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The 5 Steps We Take Every Time to Book the Cheapest Flight Possible

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Finding cheap flights is what we do here at Thrifty Traveler. We've covered everything under the sun to help show you how from the basics of using Google Flights (it's the best) to explaining the best days to book flights (it's not Tuesdays) and urging you to forget about clearing your cookies or searching incognito (it isn't helping).

But what do we – the staff of 10-plus travel experts, flight deal sleuths, credit card gurus, and airline aficionados – do to ensure we're getting the lowest price on our own travels? We're so glad you asked.

No matter who's trying to hit the skies, where we're going, or when, we each follow a similar script to get the cheapest flights as humanly possible. We wouldn't be “Thrifty Traveler” if we didn't, right?

Read our complete guide on how to find cheap flights!

Thrifty Traveler Premium – $25 offer


1. Wait for a Cheap Flight Alert

At Thrifty Traveler, we're not above getting high off our own supply.

We send our Thrifty Traveler Premium members dirt-cheap domestic and international flight deals from their home airports. Our members also get discounted business and first class fares as well as award alerts to use their points and miles, too.

Call us selfish or self-serving, but we regularly book those flight deals ourselves, too. Whether it's a sub-$100 flight deal for a quick trip to California…


Palm Springs flight deal


Get flight deal alerts like this one in your inbox with Thrifty Traveler Premium!

… to an unbelievable mistake fare to Paris for just $230 roundtrip…


paris mistake fare 

… or unprecedented availability to fly United Polaris business class to either New Zealand or Australia this winter (peak summer down under) on points, which our Thrifty Traveler Premium members gobbled up in a matter of hours.

united polaris australia nz biz class deal 

At a time when everyone assumes flights are too expensive, flight deal alerts like these just keep coming and coming. Our flight deal experts score the globe for the best deals from 200-plus airports big and small across the U.S. and Canada. If there's a good deal out there, we find it and blast it out to our members (and ourselves).

Waiting for the flight deal to come to you is one of the absolute best, surefire ways to get the absolute best deal you can. But sometimes, the right deal doesn't come. So it's on to step No. 2…


2. Follow the Flight First Rule

It's not just a suggestion, it's a rule, a mantra, and a way of life.

Before we book rental cars or hotels or even request time off work (sorry, boss!), we start each and every trip-planning process by searching for flights first. That's why we call it The Flight First Rule.

Flipping the usual travel planning process on its head gives you more flexibility with your travel dates to take advantage of the cheapest days to fly and save on airfare. Or you can travel in the cheaper shoulder season and save even more.  It's all about being as flexible as you can to save on flights – and trust us, it makes a big difference … especially as flights have gotten more expensive.

Let's make it real with an example. Let's say I'm looking at a quick, three-night trip to Boston next month. If I did what most travelers do, it'd look something like this: Decide when I want to go, request time off work, book a hotel, and only then look at flights.

If Delta decides to charge me $500 or more roundtrip from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Boston (BOS) for a Thursday-to-Sunday trip … well, I'm out of luck if I've already locked myself into those dates.

Google Flights search for Minneapolis (MSP) to Boston (BOS) flights 

But by looking for flights first before planning anything else, I give myself the flexibility to depart and return a few days later, leaving on a Saturday and returning on Wednesday instead. And the savings are massive.

Google Flights search for Minneapolis (MSP) to Boston (BOS) in February 

That's right: Changing my ideal trip by just a few days cuts flight prices to Boston by more than half! That's an extra $300-plus to put towards hotels, food, museum tickets, and more.

This is just one example – we could go on with dozens and dozens of flights. But it clearly shows just how much you can cut your costs when starting your travel planning by searching for flights … and not by setting your schedule in stone first. 

Search for and book the cheap flight first, then start to put the other pieces in place. See a great deal but not sure you can make it work? Book now, and ask questions later thanks to the 24-hour rule.

This is a federal law requiring a full refund for any flight from, to, or within the U.S. if you cancel within 24 hours of booking. That should give you enough time to check in with your travel buddy or confirm you can take time away from work.

When it comes time to start searching, there's one place you should turn to…


3. Fire up Google Flights

Forget Kayak. Forget Skyscanner. Forget Hopper and Expedia, too. When we search for flights, we turn to the same place every single time.

It's Google Flights.

Yes, I know we won't shut up about Google Flights. No, we don't plan to now – or ever.

The king of the internet is also indisputably the best search engine for finding flight deals. It's loaded with features that can help you zero in on the cheapest flights, has filters so you only see the flights you want to book and much more. You can even set Google Flights price alerts to track fares and book when prices drop. Not sure where you want to go? Google Flights Explore mode will show you the cheapest places to fly from your home airport.

Google Flights makes it easy and fast to find the best deal possible – especially with pop-up alerts like this one.

Google Flights search with a pop-up alert about cheaper dates 

No other site gives you so many tools to find the cheapest tickets, and then book directly with the airline.

Sure, some online travel agencies (OTAs) can occasionally find you cheaper prices. But those savings may not always be worth it – especially when flights get canceled or change schedules and you need to work through a middleman to sort out your trip. If nothing else, the pandemic showed travelers the value of booking straight through your airline.

At the very least, start every flight search using Google Flights, then fan out to other sites to see if you can score an even better deal. You'll thank us later.

Read our master guide to using Google Flights!


4. Set A Google Flights Price Alert … & Keep It

Whether I'm waiting for a better price to book a flight or already have something booked, I always take the same step next: Set a Google Flights Price Alert.

Just add it to the long, growing list of features that makes Google Flights our #1 for finding cheap flights. You can effortlessly monitor changes in airfare with these price alerts to help you dial in the best time to book flights, getting an email when prices drop … or increase. All you need is a Gmail account to set up and receive these alerts.


Google Flights price alert for June 2024 flights


Read our full walkthrough on how to set Google Flights price alerts!

These alerts can be absolutely critical to getting the best deal possible. For example, when I was looking to fly down to Cancún (CUN) for a quick trip last spring, I set a price alert on flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) down to Mexico because I wasn't ready to pay $600 roundtrip.

A few weeks later, I got an alert in my inbox: Prices had dropped by nearly $150 a ticket! That was one of the lowest fares I had seen on these flights in many months. It was a no-brainer: I booked straight away.
google flights price alert

But just because I've already got flights booked doesn't mean it's time to move on and stop monitoring prices – just the opposite. That's why I've always got a long list of active Google Flights price alerts, many for flights that I've already got locked in. This is just a small fraction of the flights I'm still monitoring.


Google Flights tracked flight prices for Montreal and Portland flights


Why bother? Because if prices drop again even after you've booked, you can still get an even better deal.


5. Rebook When Prices Drop to Save Even More!

This is the ultimate travel hack and a key element of ensuring we get the best deal on flights.

If prices drop even after you book, you can rebook your flight and pocket the difference as a travel credit!

It's one of the absolute best and easiest travel hacks you can pull off these days, a byproduct of airlines' decision to do away with change on most fares. And Google Flights price alerts make it easy to monitor for a price drop – just keep the alert in place for the flight you booked and wait for an email.

Here's how it works, using a $750 flight as an example:

  1. Be sure to book at least a standard main cabin economy fare – airlines' cheapest basic economy fares can't be changed nor canceled for free (or at all)
  2. If you haven't already, set up that Google Flights Price Alert for the flight you just booked and wait for an email that fares have dropped, say to $500
  3. Cancel your existing flight for a $750 airline credit or voucher
  4. Use that $750 voucher to rebook your flight at the lower, $500 price
  5. Pocket the extra $250 credit to use toward another trip!

Read our full guide for how to rebook your flight and save if prices drop


Bottom Line

We might be experts in the art of finding cheap flights, but here's the honest truth: It's not rocket science.

With the right tools, simple travel hacks, and mindset heading into your search, you can do what we do and ensure you get the best deal humanly possible on your next flight.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

3 Responses

  • Excellent article with very useful tips! But you need to update the information you provide about using tracking “any dates” in Google Flights because that toggle will appear only if you are searching for 1 passenger and in economy class. Doesn’t show up otherwise and it drove me mad trying to figure that out.

  • I just booked a flight to Vegas in March on Delta basic economy only because upgrading to main cabin economy was like $400 extra for the 2 of us, almost doubled the price of the tickets. If the price goes down could I pay the extra to upgrade to Main cabin and then change the flight for the cheaper price and pocket the difference or now that I chose basic economy am I stuck with it and would have to pay a fee to change to change to a cheaper flight?

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