We've all been there when trying to book flights: You plug in your dates, destination, and hit search … only to experience sticker shock when you see sky-high prices. And no matter how much we preach following The Flight First Rule, sometimes it's just not possible.
I'm dealing with it myself. I needed to get to Portland (PDX) next summer for a race and despite it being many, many months away, flight prices weren't great. Here's what I saw the last time I checked Google Flights.
Even the cheapest fares on low-cost carrier Sun Country is nearly $400 – and that's before any additional fees for bags, seat selection, and more. Major carriers like Delta and Alaska are more expensive, and even taking a flight with a connection doesn't save me. Honestly, I could fly to Europe for less.
You'll often hear us spout advice like shifting your travel dates or letting a good flight deal dictate where you take your next trip, but that's not always an option. Whether you're short on PTO, heading out for the holidays, or need to travel for an event like me, your travel plans can be set in stone. But that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to paying high fares.
Before I hand over my credit card, there are a few steps I take first to see if I can save a little (or a lot) on my flight.
Set a Google Flights Price Alert
No matter where you're going or when, the first step is always to search Google Flights for the cheapest flights.
But when you don't like what you see, the next step is always to set a Google Flights price alert.
Google will send me an email when prices drop – or go up. After a few weeks or months of movement, it'll give you a good idea of just how low prices may go.
I'll keep this price alert on even after I book, too. If prices drop afterward, there's still a way I can come out ahead. But more on that later…
Use Up Your Airline Credits!
Remember that $100-some airline credit you got from canceling a flight all those months ago? It's time to put it to use.
During the worst of the pandemic, major U.S. airlines did away with change fees on almost all their flights. That flexibility remains in place today, meaning you can get an airline credit or voucher for almost any flight you cancel – so long as you don't book the cheapest basic economy ticket.
But many of these credits expire within a year of when you initially booked, so your time may be running out. Airlines are betting you'll forget to redeem them at all. Don't let them win.
Most airlines make it fairly easy to put these credits toward the cost of your flight to bring down the cost during the checkout process. But every airline handles them a bit differently.
And the fact that they all eventually expire (except for on Southwest Airlines) means it's a good place to turn early when prices look high.
Check out our full guide to using airline credits!
Book with Your Airline Miles Instead
Next, it's time to see if my stash of miles can save the day.
Tempting though it may be to watch your balance of miles grow, you shouldn't hoard them: Points and miles get less valuable over time, not more. I'd rather use my Delta SkyMiles to avoid paying out of pocket for my trip to Portland than let them languish in my account while I wait for the perfect Delta SkyMiles flash sale.
In this case, I'm still a few thousand SkyMiles short of booking this roundtrip flight. But since Delta is an Amex transfer partner, I could transfer some American Express Membership Rewards points from my *amex gold* to get what I need to book this flight.
There are other ways to top off your account if you're short the miles you need. Flying Southwest or United? You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to either airline. If you earn points on rent payment, Bilt Rewards transfer to American Airlines.
These days, you're unlikely to get outsized value redeeming miles from the major U.S. carriers. They've all transitioned to dynamic award pricing: Generally, a higher cash means you'll need to fork over more miles, too.
That's why you might be able to get another deal by using miles from another airline…
Try Booking via Another Airline Instead!
If I'm flying Delta, I always check to see if the flight I want is available to book through Virgin Atlantic instead.
It's one of the clearest examples of how you can save by making a partner award booking, using miles from one airline to book a flight on a partner carrier. While the price in SkyMiles can fluctuate wildly along with the cash price, Virgin's distance-based award chart for Delta flights means you might be able to score a better deal. Short, nonstop flights are almost always a much better deal.
In this case, I could book that exact same Delta flight for just 23,000 Virgin points. Compared to 42,000 SkyMiles, that's an incredible deal. Better yet, using Virgin points mean I'm booking a main cabin fare with free seat selection – not the basic economy ticket I'd get booking with Delta SkyMiles.
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points are easy to earn as you can transfer points from all the major banks. Banks like Chase and American Express frequently offer transfer bonuses to Virgin, too, so you need use even fewer points. A 30% transfer bonus from Amex to Virgin means I'd need to transfer just 18,000 points for these flights.
There are plenty of other examples. If you're looking to fly American Airlines, you can take advantage of a similar workaround booking through British Airways. So even if you don't have enough (or any) AAdvantage miles to book a flight, points on popular travel credit cards give you a way to book those same fares through British Airways instead.
Any Airline or Travel Credits to Use?
Some of the best and most popular travel credit cards offer annual travel credits. Why not use them to recoup some of the cost of an expensive flight?
For example, I've got a *venture x* in my wallet, and it comes with an annual $300 travel credit so long as I book through the Capital One Travel portal. For that flight to Portland, I could use it and bring the price down to $158 – much easier to stomach.
*amex platinum* also has a travel credit … kind of: its $200 in annual airline credits are meant to cover ancillary fees like baggage and seat selection. But there are some clever ways you can use them to cover airfare, knocking down the cost of an expensive ticket.
Cover Some (or All) of Your Cost With Credit Card Points
When cash fares are too high, one of the simplest ways to take some pressure off your wallet is to cover some or all of the cost of the flight with points from a travel rewards credit card.
No need to worry about transferring points or weeding through airline award charts to get the best deal: Just use your points and make that flight free – the higher the cost in cash, the more points you need. And no matter what points you've got, you can book flights on almost any domestic or international carrier.
Got a big stash of Chase points from a card like the *chase sapphire preferred*? Find the best fare you can with Google Flights, then search for it and book using your points through the Chase travel portal.
It's one of the easiest ways to redeem points on flights. And since every point is worth 1.25 cents toward travel with the *chase sapphire preferred*, I could book this Minneapolis to Portland flight with just 36,600 Chase points or so.
With the *chase sapphire reserve*, your points go even further: 1.5 cents apiece toward travel. That same flight would only cost around 30,500 Chase points to book.
There's an even simpler way. I could just put the flight on my *venture x*, then go back and cover all (or just some) of the cost using Venture Miles. Every mile is worth 1 cent toward travel.
No matter how many points you have, it could be worth using them to help take the sting out of an expensive flight.
Book a Pricier Main Cabin Fare (Trust Me)
One of the best tips to save on expensive flights is also the most counterintuitive: Skip the cheaper basic economy fare, pay a bit more for a standard main cabin economy ticket instead.
Here's why: If prices eventually drop on your flight, you can rebook and pocket an airline credit for the difference. That's not an option with basic economy fares, at least not without forfeiting $99 or more of what you paid. With a main cabin fare, that flexibility is free.
After several months of tracking prices on my flight to Portland, they had barely moved – or if they did, prices would actually go up. So I finally decided to just bite the bullet and book my flights, locking in the price … of $628. Woof.
Lo and behold, flight prices dropped afterward. And because I was still tracking the price through Google Flights, I got this email alert.
I quickly canceled my original flight, got a Delta eCredit, used that eCredit to rebook my flight at the lower fare, and pocketed the difference. While you won't get your money back, per se, you get a credit for the difference that you can use for another trip down the line – saving yourself a little money on future travel.
I recently put the $90 credit from rebooking that flight towards booking another, last-minute trip to Washington, D.C. That's better than nothing!
It's our mission here at Thrifty Traveler to help you find cheap flights. Sometimes, though, high flight prices are a part of life.
But that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to footing the entire bill. Following these steps could help you save anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars on your expensive-looking flight.