So, maybe you read our previous post on using points for travel and thought to yourself 'what if I don't want to bother with new credit cards or travel rewards and just want to find cheap flights/cars/hotels?' Well, we have some advice on that too! Although we've been using points for our travel lately, we have certainly booked our fair share of budget travel in the past. There are a thousand flight search engines and travel deal sites to choose from and at times it can be pretty overwhelming, so here are the tools we like to use and the tips and tricks that have worked for us.
First up let's talk about the different sites we use. If we are searching for a flight, Google Flights is usually our first stop. It is not the best search tool out there, but it is super fast and provides a quick baseline search. It will show you what sort of prices you can expect from the major airlines. We usually use this to just get an initial idea of flight costs to a specific destination and find which dates are the cheapest. If you don't know where you want to go, the map feature is also helpful to explore possible destinations.
After we check Google Flights, we will then dive a little deeper and do the same search on either Skyscanner or Momondo. Both are much better than Google Flights at searching the budget airlines, and they will usually come up with a better deal. On Skyscanner, we especially like that you can search a whole month instead of specific dates and that it will even pick the cheapest month for you.
The final site that we check when searching for deals is Skiplagged. Sometimes a flight to your destination of choice will be more expensive than a flight to somewhere else that connects at your destination. Skiplagged is a search engine specializing in finding those so-called "hidden city" flights. Say you are going to Atlanta and the direct flight costs $200, Skiplagged might find an alternative flight that goes to New York City but connects in Atlanta for only $150. So you just book the flight to New York and then don't get on your connecting flight. Sneaky! One thing to remember: DON'T do this if you are checking bags because your bags will be checked straight through to the final destination.
Now there are a few general strategies that we like to use when searching for flights. The first is to be as flexible as possible with travel dates and times. If you have vacation time coming up, don't pick a week to take off and then search for travel deals... find the best travel deal and then choose that week to use your vacation. Obviously, it's not possible to be that flexible a lot of the time, but any little bit helps. Even if you are just traveling for the weekend, comparing a late flight Friday vs an early flight Saturday can save you some money.
The second strategy is to always check nearby airports (or sometimes even airports that aren't that close), for better deals. Maybe you are going to Philadelphia but flights are expensive. See how much cheaper flights are to New York! It could be worth it to fly there and then rent a car or take a bus. Depending on how much money this saves you, it might not be worth the extra hassle, but we usually look at it as a fun added destination for the trip. A few summers ago we were looking at flights to London and they were way too expensive. So instead we flew to Iceland, spent a few nights there, and then continued on to London. It was almost half the price of flying to London directly AND we got to spend 2 nights in beautiful Iceland. Amazing!
The final strategy is to take advantage of the 24-hour cancellation window. Airlines are required to cancel your flight for a full refund within 24 hours of booking, or alternatively, offer a 24-hour hold option when purchasing. If you see an incredible flight deal but don't know whether or not you can use it, just book it, and then spend the next day figuring out if it's possible. We book flights all the time if we see an awesome deal, and then just cancel them the next day after we talk it over and realize the timing won't work.
One last thing we recommend is signing up for a few travel deal newsletters. These will email you every day or week with the best travel and flight deals. This can be a great way to stay on top of airfare sales or mistake fares, just be sure to act fast as soon as you see them because they can disappear or sell out in minutes. A couples newsletters we like are TravelZoo, Scott's Cheap Fights, and The Flight Deal.
We book rental cars way less frequently than flights so we don't have as many tips in this category. Usually, we will start off by doing a search on Expedia to see what prices are looking like. If it's cheap, we will just book a car right then and there. If we don't like the look of the prices though, there are two other tools we will use.
First, we use a combination of Priceline's name-your-own-price tool and the information on BetterBidding to see if we can score a deal. If you haven't done this before, it's relatively simple. Go to BetterBidding, look up the city where you are renting, and see what kind of bids have won recently. Use those as a guideline for making your own bid. On Priceline, you will put in a daily rate you want to pay along with your credit card information and your travel dates. If the bid is accepted, your dates will be booked and your card will be charged. Name-your-own-price deals are non-refundable so make sure your travel plans are solid before trying this. We find this strategy is pretty hit or miss, sometimes you can get incredible deals and sometimes the accepted bids are only a dollar or two cheaper than the normal rates.
If we are striking out with the normal car rental services, we also like to check Turo. Turo is a peer-to-peer car rental service which lets you rent out personal cars that people aren't using. This idea always freaks people out a bit, but it actually works pretty well. Similar to Airbnb, there are a lot of reviews so you can make sure the car you want to rent isn't a dud. Many car owners will even drop it at the airport for you and hide a key so that pickup and drop-off are easy. Depending on the city, renting through Turo can be a lot cheaper than using a standard rental service. Turo is also great if you have a specific car in mind. Maybe you want to rent a Prius, or a classic sports car, or a VW bus. On Turo you pick the exact car you want, not just the general category (Compact, Standard, SUV). We wanted a convertible for a road trip up the California coast but the rates at the usual outfits were astronomical. Instead, we rented an awesome vintage BMW convertible from Turo for the same price as a compact car at Hertz. The downsides of a Turo rental are that you have to return it in the same city (so no one-way road trips), and you have to return it as clean as you picked it up ( so you can't drop it off with your old coffee cups and fast food wrappers).
One final tip for car-rentals is to always check what the rates are outside of the airport. Sometimes renting from a non-airport location can be much cheaper. Sure, you then have to cab or uber there instead of just picking your car up at the terminal, but if it saves you $10/day it is probably worth it.
Last up is hotels! As we have mentioned before we are really into Airbnb so we don't actually stay in hotels very often. Often times it's cheaper to use Airbnb and we tend to like the experience of staying in an apartment or house better than a hotel. We like having a kitchen to cook in or the chance to hang out with a local host. But sometimes Airbnb is just not the best option and a hotel is the way to go.
First, we like to use Hotels.com to find good deals that are refundable. A lot of times you can book a room without even putting any money down, just a credit card in case you don't cancel the room in time. This comes in handy when you are traveling somewhere during a popular time and hotels are filling up. You can just book a refundable room and then continue searching for something better. Usually, you can cancel up until a few days before the start of your stay, just make sure to read the details of your booking carefully so that you don't miss the cancelation deadline.
We are big planners and don't often leave bookings until the last minute, but if we do, we like to use apps like HotelTonight and OneNight to find deals. These apps are best for really spontaneous weekend trips or staycations because you are searching for hotels the day-of. Some brave people we know will travel to a city without having any accommodation booked and then use these apps when they arrive to find out where they are sleeping. We aren't quite that bold, but we have certainly found some good deals in the past that saved us from crashing on a friends couch.
That's all our travel advice! Nothing revolutionary, but all of these strategies have helped us find some great deals in the past. If you have any of your own tips or have any questions for us, please comment below!