Whether it’s your first trip abroad or your tenth, the thrill of international travel never gets old. However, a trip overseas is a major expense, with airfare making up a big chunk of the cost. Since a plane ride, unlike a hotel or restaurant, offers pretty much the same experience each time, it’s the most logical place to start your search for savings.
Even the barely seasoned traveler knows that looking for flight deals can feel as random as playing a slot machine. Last month’s low price can disappear in today’s fuel surcharge and vice versa.
As you peruse our advice on finding the best deals on international flights, you’ll notice that flexibility is a common theme. So start your search early and keep an open mind about when and where you’ll go. Now you’re on your way to big savings on your next international flight.
International fares cycle up and down with the seasons
Are you dreaming of Parisian gardens in June? Imagining yourself beating the August heat on the streets of Rome with a crisp lemon gelato? It’s not hard to see why the months with the mildest weather make up the peak season of international travel. Summer is also when kids are out of school, making it a popular travel time for families.
Related: 11 affordable international destinations to visit this summer
So if you can cross June-August off your travel calendar, you’ll find that the deals are easier to come by, especially during the post-holiday winter season of January-March.
That’s right—the coldest months are the cheapest time to travel internationally, particularly to Europe. But although you won’t find flowers in bloom, there is still plenty of beauty and fun to discover in the winter season.
For example, imagine the charm of Europe’s prettiest cities like Paris and Prague. A dusting of snow only magnifies the old-world beauty of tiled rooftops and ornate bridges.
The fall months of September-November are also considered “off-season.” You may still even be able to catch a few blooms if you get there early enough. But by far the biggest reward of traveling with a chill in the air is the lack of lines and crowds.
Use travel search sites to keep tabs on changing fares
While flexibility is a big factor in scoring a deal on your international flight, advance planning can also pay off. If your destination is in Europe, try to book your flight at least six months in advance. On the other hand, some international flights, such as to the Caribbean, might be cheaper if you buy your ticket only a few weeks in advance.
The sheer amount of information to sort through can be overwhelming. So use travel search engines to develop a context for average prices and sign up for notifications. But remember to keep your cool; finding the best deal is a waiting game. Just because an email screams “sale” or “lowest price” doesn’t mean it’s true.
Here are the most helpful websites for tracking fares and finding deals:
They will send you fare alerts for cheap flights from your home airport to the destination(s) of your choice. For example, I searched for flights from Philadelphia to London and got $684 as the cheapest round trip ticket (including taxes and fees). AirFareWatchDog staffers write up notes on any caveats for the ticket price, as well as how soon you have to book in advance (only a week in this case) and when the price ends (late May). There is also a helpful chart showing the cheapest months to fly to your destination city (November and December for Philly to London).
SkyScanner requires you to specify dates of travel and then lists every available fare from lowest to highest. One of its most unique and helpful features is the ability to search for flights from your home country to “Everywhere.” If you know you want to travel internationally but you’re not committed to a destination yet, you can quickly scan a list of the lowest fares by country. For example, a trip to Mexico would currently be half the price of a flight to the UK.
Kayak is familiar to most travelers, but did you know about its price trend forecast? This cool feature displays Kayak’s advice on whether or not to buy one of the tickets it’s found. If you click for more information you’ll learn why Kayak thinks you should buy or wait. For example, I was told to buy one of the fares to London I searched for because Kayak expected prices to go up by “more than $20” within the next week.
The Flight Deal
The Flight Deal cuts through the hype and only shares ticket prices that meet the following condition: the cost amounts to six cents/mile or less. This site is also a great place to get ideas for possible international destinations. And while you can’t buy a ticket directly from The Flight Deal, they’ll tell you how they found the fare so you can book it for yourself.
The search engine behemoth has launched a site dedicated to travel. As you can imagine, Google flights has a comprehensive and lists almost all flights to any destination. The multi-city planner is helpful when arriving and departing from different destinations.
What to keep in mind
Not every airline lists its fares on these travel search engines. If you do have a destination in mind, look up all the airlines that fly there through your destination airport’s Wikipedia page. Now you can check every possible airline and fare before purchasing.
If you do find a good deal through a search engine, double check the fare price on the airline’s website—it may be cheaper to book directly with the airline.
Finally, keep shopping after you buy your ticket. Government regulations require all airlines to issue a refund within 24 hours (if booked at least a week in advance) regardless of the reason. So if you find a better fare the next day, you can trade without penalty.