• Adam Garrett

How To Locate Low Cost Cash Flights

Updated: Sep 16

Here I'll go over some of the main ways that I find low-cost flights. I'll be going over:

  1. Google Flights

  2. Flight Connections

  3. Baggage Fees

  4. Distant Airports & Positioning Runs

  5. Travel Hacker Following

  6. Looking Directly on Airline Websites

  7. Signing up for SPAM Directly with Airlines

  8. Flexibility

  9. Carrier Rankings

  10. Seat Quality Within the Same Carrier

  11. Airports

  12. Lounge Options and Quality on Itineraries

  13. The Value of Time

  14. Additional Savings with Credit Cards

  15. Caveats


1. Google Flights

One of the best spots to check for cheap flights (notably excluding SouthWest) is on Google flights. Generally, you'll find cheaper options booked a month or more out, with options on some carriers being cheapest as soon as they are available to book (i.e. SouthWest).

As soon as you go there and enter a departure city, before doing anything further, some decent options may pop up:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


To locate cheap spots, you may want to check the options that are easy to get to. For instance, in Hampton Roads, VA, you might check the options from PHF (Newport News), Richmond (RIC), & Norfolk (ORF) instead of just your closest airport.

Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights



The more options you add, especially as you get into bigger cities, the cheaper the flights will be. Also you may want to check based on 1 ways, though sometimes round trips can be heavily discounted vs the same flights booked one way each (in some cases less than either 1 way). Here's a search 1 way where I've added Washington to the mix:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


If you're looking for domestic flights, you might even want to see where you can go by typing in "United States" in the "Where to?" field:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


From there, you'll see a number of possibilities that you can scroll down on for the cheapest flights on a particular date:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


After clicking "All Filters" you can also narrow down to the cheapest options:



Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Removing DC, there are only a few options on that date for less than $50, so by upping the minimum threshold to $100, you'll see many more options:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Look out for the helpful pop-ups that Google shows at times as well, like this one, though they often don't include the carry-on bag in that cost:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


The date grid feature and the price graph are excellent Google Flights features as well, with the date grid one being best for those looking exclusively at a 1 week window,


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


and the price graph better for those with more flexibility:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Another great option with Google flights is the "flexible dates" option:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


That's how I found this round trip for $217


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


In other countries, sometimes the dollar can go a lot further than it can in the US (& vice versa).

Lookup up to $100 through the US with flexible dates up to 6 months, you can find options like this example:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights

Keep in mind that zooming could yield even more and the blue dots will typically show pricing when zoomed in since they are eligible cities within the criteria including pricing.


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights



One excellent option as well with Google Flights is that you can set an alert for many itineraries with the "track prices" feature.




Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


With Google Flights, there is a major bug to be aware of. Below I am going to screenshot various possibilities where the only factor that I change is how far I am zoomed in on the map. For reference, I have selected nonstop flights under $50 departing from ORF (Norfolk, VA), PHF (Newport News, VA), or RIC (Richmond, VA):



Zoomed out all the way there are only 2 options.

Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights

Zoomed in some more, without any other changes, the number expands to 6 options:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Zoomed in further on the NE opens up 3 additional options:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Even something simple like removing the direct filter & zooming on the SE opens up New Orleans despite it also being a direct flight:


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights




2. Flight Connections

Direct flights and flights with low-cost airlines can be cheaper, & thus, larger airports will tend to have cheaper flights, with London Heathrow being a notable exception due to fees there. Some routes are seasonal &/or not daily, so if you have a particular destination in mind, to check the itinerary options from the airports closest to you in case it's not all immediately showing up on Google, go to FlightConnections.com


I see additional options by adding a smaller airport close to me in Norfolk:


& significantly less options in the smallest airport of the 3, Newport News:


Image courtesy FlightConnections.com

If we were to add a 4th, whether bigger airports in Raleigh, NC (RDU), Washington DC (IAD & DCA), or Baltimore (BWI), you'd get plenty of additional direct options including direct international options:

Image courtesy FlightConnections.com


To check the airlines available for a particular itinerary, click on or type in the destination:


Image courtesy FlightConnections.com


Before even clicking on an option, just hovering over it can sometimes show limited timelines, like this one for nearby Midway Airport:


Image courtesy FlightConnections.com


It can also show future options, like this one:


Image courtesy FlightConnections.com



3. Baggage fees

SouthWest is the best carrier when it comes to free bags among airlines with 2 free checked bags, a personal item and a checked bag. Keep in mind Amtrak's generous similar baggage policy if you intend to book a positioning train ride to fly out of somewhere distant. Google Flights makes it easy to adjust the cost of the flight based on items like carry-on bags and checked bags needed for domestic flights.


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


Often credit cards or status will provide additional options for free checked bags. In some cases, a single credit card can provide 1 free checked bag for up to 6 people in your itinerary. If you have a free checked bag, you may be able to get by with just a free personal item and the checked bag rather than paying extra in cases where you need to pay extra for a carry-on.


4. Distant Airports & Positioning Runs

It's best to do a risk and benefit analysis when considering piecing together a trip, whether booking on 2 different carriers for different legs, driving a long time, using a train and plane, using a bus and plane, or otherwise. If considering distant airports where you're getting there by bus or car, keep in mind the possibility of heavy traffic if driving, especially in a traffic-prone area like DC.


For instance, if going to another country from the US, one viable option, especially with a small group of 2 or solo travel that would be gone for a long period of time (i.e. 2 weeks), would be to get a short uber from your home to a train station, then go by train on a direct route that's close to the airport you're considering, then taking a free short shuttle (in a case like BWI) or other transit like a longer Uber or other mass transit (i.e. IAD or DCA) to the airport. In a case like IAD in DC, when capacity is low, coach tickets from Newport News (around a 3 hrs drive away with low traffic) can be <$20 per person.

Image courtesy https://www.amtrak.com/tickets/


Even if going by train, your train could experience delays. If you are booking 2 separate itineraries that cannot be connected with the carriers, if the 1st one is late, you can be in a pretty poor position, so it's best to plan accordingly with plenty of buffer time, especially on international itineraries. It's also best to have an extension plan in the event that you miss your 2nd leg. If needing to go in and out of security (such as if you need to grab your checked bags or change airports that are close in proximity like JFK & LGA), keep in mind options to reduce that time, such as free options for Clear &/or Priority Pass/Global Entry with credit cards.


5. Travel Hacker Following

One of the top ways that I find out about killer deals on flights is by following travel hackers like

My Facebook group, "Credit & Debit Card Points, Miles, Cashback Maximizer 4 Free Travel & More"

The Points Guy (their airline deals page)

One Mile at a Time's deal's page (typically flights, hotels, and otherwise)

Boarding Area's deals page


6. Looking directly on airline websites for miles deals or $ deals:

To check the itinerary options from the airports closest to you across airlines, go to FlightConnections.com


Examples include:


Avelo:

Without the promo code, on Google flights it shows as $29.


Image courtesy https://www.google.com/travel/flights


By noticing a deal going with Avelo on the website & inputting the promo code:

Image courtesy https://book.aveloair.com/


That same fare comes down to $22:


Image courtesy https://book.aveloair.com/



https://www.delta.com/us/en/flight-deals/current-flight-deals

https://www.delta.com/us/en/flight-deals/skymiles-award-deals


https://www.jetblue.com/flights (when you are signed in with your departure airport at the top where it often will show you below the search bar, prior to clicking "search flights" some of the best options)



https://www.jetblue.com/best-fare-finder (when you have a deparature & destination already in mind to see the calendar view)


I also like United's option with this map view on the desktop version after scrolling down a bit from the main page. Adjust the max price, click search, and you've got options:



Frontier regularly has sales going requiring promo codes, and here is where you can check flights from a particular city for low-cost options:


Image courtesy https://www.flyfrontier.com/


Image courtesy https://www.flyfrontier.com/


https://flights.flyfrontier.com/en/


In some cases, you'll find that you can pay for a program to lower your fares like Frontier's Discount Den. There is even an option with that for "Kids Fly Free."


There are also airlines that have free corporate memberships, but typically you'll need to fly at a certain volume per year to get the rates &/or benefits of that.


AA has a low-fare finder, but I'm not a fan.


7. Signing up for SPAM directly with airlines & others

There is often an option to sign up for SPAM with airlines directly (I use separate emails so that my . When going about this, you will often get the option to set certain preferences about the kind of mail that you'd like to receive. One of the ways that I hear about low-cost $ and points low-cost flights is via this means, and sometimes I hear from my email killer deals that no one in the travel hacking community is talking about, or I hear about something before others are publishing about it in the community. By getting something before the travel hacking community is talking about it, or when the travel hacking community never talks about it, availability for flights will tend to be highest & the deal will tend to be available for the longest amount of time.


For example:




Whether signing up for their emails or checking on occasion, https://www.airfarewatchdog.com/ is solid, whether the free or paid version.


8. Flexibility

As you've probably been able to tell already, flexibility is ideal for getting a deal on a flight. That said, it's important to keep in mind that if you could get a similar quality hotel in Miami for half the price it would be in a similar location with a cheaper flight, it's important to run the numbers holistically before booking.


9. Carrier Rankings (there's a big difference between Spirit & Delta; top 100 in world here &top economy here, premium economy here, business here, 1st here, top US domestic economy seats here).

Here are those top US domestic economy seats for reference, directly quoted from TPG's article with my additions in ():

  1. JetBlue: The most spacious seats easily make JetBlue the winner.

  2. Delta: Seats might not be larger than competitors, but a more consistent fleet with IFE screens and in-seat power options bump this airline up the list.

  3. Southwest: Decent seat dimensions and inexpensive Wi-Fi make up for a lack of seatback entertainment, though there's no power on board. (2 free checked bags, 1 carry on, and 1 personal item are free)

  4. Alaska:* Relatively roomy seat footprints, power at each seat and consistency throughout the fleet, but no seatback entertainment.

  5. American:* A fairly standard experience boosted by excellent fleetwide Wi-Fi.

  6. United:* Some of the narrowest seats around and spotty inflight power.

  7. Hawaiian:* The seats themselves are nice enough, but there are no AC outlets, and only paid entertainment on many flights.

  8. Spirit: Tiny seats and few amenities, though inflight Wi-Fi should be coming soon. Ish.

  9. Frontier: Seat pitch is between 28 and 29 inches, and Wi-Fi isn't even on the horizon. Need we say more?

It's important to keep in mind that some airlines run far superior operations to others. Also, be sure to look at the various fee costs involved. For instance, JetBlue might have more issues with delays and cancellations than better-rated overall carriers like Delta, but their economy seats were ranked at the top of US domestic economy seats by TPG and they have free wifi. If you have one of their better credit cards, you can get a free checked bag, a $100 annual credit for a flight hotel package, and spending $50k on the same card or more per year can land you with Mint status on JetBlue (that provides 2 free checked bags, access to more space, etc.). In some cases, just carrying a card can give you the possibility of an upgrade all the way to 1st class from economy if space is available close to check in (i.e. the Delta Reserve or Delta Business Reserve credit card).


In case you'd like to weed out some of the carriers with poor ratings, you might consider Spirit, Frontier, and some other low cost carriers not mentioned above. For instance, Spirit & Frontier aren't even ranked within the top 100 airlines.

If you go to Scotts Cheap Flights, they said in an article that "The worst budget airlines for domestic flights" are:

1. Sun Country Airlines

2. Spirit Airlines

3. Frontier Airlines

4. Allegiant Air



Conversely, they said that the best domestic budget airlines are:

  1. SouthWest

  2. Avelo

  3. JetBlue

  4. Breeze

Google Flights makes it easy to include or exclude airlines in some cases. In that same Google flights page, click on Airlines:


You'll notice that in a big search like the whole United States it sadly won't be possible to make exclusion unless by an entire alliance:


If you try that same search throughout the state of Florida, the same problem is present. The exclusion by airline works best when you are trying to weed out airlines within a smaller pairing, like the options to Miami:


10. Seat quality within the same carrier

There can be a big difference in seat quality within the same carrier depending on the fare class and even on the plane that's being flown. For instance, Spirit Airline's "Big Front Seats" supposedly are actually better than many other domestic airlines' premium economy in a number of ways & the seat itself is similar to one in 1st class. Also, I've seen cases where for a relatively small additional charge, you can get a major upgrade. I once saw where I upgraded my dad from economy to premium economy for a few hundred dollars, only for the same upgrade to go up to $3k or $4k immediately after.

To check the quality of the seats on the plane, and even the quality of the seat within the plane, I recommend SeatGuru.


11. Airports

Whether you're looking at airports for departure, arrival, or en route, which route you take can add or diminish value even at the same cash rate for the flight, whether due to an enhanced experience at the airport, better lounge options (I recommend Lounge Buddy for checking your options), better/cheaper ground transit to where you're going (article on getting from airports to cities by taxi/Uber/Lyft & public transit & another on public transit examining some of the best airport/city combos for each in the US, parking costs (top ten best), lounges, etc.


I've even saved on parking before when I had lower income by parking on free public street parking near the Richmond and Norfolk airports and walking around 15 or 20 minutes to the airport. I don't get enough exercise including enough walking, & it's easy to listen to audiobooks, other educational resources, devotional content, content being memorized, or otherwise while walking, so it was essentially a win-win & I never had any sign of vandalism or theft from my vehicles due to the safety of each area, etc. I haven't done it in years but would consider it if I was solo engaging in personal travel. Otherwise, with my wife she doesn't like doing that even if I drop her off & with business travel parking is cheaper due to the deductibility of parking costs. Keep in mind that I am not a tax advisor and not providing tax advice. If walking a mile or so (& otherwise in airports), rolling bags are ideal.


Here's more on parking at Newport News Airport, Norfolk Airport, or Richmond Airport if going the more traditional route.


Top 100 airports in the world 2021

US top airports include:

Houston George Bush #25,

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky #42,

Denver #44,

Atlanta #46,

Houston Hobby #49,

Seattle-Tacoma #53,

San Francisco #61,

Dallas/Fort Worth #70,

Los Angeles #75

Canada includes Vancouver #24,

Toronto Perason #38,

Montreal #63

Top 10 airports in the world none of which are in the US


12. lounge options and quality on itineraries

In addition to considering airport quality, some airports have a lot more/better lounges than others. None of the airports within 2 hours of me have any lounges available for me, for instance, despite me having access to far more lounges than typical travelers due to my status and credit cards. To check the lounge options that you have based on your status and credit cards, I recommend the https://www.loungebuddy.com/ profile/app once you've created an account and input all your information so that you can quickly come back to it and effectively see what your options are whenever you're looking to travel. The app is better than the website for saving your details since I don't believe there's a website sign-in option. If you would drop $100 or $150 on dinner at an airport or before you get to the airport for your family of 6, whereas you could get better food & drinks from a lounge for free, that's significant. In some cases, a "lounge" is actually a restaurant that's part of a lounge network that provides a $28-$30/person benefit for up to 2, and sometimes 2 parents each have lounge granting access that can provide up to $120 in credits, whether for just the 2 of them or for a larger family. Keep in mind though that the food can be even better in some cases within non-restaurant lounges, and that etiquette is to tip at the restaurants, while that's not nearly as common at lounges unless getting something at the bar of a more traditional lounge.


13. The Value of Time

I can recall an occasion where I took off work to fly solo to a college reunion and then go home solo by bus just to save some $, only to think later that I may have lost money in the process due to the value of my time and the efficiency of my time while en route on the bus where I was working a job that didn't have good options for remote productivity even though I am rather disciplined compared to most at being efficient with work and education during transit. I even tried to justify it to others later without seeing as clearly as I would have liked to. Because of that value, consider nonstop itineraries and short itineraries, both of which can be narrowed down with Google Maps with the latter being best not used with the former:



Some people would prefer to not disrupt their sleep schedule due to the impact on productivity, health, a babies' sleep schedule, or otherwise, so that can be modified as well in Google Flights:


In addition to flight times, one should consider all time involved, including total travel time, transit time to & from airports if considering different airports, mass transit available if opting for that to/from airport, etc. For instance, Baltimore has a free shuttle directly to BWI from the Amtrak station that's only a short distance away, and there are similar options at Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR), Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE) & Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). Here's a TPG Amtrak stations at US Airports guide.


14. Additional credit card savings

There are a number of credit cards that can help you save not just while in the airport with free food/wifi at lounges, not just with bags, but also in a number of other ways. While in the air, some cards provide as much as 50% savings on eligible in-flight food and drink purchases. Some cards provide annual flight credits that can go directly toward flight purchases, baggage fees, or otherwise.


15. Caveats

You might want to note when comparing options:

a. Often cheap options, including basic economy & certain carriers, will have tough cancellation options or no options, so be sure to know the policy before booking if you aren't sure about your flight or if the unexpected has a >5% chance of messing with your plans. In addition, some people will cancel a flight if there's no cost to do so if the same or simila rflights (whether on that carrier or a similar one) get cheaper over time.

b. all fees & other costs involved, including any baggage fees, wifi fees, onboard drinks/food, factoring in any transit costs to airports if considering different airports, different possible car rental companies at different airports (especially if you have some form of status, such as status from certain credit cards), airport parking costs if applicable, etc.








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