Andrew and I are planning a trip to Ireland and the UK this summer, our first trip overseas after returning from Cambodia about a year and a half ago. We are pretty excited about visiting two new countries (although Andrew did go to Ireland several years ago, I wasn't around then), meeting up with friends, and experiencing new cultures.
Over the next few months, I'll be blogging on how to plan a trip and enjoy it once you get there - starting with how to book the best international flights. If you need travel tips now, make sure to check out my Travel Tips for Rookies page!
First off - notice I didn't say the cheapest international flights. Price is obviously a huge factor to consider when booking. But as we'll talk about below, there are other factors you need to consider that may make a slightly more expensive flight the better option for you.
Below are 6 easy ways to choose the best international flights for your trip (and links to other amazing online resources to help you find that flight!).
1. Know when to book your ticket.
Unlike domestic flights, you can actually lose money (and the best itineraries) by waiting too long to buy your ticket - especially if you're traveling during high season, like summer and winter holidays.
CheapAir.com has a great article about research they did on the optimal time to buy overseas flights. Their conclusion: most flights don't drop that much from the initial price, and it increases about three months out from departure. But that general rule may vary greatly from place to place and between seasons. So it's a bit of a gamble either way.
In my experience, I've found the best prices about 3-4 months out from departure. One thing to remember is that most other people start booking around that time too, which means the more affordable and reasonable flights will quickly fill up.
We depart Kansas City in late May and bought our flights at the very beginning of February. I had watched flight prices to Dublin starting in early January. They dropped $100-200 per ticket. We had planned to wait longer, but our friends who lived in Europe recommended we buy tickets soon, because flights would fill up quickly.
With a little maneuvering, we found great flights in the price range we'd hoped to hit.
2. Use a travel search engine site to look at options; then book on the actual airline website.
Kayak.com is our favorite travel search engine to use for flights, as you can easily adjust different criteria to find one best for you. Then to book the flight, you go straight to the airline website, skipping any middle man fees that get tacked on if you use other websites, such as Expedia.com. Skyscanner is another similar travel search engine we've used and liked.
Kayak will give you a full return itinerary, but then also allow you to pick and choose the flights. This is really helpful if you need to customize your itinerary a bit, based on needing longer layovers or wanting to go through a specific airport.
Booking on the airline website also allows you to sign up for frequent flier programs. I'll admit, I've used miles for free magazine subscriptions more than anything, but at least they're not going to waste, right?
3. Look into alternate arrival airports and cities to save money.
If you have flexibility as to where you fly into and when you arrive, check out surrounding airports, cities, or even countries. When we flew from Bangkok to Hungary for a family wedding, we realized we could save a few hundred dollars on tickets by flying into Vienna, Austria, then taking a bus over to Budapest (a trip of a couple hours).
While planning our trip to England, I noticed all the flights routed through Dublin. When I changed our final destination to Dublin, the flights suddenly were around $400 cheaper per ticket. This was a thrilling moment, because I realized we could save several hundred dollars AND get to see another country, even if for only a few days.
So we booked the international flights to Dublin, then later bought round-trip tickets on a regional airline for around $150 total for both of us. So Ireland is a kind of "bonus trip" for us (more on that below).
Note: If you do end up booking short flights on budget airlines, make sure to look at the checked baggage policy! Many companies charge you hefty fees to check any bags and limit the amount you can carry on-board. If you need ideas about how to pack everything in a carry-on, check out my post here.
4. Watch your layovers, especially when you have to go through customs.
Next step is to figure out which layovers work best for you. While looking at itineraries for our trip, we saw a lot of different flight combinations. Again, price is a big factor for us, but I'm not willing to save $100 if it costs me a 12 hour layover in Podunk, Nowhere - or risks me not catching my ongoing flight in time.
For example, the cheapest flight we saw brought us back from Dublin through Washington, D.C. But we realized the layover in D.C. was only an hour and a half - and we had to go through customs. Remember, whenever you enter the United States, you have to go through immigrations and customs upon landing at your first American airport, even if it's not your last stop.
Generally we have found that two hours is the minimum immigration layover we can handle. When you go through immigration, you have to:
- stand in line for a long time, go through passport control
- collect your luggage
- stand in another line with your luggage
- pass through customs (and possibly have your bags searched)
- re-check your bags
- get your boarding passes if the airline didn't give them to you when you first checked in
- leave the international terminal
- find your domestic terminal and go through another security line
- and get to your gate before your next flight leaves.
Like I said, you need two hours minimum.
5. Know which airports are the best for layovers.
If you have traveled enough, you know which airports are great (Incheon, Seoul) and which are boring as anything (Narita, Tokyo); which have great food options (Rick Bayless' restaurant at O'Hare, Chicago) and which only have bad tea for $5 (Beijing).
If all other things are equal and you have a long layover (more than two hours) overseas, try to pick an airport that has something to take your mind off your jet lag and growing dread of being stuck in a three-square-foot space for another 8 hours.
If you find layovers longer than twelve hours, you may have found what Andrew and I call a bonus stop...
6. Look for the "bonus stops".
"Bonus stops" are layovers long enough for you to actually leave the airport and explore the city. We've done this on three separate occasions: in Dallas on our way to Cambodia; a 23-hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey on our way from Bangkok to Vienna; and a 22-hour layover in Macau on our way back from Japan to Bangkok.
Now these flights do tend to be a bit serendipitous. They're not available for every itinerary. They're not always the most affordable. And they may not be in places you actually wish to spend your free time. But when those 18+ hour layovers do turn up on itineraries, they may be worth looking into.
A few qualifiers for these types of layovers:
- You do not collect your checked bags, so make sure you have enough clothing and personal items in your carry-on to tide you over.
- Check whether you can get cheap visas on arrival for your layover destinations. Otherwise the extra hassle and expense may not be worth it.
- Look to see how far away the city is from the airport and how long (and easy) it is to travel between the two.
In Dallas, we had about three hours between flights, and our family in the area drove up and took us to eat brunch outside the airport. The other two stops in Macau and Istanbul gave us time to explore two cities we hadn't planned on seeing.
Istanbul's visa on arrival was actually multi-entry. So when we had a second layover in Istanbul on our way back from Hungary, we used our four-hour-layover to enter the country again (for free!) and go to a large shopping mall - my first time ever at IKEA. It was basically a bonus-on-bonus trip.
No matter how thoroughly you plan your trip, something will go wrong. Flights get delayed or cancelled; your seat partner has motion sickness; language barriers and misunderstandings happen and you get held up as a drug mule at customs in a small Latin American country.
Remember, it will all work out in the end, and getting there does not have to ruin the joy of being there. The journey is part of the fun, and it builds character (as a stoic Englishman once told me in a Thai immigration line after standing next to him in the hot sun for four hours...).
And if you need ways to keep your sanity once you actually get on the flight, check out my blog post here on how to survive an international flight.
If you're a traveler, I'd love to hear any tips or suggestions you have! Share below in the comments!
Additional Handy Resources
- For looking up flights - Kayak.com and Skyscanner.net
- We use the app Hopper to look at flight price predictions. We found it really helpful in watching prices, as they aggregate data from thousands of flights to identify price patterns. You can also set up alerts to tell you when prices fall below or above levels that you set.
- Budget flying within Europe (Rick Steves)
- How to book the cheapest flight possible to anywhere (Thrifty Nomads)
- 10 ways to speed through airport security (HuffPost Travel)
- Travel + Leisure's best airports for a long layover
- How to plan your trip (Hope Engaged - one of my favorite travel blogs!)