The truth behind scoring “cheap” international flights for ordinary families
I bet this isn’t the first article you’ve clicked on about saving money to fly, right? I bet you’ve heard a hundred times to book in advance, fly budget airlines, fly off-peak.
Well, OK, I will repeat some of this is sound advice – but I also know that MOST family flyers also have real-life to contend with.
As much as we all may dream of being global nomads and flying anywhere in the world on a whim, most of us have jobs, mortgages – and, importantly, school holidays to consider.
Families also need to purchase multiple seats – with any luck together – every time they fly. Spontaneity, extra hours in the air, or copiously long layovers are not really viable options, even if they’re cheap.
So forget “cheap”, but can you REALLY SAVE as a flying family?
We’ve done some digging and scored some industry insider tips while we were at it. Whilst I cannot promise to wave the magic wand for you, there ARE options for families.
In this article we cover:
- Our Top 10 favourite family flying saving tips (that work!)
- More advanced savings techniques
- Favourite search and price watch tools
- Are the savings worth it; the cost of booking “cheap”
This post is part of our flying with kids and travel savings secrets series
This post was first published in 2017; we’ve updated some pointers for information relevant in 2022 and removed a couple of old references to websites we no longer use.
Our Top 10 Favourite Saving Tips For Flying as a Family
- Incognito windows and pop-up ads
- Get social with your airline
- Get loyal
- Book from your destination
- Return not always cheapest
- Using an agent; price matching
- Reduce your group size
- Family & friends in the industry
- When to book – is timing everything?
- Flexibility (yeah, that old chestnut)
So let’s take these flying savings tips into action with real-life examples.
1. Save Money on Flights: The mystery of the incognito window
Have you read that you should always book your flights incognito? Worried that the airlines are watching what you’re doing?
I think we’re all aware by now of what cookies are – those magical online ‘things’ that can tell people where you’ve been and what you’ve been researching on the internet. Then, viola!!! As soon as you go to make your booking, they ramp up the price on you.
I’ve had it happen in the past. Many times! But times are changing.
Airlines are keener than ever to get your booking in today’s market. So if you’re checking flight timings on an airline’s website, don’t book straight away. Give it a day or two, and let those little retargeting pixels start going to work. I bet you’ll start seeing adverts from the airline know when you’re cruising around the internet, right?
They want your booking, and are prepared to discount your tickets to get it!! Yes, DISCOUNT, not increase the price.
So next time you’re in research mode and see the ads popping up on your screen from the airlines, CLICK ON THEM!
Try your flight details again and compare them to the price you were originally quoted. I would still ALWAYS open an incognito or private browsing window to double-check I was still getting the best value tickets before I book!
Retargeting can most definitely work in your favour too, so don’t be afraid of targetted advertising if you want cheap flights.
Top Tip: Work out what the base route would cost anyway to make sure you really are getting something special when offers come out!
2. Save Money on Flights: Get social! Let airlines know you’re interested
If an airline knows you are interested in them, be among the first to know when specials come up. They will advertise specials through channels such as email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Sure these emails can be annoying when you’re not looking to fly (so just put a filter on your inbox; once you’re in flight booking mode, start checking deals out).
Being a member of the airline helps too; even if you haven’t taken a flight yet, you can sign up for most loyalty programs completely free and be the first to hear about deals.
Real-Life Example: Vanessa from Wanderlust Crew
The best flight deal I’ve ever found was from stalking Norwegian Airlines Twitter account and finding out when their sales were being released. They recently had $65 USD deals from the US East Coast to Ireland, England and Scotland.
We knew we wanted to go to Europe and that we could travel cheaply within Europe once we got there, so we found the cheapest deal from Boston to Ireland for under $500 total for our family of 6! It worked out to be about $83 USD per person after taxes and fees. It pays to keep an eye on airlines’ Twitter accounts and be quick!”
Here’s the Wanderlust Crew Guide to Fly Cheap or Nearly Free
3. Save Money on Flights: Get Loyal
As frequent expat travellers, this has been our number one savings tool.
By combining the power of our credit cards (and by this, I mean we put EVERYTHING we can on credit card) and flying with the same airline frequently (family flights & hubby’s work), the savings add up that we DO GET REGULAR FREE FLIGHTS!
Oh, and once you fly frequently enough, you start to move up the airline ranking with status points.
Our family are now all silver, gold and platinum members with Etihad, which means on every flight we take, we now earn even more points – it really is a game of compounding efforts.
We also get access to things like priority check-in (can’t tell you just how amazing that is when travelling with kids), lounge access, and extra weight allowances, just to name a few of the perks.
The best programs like Etihad Guest will allow family pooling too to maximise your efforts and get the reward flights faster. For us, the cost difference between staying loyal and using our local airline (Etihad) versus paying for a taxi to Dubai needs to be significant to warrant giving up the points and conveniences we get from our loyalty.
(That said, for a wider range of destinations and slightly better kids amenities, I don’t mind Emirates! Check out our full comparison of Etihad v Emirates here!).
4. Save Money on Flights: Book tickets from your destination
Time to reverse engineer things. Do you fly to the same destination yearly (common in our expat community)?
Have you tried booking your flights from your destination city rather than your origin? Try using a VPN (Virtual Private Network – a device that basically tells the internet which country you are logging in from).
This way, you can get quoted in the currency of your destination country and will be given access to the flight deals made exclusively for that country.
So, for example, frequently flying to/from Australia, a VPN would allow us to log in as though we’re already in Australia. This way, we are quoted return flights in AUD.
It has frequently been cheaper for us to book a return ticket this way, PLUS we get an extra side trip thrown in to Europe at barely any added cost. Nice right?
DO check that the savings are worth the exchange rate difference! If you don’t have a credit card in the currency you are buying from you can be sure the bank is taking a few % healthy cut along the way
If you are making regular trips to the same destination, then the savings in buying a one-way ticket at some point will soon add up – with maybe even an extra side trip holiday thrown in?!
(If your return date the following year is great than 12 months away, you should be allowed the final date change on an open ticket for free but do check the fine print).
5. Save Money on Flights: Return flights aren’t always the cheapest
Just as the myth that cookies always increase flight costs has been busted, so to has the theory that single flights always cost more than a return ticket. It can be true, but not always.
Especially on highly competitive routes or where planes might be flying a half-empty on that final leg. The airlines are very willing to discount single legs to get bums on seats (see more on hidden city tickets and other anomalies below).
6. Save Money on Flights: Use Agents & Price Matching
Do you always book your own tickets online? Many travel agents will look to price match the fare that you are getting online – in fact, they can most likely beat it.
How, you might ask? The big guys are purchasing their airline tickets directly off the airlines in bulk, paying wholesale prices.
The amount we ordinary folk see when searching online is much more than what they are paying, which means they can pass that saving on to you.
Why would they not pocket the saving? They want you as a loyal customer, booking other services with them. Before booking a big set of tickets, we always get a travel agent quote too, and usually more than one to see if they can price match with each other too.
Mark from Wyld Family Travel
The best prices I have found were on Momondo.com (see more in tools below). I search daily, not by alert, but by physically typing it in the search engine each time.
If you are organized, you start searching 8 months out. Set yourself a price you are happy with, and then get to it book it. Don’t be greedy!
I then took that price to a travel agent and got them to beat the price. It’s always worth finding prices online and then challenging places like Flight Centre to beat that price (after all, that’s their mantra).
We did this for our Europe trip MEL – MAD – BEG – MEL and saved a packet.
7. Save Money on Flights: Reduce your group size
No, I’m not suggesting leaving a child or two at home ‘coz they cost too much (though how terribly tempting). I’m talking about breaking your family booking into smaller groups.
Why? When you start your ticket search with a family group, it’s nearly impossible to get an airline’s best price. Even within economy, tickets are classed with staff and super saver tickets, reward tickets, economy tickets all the way through to fully flexible.
Each has a different coding in the airline’s system and will have a different number of seats allocated.
If you are searching online for, say a group of 6, you might only be getting the standard economy or full flexible rate quoted as they do not have six seats left in the super saver category.
They may, however, have a few left at this price. The only way to tell is to narrow your search. Search the price for one of you first, then keep adding family members until you see where that magic breaking point is to get the super saver rate still.
It might be that you have to book members of your party on separate tickets – a small risk you’ll then be separated on the plane but could be worth the saving.
If your travelling party is ever booked on separate tickets (we’re talking premium airlines here with reserved seating), call them up after you’ve booked your tickets and ask them to link your PNR (booking references), this should give you a merged reservation.
8. Save Money on Flights: Family & Friends in the industry
Do you know anyone who works for an airline? Most airlines (ok, at the very least those in the Middle East!) have very generous staff packages for flights.
They can not only pick up standby fares for next to nothing, but they can also pre-book tickets too, with a heavy discount to be shared with family and friends. It’s worth inquiring with anyone you might know (well!) if this is something they can help you with.
A nice roast and a few bottles of wine significantly reduced the cost of our AUH to SFO flights last year!
9. Save Money on Flights: Timing is everything – book ahead or last minute?
Whilst there’s no hard and fast rule, it’s wise to plan ahead and diarise when to start searching for flights as airlines release their seats for sale 345 days in advance (which means it needs to include the return date).
You can be fast off the block to book – which is best if you’re wanting to travel on peak dates or redeem frequent traveller rewards – or you can leave it closer to the date if you’re far more flexible with when you want to travel.
Flights can get cheaper the closer you get to the departure date (56 days before is statistically the saver’s favourite at present!), but you can’t always take this risk with family plans, and if you leave it too late, prices can also increase if the flight is already busy.
If you’re happy with the price – book it, but take time to check any cancellation and change fees applicable – these can end up costing twice as much as the flight.
10. Save Money on Flights: Flexible dates and destinations
Here in lies the key to cheap flying.
Most of us have a destination in mind when we start planning – especially when kids are concerned. And once you have kids at school, date flexibility goes out the window. So short of pulling the kids out for some world schooling, is there anything left ordinary working parents can do?
Even within school holidays, leaving your flying date a few days after school breaks up can make a big difference. Fly on the following Tuesday instead of Friday. Can you return to school a day or two late?
Check the school and public holiday dates at your origin and destination. Even a day or two of flexibility can equal big savings.
Not fussed about the destination? Brilliant – this will massively open up the options! See more on our flight search tools below!
Oh, and those free reward flights I mention above that we DO USE are almost never on popular dates and locations. We are a school holiday flying family but we are flexible within the school holiday period and look for more unusual routes.
Remember, if flights open 354 days before, you’re not the only one to know this!
Be realistic on when to expect savings and when to accept you’re lucky to even get a seat – particularly in a post-COVID world where airlines aren’t necessarily fully back to their normal flying schedules.
More advanced money-saving techniques for flights – can they work for families?
Ok, we’re getting nitty-gritty here. We’re talking hidden fares and jumping off planes en route. Can you handle it?
These are only for those families willing to be SUPER FLEXIBLE AND TRAVEL LIGHT! So this counts most families – including us – out!
But they DO work!! If your kids are older and up for an adventure – give this a try!
Save Money on Flights: Hidden City Tickets
This tactic is all about booking tickets to an end destination, but in fact, getting off the plane and not reboarding at an interim stop, normally for refuelling or picking up more passengers.
Airlines hate this! In fact, they have tried suing (unsuccessfully at this stage) websites that promote this behaviour.
To do this, though, you do need to be savvy. You need to travel carry-on only (not really possible with small kids or if you are travelling with the likes of car seats, strollers, and cots that need to be stored underneath).
You simply disembark the plane at the stopover with your carry-on and never return, forfeiting the next leg of your ticket. Industry experts recommend either only doing this on a one-way ticket or, if it’s a multi-leg ticket, only on the last leg.
If you are concerned about the penalty from the airline, don’t enter any frequent flyer numbers. And don’t overuse and abuse it. It works best if your destination is a hub city where airlines need to get planes returned to.
How do you find out? The best resource we’ve found is Skiplagged. It’s a website/app specifically set up to capture hidden flights, other pricing anomalies, and airline human errors. Get it on your phone and give it a try!
Note the point above about flexibility, dates and destination, though. This is about bagging a bargain, not always practicality.
Search and Price Watch Tools
If you don’t have these saved to your bookmarks yet, just do it now! (Right-click each of these and open them in a new tab, then click the little star in your address toolbar to save)
Skyscanner | Momondo | Kayak | Google Flights | Hopper | Skiplagged
Some are better “inspirational tools” – where could I fly to on these dates or from this airport – like Hopper and Kayak. Others are better at helping you narrow in on which airline when your dates and destination are fairly set, like Skyscanner, Momondo and Google Flights.
This app allows you to research, watch and book flight deals. Set the app up with notifications to let you know when ticket pricing has dropped. They’ll also give you predictions if they think the price will go up or down if you delay booking.
Another one that you can let your imagination run a little bit wild. Not just flights; you can also use this one to search for the best hotel and car options. I like the map feature so you can set your origin and see what some of the options are around the world. You can also set price alerts and set trip details from within the app.
Skyscanner / Momondo / Google Flights
When I am honing in on the deal or the exact dates and destination, this is where I use Momondo or Skyscanner to make sure I am getting the best price.
They compare hundreds of airlines and look at both direct and indirect alternatives you can take and combinations of airlines. Give it a go here:
They can also tell you prices on dates surrounding those that you’ve chosen.
Or why not start your search using a calendar view that will help you hone in on whether you should move your flight days by a day or two for cheaper deals?
You should always use more than one tool as no matter how good they are; none is all-encompassing of all airlines. They may miss certain regional or charter flights that other search engines have. Each will have its own nuances and interface features that you like, so go on and have a play
Oh, and back to the point above about travel agents; these tools are only half the fun and games. Once you’re ready to start paying – assuming it’s not a flash sale – take the time to see if a travel agent can match or beat the best price you’ve found.
Do you have a favourite tip to share that we haven’t mentioned?
Are the savings worth it?
Remember, cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean better when it comes to family travel
- Cheap can mean booking individual tickets for family members in different price brackets, which increases the chances of your travel team being split up. Fine if your kids are older and can cope with this, but not ideal for younger families on board.
- Cheap often means unpopular, unsociable departure and arrival times or remote airports. It depends on how much you value your sleep and what transport is available to get you to and from your chosen airport to your accommodation.
- Cheap can mean multiple stopovers and length layovers – or gravity-defying short layovers where you need to RUN between flights, even different terminals – with kids in tow.
- Cheap can often mean budget airlines. Don’t forget to add baggage, meals and other nasty little extras to the cost of a budget ticket – and almost certainly no lounge! (Pssst – even when we fly budget, we have access to Lounge Key through our Citi credit card (Middle East) and Priority Pass – if you are frequent travellers these are little luxuries that can be worth their weight in gold, especially during long layovers)
- If you ever have problems “en route” your airline can only help you out if you have a connecting ticket. Say a natural disaster happens (or something like the great ash cloud of 2010 that affected our family reunion!), your airline can only help you with things like temporary accommodation if you’re partway through your journey. If you buy separate tickets for each leg of your journey, you might save a little, but you lose some of this security blanket.
The key to saving on flights is to be smart, be patient, be flexible and act fast when you see deals too good to be true
If travel is a priority in your life, you can make it happen cheap and maybe have some surprise experiences along the way!
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