|Koh Tao, Thailand; my first trip to SEA, 2007|
I'm heading home in less than a week so perhaps it's fitting to write a post about flights. I've flown between the US and China once a year for the past 10 years. I've also taken a few trips by plane within China and many from China to Southeast Asia. I still wouldn't consider myself anywhere near an expert air traveler, but I still know something about it. Here are my tips for cheap flights:
1. Shop around
If you have some time before your flight, spend a few minutes each day (I usually do it for a week or two) poking around sites like kayak or skyscanner to get an idea of prices, both around the time you plan to depart and maybe a month or so on either side. This will give you a generally idea of price trends on a variety of airlines. I have found that it's better not to book too far in advance for flights on regular carriers (budget carriers are different), unless it's a holiday. If you find a price you are pleased with, you might just want to book right away. Also, if you are flying one way you may also want to take a look at round trip prices as they are sometimes cheaper.
Many websites also do price matching and Expedia will actually match the price you found and give you a US$50 hotel voucher to be used on their site if you found a cheaper flight somewhere other than their website. I did this once before successfully, but I had to call their customer service about which took about 10 minutes of my time.
2. Fly during the off-season
I always visit the US from China in the winter, as it can cut the price of flights nearly in half. For many destinations, you are going to get a better deal if you fly in winter (or monsoon season). If you are okay with a little cold or rainy weather, this can save you a ton on flights, as well as hotels and admission prices.
3. Try out a new credit card
If you are a US citizen and have decent credit, consider opening a credit card when you book your flight. I've gotten $75 off my flight when I've applied for an Expedia Citi card plus "reward points" which can be turned in for gifts such as money on Amazon.com! I've also gotten an American Airlines card which got me $50 off my flight plus one free checked bag on domestic flights and preferred boarding. Be careful with airline credit cards though as they usually have an annual fee. It is often waived the first year so if you cancel the card before the one year mark you can use it without paying the fee (usually US$100). Another great card is the Chase Freedom card which offers between 1-5% cash back and periodically does $200 off your first $500 of purchases (made within 90 days, but that's easy if you are buying a long haul flight!).
4. Use local websites
I haven't booked that many domestic flights in China as I actually really enjoy traveling by train. When I have taken flights, I've usually turned to Chinese websites that offer deals that aren't found on sites like kayak. There is an option for English on these sites which is great if you are unable to read Chinese. The ones I've used in the past are elong and ctrip. Another popular one that I haven't used is qunar. Thanks to these sites, I've gotten some deep discounts on flights that I've booked just days before departure. You can also search for deals on international flights as well as hotels.
5. Try budget airlines
I love, love, LOVE budget airlines (though Spirit Airlines may be an exception). You have to keep your expectations in check, but you can really find some amazing deals, especially if you book in advance! My absolute favorite budget airline is AirAsia, which I've flown about two dozen times. They are based in Malaysia so they serve Southeast Asia very well and they offer direct flights from a number of points in China to Kuala Lumpur (also known as KL, which is Malaysia's capital) as well as a few other destinations. If you are going to be living in Asia, do yourself a favor and get on their email list. They have incredible sales and if you have the flexibility to book your vacation far in advance, you can book tickets for next to nothing. I was able to get a round trip ticket from Beijing to KL for just over US$100, a flight that normally costs about $400. I also got a ticket from Yogyakarta, Indonesia to Singapore for 13 bucks!
6. Hidden city
Hidden city seems to be the new thing in cheap air travel, though I have a feeling it might be on the way out. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of hidden city, it uses algorithms to help you find a cheap ticket by using your destination as a stopover. For example, if you are flying from Chicago to Atlanta, hidden city websites such as skipplagged will try to find you a cheaper flight that has Atlanta has a stopover rather than the final destination. I've had friends who have used such sites successfully, but most airlines are not taking too kindly to people trying to beat the system. In fact, skipplagged is being sued by United Airlines for the practice.
One thing I haven't utilized is frequent flier miles. I fly so many different airlines and the thought of keeping track of them all seemed overwhelming.
Do you have any helpful tips for scoring cheap flights or good travel deals?