neat hidden feature that I'll talk about later in #6.
- The bigger the airport, the cheaper the fare. I live 20 minutes or so from the Birmingham airport, but I know that my ticket price will double, if not triple, if I depart from BHM because it's so small. If you're willing to put in extra effort and deal with the slight inconvenience of driving to a larger airport (or pulling a #4 below), you will probably save lots of money.
- Make your own layovers. Say whaaat? This one is my tip of all tips... and a tad confusing, so bear with me. I'm going to use a personal example to explain. When my best friend Meg and I were planning our spring break trip (remember the one we went to Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Lisbon?), we were able to afford Europe because we were crafty with our bookings. The most expensive part of any trip abroad is getting overseas, so when we found a $180 flight from JFK to Stockholm, we knew we had to capitalize on it. Obviously New York's JFK is a haul from Birmingham, so we booked a Delta flight from Atlanta to Laguardia, transferred from Laguardia to JFK via Uber, and then caught our Norwegian Air flight from JFK to Stockholm. By combining two separate fares from two separate carriers and putting up with the hassle of transferring airports, we were able to create a flight itinerary that a website could not, and thereby cut our costs in half, if not more. (WARNING: this is my best money saving tip, but also the riskiest. You MUST give yourself PLETNY of time between your two flights. I'm talking like 6 hours minimum. Flights are notoriously unpredictable, and you don't want your flight hack to backfire and leave you stranded. Meg and I got delayed in Atlanta because of weather, and I would have been sweating bullets if we hadn't have given ourselves excessive room for error between landing in Laguardia and transferring to JFK. Thankfully, we had given ourselves an 8 hour cushion for the unexpected. This way, we could briefly explore NYC if our flight was early, and manage to catch our flight with time to spare if it was delayed. SO, be risky- but, for the love of all that is good- be smart. Worst case scenario- and do not rely on this as a Plan B- most airlines will give you a 2 hour grace period if you miss your flight. This means if you show up to the check-in desk within 2 hours of your scheduled departure time, the airline will put you on standby for the next available flight.)
- Know the cheapest international airports and make your manual layover into a mini trip. Ok, this is kinda an extension of #4 above. Let's pretend you're trying to get to Morocco. Chances are, even with all of my flight booking tips, a flight to Morocco might set you back quite a bit more than a flight to let's say Paris. Since flights from Paris' Charles De Gualle Airport are already typically on the cheap side of the spectrum, you can fly from the US to Paris and then from Paris to Morocco for much cheaper than you could fly from the US to Morocco. Bonus- you can check one more country off your bucket list and drag out your manual layover. When Meg and I flew back to the USA from Copenhagen, we had a 21 hour layover in Lisbon, which allowed us to explore one more country that we wouldn't have seen otherwise (at absolutely no extra cost aside from food/transportation expenses). Win-win!
- Use the "everywhere" tool on SkyScanner. Age-old convention tells us we have to know what airport we're departing from and what airport we're arriving at before we can view the price. Well, what if the cheapest fare dictates where you want to travel to? You would have to do a lot of blind guessing and trial and error before you found the absolute lowest fare from your desired departure airport, right? Wrong! Skyscanner has this incredible tool that allows you to simply type in "everywhere" as your destination. They compile every possible destination in their database and sort them from lowest price. This means if you're flexible with where you travel to, you're going to have significantly cheaper options. If you're dead-set on going to Kathmandu, Nepal then heck yeah, make that happen. I'm just here to remind you that being picky will never be the cheapest option - unless there's an price error on the airline's end. Which brings me to tip #7...
- Airlines make mistakes!!! If you see a fare that's stupid cheap, chances are, you've happened upon the holy grail of cheap fares: airline errors. Let's say an airline intends to list a fare from Orlando to Moscow for $1,400. Occasionally, they will make an error inputing the price and the $1,400 plane ticket will be listed as $400 or $140. Book that sucker ASAP because airlines will correct their mistakes once they realize they've made them. And once you book the flight at the "mistake" fare, the airlines must honor it.
- One-Ways vs. Round Trips. Depending on where you depart from and where you're headed to, you can get a huge deal on a one-way flight. Two one way flights are sometimes far cheaper than a roundtrip flight. Before I book any roundtrip flight, I always verify that two one-way tickets are not the cheaper option. Plus, one-way fares are your golden ticket to a multi-city itinerary.
- Certain airports serve certain regions or counties the cheapest. This isn't a hard rule, but you'll find it to be true way more often than not. If you want to go to Europe, fly out of an airport in the northeast- particularly JFK or Boston. Australia or Oceania? Definitely LAX or somewhere on the west coast. The Miami Airport will always have the cheapest fares to South America. Combine this knowledge with my manual layover tip (#4), and you will save gobs of precious money.
- Don't be fooled by "Budget" Airlines. Sure, budget airlines have a cheaper baseline fare. But they'll also nickel and dime you every chance they get. You might save $100 up front, but by the time you purchase a checked bag, a carry on, stock up on food to compensate for the lack of inflight meal service, and pay the $60 late-fee for not checking-in before arriving at the airport (this really happened to me), you would have been much better off flying a major airline. The trick here is planning ahead of time and knowing what suits your travel needs and where you'll incur additional costs. Over Spring Break, we flew solely budget airlines and racked up fees for checked bags. However, because we planned for these charges and compared the budget airline fees with the cost of a major airline ticket, we were able to verify that we were still flying the cheapest option. Contrast that experience with the budget flight I took from Marrakech to Spain, and I ended up paying double for my ticket by the time I added in all the extra costs. I would have been much better off forking out a little extra cash up-front to fly the major airline.
Did I leave anything out? Leave me a comment below if you have any questions!! Of course, these are general guidelines I've found to be reliable over the last few years- not stone hard truths. Happy fare hunting!