How to Research and Buy Discount International Flights
Here's how to find the best fares in premium or economy classes on any airline.
Some people procrastinate by reading magazines or shopping online. My way of taking a mental time out involves finding airfare deals including discount international flights.
This is how I wound up doing my Christmas shopping this year in Seoul, Korea. I used the techniques I’m about to outline below to score a business class international flight from San Diego (via DFW) to Seoul that was about the same price as an economy class ticket to Asia can be.
Table of Contents
Why There Is No Need to Pay Full Price
I used to redeems miles to fully purchase long haul flights or buy economy class tickets and upgrade them to business class using miles. With airlines tightening mileage ticket availability, both are becoming increasingly hard to do. (Also, I put a dollar value on my miles. It often does not make sense to use them if a business class ticket is at a low enough price point.)
The lack of mileage availability led us to often buy business class or first class tickets direct through the airline or a standard travel agent, but there is a better way.
Until recently, I wasn’t aware of an entirely different option involving the purchase of unpublished fares that the general public does not have access to without going through an authorized agent.
There are plenty of services—like our site partner Sojourn—that have access to these fares. Savings can be up to 40% on premium class tickets. Discounts on economy class tickets can be had occasionally through these services, too.
I am a huge believer that knowledge is power though. You need to feel good about the price you pay no matter where you buy or what class of service you book. This means that you need to do a little legwork.
Where to Research Discount International Flights
I am overly-obsessive about researching airfare so here’s what I do.
Check Prices on Google Flights
In my opinion, Google Flights is the best way for the average person to research airfare. Take a few minutes to learn how it works because it can perform several helpful tasks from monitoring flight prices (and emailing you when they change) to showcasing destinations on a map with pricing from your home airport on specific dates.
The latter is helpful for people who want to travel but don’t know exactly where to go. It’s called the Explore Destinations feature. For example, I randomly plugged in business class flights from San Diego to Mexico and this is what popped up.
You can also scroll through an entire year’s worth of airfare on your preferred airline so that you know when the cheapest time to fly to a preferred destination is.
This short video is a little cheesy but showcases how Google Flights works.
Google is not a travel agent so they’ll send you directly to the airline for booking if you click on a link. I read that the only airline not represented is Southwest because they do not allow external programs to access their ticket pricing information.
If I find a price on a ticket that I am intrigued by, I might click through to American Airlines, hold it for 24 hours in under my frequent flier number and then check with Sojourn to see if I can cut the price even further. (Holding the flight also prevents me from impulse buying.)
If you elect to enable this service, Google Flights sends email alerts when they rise and fall. This service is invaluable since, for example, business class flights from San Diego to Beijing have risen and fallen between $1800 – $4500 per person over the last few months.
Other price comparison sites like Skyscanner, are less reliable than Google Flights (in my opinion) because some of the airfare discounters they populate in their results (usually the cheapest ones) do not display real time price fluctuations. This means some of the data you receive may be old. And, they show results from lesser-known travel sites some of which, when you dig deep, have significant online complaints. Or, at least that’s what I found the last time I used them.
Here, members post premium class deals they’ve seen, booked or already traveled. Usually, these fares are geared toward earning the most amount of miles per dollar spent. The threads look like this.
This is where I saw the Google Flights link for a deal on business class to Seoul, which I eventually booked.
Note that many FlyerTalk members are savvy flyers who are keen to see the world while maintaining frequent flier status and earning as many redeemable miles possible. You’ll see a lot of airline lingo. For example, it’s worth knowing booking fare classes like “J” or “I” because this determines how many frequent flier miles you’ll earn.
Tip: I always, always know my fare class before booking a flight. I then refer to the American Airlines fare class chart (each airline frequent flier program has a similar chart) to see how many miles I’ll earn based on the fare class I book.
If you pay close attention to earning elite airline status and miles, you will need to check how many miles you’ll earn on a discounted ticket. In some cases, you will not know until after you fly but the savings might be worth the risk.
Finally, See if Sojourn Can Beat the Price
The good news is that Justin at Sojourn will totally tell you if he can or can’t beat an airfare deal you’ve sourced. It’s rare, but sometimes the airlines have sales at what pretty much equates to unpublished or net fares.
Usually, Sojourn comes out ahead. The savings are more evident on international business class or first class flights. To give you an idea, here are sample discounts on international flights from San Diego.
Japan Airlines from San Diego to Tokyo:
JL 65 29DEC SAN-NRT 1140A 450P 30DEC
JL 66 10JAN NRT-SAN 505P 945A
Published business class fare: $3701.16
Negotiated business class fare: $3510.16
Published coach fare: $1540.16
Negotiated coach fare: $1476.16
British Airways from San Diego to London Heathrow
BA272 02JAN SAN-LHR 715P 135P 03JAN
BA273 10JAN LHR-SAN 145P 450P
Published business class fare: $8676.66
Negotiated business class fare: $7984.66
Published coach fare: $2158.56
Negotiated coach fare: $2025.56
United/Swiss Airlines/Lufthansa from San Diego to Barcelona (via Zurich and Munich)
Discounts can be even deeper if you’re willing to make an extra connection or two.
UA 555 21JAN SAN-ORD 943A 348P
LX 9 21JAN ORD-ZRH 715P 1055A 22JAN
LX1954 22JAN ZRH-BCN 1220P 200P
LH1811 29JAN BCN-MUC 1135A 135P
LH 434 29JAN MUC-ORD 355P 655P
UA 651 29JAN ORD-SAN 740P 1005P
Published business class fare: $6358.36
Negotiated business class fare: $5499.00
Alaska Airlines/Delta from San Diego to Hong Kong
AS 493 09FEB SAN-SEA 805A 1100A
DL 39 09FEB SEA-HKG 1204P 630P 10FEB
DL 38 19FEB HKG-SEA 1200N 816A
DL5741 19FEB SEA-SAN 1120A 215P
Published business class fare: $5122.06
Negotiated business class fare: $4886.06
Prices listed include all applicable taxes and fees.
Fares subject to availability and can change at any time.
All fares are nonrefundable after ticketing and subject to change fees and fare difference.
Negotiated fares earn miles in most cases, but at a reduced accrual rate.
Justin books my flights using my frequent flier number and the information pops up next time I log in to my frequent flier account. It’s easy.
Consider Booking Hotels and Flights Together
Here’s another industry secret to note.
If you need both a hotel and flight, buying them together in a bundle can save big money when traveling internationally.
Justin at Sojourn tells me that this is extremely noticeable when booking oneworld Alliance flights (Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, American Airlines) from the West Coast to Asia, a route I often travel. I have also noticed that British Airways offers business class London vacations where a four or five star hotel for the entire duration of your stay adds only minimal cost to a flight reservation, if any at all.
In my experience, this typically doesn’t work if you are hitting multiple destinations on your itinerary or need a hotel for only part of your stay. However, it is an amazing value if, for example, you’re staying put in Tokyo for a week.
The Bottom Line
In most cases, you do not need to pay retail price for airfare and you can find discount international flights in any class of service.