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I fly 150,000 miles a year – here’s how I find the best deals on airfare

The Points Guy logo The Points Guy 6/28/2021 Ryan Patterson
a large air plane on a runway at an airport © Provided by The Points Guy
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Being a professional travel photographer, I flew about 150,000 miles a year, even as a college kid. As one could guess, flights are probably my biggest expense right now, behind my photography equipment. While I do love to use miles, my last-minute trips often don’t allow me to use points through transfer partners. One of my go-to tools to help me find those “cheap flights” is actually one of the most basic search functions on the internet: Google.

I am someone who splits pretty evenly down the middle on last-minute fares booked with cash and trips booked well in advance on points. I don’t do much in between. The only common denominator is that I use Google Flights when planning travel.

Now I don’t always use Google Flights to book flights, but I do use it nearly every time as a search tool to find the best-scheduled flights, routes, planes flying those routes, cheap fares, and fares buckets are available, especially on last-minute adventures.

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In This Post

a plane flying in the reflection of a mirror: (Photo courtesy of Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy (Photo courtesy of Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy)

Overview of Google Flights

You have more than likely heard a thing or two about Google FlightsGoogle Flights is one of the most straightforward search engines, but it can really pay off if you make use of its more complex features.

It’s worth remembering that while most of the world’s airlines have their fares posted on Google Flights, a few do not. Some of the most notable airlines missing from the list are Air China, China Eastern, Eastern Airlines, RyanAir, Southwest AirlinesThai Airways, Philippine Airlines, and Volaris, along with a limited number of other carries (mostly low-cost).

table: (Screenshots courtesy of Google Flights) © The Points Guy (Screenshots courtesy of Google Flights)

Some of my favorite uses of Google Flights that other websites and airlines don’t always show are calendar views, multiple airport searches, and map-based searches. Google Flights is just an easy and all-inclusive engine to search your flights to see how different dates, times, and airlines match up against each other.

Pro tip

While you can’t purchase your flights straight off of Google Flights, I usually navigate to my selected airline’s website after using Google Flights to find my desired time and flight fair. Don’t forget to also check airlines like Southwest even though they do not show up on Google Flights! They often have really great fares with that two checked bag allowance.

Related: Your complete guide to maximizing Google Flights

How to use Google Flights

Finding good deals is not easy, even for the most advanced points and miles gurus. One of my favorite places to turn to is Google Fights “open search” feature. Using this feature, you can search from your desired airport and leave the destination blank.

You can then choose filters that allow you to see cheap nonstop flights. You can also select airlines, preferred times, duration, and most importantly, which cabin you are booking.

graphical user interface, text, application, chat or text message: Screengrab from Google Fights © The Points Guy Screengrab from Google Fights

After hitting search, you will find yourself with a map highlighting fares.  Airlines offer dynamic pricing, so flights often fluctuate even between similar dates. This is a tool that many TPG team members take advantage of when the direct way home is too expensive and they are forced to come up with creative stops.

map: Screengrab from Google Flights © The Points Guy Screengrab from Google Flights

One of the strategies I turn to when hunting down those cheap fares is looking for flights from one leisure destination to another. For instance, Honolulu to New York on July 27 is $325 one-way with two stops on United. Not great, not horrible.

However, Honolulu to San Jose, Costa Rica is only $284 each (Note: saver award availability will be much better from San Jose back to New York than it is directly from Honolulu). If you have a few extra days, combined with a few extra miles, this is a great way to use one of those deals, especially when you have a hard time finding a cheap ticket home.

Related: How to become an advanced Google Flights user


Video: What You Can Do When an Airline Doesn't Refund Your Cancelled Flight (Buzz60)

UP NEXT
UP NEXT

Tips for finding deals on Google Flights

Using Google Flights doesn’t necessarily mean you will get a deal on flights. However, if you’re willing to do your homework before hopping on Google Flights it’ll usually mean you can end up with below average ticket prices. Here are my favorite tips and tricks that I keep in mind when roaming Google Flights.

Be flexible on your dates

Being flexible on your dates is hugely important when hunting down the best deals. Using the calendar feature, you can compare how much different flights cost. Just remember, the same flight can be $150 cheaper on a Thursday then it is a Friday, so double check all the dates around your departure.

Two one-way Tickets

Sometimes purchasing two one-way tickets can be cheaper than buying a roundtrip ticket. It may take some extra time, but always compare the two when booking. For me, this means often flying one airline to my destination and another one home. While it’s more confirmation numbers to keep track of, you can find yourself saving a few hundred dollars more often than you’d expect.

a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock) © The Points Guy (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Pay one way with miles, one way with cash

One way with miles, the other way with cash. This is a trick that I use when I don’t have enough miles to cover an entire trip. I find two one-way routings to and from my destination. I cover the more expensive one with miles and leave the cheaper one to cash.

Avoid holidays

Avoid holiday may be the best way to find cheaper flights. Travel tends to be the most expensive travel even if you book it way out in advance. When looking to book your travels, take advantage of dates that may not be as appealing to others. For instance, instead of going to Hawaii in August right before school starts, wait until late September or October for discounted fares.

Certain markets are cheaper.

This is one I love to use all the time. Leisure to leisure market are most often the cheapest fares. For instance, tickets from Hawaii to Puerto Rico with a stop in New York are often much cheaper than flights from Hawaii to New York directly. I don’t recommend using the hidden city trick, but instead making two vacations out of one and using your savings for a night or two in that second leisure market.

Related: Is It better to book one round-trip or two one-way award flights?

How i used google flights for my summer travel

I use Google Flights every time I begin planning for a trip so it should come at no surprise that I used some of the tricks mentioned when finding flights home from Hawaii. I had a one-way award ticket already booked to Hawaii in July, but did not have enough miles in my United Mileage Plus account for a roundtrip ticket.

I hopped onto Google Flights and used the open search map feature on a few dates following my arrival. I really only had really one qualification for my flight home. If flying on a redeye, I wanted a lie flat seat seat. So that helped me begin my search. I ended up finding a nice $727 fare all the way to Santo Domingo. Leisure to leisure market is often cheaper and a flight home to Washington D.C. to Santo Domingo wouldn’t be many points.

(Photo courtesy of Zach Honig/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy (Photo courtesy of Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Using the calendar tool, I checked the entire week to find the cheapest fare, and made sure my routing had lie flat seats. I found a route in United’s beautiful Polaris cabin from Honolulu to Newark which was perfect by me. Being points rich and cash poor, I decided to use my google flights findings and take them onto the American Express Travel portal to see if I could avoid using cash.

In the American Express Travel Portal, I found that the flights were a pretty decent redemption with points. While I booked United Polaris for about 72,675 points. If I were to pay with points while holding The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, I would receive a 35% discount off that ticket (capped at up to 500,000 points per calendar year) . That’s 25,436 miles off bringing my ticket to 47,239 miles one way. This ended up being the best way home(ish) in a lie flat seat so I ended up booking.

graphical user interface, text, application, email: (Screenshot courtesy of Amextravel.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of Amextravel.com)

While there are better redemptions with Turkish Miles and Smiles for only 25,000 miles roundtrip, I accrue status with United as if this were a full fare ticket so I am quite pleased. I also would then be able to use miles to get home a lot easier from Santo Domingo than Hawaii.

Related: How to Fly in a Lie-Flat Seat to Hawaii

FAQ

Is there a day of the week when flights are cheapest?

Yes and no. Sadly there is not a one-word answer for this one. Generally, more people tend to travel on Fridays and Sundays so due to demand. It is reported that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest, but that is not always the case. If your plans are firm and you need to travel on those generally more expensive days, consider using points to soften the blow on the wallet.

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a runway: (Photo by Ryan Patterson for The Points Guy) © The Points Guy (Photo by Ryan Patterson for The Points Guy)

Should I clear my browser when searching flights?

Personally, I have not found that clearing my browser or searching on incognito makes a difference. However, I have found that using a VPN to change my location does affect the prices of tickets. I tend to use this trick to change my location when searching for flights out of my home airport. This tactic really isn’t one that I would look seriously into as it rarely changes more than a few dollars in my experience.

Should I book flights in advance or last minute for the best deals?

In my experience, no. I have found that the cheapest flights are usually 3-5 weeks out. However, if your desired flight is empty, sometimes flight prices will go down. That’s especially true right now, though it is a little bit hard to predict the load factors, so I would generally recommend purchasing flights in advance.

However, there is a feature that allows you to track your flight prices on Google Flights and you will be notified when your saved flight changes in price. This is a super helpful tool when flights are getting expensive as travel resumes.

text, email: (Screenshot courtesy of Google Flights) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of Google Flights)

Bottom line

Google Flights is a great cheap and free search engine to find desired flights for your travels. It is straightforward yet effective at so many different things. I have saved thousands of dollars using Google Flights to find the cheapest routings for years now. So whether you are just trying to find what airplane is flying the route or compare prices between airlines, Google Flights is my go-to search engine time and time again.

Featured image by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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