Finding Cheap Airfare

Finding Cheap Airfare

Finding and purchasing plane tickets is one of the most needed skills for any missionary. The Internet has enabled anyone to be their own travel agent, and there are thousands of websites out there that all claim to help you find the cheapest airfare. A common question I hear is “what website do you use to get those super-cheap tickets?”. Unfortunately, that website does not exist. It takes hard work, patience, and perseverance to get the best deals. Here are some of the best tips and tricks I have learned over the years. And if you make it to the end, you will find out my most protected travel secret that will enable you to fly for free!

First Some Misconceptions
As a general rule, ticket prices do not vary from site to site. Prices for a certain flight on a certain date are set by the airline. No matter what website you use to find the tickets, the price will be the same. Prices may look different, but that is only because the websites report things differently. For example, they may or may not add taxes into the search results, or they add hidden booking fees to the ticket costs. The base ticket cost and taxes will always be the same though, because they all pull from the same shared databases, or GDS’s.

Search, Search, and Search Again
Because it doesn’t matter what website we use to search, the basic strategy to find the best prices is to identify the travel “trifecta“:

  • Airline
  • Travel dates
  • Ticket purchase date/time

The cheapest tickets are always found by identifying the right combination of these three factors. Being flexible with your travel dates and knowing when to buy are the most important factors. While there are an unlimited number of travel websites, only a few are truly useful for considering all three factors and I’ll share them here.

Kayak.com is at the top of my list. It is an aggregator, so they do not sell the tickets directly like many other sites. Instead they offer a one-stop location to search all the major airline sites for the best ticket prices. They provide an amazing amount of filters that you can add to limit your searches. All the major airlines are included by default, and they will even combine tickets from multiple airlines to get you the lowest cost. The most useful feature is the ability to search flexible dates, which is how you will find the best deals. They also have a “chart view” where you can see if now is the best time to buy by looking at the fare history. Sidestep.com offers almost identical features also, in fact they are now the same company.

Another great site for your searches is Farecompare.com. It works in a very similar way to Kayak.com, flexible searches are not as simple, but the site provides a wealth of information on how to find the cheapest tickets. It also has some unique tools like searching by map from your city and the History Airfare Graph Tool.

Also be sure to check out the big three travel sites also, Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz (Travelocity is my favorite).

Setup Email Alerts
Once you’ve paid your dues by searching all the sites, it is time to setup email alerts. Occasional drastic drops in ticket prices are normal occurrences 1-2 times per month. You can’t be expected to search each of those travel sites daily to check for fare sales, but you can let them do the work for you. Kayak, FareCompare, and Travelocity offer excellent email alert capabilities. Set them up for your desired searches and they will notify you when those drastic price-drops occur. You must be ready to jump on those fares right away though, as you often only have a few hours before all the seats at that price are snatched up. I have also noticed, especially for domestic fares, that when the fare drops for just one airline, the rest will follow about 24 hours later, which often opens up wider date options. Email alerts are the key to almost all of the dirt cheap fares I have bought in the last few years.

Buy Direct!
One of the best tricks I can teach you is to buy direct. Just because you find the low fare of your dreams on one of these great travel websites, doesn’t mean you have to buy it from them. If you buy directly from them you will end up paying a booking fee, and it may be a hidden one. Once you’ve identified your exact itinerary, write down the airline, dates, times, and flight numbers. Then visit the airline’s website directly to find and purchase that ticket. You will avoid the fee, sometimes get a better price, and can often get bonus miles for booking through the airline’s website. And on that same note, never call the airline to purchase your ticket. They will charge you an obscene reservation fee for something that you easily could do yourself on their website.

Go Local
All these search tips work great for domestic fares and when you are trying to get to the field from the USA or back again. But for travel in-country or across a region (like Europe or South-East Asia) none of these websites will help you out. The best bet is almost always to search local by visiting the websites of your area’s discount airlines. Regional discount airlines do not participate in the GDS databases, so you can only find and purchase their tickets by going directly to the airline’s website. Regional discount airlines can be very cheap, but don’t expect a classy ride! Some of the most famous are Ryan Air in Europe and Air Asia in South-East Asia. Check out Wikitravel for a great overview on discount airlines and regional links to their websites.

Collect Mileage
Just about every airline offers a frequent-flyer program. You collect points for however many miles you fly on them. These miles can be cashed in at certain levels for free plane tickets, upgrades, and even vacation packages. Signup for and use these programs when you fly! I have seen so many people fly thousands of miles on a short-term missions trip and not fill out the simple form to collect mileage for it. Often times the mileage from one or two international trips will get you a free domestic ticket. And even if you never collect enough miles for a ticket, you can always cash them in for free magazine subscriptions! It is just a waste not to use a frequent-flyer program when it is available to you.

Satisfy Your Wanderlust
If you are looking to do a round-the-world missions trip a la Travel The Road, or just want to maximize your vacation Amazing Race style, there is a website for you! Airtreks.com has an amazing tool that lets you put together your list of all the cities you want to visit and they give you a price! They give you an option of the cheapest itinerary or most stops for the money. Check out some sample specials here.

TOP SECRET TIP: Fly For Free!
I am VERY hesitant to share this secret with you for fear that the loophole will be closed if too many people find out about it. My extended family and I have used this secret to fly free many, many times. We even flew to Korea and Thailand using this technique. Here is how it works:

You visit the American Airlines AAdvantage program website and apply for a Citi AAdvantage Card. For the last three years they have consistently had a deal where you pay no annual fee for 12 months, and get 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $750 within the first 4 months. 25,000 bonus miles is enough for a free domestic ticket, and international fares start at 35,000 miles. The big loophole here is not the bonus miles, but the fact that you can repeat the cycle an unlimited number of times! My parents have done this 6-8 times in a row and flown all over the place for free! My extended family has flown to Hawaii and Thailand, and I surprised my wife with an anniversary trip to New York, London, and Paris using this technique!

So here are the steps:

  • Signup for a free AAdvantage account at AA.com if you don’t already have one.
  • Apply for the Citi AAdvantage card using the link on AA.com. Make sure the terms match those above. Sometimes they temporarily put up a link for the card without the same great terms, but the deal is still available. Just use Google or search the forums at FlyerTalk.com to find it.
  • When you get your card, put $750 on it right away. No, don’t use this as an excuse to go out and by an HDTV! Just pay your normal rent and utilities on it for that month to get the balance up quickly.
  • The very minute you get the balance up over $750 then shred the card and pay it off so you don’t get stuck with the interest, and you don’t go into debt over a stupid plane ticket. This is key! Do not leave a balance on the card! And don’t close the account yet or you won’t get your mileage bonus!
  • Wait 8-10 weeks for the 25,000 bonus miles to post to your account. Login to AA.com to view your mileage balance regularly. The minute you see those 25,000 miles appear call Citi Cards and close your account. Your balance should already be $0 so after some haggling, make them close it. Don’t fall for the measly 5,000 bonus miles they will offer you to keep the account open!
  • Now here is the loophole: Signup for a new card the moment after you’ve closed the first one, rinse, and repeat. I’ve opened a new account just minutes after closing the previous one with no troubles at all. If you follow this process exactly as described, you can get 75,000+ bonus miles per year. That is a free international ticket to most places in the world on American Airlines and their OneWorld airline partners!

There are a few tips to maximize your benefits from this loophole. First, remember that both you and your spouse can do this at the same time, so be sure to take advantage of that. There are also reports that you can get the bonus from both the Citi AAdvantage Mastercard and the Citi AAdvantage American Express card at the same time. I haven’t tried that yet, but I know someone who has successfully. That would essentially double your mileage building rate. And again I warn you to be very cautious to never leave a balance on your card. Don’t try this if you have struggled with debt before, or lack self control in your spending. A good tip is to make this process accountable to a friend. We want to benefit from the credit card companies, not become a slave to them! Also, keep in mind that applying for a new card every 4 months may have a temporary lowering effect on your credit score, so you might not want to do this if you are planning to apply for a mortgage in the next year.
Visit eHow.com for a more detailed step-by-step guide.

UPDATE: This process has a name, it is known as “churning”. Apparently you can do much more than the 75,000 miles per year. Citi allows you to have multiples of the same card open at once, as long as you only apply once every 65+ days for personal cards and 95+ days for the business AAdvantage. There are many people overlapping many cards at once, gaining 300,000-400,000 miles per year! That is 2 round-trip first class tickets anywhere in the world! Check out the FlyerTalk forums for more info and stories.

Also here is a great tip for putting the initial $750 on all those cards you’ll be churning. Buy money! The US Mint sells boxes of those new $1 presidential coins at cost with free shipping, in order to improve their circulation. Buy 3 boxes of coins with your card, and deposit them directly in the bank to pay your bill. Here is the link.

Well there you have it, you can start working now to make your next short-term missions trip a free one!

Conclusion
I hope that you have learned much from this post that you can apply to your everyday missions travel needs. What airfare tips and tricks do you use to maximize your travel funds?

26 Comments

  1. wow…..i think we are going to try the Citi AAdvantage card thing…..and maybe we will be able to fly to china with it…. ooohhh I’m excited…. I’m a little scared to do it… if anyone else told me to do it i wouldn’t……. but coming from you I trust….. you are so helpful… we are very blessed to know you!

    Reply
  2. dude, you rock! knowing you didn’t have to, thanks SO much for sharing this.

    Reply
  3. Great tips! I pray this will be shared with many that take the Good News around the world. Keep ‘em coming!

    Reply
  4. Hey Aaron, I just got my card in the mail today. Thanks for posting this information it will save us alot of money. I’m hoping to be able to use the miles by this summer, if not this time, next year for sure!

    Reply
  5. Thank you for your post on Air Fares – there is a group from my church going to Peru this summer and it is the cost of airlines tickets that is the most difficult.

    I have a couple of questions, about the post and the AAdvantage, when you close your account, don’t you loose the miles? If not, what happens to them and how do they know you have the miles when you account is closed?

    And my other question, (although I think the AAdvantage will solve this) are there any places where frequent flyer miles are donated for mission trips? And if people donate miles to us, are there any tax benefits for them?

    Thank you so much.
    Livin’ Act 1:8!
    ~ Annelle

    Reply
    • When Citibank credits the bonus miles to your AAdvantage account 8-10 weeks after your $750 in purchases it is one way. Essentially they are purchasing miles from American Airlines on your behalf. They can’t take back miles that have been posted in your AAdvantage account. As long as you wait to close the Citibank account until the miles have been credited you are good to go!

      As far as mileage donations, great question! It is definitely worthwhile to ask your potential supporters to donate miles. There are always some people that fly a lot and never use their miles. The only trick is that they can’t transfer their miles into your frequent-flyer account (without paying a fortune) so you can’t pool peoples mileage for your trip. You have to find one person who has enough miles for the whole trip. To do this, you first make the frequent-flyer reservation with the airline then hold the tickets without paying for them. Give the reservation number to your donor and they can then use their miles to purchase your ticket.

      I do not believe that mileage donations can be tax deductible, but you can always ask a tax expert!

      May God bless your trip!

      Reply
      • I was asking God for a way to finance our trips to Israel (we have been going during the summer for the last 5 years during our son’s summer vacation) but this year the funds are just not there – AA requires 90,000 miles during the summer. God willing we’ll be able to do the credit card miles for next year however we are still hoping for a miracle this summer and was wondering if anyone out there would like to barter some miles in exchange for an equivalent stay at our Washington, DC bed and breakfast. Thank you Aaron for such a great idea and may the Lord bless you richly.

        Reply
  6. Aaron, thanks so much for all the work you put into helping those of us who happen to be a bit challenged in this area. Getting into missions full-time at 52 and being a bit technologically challenged has caused a bit of intimidation in trying to figure it all out. I now feel more empowered to aggressively run to those places to which God is calling me. Thanks again and God bless the work of your hands and your mind. Jo

    Reply
  7. aaron, thanks also for posting the link to kayak.com – i was able to use it today to help shirley find a great price within seconds for her ticket back to china. her random search rendered the lowest fair at $2000, mine $1100. Before you shared this, i would have spent hours searching and agonizing over finding the best fare. It was exciting!

    Reply
    • Awesome!

      Reply
  8. So….. I spend hours trying to get miles…. I do the e-miles program… E-rewards through NWA… and I have a aadvantage card but they will only give me a student card with no bonus and only 1 mile for every 2 dollars spent…. do you have any tips for building credit?? No credit card company will give a “gold” mileage card with all the benfitsto someone as “risky” as me.

    Reply
    • There’s not much you can do until your credit is higher. Actually the problem is probably your income level, not credit score. I built my credit with those student cards too. The gold and platinum cards require a certain household income level, somewhere 20k+. You’ll just have to wait till your situation changes, because lying is not an option.

      Reply
  9. did i mention how much we paid for our tickets? 980 including all taxes and fees. the travel agent quoted 1500. thanks again, it was practically effortless..

    Reply
  10. I just wish I was still living in the US.. I have to buy the tickets for England and Africa for July and they are not cheap, however in Brazil the AA milleage program works a little different, even on a Citi AA card like mine.. but I loved the catch! Thank´s Aaron.

    Reply
  11. Dear Aaron,
    This is a wonderful gift. I am passing it along to friends of our who work in China every year for the last 15 years. They may already know about it but just in case they don’t hopefully it will help them out as they have kids and those tickets are very pricey.
    God bless you and tell Keisha hello for me.
    love
    Debbie M

    Reply
  12. Hi Aaron,

    Could I apply for that credit card if I live in the UK?

    Thanks,
    H

    Reply
    • It is only for US citizens. I don’t know of any mileage cards internationaly that offer such great terms.

      Reply
  13. My wife and I are missionaries in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We are looking to take some vacation and are looking for great deals on airline tickets for us and our 3 children. Can you recommend the best way to get tickets on AA, US Air or Delta? Thanks for any recommendations as we are desperate. Blessings.

    Reply
    • There really isn’t anything I can tell you other than what I listed above. You just have to do the leg work and search the sites I mentioned.

      Reply
  14. Fun entry Aaron!

    Ah I remember the days of hunting hotwire for tickets to Dallas! Kayak is pretty sweet. Though if I’m booking in advance Southwest almost always wins price wise in the US.

    At least the Pittsburgh anyway.

    Reply
  15. Actually on true missionary/international tickets, I have NEVER found any websites to get any decent prices. We work with a legitimate travel agency who has been getting “unpublished” missionary/consolidator fares HUNDREDS of dollars less. They have been in business for over 20 years, and mostly do this type of travel. Find a good travel agent who uses special international fares. We not only get the lowest prices, but save valuable time and get the best service I have ever found! I have stopped using up my own time at something I am not an expert in. There are deals out there that normal people like us don’t even know about let alone know to ask for.

    Reply
  16. Hi Aaron,

    I have had a citi aadvantage account for 5 years now and it rocks. I have flown and sent others to fly for free several times. One tip I woudl recommend though, always pay the insurance that covers you for if you have to change your flight. I have eneded up paying the $150 they charge you if you have to cancel or reschedule the flight in order to be able to still use the free ticket. It was worth it to only spend $150 but it was unnecessary if I had gotten $20 insurance.
    Also, I have just come back from missions and realize that there is so little real, free support out there for missionaries. I am working with a IT friend to start a website to pool free things for missionaries. I intend to market it as much as possible and try to get companies to donate things like free airfare, cell phones, gas cards, medical insurance, ect., ect. for missionaries. I would appreciate keeping in touch with you. I believe you have my emial which was not published but required for this post.

    Blessings to you,
    Marta

    Reply
  17. please know that r website is under construction. please tell me how you can get free flights. blessings judy

    Reply
  18. Aaron, you are doing a great work! I am an African missionary planning to come to the US for months now, but unable to because of my inability to purchase a ticket at this time. This is affecting my programs on the State side and the sheepfold in West Africa. Are there any missionary friends/organizations ready to donate a return ticket to me, or advise me on how to get a free ticket? My route is: Accra-Houston-Maryland-Houston-Accra. I plan to stay in the US for a month and would love a favorable response from any vineyard or saint! Blessings!

    Reply
  19. Just fly with Jet Blue!

    Reply

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