How to Travel on the Cheap

Max Jones ’19 knows how to travel on a budget and shares the best places to look for your next affordable trip.

[source: gadc.aero] [source: gadc.aero]

Most people would prefer a better deal on travel, but it’s hard to know where to start. Travel is so variably priced and few know what those variables can be attributed to—a flight that is listed at $40 today could be $400 by tomorrow.

Since my preteen years, I’ve traveled to 20 countries with low fares or for free and it’s because I learned where and how to look.

And while every once in a while, a new report comes out to give the public the inside scoop on travel, such as, “Wednesday night is the best to search for flights” or “Tuesdays are the cheapest day to fly”—I’ve noticed there is no single magic solution to traveling on the cheap. 

Here are a few tips on where to look for your next affordable travel fare:

Mistake fares

Possibly the most exciting way to travel on the cheap is a mistake fare. Mistake fares happen when airlines load incorrect or extremely cheap fares that might be perceived by the public as incorrect. There are usually up to 10 major mistake fares every year, but hundreds of near-mistakes throughout the year.
 
Here’s an example of a mistake fare: Washington, D.C. to Beijing in business class for $442 round-trip. Occasionally, mistake fares this low, especially for business class, aren’t honored, so I suggest waiting a day or two before booking any non-refundable arrangements.
 
Here’s an example of a crazy cheap fare: Orlando-Sanford and Miami to Brussels, Belgium for $320 round-trip. This fare was correctly published by Belgian airline Jetairfly and is still available at the $320 price through jetairfly.com as of November 17.
 
Where to find them: My favorite place to find mistake fares is at secretflying.com. You can subscribe to the newsletter and get alerts on major and minor mistake fares. Flyertalk.com’s mileage run forum is also helpful.
 

The catch: Usually you have to book within a few hours, so you’ve got to be pretty spontaneous or at least have a running idea of when you could go and who you might want to take with you.

Cheap fares 

What about the flights many Rollins students and faculty need—like domestic travel to visit family or friends?

There’s good news here—lots of cheap domestic fares are available every day. Here are a few ways to find or create them.

1. Use Google Flights

My favorite search method for finding cheap airfare is Google Flights. It uses technology that allows users to enter in a departure city and a) find a cheap place to travel, if flexible b) find the cheapest dates to travel and c) see all the details on how comfortable your flight will be (from legroom to wifi availability).
 

2. Hack the airfare

Some Rollins students are familiar with Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant Airlines, the “ultra-low-cost-carriers” with lots of flights into Orlando and Sanford. They charge for everything—from carry-on bags to water—but the prices are always unbelievably cheap.

Here’s a way to beat them at their own “a la carte” game: Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant all charge some variant of what they call a passenger usage fee, charged for the convenience of booking on their website. Spirit, for example, usually charges $17.99 per person, each way, and includes it in their base fare online. You can avoid this fee by booking your ticket at the airport ticket counter. If a family is travelling, paying only $17.99 per person each way can add up to a big savings quickly.

Tip: Before heading to the airport, make sure to check the ticket counter hours on the airline’s website. And yes, you can still pay with a credit card at the airport ticket counter.

Advanced airfare hacking: If you’re interested in becoming a cheap travel nerd, check out flyertalk.com and their “trick it” thread, which now has thousands of posts. 

3. Monitor Secret Flying

Secretflying.com has great domestic fares, too. For example, right now, there’s a deal on United Airlines for $40 flights between Chicago and LA. 

Miles & Points

Miles are the main way to achieve free travel, and there are many more ways to earn them than actually flying:

1. Credit Cards

Using credit cards is the No. 1 way to earn free airfare miles. In fact, there are entire conferences for miles and points fanatics that are just about using credit cards to earn miles.

But just a word of caution—credit cards that earn a lot miles are difficult for young people to be approved for. And having a credit card is a big responsibility.

If and when you think it’s the right time to apply for a credit card, I suggest looking into flexible currency cards. Cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred allow you to transfer points 1:1 to United, Amtrak, British Airways, and plenty of other programs. This can prove to be a much better value than getting a card limited to one program.

Blogs like boardingarea.com are helpful for people who are exploring credit cards as a way to earn miles.

2. Promotions

This is where Rollins students can earn some serious miles. Airlines and hotels have a lot of fun promotions each year. Here are a couple examples you could take advantage of right now:

Virgin America and Airbnb

If you can sign up (or sign your family up) as an Airbnb host for at least one night, Virgin America will give you 20,000 points worth $400 in free flights.

IHG Rewards

IHG Rewards is the program of Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, and more hospitality brands. They usually have quarterly promotions, but this quarter’s promo is incredibly lucrative for one reason: You don’t have to stay at any of their hotels to earn 40,000 or more points. In fact, you can mail in 94 entries to their surprise promotion and earn at least 47,000 points worth up to nine free nights.

Where to find more promos: Boardingarea.com publishes the majority of the top 20 miles and points blogs on the internet.

3. Keeping track of miles/points

Awardwallet.com is awesome to keep track of all your miles and points accounts. For free, they will notify you of expiring points, promos that may apply to your account, and store your passwords. This can be invaluable for the casual miles and points earner.