No Points? No Problem! 7 Ways to Find Deals on Flights WITHOUT Using Credit Card Points
We publish a lot of stories about how to leverage certain credit cards to amass travel points and cash back to use towards cheap (or sometimes free!) airfare. If you've taken our advice and started playing the points game, great, but article isn't for you. This article is for anyone who wants to save on travel costs without having to sign up for a credit card.
We get it, our advice on credit card utilization might be helpful for many, but it's not practical for everyone. Some people don't feel they have the discipline to accrue points without also building up a whole bunch of high-interest debt they can't pay off. Many don't have a credit score high enough to apply to those lucrative cash back cards, others experience too much anxiety when managing multiple cards, and then there are some who just prefer to live credit-free, relying on cash and debit cards to ensure they don't end up over their heads in debt.
If you're not playing the points game, it might seem like you're doomed to pay full price for travel for the rest of your life. But that's not always true. Here are a few tips, tricks and apps that can help you save big bucks on airfare without relying on plastic:
Keep your travel dates flexible.
This is an easy one, but many people never even think to do it. The price of a flight can vary wildly from day to day, so keeping your travel dates flexible can help you find the cheapest day to fly. This can be a pain, because even big travel sites will sometimes make you start from the beginning every time you want to check the price on a different day, but some make it really easy.
My favorite is STA Travel. They bill themselves as a student travel site, but regular travelers can use them to get access to the same prices you'd find for flights on other sites. To price check for different departure and return dates, click the box below that reads "flex dates," you'll see your results in a grid format, which will allow you to see prices in multiple date combinations. This is the method I usually start with and, more often than not, it has helped me to find the best possible price.
Other sites, like SkyScanner, also allow you to do this. However, neither include prices from discount airlines like Southwest or Spirit, so you'll need to head to their respective sites in order to compare prices against those, too.
Brad's Deals in-house travel editor, Mark Jackson, says that Google Flights is his favorite for searching for flights, but adds that if there are any pro-users in the audience, ITA Flight Matrix (the backbone of Google Flights) is your most expert-level way of searching for cheaper flights, creative routings, and more.
Let an app do all the work for you.
Most big travel sites have apps that allow you to book flights using a mobile device, but I prefer apps that add a little market intelligence to the mix. One of my favorites is Hopper, which allows you to select your home and destination and then see a grid of the travel days that are the cheapest.
But my favorite thing about Hopper is that the app gives you advice on whether or not to book right away. Using market analysis, it predicts whether to wait to book, because prices are going down, or whether you should buy now, because prices are trending up. Plus, it saves your trip automatically and will send you notifications as soon as ticket prices drop. That means you can set a trip early and wait for it to tell you when prices go down. Hopper isn't 100 percent perfect, but I have found it to be pretty reliable. My uncle and I used it to get him a really good price for a flight to Amsterdam to visit family for the holidays. He wound up getting a ticket that was about $200 less then we were expecting to pay.
Of course, Hopper is not the only app out there. You can find similar apps, such as Airfarewatchdog and JetRadar, just to name two. I personally like Hopper because it's not afraid to advise you to wait to buy, which makes it seem like they aren't looking to capture your money through impulse buying. Still, the best way to find your favorite app is to test drive them yourself and compare searches between apps.
Opt for a package deal.
If you are looking to take a vacation, don't be afraid to check out package deals – a flight, hotel and rental car – offered by sites like Expedia. I'm planning a trip to New Orleans in March, so I decided to compare the cost of booking a flight and a hotel separately, to a package deal I found on Expedia. The trip will be for seven days, and I want to stay at the four-star Hilton located on the river next to the French Quarter.
The results? Booking these things separately would cost me $1,200 more than booking a package deal through Expedia. Granted, I could save even more by going with Airbnb for lodging, as Caroline Thompson did on a trip to NOLA last September. But Expedia's price of just over $1,000 per person is pretty good for direct flights and a seven-night stay in a four-star hotel, and not in someone else's home. Expedia is just one example – you'll also find package deals on others sites, like Groupon and Kayak, and you can always start your search with our new Travel section.
Research your seasons.
People often assume they won't have the perfect vacation unless they book their travel during their destination's peak season. But this isn't always true. Take the country of Greece, for example. While the peak travel season to the Greek islands is in July and August, those are actually Greece's hottest and most congested months. June offers much better weather, as well as cheaper airfare and hotel rates. The same is true for the month of September. Book during the off season and you'll find much better deals, and can avoid the crowds.
You do need to be a bit careful when traveling off season, especially in vacation destinations that revolve solely around seasonal tourism. For some Caribbean islands, if you travel too far off season, you'll find some hotels and the night life closed or running on significantly reduced schedules, and that can complicate things. A little bit of research can go a long way – do a simple Google search about the best times to travel to your desired location before you book, and you should be able to travel on the cheap while still having a good time.
Use "Private" or "Incognito" windows to avoid price-gouging cookies.
If you use the same search engines, browsers or sites over and over again while searching for a deal on flights, beware the dreaded cookie. Cookies are small pieces of data sent from websites and stored on your computer, which pass along relevant information to the sites you visit in the future. They allow some travel sites to determine what flights you have been searching for, and enable them to inch up the prices on your flights. This is called "dynamic pricing" and while it seems absolutely unfair, it's not illegal.
The best defense against this is to use your web browser's private mode when checking airfare. In Chrome it's called "Incognito," and in Firefox, Safari and Explorer it's called "Private." These browser modes will ensure any cookies gathered will be cleared every time a new page is loaded, so you can keep those sneaky sites from raising prices just because they know what you want. You could also just choose to manually clear your cookies, but that's easy to forget if you're not careful.
Buy your tickets at the airport.
Jackson says that buying flights at the airport can sometimes save you a LOT of money. Spirit, for example, charges an $18 fee (each way!) for flights booked online. That fee is waived when you buy your tickets at the airport. He used that secret to score a $32 roundtrip price from Chicago to Phoenix, which you can see proof of above!
Join an airline loyalty program.
You don't have to have a credit card to get reward status with an airline. Every single major airline has a rewards program, and when you login to your account before you book, you'll earn miles on every purchase – whether or not you're using a travel or cash back credit card. True, it might take a while for you to rack up enough miles to score a free flight or even seat upgrade, but these programs are free, and joining is easy.
Got a favorite trick or app that you use to find good deals on airfare? Let us know if the comments below.