If you’ve started planning your vacations for the remainder of the year, then you’re sure to have been struck with the harsh reality that flight prices are absolutely bonkers right now. Flights from LA to San Francisco are hovering around $700. Going international? Good freakin’ luck. While we’re beyond excited to see the return of travel, it certainly comes with its downfalls — namely that it’sn more difficult to wander for those of us on a budget. Fortunately, there are resources out there to help you save a buck without sacrificing adventure.
Enter, Scott’s Cheap Flights, an online subscription newsletter that takes the legwork out of sifting through flights. Scott’s tracks airfare price drops from your local airport and sends you the best deals each week, so you can save on flights to your dream destinations. It’s a must for regular travelers who embrace spontaneity and adventure.
We chatted with Scott’s Cheap Flights founder, Scott Keyes, about how to get the best flight deals in 2022 — from the best flight-searching websites to the most affordable days to fly to the one thing every budget traveler should keep in mind when booking flights. Check out the conversation below for everything you need to know before booking your next plane ticket.
What can someone who’s new to the platform expect from Scott’s cheap flights?
How it started was back in 2013. I was a poor recent college graduate who wanted to travel the world but had basically no money to do it. I had zero expertise on how to find cheap flights. I wound up just devoting months to researching flights. And long story short ended up stumbling upon the best deal that I’ve ever gotten in my life still to this day, nonstop from New York City to Milan for 130 bucks round trip. I was able to go to Milan and North Italy for 130 bucks and had an amazing trip. When I got back, all my friends and coworkers kept coming up to me.
They said, ‘Hey Scott, next time you find a deal like that, can you let me know so I can get in on it too?’ So rather than trying to remember every single person I needed to notify next time I found a great deal, I said, ‘why don’t I just start a simple little email list?’ And this way, anytime I find a great deal, I can let everybody know at the same time. That was how Scott’s Cheap Flights began. I didn’t know it at the time, it was just a hobby for the next two years. But the premise is that airfare is the most volatile thing that most of us purchase in our regular lives. It is extraordinarily expensive one day and then downright cheap the next day. So you have two options. You can either be glued to Kayak or Google Flights 24-seven searching for flights to make sure you don’t miss out on a great deal, or you can live your life and then risk missing out on a deal of a lifetime, like that $130 flight to Milan.
What we do is make sure that you can live your life but still make sure that you find out about when those great deals do pop up from your home airport.
Travel’s obviously ramping back up again this year. There are fewer restrictions on people who are vaccinated. What do you predict the summer season’s biggest trends will be and how will that likely affect flight prices?
You’ve absolutely nailed it. Travel is ramping up and ramping up quickly. I think this summer is going to be one of the busiest travel seasons in my memory. Not only are people taking so many of those trips that they hadn’t for the last few years, but you’re also seeing that planes are going to be more full than they were pre-pandemic. The makeup of travelers will be skewed this summer towards leisure travelers because business travelers are somewhat still lagging. The airlines, in order to make the economics work, end up having to book more seats largely for leisure travelers. You see it even in statistics today where it’s like 89% of seats on average are full this week compared to about 87% three years ago on the same week.
I think that’s going to be even more true this summer in terms of popular destinations. The big winners throughout the pandemic have been Miami, Cancun, Cabo, and to a lesser extent, Hawaii. These sorts of outdoorsy, beachy, leisure destinations, where not only is there strong demand for folks who felt like they wanted to take a vacation but wanted to be able to be outdoors and stay socially distant. I expect that to continue this summer. The number of flights to Cancun and Miami is significantly higher now than it used to be.
As a result, I think there’s actually great value on flights to Europe this summer. People think of planning a Europe summer trip as a really iconic thing. In normal times, it’s very expensive because everybody wants to take that trip. But this year there’s a kind of interesting anomaly happening where domestic travel demand is fully rebounded. It’s as high if not higher than it was pre-pandemic. But domestic travel supply, the number of flights available, is actually down about 10 or 15% compared to where it was three years ago. The actual supply for many destinations in Europe is actually going to be higher this summer than it was pre-pandemic. So for folks who are interested and willing to travel overseas, I actually think flights to Europe are excellent value this summer.
In your opinion, outside of Scott’s Cheap Flights, what are the best flight searching websites out there right now?
The kind of open secret in the travel world is that it really doesn’t make much difference where you search for your flights. Whether you prefer to search on Kayak or Orbits or Skyscanner or Google Flights, the results are basically all going to be consistently the same or very similar. The reason why is that they pull all their information from just two or three global distribution systems. These are essentially warehouses of airfare information.
That said, I always just go with the one that feels like it has the best user interface and the best user experience. To me, that’s Google flights. The results are lightning-fast. You can search from seven origin airports to seven different destination airports at the same time. Then you’ll be able to see the absolute cheapest fair on any one of those 49 possible routes. If it’s cheap enough, it might be worth a bus or a train up to one of those airports in another city.
I just like the way that Google Flights helps you find that information quickly. The last thing I’ll note here is that while I’m a big advocate of searching on these flight search engines, to be able to compare across airlines rather than searching directly on one airline’s website, the best practice is generally to book directly with the airline.
There are a couple of reasons for that. One is because there are certain federal protections that are afforded to you if you book directly with the airline. Those are not necessarily afforded if you book through an online travel agency. For instance, you’re guaranteed a 24-hour window from the moment you hit purchase to where you can get a full refund of your money back, no questions asked. Similarly, if there’s any sort of issue with your flight, and you need to change or it gets canceled, it’s far simpler to make changes to your itinerary. If you can deal directly with the airline, rather than having to deal with a middleman, it’s just much, much simpler.
For budget travelers, what would you say is the number one thing they should keep in mind when searching for affordable flights?
I love this question because I think people have a strong, justified desire to get cheap flights, but the way that most people actually search for their flights has it exactly backward. What I mean by that is that the normal way to search for flights is a three-step process. Step one, you decide where you want to go. Step two, you decide when you want to go there. And only on step three do you look at the flight costs. Setting the price as the last priority, it’s not terribly surprising if you end up with some pretty expensive flights. Instead, if it’s really important to you to get cheap flights, as it is for many people, don’t make it the last priority. Make it the top priority. Take that same three-step process and flip it on its head.
Step one, where are there cheap flights available out of my home airport? Understanding that airfares change by the day, you’re constantly getting new opportunities for cheap flights from your home airport. Step two, which of those places are cheap, and which one interests me the most for my next vacation? Then step three, what dates work for my schedule and have these cheap fairs available? By setting prices as the top priority rather than the last priority, that’s how you end up with some really cheap flights and end up being able to afford to take three or four vacations for the same price you used to pay for one.
For someone who is set on traveling to a specific destination, what would be your top tips for finding cheap flights?
Not every trip can be a flexible one, and not every trip is a vacation where you get to decide when and where you go. Instead, for those trips where you don’t have much flexibility and you’re locked into a certain destination or certain dates, your best bet at that point is to still have flexibility on when you book your flights. My recommendation is to book during what I call a “Goldilocks window.” This is a period in advance of travel when cheap flights are most likely to pop up. If you’re talking about, domestic flights, it’s usually one to three months in advance of travel. For international flights, it’s two to eight months in advance, but if you’re hoping to travel during a peak travel period, you need to add a few months to those recommendations.
A lot of folks are asking about travel this summer. My really sad response to them is that the cheap flights popped up four or five months ago. Now it’s only gonna be expensive inflated flight prices. But the good news is that if you’re traveling for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s, now is the time to start monitoring for those deals. What my recommendation is for those peak seasons is to always book the opposite season.
Is it true that there are specific days of the week that are best for booking flights? Or is that a myth?
I’m so glad you asked. It’s a myth that there are the cheapest days to book your flights, but it is true that there are the cheapest days to take your flights. Let’s start with the myth, and this is a myth that actually used to be true. 20 years ago, when airlines first started selling their tickets online, they would usually load their fairs up once a week, say on Tuesday at 1:00 PM. So if you were one of the first people to search for a flight, then you really could get some of the best deals. They just had a very limited number of tickets available at those cheap fairs. The problem is that’s not how airlines have sold their tickets for decades. Now, airfares constantly change, and it’s set algorithmically. You could take that Tuesday at 1:00 PM, Wednesday at midnight, and throw it out the window.
The good news, though, in terms of actually taking your flights, there are cheaper days to fly. The cheapest days to fly tend to be Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday. The reason why is that business travelers tend to avoid travel on those days and business travelers usually aren’t willing to pay much more for their flights. Airlines’ price flights lower because they think it’s probably going to be a more price-sensitive, leisure traveler buying it. The only thing is that you don’t want to overlearn this principle. It’s not every single time that Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are going to be cheaper than a Monday, Friday, or Sunday. It’s just most of the time.
In your experience, what are the best airlines for booking domestic US flights?
My favorite airline is the cheapest airline. I am loyal to no airline. I am loyal to cheap flights and cheap flights alone. If you’re staying loyal to one airline then that’s your own expense. I don’t think the difference in the experience of flying an economy in Delta versus economy in American is all that different. They’re all pretty similar. Unless there’s some really compelling reason like you’ve got a lead status that might get upgrades or your schedule really demands that you have to fly at a particular, I tend to always try to stay loyal to the cheapest flight options.
Do you have any booking tips for people who want to visit multiple cities in one trip?
Absolutely. Let’s say you’re from New York and want to visit Europe. You want to go to Amsterdam and Paris. The key to that is searching for a multi-city flight. You want to search for where the outbound leg is from New York to Amsterdam and the return leg from Paris to New York. The reason why you want to search it that way is that it’s telling the airline you’re making a round-trip flight, even if it’s a multi-city flight. They’re going to price it much more attractively than if it looks like two one-way flights. By searching it as a multi-city flight, you’ll end up getting a much better price, typically.
You’ll notice I didn’t include a leg from Amsterdam to Paris. In most cases, it’s actually better not to include that short kind of intermediary leg in your flight search. Instead, it’s usually better to do that separately, whether you book a budget flight from Paris or take a train. You’ll be able to do so much more on your own schedule and at your own leisure, but you also end up getting a better price overall, even for your tickets across the ocean.
Now when we’re talking about the flight from New York to Amsterdam and Paris to New York, if I include Amsterdam to Paris as the sort of middle leg of this search, then all of a sudden I’m restricting it. The only results I’m going to see are when either the airline itself or a partner airline operates that middle leg from Amsterdam to Paris. It just ends up being much more convoluted and oftentimes more expensive. When you just book those separately, you’ll get the cheaper flight both on that short leg and on the rest of your itinerary as well. So book it as two itineraries rather than one itinerary.
Which credit cards do you recommend most for the best flight mileage, but for someone who wants to limit themselves to two cards max?
Most times when you ask folks in the points and miles world what credit cards to get, they’ll say, ‘oh, get the one that gives you five points per dollar on airfare,’ and this and that. I do not put basically any weight on those points per dollar earned on X amount of spending. The reason why is that I just focus exclusively on one aspect, and that’s the signup bonus. Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Right now, they have a signup bonus of 80,000 points. I think you have to spend like $4,000 in three months or something to get the 80,000 points.
Those 80,000 points are gonna be plenty to be able to get a round trip flight to Europe, maybe even two round trip flights to Europe. It’s going to be very, very valuable. If you think about 80,000 points for $4,000, that is 20 points per dollar that you’re getting. Wow. So I’m just not very swayed by five X, three X, or two X on things that I might not purchase because then I gotta try to keep track of which card I should pull up for restaurants, the grocery store, etc. I just basically ignore all of that miles per dollar thing and just focus exclusively on the signup bonus. Now, if you are somebody who is interested in getting into credit cards and maximizing their point value, I think that works very well.
If you’re somebody who just wants simplicity, you want to be able to earn miles and be able to redeem them and not have to pay a bunch of money, my best advice is basically to find one that has no annual fee. The simplest one with points and miles is probably the Chase Freedom card. But frankly, the simplest thing at the end of the day is to do something like the Citi Double Cash, which gives you 2% back on all spending. Then, with that 2% back, you’re just accumulating cash that you can use to buy flights.