Ultimate Guide to Cheap Flights and Travel Hacking
This spring, I flew from California to Bali for only $5.60. That's not a typo - almost 24 hours of travel (three flights in total) for five bucks.
We all want to know each other’s secrets to finding the best cheap flights.
After all, the less you spend getting to your destination, the more you'll have for fun activities, trying cool restaurants, and maybe even extending your trip.
In this post I'm going to first share the best websites for landing cheap flights, and then discuss the "art" of "travel hacking," which is how I scored that $5.60 flight.
How To Find Cheap Flights - The Best Websites For Flight Deals
Scott's Cheap Flights
Scottscheapflights.com: This guy knows ALL the deals, and I actually found out about his site through a post in a Facebook group! His email list is free and he sends out super low deals or mistake fares all the time.
I can’t believe how low some of these flights are…! We're talking roundtrip international flights, many for $500 or less.
If you love the free membership, there is also an option to upgrade to a premium membership with even more flight alerts. If you're a full-time traveler or planning a RTW (round-the-world) trip then that may be something to look into.
This is probably the best search engine for flight deals. After all, it is Google. When you open up the calendar to select a date, it will show you the prices for the entire month.
If your vacation period is a little more flexible, you can potentially find a cheaper date near your original intended date.
It's just a really easy way to find flights.
Skyscanner or Kayak
I'm grouping these together because they're similar and I love them both, though I'll admit I use Skyscanner more since I've been using it for years.
One feature I love that both sites have are their explore map tools. You put in your departure city, and it will pull up the prices to fly to cities around the world - on a visual, interactive map!
If you haven’t tried it yet….TRY IT! Give yourself some extra time to be distracted by your wanderlust…*heart eyes*
A feature that Kayak specifically has is their flight price prediction tool. For most routes they have historic data that determines whether the price may go up or down, and it tells you if you should book now or wait.
TravelPirates.com - This site gives you mistake fares, flight sales, and puts together deals on vacation packages! Plus, their branding/“voice” is super playful and fun.
One of my friends is always tagging me in their Facebook posts about whatever crazy awesome deal they are showing.
This smartphone app is fun and easy to use. They provide flight deal alerts notifications for routes you are watching.
When you look up a route, the color-coded map (green, orange, or red) gives you a nice visual of finding the lowest price.
Like Kayak, they also will let you know if they suggest purchasing your flight now or waiting depending on when they predict the fare will go up or down.
Get Creative With Layovers
From Bali I flew to Krabi, Thailand and had a loooong overnight layover in Singapore. While I’ve love to return to Singapore for a longer visit, it was awesome to get to spend the night and explore the city on my way to Thailand!
If your layover is long enough, you can get a glimpse of a new place en route to your next destination.
TIP: Make sure you have any visa/entry requirements covered before you go!
How To Earn Free Flights: Travel Hacking Basics
So you found some good flights with the sites mentioned above, but I bet you're curious on how I flew from San Diego to Bali for only $5.60!
Enter: Travel Hacking.
Before my trip to Southeast Asia and Oceania, I used travel hacking and spend only about $100 on three international long-haul flights. Adding regional/domestic flights (Air Asia, Air New Zealand), I spent around $375 in total on flights to seven countries and two continents.
With travel hacking, you use your saved up points/miles for a free flight and only pay the taxes.
One misconception with earning free flights through travel hacking is that you have to be traveling/paying for flights with that credit card to earn points for future flights. The truth is that you earn these points for regular spending on your credit card, so you don't even have to already be traveling to earn the points.
I used 40,000 "points/miles" to fly for free plus $5.60 in taxes from San Diego > Los Angeles > Taipei > Bali.
I transferred some of the points I earned through my Chase Sapphire Preferred over to my United MileagePlus Explorer account, which had a better points/flight deal (more on that later).
Here is my flight breakdown using travel hacking on that trip:
San Diego to Bali: 40,000 points + $5.60 taxes
Hong Kong to Auckland, New Zealand: 17,500 points + ~ $35 taxes
Sydney, Australia to San Diego: 40,000 points + ~ $65 taxes
Between those long-haul flights, I took shorter flights (ex: Bali to Thailand or Auckland to Sydney) for fares ranging from $23 to $125 each.
Two quick things to note:
Travel hacking mainly applies to people from the USA, or those who can get credit cards with sign-up bonuses. This is the reason I put this at the bottom of the post since I know I have a lot of international readers who unfortunately can't take advantage of such credit card bonuses in their home countries.
If you're in credit card debt, it is smart to pay off your debt before signing up for a brand new credit card to earn the bonus. (Also please note that I'm not a financial advisor so talk to your bank or financial person/accountant for advice on your particular situation).
How Travel Hacking Works (And Yes, It's Totally Legal)
When you sign up for a credit card, look for those with sign-up bonuses, preferably in terms of points you can use toward travel, like flights or hotels.
You typically want to only sign up for credit cards that give you 30,000 or more points as a sign-up bonus. I typically have only signed up for cards with 40,000 or more.
My BEST bonus was the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which came with a 100,000 (!!!!) point sign-up bonus since it was new. They've dropped it to 50,000 points which is still great considering the other perks that come with it.
Over the years, I've stuck to three travel hacking cards:
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Sign-up Bonus: 50,000 points with $4,000 spend in first three months
Annual fee: $450; required when you sign up and charged yearly
Points: 3x points on travel and dining, $300 annual travel credit reimbursement, $100 reimbursement for Global Entry application fee, no foreign transaction fees, plus many more travel perks
There was a lot of buzz surrounding the Chase Sapphire Reserve card when they released it this year, because originally it came with a whopping 100,000 bonus points. That's like...a roundtrip flight from the US to Southern Africa, or a bunch of domestic roundtrip flights, or a few roundtrip flights between North America and Europe. So yeah, it was insane.
At the last minute I decided to get in on the card, due to one of the great perks included in the hefty annual fee: Global Entry application reimbursement.
What is Global Entry? Global Entry is a program that allows you to skip the regular customs line and go in a shorter, expedited line when returning to select US airports from abroad. It costs $100 for and lasts five years. It also includes TSA Pre-check, which is shorter, expedited lines through security at US airports (no need to remove your shoes or separate your laptops!) and typically costs $75 for five years on its own, but is included with Global Entry.
Basically Global Entry is ENTIRELY worth it - $100 for five years, or only $20 a year! - and getting that application fee reimbursed with this card was awesome.
My time from the start of the security line has decreased to about 4-5 minutes at every US airport I've gone through, with an exception for JFK in New York which was about 6-7 minutes. Still - AMAZING.
The $300 travel credit reimbursement is great, too, because it literally applies to any travel-related purchase. This includes ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which personally I do anywhere.
Having 100,000 points as a bonus is great...and I'm currently planning my next trip with them!
*The $450 annual fee is a lot of money, though, so keep that in mind.*
The other ones I mention in this post have smaller annual fees that are waived the first year, which brings me to...
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Sign-up Bonus: 50,000 with $4,000 spend in first three months
Annual fee: $95, waived the first year
Points: 2x points/travel and dining, 1x point/other purchases, no foreign transaction fees,
The Chase Sapphire Preferred was the second card I signed up for because of the 50,000 point sign-up bonus. See, I was planning a trip to Southeast Asia and knew I needed more points. I also liked their 1:1 point transfer to my United MileagePlus Explorer and other perks like 2x points/any travel purchases versus the MileagePlus's 2x points earned only on United tickets.
United MileagePlus Explorer
Bonus: 40,000 with $2,000 spend in first three months
Annual fee: $95
Points: 2x points/tickets spent on United flights, 1x points/all other purchases, first free checked bag on United flights, no foreign transaction fees
The United MileagePlus Explorer was the first card I signed up for because it had a lower minimum spending requirement to meet the sign-up bonus, and at the time looking at my budget I knew my costs were not high enough to meet the Sapphire Preferred requirement.
TIP: Please don't spend a ton of money and buy random things that you don't need just to meet a spending bonus. Only sign up for a new card if you know you'll logically be able to meet the spending requirement and afford to pay off the balance based on your normal day-to-day budget. That's why I started with this card since it had a lower minimum spending requirement and I knew I could afford to pay it off.
I have a post with more tips on meeting the spending requirement here: Travel Hacking: 5 Ways To Meet The Minimum Spending Requirement.
Is United my favorite airline? Far from it. However, I've booked all my international flights through the United system, because their points per flight have been lower than Chase's travel program. Since I have a 1:1 point transfer between these cards, I didn't lose any "money" (points) by doing this.
Here is United's Award Travel Chart:
As you can see, it shows you the points based on the continent you are traveling to/from
Domestic flights within the US are as low as 20,000 roundtrip
Roundtrip flights from North America to Europe are 60,000 points
Roundtrip flights from North America to Southeast Asia are 80,000 points (so with a 40,000 sign-up bonus, you've paid for a one-way flight to Thailand if you're coming from the US)
I'll end this travel hacking intro here, but highly suggest starting with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, or United MileagePlus Explorer card if you're starting out with travel hacking.
There are other well-known cards in the travel hacking space, but I only wanted to speak to ones I have personal experience with and recommend. Other good websites I recommend with tons of information on travel hacking are Nomadic Matt and The Points Guy.
Having these bonus points has allowed me to travel to multiple countries and continents, with leftover points for future international trips.
Oh, and it's probably smart to spread out signing up for these cards so you can ensure you meet the spending bonus and can pay it off. Always keep your finances top of mind - it's not worth it to go into debt just so you can earn a free flight.