How to Find Flight Deals, Part II

We'll look at how Kayak’s Explore function is another way to snag cheap flights when we have flexibility.

In How to Find Flight Deals, Part I, we learned about using the Hopper app to find flight deals, especially when flexible on destination and time.  Today, we’ll look at how Kayak’s Explore function is another way to snag cheap flights when we have flexibility.

Kayak Explore.

If you’ve taken the “flexibility is a superpower” message to heart, Kayak has a cool function called Explore that can help you find a cheap destination. 

On your desktop, select “explore” on the left side of the screen.  Using the mobile app, scroll down to “Explore from [your origin]” and click “Let’s go.”

With Explore, you have the option to enter a budget, dates, distance, and themes. Let’s start with entering a date range.  The beauty of the Explore function is that you don’t need exact dates, though you can use precise dates if you have them. 

Desktop vs. mobile.

Kayak’s desktop version and mobile app each have annoying limitations.  With the desktop version, Explore doesn’t let us select a date range of more than one month.  If you are open to traveling in June or July 2021, when using Kayak’s desktop version, you’ll have to run two different searches. 

Kayak’s mobile app allows multi-month date ranges, but it doesn’t let us specify trip duration (e.g., 12 days) like the desktop version does.  That is a real pain because the cheapest fares for each city might be trips of 30 days, three days, or other trip lengths that you would not consider. 

On balance, I would prefer to specify trip length than have a date range of more than a month.  So, when using Kayak’s Explore function, I recommend using the desktop version. Just know that, if you’re open to travel in two or more months, you’ll need to perform multiple searches. 

How to Use Kayak’s Explore function (desktop version) to find cheap flights:
  • Set the departure city in the top left window (for me, Atlanta).
  • To the right of that, the destination field will auto-populate “anywhere.”
  • Further right, click on “date range” in the date window.  Then specify the trip duration that you want (I’ll pick 11-12 days because that’s my sweet spot).
  • On the left-hand side, select the number of stops you will permit (any stops, up to one stop, or nonstop only).  I recommend starting with “up to one stop,” especially if you will depart from a large, international airport.
  • Under that, I usually leave “budget” at the default setting.
  • “Duration” allows you to specify the maximum duration of the flight.  If you’re open to traveling internationally, leave this at the default “12+ hours.” 
  • Keep the type of trip on the default “anything.”
  • Click the orange button with the magnifying glass. 

Now, you can simply scroll around the globe using your mouse.  The fares shown on the map are the lowest fare for each city given the date range and other limitations set. 

Delightful Dublin.

Right off the bat, we see that Dublin is the cheapest European destination in June 2021, at $626. (Airfares change quickly, and by the time you read this, the price may be different).

Kayak price map.
Kayak’s price map showing fares from Atlanta during June 2021.

Click on Dublin, and then select “check prices.” Kayak Explore has found cheap flights to Dublin departing Atlanta on June 5 and returning June 16, 2021 (11 days).  Remember, we specified a trip duration of 11 or 12 days.  We can adjust that if I want a longer or shorter trip.

Kayak’s search result matrix defaults to “best” fares, which considers both price and convenience (basically, to weed out cheap fares that involve 30-hour flight marathons).  If you want to make sure you see the cheapest flights, toggle over to “cheapest.”  Similarly, if convenience is most important, click on “quickest.”

When we click on “cheapest,” we see a host of fares from Atlanta to Dublin ranging from $626 (Air Canada), $627 (multiple United flights), on up to $644 (additional United flights) and beyond.

Kayak price matrix showing cheap flights from Atlanta to Dublin
departing June 5, 2021.
Select the best flight for accurate pricing.

When deciding which flight is best, make sure to look at the number of stops (here, we’ve specified one stop or nonstop), departure times, and flight duration.  All things equal, I will always go for shorter duration trips.  Spending 30 hours in the air isn’t on my bucket list.

I like the looks of the United flight departing Atlanta at 7:35 p.m., and connecting through Dulles.  On the way back, it connects through Toronto.  Basic economy is $627, and economy is $757. 

Kayak
Price Advice and Alerts.

How do we know if this is cheap flight?  In this case, we’ve already seen that this is the cheapest fare to a European destination during June 2021.  But Kayak also gives us advice on the top left of the screen. 

Kayak price advice and price alert

Here, Kayak’s advice is to buy now, as prices are unlikely to decrease within 7 days.  Seven days isn’t a long time… Kayak’s advice feature is not the most robust, but it gives us some idea of whether we’re getting a good deal. 

Turn on “track prices,” under the “buy now” advice, to set a price alert.  Kayak will email new fares as the prices change. Additional information about Kayak’s price alert can be found here. 

Price alerts are handy in lots of circumstances. They are especially helpful if you have a destination in mind but are flexible on timing. If you get an alert that the fare has dropped to an amazing low, be prepared to pounce.

Beware economy basic.

Price is not the only factor when trying to snag cheap flights.  Pay attention to whether the fares are economy basic or economy.  

Usually, airlines market the cheapest international fares as “economy basic,” which typically doesn’t include seat reservations (available for an additional charge) or a checked bag (sometimes regular economy doesn’t include a checked bag either).

Families traveling in economy basic will usually not be guaranteed to sit together unless they buy seat reservations.  Seat reservations can be pricey—round-trip fees can top $90 a person—so factor that in when you are comparing economy basic and economy.  

family traveling
Will this family be able to sit together? Inquiring minds want to know.

Seat reservations and (possibly) luggage allowances are not the only difference between economy and economy basic. I learned the hard way that economy basic fares are not changeable or cancelable. 

Learn from my mistakes….

Last year, I booked a flight to Zurich for four of us over spring break.  Or so I thought.  Weeks after booking I realized that I picked the wrong week. (I looked at the school calendar for the wrong year). I was stuck with tickets to Europe that I couldn’t change! 

After several calls, United worked with me.  They allowed me to upgrade from economy basic to economy and then pay a change fee to change the date (and destination).  This was an expensive lesson.  I ended up doubling the price of the tickets.  I learned that value travel does not always mean getting the cheapest price.

Repeat the search for every month of travel.

Remember that, using kayak’s desktop Explore function, we were only able to search for one month: June 2021.  Because we are able to fly in June or July, we should repeat the search with July as the travel month.  I like to keep a sheet of paper handy so I can jot down low fares.

Simply click on the date field toward the top of the screen (look for the calendar icon).  Select July 2021.  Make sure to specify the number of stops (up to 1 stop) on the left side of the screen.  Click search.

Kayak search fields.
Kayak Explore’s search fields

Scroll back over to Europe on the map.  This time, we see a $739 fare to Madrid. That sounds promising….

Search results aren’t perfect.

Next to Madrid, click on “check prices.” Instead of $739, the cheapest fare is $1,054.  Why?  The cheaper fare (which is now showing as $696) involves 2 stops on the way back to Atlanta.  It shouldn’t be showing up, because we specified “up to one stop” earlier. 

Yet on the left side of the screen, under “Stops,” we see $696 next to “2+ stops.”  If we click on that box, allowing two or more stops, we see the $696 flight that involves flying three airlines: Frontier, FinnAir, and TAP.  The trip home has two stops and takes 28 hours.  No thanks!  Madrid is out. 

In July 2021, we’re not seeing fares nearly as low as the June flight to Dublin for $627 (economy basic)/$757 (economy).  So right now, Dublin in June 2021 is our best flight deal to Europe next summer. 

In normal times, $700 would be an amazing price to Europe during the summer.  I would tell you to book it immediately.  COVID-19, however, has introduced lots of uncertainty to pricing and travel as a whole.  It’s possible that summer fares to Europe could go even lower.  Still, if you’re willing to purchase tickets during the pandemic, $700 is a great price.

St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican
St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican
The takeaway.
  • Use Kayak’s Explore function to snag cheap flights, especially when you’re flexible on the destination, timing, or both.
  • When using Explore, Kayak desktop is better than the mobile app because you can specify the trip duration. 
  • Specify the date range by indicating the month you are able to travel or by entering exact dates.
  • Indicate the number of stops you will accept (“up to one stop” is recommended to start with, especially when departing from a larger airport).
  • Consider Kayak’s travel advice.  Consider price alerts if you plan to wait for a flight deal.
  • Repeat the search for every month you are available to travel.
  • Beware economy basic.