How to find cheap flights: advice from a digital nomad

by Gigi Griffis
Hallstatt, Austria

So, here’s a question I get a lot from newer travelers: what’s the secret to finding cheap flights?

The first thing I tell people is this: I’m not actually an expert on flying.

Firstly because I try not to fly. For environmental reasons, for personal reasons, because the older I get the more airsick I get, and because train travel is just a really lovely way to see things. So I’d rather spend two days on trains, watching the world go by, stretched out in wider, more comfortable seats, pausing in unexpected towns for lunch or an overnight, than spend six hours in check-in lines, cold terminals, and tiny airplane seats feeling nauseated.

Secondly because I travel with Luna, which means I can’t always choose the cheapest option when I do fly. Cheapo airlines like RyanAir and Easy Jet don’t take dogs. And sometimes the second-cheapest option that does take a dog turns out to be more expensive once you factor in the dog fee. (On my upcoming flight to France, the dog cost more than myself and my bag combined.)

So, if you’re still here and still want my advice, I’m going to talk you through my process. But know that my process starts with choosing not to fly whenever I can. And when I do fly, I’d rather spend a tiny bit more to take a more direct flight.

Without further ado, then: how to find cheap flights, Gigi style:

First…do you actually have to fly?

As I said above, flights aren’t my first option. They aren’t even always the fastest. Sure, the actual flight time between Paris and Lyon might be an hour, but add transit to the airport (at least another hour, knowing Paris), check-in, getting there early enough to not miss your flight, and wrangling your baggage and transit into town at the end and you are easily looking at 4+ hours. By contrast, Paris city center to Lyon city center by train is about two hours. 

So ditch the idea that flying is always faster. And ask yourself what you prefer. For me, the answer is clear: less security hassles, wider seats, often more space, the ability to move around, bring my own snacks and drinks, etc. Train is a clear winner for me in cases like those. 

Ok, Gigi, but flying is often cheaper than trains, you might say. To which I ask: is it, though? I do some similar math when I think about price. Let’s take our Lyon fares as an example again. On a random Wednesday in January, I see a train ticket for 38 euros. City center to city center. Two hours.

On that same Wednesday, I see an $82 flight that takes 15 hours with layovers or a $119 flight direct. Already more expensive.

But let’s say you found one of those bananas deals airlines like RyanAir have and there’s a flight for like $20. You’re going to easily pay that extra 18 euro difference just for a bag if you want to add one. And without a bag you’re still looking at train/bus/taxi fare between each airport and city center. 

This isn’t to say that trains are always cheaper and faster. Clearly going from Portugal to Croatia would be a multi-day trek via train. So all I’m saying here is that for me the starting point is looking at my train options. And sometimes they aren’t feasible and it’s onto flight planning I go…

Start searching and get a baseline on pricing

Once I have decided that I’m flying, before I book anything, I get a baseline idea of the price for different scenarios. This includes one-way tickets (even if I’d be traveling round-trip), round-trip tickets (even if I’m only going one way), with layovers and without layovers. I also factor in my specific situation for each of these scenarios. I travel with a checked bag and a dog, so I look up those fees and include them in my research. 

The most sophisticated way to do this is probably to have a spreadsheet of some kind, but I’m low tech. Typically I use paper and pen to note down everything.

For example, my notebook might look something like:

PARIS – ZAGREB, one way with layover: date / time / bag fee / dog fee

PARIS – ZAGREB, round-trip: date / time / bag fee / dog fee

PARIS – ZAGREB, one way, without layover: date / time / bag fee / dog fee

Do you have flexibility on timing?

So, here’s secret number one: sometimes prices are wildly different just a day or two off from your original dates. This is especially true for holiday or high season travel. Fly on Christmas Day, for example, and you might find prices are half what they are two days before. 

So, how flexible is your timing? The next thing that goes on my notepad is a variety of dates. Tools like Google Flights and even airline websites will often let you look at a calendar and see when the cheapest flights are for your trip. 

The options on my notepad expand to include these new cheaper options and I strike through options that are a no-go for me.

Do you have flexibility on destination?

So here’s the other big saver: can you fly out from or into a different place? The more flexible you are, the better the deals tend to get. For example, if you are taking a trip to the south of France, you could look at flights into Marseille, Lyon, Paris, or even Barcelona. Marseilles is probably the closest airport (depending where you’re basing yourself on the coast), but if all the prices are looking high, those other airports are all pretty accessible by train or bus. 

For example, when I look at a random Wednesday in January again and I check Google Flights for a Marseille to Zagreb option, the cheapest flight is $126 and 18 hours with layovers (ouch). If I switch to Paris to Zagreb that same day, I get $121 (not much cheaper, plus would require a bus or train ticket) but only two hours (which is not only nicer but also is cheaper in some cases because that 18-hour jaunt is probably going to require a hotel and some pricey airport food). Barcelona takes us up to $183 (so I’d have looked it up and then ditched that option most likely). I’d also look at options from Lyon and Genoa, or I might look at flights to Slovenia instead of Croatia and then take a train from Ljubljana to Zagreb.

The point isn’t that there is a best option here. It’s just that there are lots of them and you might find one that works better for you – price and time wise – by expanding your location options.

Last summer, I ended up returning to Paris for a few days at the end of my trip because the flight from Paris to Porto was a direct one and better priced than trying to go from a smaller French airport. (Plus who doesn’t love spending another few days in Paris.)

Buy at the right time

Finally, prices change not only based on what day you are flying but also what day you are buying. For long-haul flights, most experts say to book about three months in advance. For short flights, apparently 6 weeks is the sweet spot. Personally, I tend to do my research and book farther ahead than that when I see the right deal. I booked my first flight for my summer 2023 travel back in November 2022 because the deal was excellent and it was great to have it taken care of well ahead of time.

That’s it. My process. I’ll leave you with one last caveat that I don’t love to fly and don’t do it nearly as often as you’d think. But when I do, this is how I find prices I feel good about. Happy travels!

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