The Small Trick That Will Save You Big Bucks on Plane Tickets

The Small Trick That Will Save You Big Bucks on Plane Tickets

If you’re anything like my family, you probably like to do at least a little bit of traveling.

For us, travel is kind of a necessary part of our lifestyle. My side of the family is up in New England while Casey’s side is down in Florida and Alabama, so no matter where we live we’ll be making regular flights to see family probably for the rest of our lives.

We love it, but there’s one small problem: plane tickets can be crazy expensive!

And it was bad enough when it was just Casey and I. Now that Aiden is 2 we have to buy him a ticket as well, and it won’t be long before we’ll be buying one for Nolan too. The increasing cost of travel is one of the downsides of a growing family.

I can’t completely solve that problem, but I did discover a pretty cool trick the other day while booking a flight to Boston. I stumbled onto it completely by accident, but it’s the simplest thing in the world, and it saved us a few hundred dollars.

So today I’d like to share with you the one small trick that can save you big bucks when buying plane tickets.

What’s the best way to find a cheap flight?

The best way to find a cheap flight is to be flexible with your travel dates. It’s pretty simple really. The more options you give yourself, the more likely you are to find a better price.

But what if your dates aren’t flexible? What if you need or want to travel on specific days? Are you out of luck?

It turns out that you’re not. All you have to do is pretend that your dates are flexible and you can find massively cheaper tickets.

Here’s how it works.

The wrong way to search for your flight (no tricks here)

The wrong way to search for your flight (and the way I’ve been doing it for years) is to search for the exact dates you want to travel.

Let’s say that my family and I wanted to take an extended trip from Pensacola to Boston to visit my family. And let’s say that we wanted to leave Pensacola on Friday, August 8 and return on Sunday, August 17.

Well, if I just search for flights on those exact days, here is the result (by the way, I use Kayak any time I’m booking a flight. From my experience it has the lowest prices and I also think it’s easy to use):

more expensive plane ticket

That screenshot was taken at 8:05 AM on 6/13/2014. According to this search, the cheapest flight I can get that leaves on 8/8 and returns on 8/17 is $465 per person. And since there are four of us, that would be $1,860 total.

The right way to search for your flight (time for the trick!)

But what if there was a way to trick the search engine into thinking your travel dates are flexible, even if they aren’t? Would that make a difference in the price?

YES! Yes it would. So instead of searching for the exact dates I want (8/8 – 8/17), I can make these two small changes:

  1. I tell Kayak my dates are flexible +/- 3 days on both ends, even though they aren’t.
  2. I ALSO tell Kayak that the main dates I’m searching for are Thursday, August 7 and Monday, August 18. The exact dates I enter aren’t important (I don’t think). What’s important is that they’re NOT the actual days I want to fly, but that the days I DO want to fly are included in the search results because I chose flexible dates (see Step 1).

Here’s what the search looks like:

search for cheaper plane ticket

And here are the results:

cheaper plane ticket

This last screenshot was taken at 8:06 AM on 6/13/2014, exactly 1 minute after the one above where I searched for the exact dates and found the cheapest flight to be $465. Just 1 minute!

But when I did the search this way, the cheapest flight it found me for the dates I actually want to travel is $399 per person, or $1,596 in total.

Which means that by making those two small changes in how I did my search, I found a flight on the exact dates I wanted for $264 less ($1,860 – $1,596). If you factor in the extra 5 seconds or so it took me to do the search this way instead of just searching the exact dates, that’s a rate of about $190,080 per hour of work.

Pretty crazy, right?

Quick update

I got a question from Erica over at Map Happy about whether this was actually finding a cheaper price for the same flight, or whether it was just finding different flights that were cheaper. It’s a great question, since you might have not only a specific day you want to travel, but a specific flight you want.

The good news is that, believe it or not, it actually finds you a cheaper price for the exact same flight! I had to double-check to make sure, but sure enough it’s true. I did the exact same search as before, but I made sure to compare the same flight both ways.

The screenshots are below (you can click them to make them bigger), but the upshot is that the same flight was $527 per person when I searched exact dates, and $396 per person when I searched with flexible dates. It’s the exact same flight on the exact same day, but I can get it for $131 cheaper per person when I just do my search a little differently. You’re welcome!


Here’s the result when I search exact dates. The flight I want is on top and it’s $527.


Here’s the result when I search flexible dates. The exact same flight is now $396.

So go! Find cheaper flights!

Just to make sure I’m not crazy, I’ve tried this trick multiple times on different days since I first discovered it and every single time I’ve been able to find a cheaper flight. Sometimes it’s a smaller difference than this example and sometimes it’s bigger. But it’s always cheaper.

This trick won’t totally eliminate the cost of your plane tickets. After all, even in the cheaper example it was still $1,596 for us all to fly to Boston. But it’s a pretty huge savings for a pretty small effort, which might make it just a little bit easier for you to take that trip.

I hope you make it a fun one!

Do you have any tips like this for making travel a little more affordable? Let me know in the comments!

Photo courtesy of Angelo DeSantis

Start building a better financial future with the resource I wish I had when I was starting my family. It’s free!

18 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Mike Ritter June 19, 2014

    Nice, looking forward to trying it before Kayak catches wind.

    • Matt Becker June 19, 2014

      I could be way off here, but my guess is that it’s probably an intentional algorithm that likely won’t change any time soon. Logically it sort of makes sense, since if you communicate that you want to travel on specific days they have less incentive to offer you a lower price. But if you have greater flexibility (even if you’re just faking it), there’s a little more competition that drives the price down. Like I said, I could be way off base here, but it might just be one of those things we can use to our advantage.

  • Brian June 19, 2014

    I am in a similar situation to you in that my in-laws are halfway across the country. I’m also purchasing for soon-to-be five plane tickets per visit.

    This is a fantastic tip! Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to giving us a try and seeing if I can ring of some savings to.

    Long term brian

    • Matt Becker June 19, 2014

      Those kids add up fast, huh? Let me know how it works for you!

  • Money Beagle June 19, 2014

    I believe that it’s known that there are days of the week where fares rise and other days where they fall, so depending on what day you book, you could expect to save money.

    • Matt Becker June 19, 2014

      I’ve heard that too, though I haven’t had a whole lot of personal success with it. If there’s a concrete answer to that I’d love to hear it.

  • Shannon June 19, 2014

    That is seriously so nuts! Who knew that such a simple change would save so much money!! Since my husband and I live in CA, my parents live in OH, his parents live in NJ, and his grandma lives in FL, this trick will come waaaay in handy. Thanks for sharing this awesome tip :).

    • Matt Becker June 19, 2014

      I know right? Let me know how it works out for you!

  • Broke Millennial June 19, 2014

    You can bet I’ll be trying this out next time I need to book travel. Per Money Beagle’s point –

  • Jason Hull June 20, 2014

    That’s exactly what we do. If you’re really flexible and can fly in the middle of the week, then you should find cheaper fares (Tu – Th) because of lower demand.

    We also like to use Hotwire a lot for hotels, and there’s a website called that is really good at helping you figure out which hotel is actually showing up in those masked Hotwire results. Sometimes you can also find out what Priceline bids have been working lately.

    The biggest key, as you mentioned, is flexibility in when you travel.

    • Matt Becker June 20, 2014

      Oh wow, really interesting tip about Hotwire! I’ve always been kind of hesitant about them because you didn’t really know what you were booking, but that’s pretty cool if you can actually figure it out. Thanks for the tip!

  • Joe Saul-Sehy June 20, 2014

    I find this frustrating (while it’s still a really cool discovery, Matt). The games that airlines and ticketing firms play makes me ALWAYS feel like I’m getting screwed, every time I take a plane…..

    • Matt Becker June 20, 2014

      I agree. Booking a flight can be one of the most frustrating things in the world, especially when you try waiting and the price just keeps going up and up. Which is why every little advantage I can find is so satisfying.

  • Done by Forty June 20, 2014

    The flexible dates trick really does help. Kayak also has a tracker feature, that can send you an update every day via email showing the cheapest flight for a specific pair of dates (up to 30 dates total). We’ve used this to great effect, as after a while you start to get a sense of the baseline. Then, you’ll get an email showing an outlier off that baseline, and it’s time to purchase. (Note, this really only works if you’re like us and plan way out in advance.)

    • Matt Becker June 20, 2014

      You know, I haven’t used that anywhere often enough. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Andrew June 20, 2014

    Pretty cool tip. Thanks. I’m with Joe…it feels like they’re playing games. I always assumed Kayak (which I also like using) just aggregates the prices from the airlines. I didn’t think that you putting flexible dates would affect the pricing. Good to know!

    • Matt Becker June 20, 2014

      I didn’t know either. I actually figured it out totally by accident. We actually did have flexible dates, but I just happened to notice that the price changed when I changed the days I was searching for. Really weird, but it kept on happening.

Leave a Comment