It’s time for your vacation, and you know what that means: Get the heck out of here! But wait. You haven’t booked a Flight anywhere. Or maybe you’ve just returned from a big trip, and need to plan a quick weekend getaway to ease the re-entry pain.Just because you’ve got a tight budget or are looking last minute doesn’t mean you can’t travel. Quite the contrary, actually. Some of the best deals out there come to those who wait — or those who have flexible travel dates, or are open to a wide range of destinations. The world is your affordable oyster, as long as you know where to look!
When searching for a cheap or last-minute flight, our top places are Google Flights, Airfare Watchdog, and The Flight Deal. Read on to discover why, and get plenty of other suggestions for finding flights that won't break the bank.
Best overall: Google Flights
Google does not necessarily always have the cheapest flights, though it usually get pretty darn close. What it does do is offer travelers the best cross-section of cheap flights to specific destinations, as well as the opportunity to compare destination prices if you’re debating where you’d like to go.
Google Flights pulls from a variety of sources when assembling fares, and it does it fast. Other sites can spend a minute or more loading results, which on its face might not seem important. But flight shopping is a time consuming process, so Google’s speediness is much appreciated when it comes to overall time-saving, particularly if it’s just one of several sites you’re using to price-check (which it should be).
Speed aside, Google’s other great virtue is its “Explore” feature. Say you know you want to visit Southeast Asia, but you haven’t completely nailed down where, exactly, you’d like to go. Google allows huge amounts of flexibility when you’re in the early stages of planning a trip, letting you select entire months as a departure date and entire continents as destinations. From there, you can click around and see which cities and countries are the cheapest to fly into. It’s amazing how wildly results vary, which you might not have known had you not seen it displayed on the map. Google will suggest a list of popular destinations, but travelers can also click around the map and check out prices in real time, with readily available links to Airline sites.
Keep in mind that Google does not include Southwest in its search results, so be sure to check that separately when traveling domestic (and occasionally, international).
Best for when you’re down to go anywhere: Airfare Watchdog
If your answer to the question “Where do you want to go on vacation?” is “I don’t know, where do YOU want to go?,” then Airfare Watchdog is for you. One of the site’s defining characteristics is its “Today’s Top Fares” feature, which displays, you guessed it, the top 50 cheapest fares available at any given moment. It’s also very good with comparisons, allowing you to contrast dates, departure and arrival cities and even deals from select airlines, like Southwest and JetBlue, which are often not included on other sites’ roundups.
Best for when your dates are flexible: The Flight Deal
If you have even the faintest whiff of wanderlust, stay away from The Flight Deal. You can follow it on Twitter for a constant onslaught of jaw-dropping deals, or head to the website, where you can search for flights based on your departure city. The Flight Deal will put all sorts of travel ideas in your head that you didn’t even know you had, which is terrible if you have a limited number of vacation days but great if you’re actively looking to take a trip.
To do this, the Flight Deal uses something called the ITA Software Matrix Airfare Search, an initially intimidating-looking search engine that calls for the entry of a variety of codes. Don’t be scared, though. The site not only provides the codes, but breaks down how to use them, and it’s actually not that complicated. Once you’ve identified the flight you want to take, bop on over to the airline’s website, where you can snag your absurdly cheap flight. Another major bonus is that you can build layover requests into your search, if you’re the type of voracious traveler who wants to see an extra city on your way to somewhere else.
Best app for finding cheap flights: Hopper
Hopper had already distinguished itself as one of the most reliable apps on which to track flight prices, but recently, it’s become even more handy: In May, the company announced that it would begin partnering with airlines to offer Secret Fares, driving down the price of flights by as much as 35 percent compared to similar services. Hopper says its mobile platform makes airlines more apt to drop their prices, and the logic goes that if one airline does it, others tend to follow suit. This warring over prices might not be great for carriers, but it’s definitely good for consumers, who obviously benefit from the race to price down.
Secret Fares aside, Hopper has always excelled at advising travelers when to buy tickets, which it does by collecting an enormous amount of data that it uses to examine trends over time. The app is also easy to use, with color-coded date boxes laying out an entire years’ worth of fares. A downside is that unlike with, say, Google Flights, you can’t see exact fares over the course of a month, and instead must click a specific date to see the price. Remember also that the app excludes fares from both Southwest and Delta, so it’s not entirely comprehensive.
Best email list: Scott’s Cheap Flights
Airlines screw up a lot, and when they do, Scott Keyes is on it. His email list sends subscribers multiple alerts each day, notifying aspiring vacationers about the deals he uncovers while trawling the internet for multiple hours each day. Keyes does it so you don’t have to, and his efforts always pay off. Regular subscribers can expect notifications of round-trip tickets for shockingly low rates multiple times per day, and premium subscribers ($39 per year) hear about deals even faster, as well as dirt cheap deals that disappear within hours (or minutes) of being posted. If you’re not already a subscriber, you might want to fix that now.
Best fail safe site: Momondo
Momondo has a lot going for it, though perhaps it’s most important feature is its incredible ability to turn up the cheapest fares 95 percent of the time. It pulls this off by searching nearly every airline, online travel agency (OTA) and travel booking site out there, ultimately culling information from around 600 different sources.
But not only is Momondo incredibly comprehensive, it’s also very straightforward to use. Skeptical users have the option of comparing results to those found on Priceline, Travelocity, Expedia, CheapOair and JustFly, though it’s unlikely that their results will wind up being better. Momondo itself breaks down results into useful categories: “cheapest,” “quickest,” “best” and “custom,” allowing you to strike your ideal balance between flight time and misery. The cheapest days to fly are also visually represented in bar graphs at the top of the page, with exact prices viewable by just hovering over a given bar. You can’t book directly through Momondo (and generally, booking through a third-party site is not a good idea anyway), but you’ll be painlessly routed to the airline’s site for to continue the payment process.
The downside to Momondo is it can take its sweet time loading, though perhaps while it’s doing that you can think about all the money you’re sure to save by using it.
Best airline prone to great deals: JetBlue
This depends entirely on where you plan to fly (for trips to Europe, check out Norwegian Air), but as far as domestic and some international flights to the Caribbean and Latin America go, JetBlue is hard to beat. They are also prone to having positively killer sales if you’re diligent about keeping an eye on their website or Twitter handle, @JetBlueCheeps, or make a habit of visiting their website at jetblue.com/deals. While you’re there, be sure to check out their vacation deals as well, which are often a steal.
Best site for rewards: Expedia
Expedia does an adequate job pulling flight deals, but where it really shines is its rewards program. Users earn up to four points for every dollar spent on travel (including flights, hotel stays, and car rentals), but the best part is watching the points rack up by buying those things in bundles. What’s more, Expedia allows travelers to triple-dip rewards points. Not only will you get the points from the site itself, but you’ll also get your points through your airline frequent flyer program and your credit card. Triple win!
Best site for when you also need a car or hotel: Hotwire
Oftentimes when you travel, you’re not just looking for a flight, but will need a hotel and rental car, too. Enter Hotwire. Just input your travel dates and the site will return with a single figure for your entire vacation, which eliminates a lot of the stressful guesswork and dreaded math that traveling on a budget requires.