In the internety travel space, scores of bloggers and travel writers talk about travel hacking their way to airplane tickets, that pesky purchase that can be the hands-down greatest expense of traveling. A number of those authorities talk about finagling frequent flyer miles by opening airline credit cards for the signing bonus, they discuss their favorite flight search engines, and generally hack the system to get cheap and free flights. My method is a bit less involved, but still pretty effective for saving money on airplane tickets.

I’ve written before about a tried and true method of overcoming travel sticker shock. But there is a better way, which just involves spending less money in the first place. Revolutionary, I know. Here’s how to plan an extensive trip and save money doing it.

Buy the big tickets in advance

There is so much research out there about the best times to buy plane tickets. Some people say wait, some say buy early, some say Tuesdays are great, some say look at mid-week flights, some say that all of the research about the best time to buy flights is bullshit. In my personal, outrageously anecdotal and not at all scientific methody experience, just buy the most expensive tickets first and buy them early. I am not interested in booking my trans-Pacific, $500 ticket at the last minute and dealing with the stress of it jumping $200 in price after I’ve already committed money to the rest of the trip.

Use a flight search with a calendar option

google flights calendar search
Google Flights at its finest.

There is no other way to effectively search for flights, in my opinion. I usually search on Google Flights, in an incognito browser window and/or using a VPN if I’m feeling particularly crafty. The Google Flights calendar search option is phenomenal, whether searching for round trip tickets or one-way. Even if a trip time isn’t especially flexible, I’ve found that I become infinitely more flexible if I save a large amount of money booking one day different.

Combine big trips to save money

flying at sunset cheap plane tickets

Yes, this option is contingent on time. As in, if you don’t have a lot of time, it might not work so well. BUT, if you do, then enjoy my handy example of savings below:

A round trip ticket from Seattle to Cambodia at the time I was traveling cost $800, and a round trip ticket from Seattle to New Zealand cost $1000.

But a one way to Cambodia ($450)

bus to Thailand ($30)

plus a plane ticket from Bangkok to Australia ($150) for a one day stop

plus the ticket from Australia to New Zealand ($180)

and then New Zealand to Hawaii ($325)

redeeming Delta frequent flyer miles back to Seattle ($5)

added up to $1,140 instead of the $1,800 that it would have cost to do the two big trips separately. Essentially, that gave me two major trips with three mini trips thrown in, all in 6 weeks.

Add stopovers to make the most out of big tickets

Break up long-haul flights with one-to-two day stopovers in magical destinations. If you’re heading to Europe, Iceland Air’s easy (and free!) stopover is the option everyone knows about (Good gracious does Iceland have their tourism game on point). But even if the airline isn’t practically paying you to enjoy a stopover, you can still make your own and save money.

I’ve done the Iceland Air stopover, and now I want to move to Iceland, so highly recommend. And now, I’m a bit addicted to stopovers. Sure, there’s a bit of extra cost associated with accomidation and transportation on a stopover, but it’s worth it to sneak in an extra trip within a larger journey.

Research the s**t out of every option

planning for cheap plane tickets
Psycho scribbles in blue and gold gel pen, just to be annoying

Okay, okay. The hourly value of your time might not pan out to savings here, but if you are time rich and cash poor (or just obsessive about deals like I am), this is the way to go.

For a long, run-on example: on my latest trip, I knew a few things:
1. My boyfriend and I wanted to go to Southeast Asia together
2. He was most interested in Cambodia, and I was most interested in the Thai islands
3. I was continuing on to New Zealand to visit a friend during her school holiday
4. Said friend didn’t know her exam schedule more than a few months in advance
5. Australia is on the way to New Zealand from Southeast Asia
6. I wanted to return home to the US before Christmas
7. Hawaii is between New Zealand and the west coast

That was A LOT of information to take into account, but this was a big trip. It’s beautiful to have time that is free and clear, but in a world of decision overload, limiting factors can be beautiful things.

After gathering all my information, crazy obsessive research began. I looked up the price for each leg of each option for what order to visit places and what days in the range would be cheapest. Then I added up the cost of each potential trip-order (was it going to be cheaper and more convenient to go to Australia before or after New Zealand?

Be sure to use incognito mode on your browser! Even a VPN. Ticket search engines claim they don’t hike prices based on your browsing history, but I’ll believe that when I have the money to mess around with tickets jumping $100 between one search and another on one site, but staying at the lower price on another. I’m looking at you, Skyscanner!


Just buy the damn tickets

cheap plane tickets with a fancy background

Start with the biggest ones, and the ones that are a surest thing, then work out from there. You may not need to book every ticket in advance. Because of how complicated and time-constrained this trip was, I did. In hindsight, I could have waited on the Cambodia-Thailand leg since we wound up extending our stay in Cambodia and taking a bus to Thailand instead, eating the cost of the original ticket. But it was about $40 all told, so it was okay.

Go forth and tire your credit cards! Any other tips for saving money on plane tickets? Leave them in the comments below!

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