I’ll show you my personal 3 step process to finding the best flight international deal 95% of the time – and all in just 20 minutes or less!
Why You Should Listen to Me: I’ve been traveling internationally nearly non-stop for almost three years, covering 44 countries and 6 continents along the way. I’ve taken a ton of flights – and rarely paid more than a couple hundred dollars for them.
I’ve spent countless hours searching for cheap international flights on virtually every search engine available. And I can tell you that most of them promise WAY better results than they can actually deliver.
So to save you time and money I put together this ultimate guide to finding cheap international flights.
I’ll go over my #1 rule for finding cheap flights and walk you through the exact 3-step strategy I personally use nearly every week to find my own flights.
And, no, this doesn’t require any miles or points (that’s a subject for another post).
Full disclosure: These are the sites I personally use to find my own flights. Links in this post may generate an affiliate commission for this site.
Summary: How to Find Cheap Flights Abroad
The key to finding cheap international flights is to be flexible in your searches, and to follow these three steps:
- Use Google Flight’s Explore Feature
- Search the ITA Matrix
- Use AireFare Watchdog to track price changes over time and snap up deals when they happen.
That’s it in a nutshell. If you don’t know how to use those tools, or just want to learn some tips and tricks for using them better, read on for a full walk-through of how to implement this strategy.
Why Flexibility is the Key to Finding A Good Flight Deal
I am going to share with you a rule that can totally change the way you think about finding cheap flights.
My number one rule for saving money on flights is simple:
Rule #1 – Be Flexible About the Three “Ds.”
What are the three “Ds” of cheap flights?
- 1. Dates
- 2. Destination
- 3. Departing airport
The more of these three you can be flexible about, the more you will save on your international trip.
Well, it really comes down to a matter of math. The more possible flights you can price out, the more likely it is you will find that gem of a deal. That said, it’s ok if you have to be firm about one or even two of them. But if you’re committed to flying from a particular airport to another particular airport on a set day for your trip … well, that’s where the airlines make their money.
Don’t believe in the power of the three Ds yet?
Let’s go through three quick examples to show how maximizing your flexibility with the three Ds can open you up to nearly 5,000 times as many options for potential flights for your trip (remember: more potential flights = more potential bargains!).
First, we need to make one assumption: let’s assume for argument’s sake that on average there are 10 flights a day between any two given destinations (I know that’s not true literally, and it will vary quite a bit by airport pair in real life, but we need to make this assumption or else the following illustration gets way too difficult to convey).
Ok, on to the examples …
Example #1: PHL to CDG
Now let’s start with a simple example: imagine you are trying to go from Philadelphia to Paris on a specific Friday.
1 departing airport x 1 destination x 1 date x 10 flights/pair = 10 flights
In our hypothetical, that would mean you only have 10 flight options.
That’s it. If the cheapest of those is $2,500 … well, you’re going to have to pay $2,500.
Example #2: A Little Flexibility
But let’s say instead that you’re a little bit flexible about dates. You’re willing to leave and return on either Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. And you’re open to taking the train to nearby Newark or Baltimore’s BWI if it means a cheaper fare. And you’re open to going to Amsterdam or Brussels instead (both of which are a train ride away from Paris).
Now let’s see what happens to your options:
3 dates x 3 departing airports x 3 destinations x 10 flights per destination pair
By just adding a little flexibility to your search, you’ve now got nearly 10 times the flights to choose from!
And I can tell you from experience that means you are MUCH more likely to find a dirt-cheap flight. But I bet you can do even better than that, so let’s check out our next example …
Example #3: More Flexibility
Ok, let’s say instead that you are willing to fly any day that week, are happy to go as far as Boston, New York’s LGA and JFK airports, or DC’s National and IAD airports.
And you just want to travel somewhere really cool in western Europe, but are open not just to Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels, but also to instead heading to Budapest, Madrid, Barcelona, London, or Dublin.
Now let’s see how many flight options will be competing for your trip: 8 departing airports x 8 destinations x 7 dates 10 flights/pair = 4,480 possible flights
Yes, really: that’s 4,480 flight options you can compare now!
By adding this degree of flexibility to your plans, you increase your chance of finding that bargain airfare for your international trip by close to 500 times!
In fact, it doesn’t have to stop there. If you were flexible about leaving any day of the month, and open to flying to 20 possible destinations across Europe, under our scenario above that would result in 49,600 flight options – and, no, that’s not a typo!
Ok, you get the point: flexibility means you have way more options to book for your international trip.
And competition equals savings.
Now, this is usually the point in the conversation where most people say something like: “Nate, that sounds like a LOT of work. And I have a full-time job and a life, unlike you dude. How the heck am I going to run all those searches for all those possible flights?”
Never worry, my friend, it’s MUCH easier than you think: just follow my simple 3 step process to finding the cheapest international flights:
3 Steps for Finding The Cheapest International Flights
If you tried to run 4,480 searches for each of the potential combinations in Example 3, you’re probably end up going mad from frustration and boredom.
Thankfully, you don’t have to!
In fact, you could do most of it with as few as just 8 quick searches!
Step #1: Use Google Flight’s Calendar + Explore Features
There’s a lot of opinions about what is the best search engine for finding discount international flights.
But after buying hundreds of flights all around the world, I’ve found that most flight search engines are … pretty much the same.
EXCEPT for two.
The first of those is Google Flights.
Google flights is great because it allows you to combine the power of a flexible calendar search with a handy “explore” feature that lets you easily search nearly every airport in the world and up to six months of dates at a time.
The tool is really easy to use once you know how, but it’s a little hard to explain my process in text, so I made this quick video to walk you through how to do it:
Isn’t that incredible?
One note: the only one of our three Ds that you can’t easily search in one sitting is your departing airport. So, in our Example 3 above, you’d need to run this search process on Google Flights 8 times to cover all your bases.
Step #2: DOUBLE CHECK ITA MATRIX
Know why most airfare search tools give basically the same results?
Because the dirty secret is that many of them pull their data from the same sources.
And what Kayak and Momondo and Expedia don’t want you to know is that you can search one of the main sources – the ITA Matrix – yourself!
You don’t need their money-grubbing middleman paws in your way.
Here’s another quick video I made walking through how to use the ITA Matrix to search for cheap flights:
Fair warning: though it’s more powerful, it’s not nearly as intuitive a tool to use as Google Flights (which actually now owns the ITA Matrix).
If you prioritize your time, you can probably skip using the ITA Matrix and just use Google Flights. I’d bet that 90% of the time you’ll still get the best prices just with step one.
PS – ITA Matrix works for first class, business class and economy class tickets! You can also do lots of cool things like limit your results based on airline.
Step #3: Use AIRFARE WATCHDOG to Automate The Process
Ok, so step #1 and step #2 can save you boatloads on cheap flights for your trip.
But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a service that would do the work for you every single day?
Airfare Watchdog is a pretty cool service that does just that!
Simple put in the city you are flying from, the city you are flying to, and click “track this route.”
Airfare Watchdog will then email you when the price for your particular flight drops!
It’s a great service that can take a lot of the work out of booking flight deals.
Other Tips to Find Cheap International Flights
Following the above 3 step process should land you a really great international flight deal 9 out of 10 times.
There are a few other tips you can employ, however, if you are really committed to finding the cheapest possible flight abroad:
- Search discount carriers directly – Some discount carriers (Southwest in the US, most significantly) only make their inventory available on their own site.
- Look for hidden city flights – Technically this is against the airlines’ terms of services, but apps like Skiplagged can help you find cheaper flights with a stop in your destination airport (you’ll just have to carry on and ditch the last leg of your flight).
- Watch out for mistake fares – Sometimes airlines will accidentally publish a deal that’s just truly exceptional. You have to act fast, but you can find them by following Twitter accounts such as Secret Flying.
- Play the miles and points game – This is a subject for a different post someday, but if you leverage credit card miles correctly, you can even fly for free!
- Act Fast – The best deals require you to snap them up quickly. Remember that for most flights originating in the USA, you’re entitled by law to cancel and get a full refund of the price within 24 hours, so that does give you some breathing room if you change your mind.
Oh, one last thing: remember the impact of your tickets on the environment and consider buying a carbon offset to reduce your impact!