Flight Hacking

I’ve somewhat recently become very fascinated in “Travel Hacking,” specifically dirt cheap flights, like an $18/leg round-trip New Orleans flight I took. These flights are everywhere, yet most people are shocked when I tell them how much I paid for the flight. It really boils down to knowing where to look, and some of the “rules” for budget air travel. So, here’s a little guide to finding these gems, as well as some links (none of these are affiliate) and tips.

Starting Point

A good first step is figuring out what ULCCs (Ultra Low Cost Carriers) fly out of your local airport. The big names are Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant. Now, before you instantly buy the first cheap flight you see with an ULCC, you should be very aware of all of the hidden fees. The biggest one that shocks people is that you don’t get a carry-on or checked bag, only a “personal item.” In addition, these carriers only include a seat in the price, you get no seat-selection, nor guarantee you’ll be seated with the rest of your party. I liken these to “Greyhound Buses that Fly,” they’ll get you there, but it’s probably going to be an uncomfortable flight.

My home airports are MCO (Orlando International) and SFB (Orlando-Sanford International). That gives me four big ULCCs, Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, and WOW (who do mostly international).

If you look at these airline’s route maps, you can start to try and figure out where the cheapest legs will be, by finding the connecting hubs. From Orlando, the biggest hub for domestic flights nearest to me is Atlanta, GA. Usually, that’s also the cheapest airfare, though there are exceptions. You can also get a good guess at the nearest hub cities without looking at route maps by using a tool like Skiplagged or Skyscanner, and selecting your destination for “Anywhere.” However, eventually you’ll discover that you can find better deals yourself than these tools can.

Now try feeling out round-trip flights to these hub cities for about 2-4 weeks from the date you’re looking, using the direct airline websites. In addition, you should probably be doing this on a private browsing session clear of cookies. There’s always a bit of luck, and there are some rules to follow for finding good deals…

The Rules

  • Flights on Mon – Thurs & Saturday are usually cheaper than other days
  • Avoid holidays
    • Though, ones that aren’t also days off, such as Halloween and Cinco De Mayo tend to have cheaper airfare on the days around them, for some unknown to me reason.
  • 2-4 weeks out is the sweet spot for the best deals for domestic, 1-3 months out for international. Again, there are exceptions as always.
  • Subscribe to airline emails. The routes they promote and put on sale there are usually struggling to fill up — use that knowledge to your advantage. They also usually send out promo codes occasionally, which helps too.

Exercise

With that out the way, I’m going to figure out what’s the “coolest” place I can go for under $50 round-trip. I’m going to limit myself to 1 day I can take off work max, so it has to fall on a weekend.

I’m going to start with Frontier Airlines, so I’m going to plug in my nearest hub city, and the dates of the 3rd weekend from now:

Wow, that’s a pretty decent deal. I put that same flight into Spirit’s website, and it cost quite a bit more. This is a good sign that right now, Frontier Airlines is the cheapest airline flying out of MCO to most hub cities. Both Spirit and Frontier have a “Deals” section where they highlight various discounted routes and connections, so I’ll take a look at Frontier’s deals from out of MCO:

Most of these are pretty minor destinations (as they’re mostly layover cities), though now we also have discovered that the $20 Atlanta fare we found ourselves is one of these promoted “deals.” That’s a sign that you’re getting good at finding deals — you can find the promos without looking for “promos” specifically. If you look at the route maps and hubs, most of these deals make sense, so they’ll often be at or around this price. However, one jumped out at me, Buffalo, NY.

Buffalo doesn’t make much sense as a hub for Frontier, and I don’t see it on sale often for that reason. That’d be a pretty cool mini-vacation, as that’s where Niagara Falls is, and it is right on the Canadian border. Perhaps I could rent a car and drive up to Toronto from there. Let’s see if I can find a flight that meets my criteria of <$50 and requires only 1 day off of work (assuming a M-F schedule).

I managed to find one that met my criteria, though it isn’t until early December. I broke one of my “rules” for cheap airfare, which is 2-4 weeks, but I did say there were exceptions. My guess as to why this week is cheap is due to it being between two of the busiest travel seasons, late November and late December. The airline probably needs to keep this route active, but it doesn’t get much use during this quiet time, so they drop the prices super low.

Though, the $20/leg price is labeled as “Discount Den.” Discount Den is Frontier’s premium membership. For $50/yr, you can get discounts on lots of various things, such as airfare and checked bags. Without Discount Den, each leg is $29 (still a really good price for this route). It’s up to you if Discount Den is worth it, I have it, though, I haven’t gotten my money’s worth out of it yet.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Niagara Falls trip to plan.