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4 Tips on Finding Cheap Flight Routes

cheap flight routes

Why are some flights from where you live always expensive, while others seem to always be on sale? And what should you do about it so you’re getting the best deals?

Today I got an interview request to talk about Cartagena, a city in Colombia that I know quite well after visiting several times. I keep thinking I need to take my wife on vacation there sometime because the flights are almost always less than $400 round trip from Tampa and I’ve seen them go for $299 during low travel times. It’s sometimes cheaper to fly to South America to there than it is to fly to Key West or many islands in the Caribbean. It doesn’t hurt that it’s actually parallel with Costa Rica—further north than Panama City:

flights to cartagena

There are other oddities like that though that pop up on a regular basis. I see Dallas flights for barely more than $100 round trip and anywhere that Allegiant flies will be cheaper than other routes as well. I can fly to DC or multiple spots in Virginia for less than $200 round trip because Allegiant, Southwest, JetBlue, and Frontier fly there. But if I search Kayak to go to closer Charlotte, North Carolina, it’ll cost me much more.

Here are some of the reasons why certain flight routes can be cheaper and how you can benefit as a traveler on a budget.

A Budget Airline Flies Where You’re Going

The main reason flights to Colombia are cheap is not because Avianca is based there or even that Copa flies there too. It’s because the much-hated Spirit Airlines flies there. It’s also the reason why flights to Dallas are cheap from Florida, even though Dallas is an American Airlines hub. (People in hub cities usually pay higher fares overall to go anywhere.) Because Spirit is flying to Dallas for $107 round trip in January, flights on American can’t be a massive amount more, so they’re $122. People will pay the $15 extra to avoid Spirit and get mileage, but they probably won’t pay twice as much.

Many U.S. travelers have seen the benefit of Norwegian Air coming to their city, as it provides a new budget option and also erodes the pricing power of rivals. Just ask anyone living in Los Angeles how flights to Europe have come down. Icelandair, Air Berlin, and others are doing the same.

If one of these airlines is in your city, see where they go and put those places on your list of vacation possibilities. If they’re in another city you can get to by car, train, or Megabus, it may be worth it to leave from there. I’ve made trips to Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami for this reason as the prices were $200 or more less than from Tampa.

Domestically look for Spirit, Allegiant, Silver Air, and to a lesser extent JetBlue, Southwest, and Frontier. For Mexico look for Interjet, Volaris, or Aerobus. For Canada look at Porter Air. One place to check is your home airport website: often they’ll show every airline that flies in there. A budget airline coming in can suddenly make a combination a cheap flight route.

Strategy: Get out a calculator for all the fees on some of the very cheapest ones and pack light.

Volaris flights Mexico

There’s Heavy Route Competition

The airlines have gotten scary good at predicting and optimizing the number of seats available on routes, but there are still some where competition is heavy and there’s more supply than demand. You find it more on international flights than domestic ones, but if you see sales popping up on newsletters and booking sites, that’s a good sign. Sometimes this fluctuates with the seasons, or sometimes it’s temporary when a new airline route comes online that wasn’t available before. Often you’ll hear about that from a screaming billboard. Otherwise check for deals somewhere like Skyscanner or Booking Buddy.

Strategy: Jump on the temporary imbalance in demand because the deal probably won’t last.

The Destination is Subsidizing Flights

Destination marketing people don’t like to talk about this, but often they have to bribe the airlines to serve their market. If Delta doesn’t want to fly to Bumfork Island but the government has promised to double the number of tourists next year, then the government (or the local hotel association) is going to pay Delta to add New York-Bumfork to their route map. It’s not a direct payment of course, but they find ways to make it work through capacity guarantees, waived slotting fees, tax incentives, ticket buybacks, and other tricks. Eventually, if the route takes off and flights fill up, these deals will expire and prices will go up. In the early years, however, the main objective on both sides is to get bodies in the seats. It’s a trial run of sorts and it will either succeed or get cut.

Strategy: Grab the intro sale fares to this newly opened route and if you see a crazy cheap flight/hotel combo, then grab it The deals probably won’t stay that low.

Charter Flights Can Lead to Cheap Flight Routes

If you’re in New York or London, you’re always going to find great deals on trips to sunny and warm places. If you’re a mid-range traveler, the package deals to these places with a hotel can sometimes be not much more than the flight by itself would be if you booked it on the open market. Usually that’s because you’re flying on a charter airline. Or the agency has bought big blocks of seats at a discount.

These are typically “sun and fun” resort places without much intrinsic charm beyond the resort walls: Cancun or Punta Cana from the U.S. and Canada, the Canary Islands or Ibiza from Europe. You can find deals to other places though where there’s a lot to do nearby if you go exploring. Think Morocco or southern Portugal from the UK, Cartagena (again), and much of Central America from the north of there.

Strategy: Keep an eye out for package deals from the likes of Liberty Travel, Thomson UK, and the other giant vacation purveyors and also check the online agencies like Expedia.

What if the Prices are Always Sky High?

Some routes are just always expensive, so if you have your heart set on one of those, you’ll need to get creative.

The most obvious solution is to use frequent flier miles. You’ll still need to be flexible, but you can often cash in miles for what would be an expensive ticket in cash. I got $2,000 tickets to Fiji with miles earlier this year and $500 tickets to Anchorage for 25K miles. (That makes each mile worth 2 cents—a decent return.) I’m looking at using 80,000 miles to get to Nepal next year rather than spending at least  $1,500 to get to there and India otherwise.

Porter Airlines

You can also try alternative airports at both ends and go overland to where you need to be. You can also try combinations that involve a long-distance flight to the first city and then a budget airline from there. As you can see from this post on where the cheapest international flights are, it could make sense for you to fly somewhere like Sofia or Bucharest and catch a flight from there rather than flying to London, Madrid, or Paris. Or you could go by Lisbon and do a stopover for a few days.

To get to Canada for a reasonable price, can you snag a cheap flight to Boston and go from there? Look at the prices above on Porter Airlines if you could.

Strategy: Be flexible and don’t give up. Just because a route looks expensive at first glance doesn’t mean it has to be in the end. Look at every angle for cheap flight routes before giving up and find the second right answer.


Thursday 2nd of February 2017

Great article! I'd like to point out that I feel like for example, Canada is one of the most expensive places for domestic travel and it can be difficult finding these cheap prices and alternatives. "Be flexible and don’t give up. Just because a route looks expensive at first glance doesn’t mean it has to be in the end. Look at every angle before giving up and find the second right answer." Thanks :)

Tim Leffel

Thursday 2nd of February 2017

Matthew, when's the last time you were there? Canada is roughly 50% cheaper than when I visited eight years ago and it's about 20% less than it was three years ago---if you're American earning U.S. dollars. I frequently see RT flights between the two countries for under $350 and it's a low mileage level for cashing in frequent flier miles. Just got a deal in my inbox today of Tampa to Montreal for $265 on AA.