Cheapest airfare for international flights

Last update:  May 2021

Travel agents can beat search engines

Search engines like Skiplagged and Momondo are great for finding flights within the U.S., but sometimes they're not so good for international flights, especially those that start or end in exotic places like Asia, India, or Africa.  That's because not all foreign airlines make their fares available to the search engines, and even those which do sometimes don't list their best fares.

So what do you do?  First, do check online first (Skiplagged, Momondo, and CheapoAir) to see the best fare you can get there.  Then, try a travel agent located in the foreign country you're going to (or the foreign country you're in).  Yes, a travel agent.  Years ago you stopped using travel agents for domestic flights because you realized you could get the best fares yourself, online.  (Either that, or you're so young you never used a travel agent in the first place.)  Well, that goes out the window as soon as you're talking international fares.  Case in point:  Once the best fare I could get for Japan to India (Osaka to Delhi) from the search engines etc. was $1641.  I walked across the street to a travel agent in Osaka and got a price of $1108—a whopping $538 savings.  (And yes, that budget price included taxes and all applicable fees.)

I had a similar experience in India, trying to get a flight to Hong Kong.  I spent hours on the net and I think the best I could come up with was around $1200.  I mentioned my problem to the hotel staff, and they said they were sure they could arrange a ticket for me.  I asked them to go ahead, and sure enough, they did, for around $566—less than half price! (I tipped appropriately.)  The point is, you just can't expect all international flights to show up in the search engines.

If you go this route you need to make sure that you're not being scammed by buying a fake ticket, and that's especially true in India.  If you're already in a foreign country then as long as you work with staff at a hotel you should be okay, because if they scammed you then you could tell the police exactly who they were, so they're not likely to do so.  Just don't buy from someone who doesn't have a permanent business location.

Careful of shady online sellers

Some of the search engines will send you to some foreign ticket retailer you've never heard of.  They might or might not be legitimate.  Google the company name to see if they appear to be trustworthy, and if you buy a ticket from them, call the airline and verify that the ticket is good.

Check the price at the airlines directly

Find the airlines that serve the country you're flying to or from. (Use Bing or Google.)  You can then check the airlines' websites or call them to get fares, which will often be substantially cheaper than what you can find in the search engines.  One Australian reader says that he saved $200 by going directly to Qantas over what he could find in the search engines.

Use our other tips

Our general tips for getting cheap airfare apply to international fares as well.  For example, round-trips are often cheaper than one-ways for some inexplicable reason, so if you're planning an around-the-world trip full of one-ways, you might save by buying roundtrip tickets and then not using the return trip.  Also, remember that when you insist on flying on certain days you'll usually pay more, so if your schedule is flexible, pick your travel destination first, and then find the cheapest travel dates for that destination.  If you start your research with hard-wired dates in hand, you're unlikely to get the best deal.

Specific destinations

Skyscanner  is reportedly very good with European flights, and lets you search for flights to or from an entire country, without having to enter the city.
Kelly Fine writes: "We found that it was much cheaper to fly to London on one airline and fly from London to the Continent on another airline. This seemed to be true no matter what city in Europe we wanted to go to. And it was impossible to find a cheap flight from anywhere to Bratislava, so we found a flight to Vienna, which is only a little over an hour by bus from Bratislava. Flying into central and eastern Europe is much more expensive than flying to western Europe."
U.S. to/from Canada: Air Canada & Alaska Air

Courier travel:  A thing of the past

For years I used to mention the great deals you could get as a courier, by carrying documents or packages in exchange for a deeply discounted fare.  But over the years I had to slowly remove the courier websites from my list one at a time as they went out of business, and now there are pretty much none left.  Well, there might be a couple, but they can't really save you any money.

So what happened?
Here's a good article from NBC which explains the change.  Sorry, the party's over.


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