Everyone wants a good deal, and that is especially true with airfare. This particular brand of bargain-hunting has created an entire industry devoted to finding the world’s best prices for traveling around the globe.
Websites and blogs have flourished in recent years as they explain the finer points of what’s been dubbed “travel hacking” — or, using credit card offers and reward programs for free or greatly reduced rates on plane tickets and hotel stays. Corporate interests have responded with the proliferation of budget airlines, even as a few brands have died off due to fuel costs and sundry other economic factors.
“So often there’s this concept that travel is out of reach because it’s too expensive. It doesn’t have to be that way,” says Campbell Hawk, head of North American flight searching at Scott’s Cheap Flights.
The team at Scott’s has pioneered a subscription service model that connects budget-conscious travelers with the best cash prices for plane tickets to locales that range from bucket list-worthy to totally obscure. These groups, in particular, have highlighted some unexpectedly lucrative routes between U.S. airports and destinations abroad.
Travel Hack #1: Find unexpected routes with frequent availability
Travel hackers love to think about the best deals in terms of “sweet spots.” The same notion can be applied to cash fares that regularly dip to a fraction of their full value.
Miami, for example, often has some of the best prices to major cities around Europe. Deals from this summer include round-trip fares from Miami to Copenhagen for $447, Madrid for $314, and to Paris for $286. All itineraries fly on lauded airlines like Lufthansa and American, and would normally cost somewhere between $850 and more than $1,000.
“A lot goes into how we determine the ‘normal’ cost of a flight. We’ve got a team of very experienced travelers from all over the world and they pinpoint the normal prices. Some of that is just having been in the industry so long. But it’s also taking a look at what it costs when there isn’t a deal and keeping an eye on that. It does change,” says Hawk.
LAX to the Cook Islands has emerged as a very popular route among jet-setting youth. This Polynesian paradise in the South Pacific is only serviced by a few airlines, causing fares to normally hover around $1,500 or more. The route from LAX to the islands’ main airport at Rarotonga, however, has dipped to $500 and $600 round trip nearly every month this year.
Steve Sintra, regional director of North America for KAYAK, sees the best deals taking passengers from the United States to their neighbors to the north. Sintra says, “Some of the cheapest international cities this fall are actually in Canada. That includes Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, and Quebec City. All over.”
Canadian destinations dominate a 10-city list of “Cheapest International Fall Getaways” that Sintra provided to Finance 101. Fares to Toronto and Vancouver offer the best deal, with multiple routes coming in respectively at $266 and $296 round trip.
Travel Hack #2: Low prices might be due to airline hubs and partnerships
Sintra believes the reasons for the Canadian deals are pretty straightforward. He says, “Two reasons why we’ve noticed this may be the case is thanks to the short flight length from the U.S., as well as increased availability of flight options.”
It’s impossible to know for sure. Airlines are hyperprotective over the processes that go into pricing any route, and especially for the most unexpected and unpredictable of deals.
Hawk says, “Airlines are pretty hush-hush on that kind of stuff, but oftentimes it seems like these deals are for routes that play off of partner airlines that fly into hub cities. I don’t have any research on that, but it’s my guess.”
An airport being a hub, in this context, means that a particular airline concentrates most of its flights there for a given region.
Deals on the Miami-to-Europe route, for instance, are dominated by Oneworld airline alliance. Oneworld is the airline partnership founded by American Airlines, and includes British Airways, Iberia, and a host of other prolific and well-known brands. Miami is a hub for American, so it follows that its Alliance partners could sync up on fares for that particular region.
Another Oneworld partner offers a niche opportunity for travelers out of New York to visit one of the hottest spots in South America. Chilean airline LATAM has a route from JFK in New York City (which is an American Airlines hub, no less) to Montevideo, Uruguay. Uruguay is a start-up haven nestled between Brazil, Argentina, and the Atlantic. This route typically hovers around $1,000 round trip, but LATAM currently has wide availability through the end of the year for $644.
Hawk says, “That can go even lower, often into the $500s.”
Some of these unexpected, sweet routes have incredibly wide availability. Flights across the U.S. can travel to Panama City, Panama, for around $300 round trip. The deal shows up every six weeks or so and can show availability in New Orleans, Houston, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Las Vegas, Orlando, and sometimes Denver and Chicago.
Panama itself has much to offer travelers, with terrain that varies from jungles to mountains and beaches with picturesque waves that beg for surfing and reefs that are perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving.
“I think a lot of people write off Panama as a ‘retiree’ destination,” says Hawk, “but it’s got everything and is easy to travel around. It’s a super underrated spot in Central America. Big fan.”
Flights out of Miami, once again, seem to offer the best deal, with American tickets currently going for around $261 round trip well into next year. Panama’s homegrown airline Copa has rates that match American’s, offering the chance for anyone who wants to make the flight to credit the miles to a Star Alliance partner.
Travel Hack #3: Use these strategies for finding cheap flights like a pro
The basic tools for finding cheap flights are available to all, for free. The best place to start is on Google Flights. The interface is incredibly user-friendly. Just enter where you’re leaving from and where you’re heading to, and then pick the dates and prices from the calendar that best fit your needs.
Those who are flexible with the wheres and whens have the greatest opportunity to find an unusually good deal. Someone who wants to travel from the Bay Area to Europe, for instance, could input their nearby airports and set the destination to Europe. Next, check the “Flexible Dates” box in the calendar, and then cap the price wherever feels comfortable.
That very search here currently returns five destinations for under $350 round trip, three of which are nonstop, on routes that could easily creep north of $800. Using the West Coast again, and setting the destination to Hawaii, we find widespread availability to every major island for less than $300 round trip — a third of where they can typically price out.
Once you find the route you like, it’s a good idea to check it against an online travel agent aggregator like KAYAK, Skyscanner, or Momondo. Your good deal in Google can drop even further.
“OTAs (online travel agencies) are the way to make sure your price is as low as possible. It could fall by $20, but I’ve seen it go as low as $200 cheaper. It’s always worth checking out,” says Hawk.