gap year flights
One of the most time-consuming processes you will come up against as you try to organise your perfect gap year is the process of finding and buying cheap flights for your gap year travels.
Finding cheap flights for gap year travel
This is imperative not just for those of you travelling on a budget, but for anyone you who do not appreciate spending extra money even before starting your gap year – we assume that’s all of you!
Airlines and price comparison websites are getting more and more clever in how they compare and find the best possible deals, but also in the ways that they find ways to charge you, so it’s my goal to help you outsmart them.
This will be a step-by-step guide, taking you through our key tips to turn you into a professional cheap airline ticket hunter, so you will find the cheapest flight for your gap year.
Be flexible with dates and locations
When planning a gap year, you probably have some degree of flexibility as to when exactly you can leave and return, and even on the locations you plan on visiting or living in. This will serve you well, as being flexible with departure and return dates can be a great asset when trying to find cheap flights for a gap year.
Bear in mind that it’s always best to avoid travelling during holidays, festival periods, or even weekends, as these are times when more people will be travelling, making the demand for tickets higher and prices rise.
It’s also worth trying to be flexible with the location of your travels on your gap year, both outward and inward: flying from a different airport and to a different country can be a huge money-saver, as I go on to demonstrate in a bit.
Booking early vs last minute
This is a point of contention in the industry, and looking at all the different numbers floating around in different articles is enough to make your head spin. An article by the Guardian advises that 5 weeks in advance is the golden moment to book your flight, while for charter airlines it recommends booking 12 weeks prior.
Cheapair.com provides a helpful map of the best time to buy international flights from the US, which shows the importance of taking into account your destination when trying to book cheap flights for your gap year.
Finally, Skyscanner advises that 7 weeks in advance is ideal for flights within Europe from the UK, whereas for international flights the period stretches to 18 weeks.
Luckily the techy people of the internet have come up with smart tools that help you figure out the best time to buy your trip. Both of these flight search engines can be your allies to maximize your chances of snatching those cheap flights for your gap year:
Before you start...
A whole lot of ground can be covered before you even start going through all those websites and comparing numbers. A useful trick is to subscribe to as many price alerts and newsletters as possible. Skyscanner and Kiwi offer some pretty useful ones with plenty of information for travellers or people planning a gap year.
The price alerts are particularly good if you want to keep an eye on prices for a specific route on specific dates. You should also keep a close look on these websites’ social media pages for any special offers or discount codes they might advertise, or even competitions for free tickets.
If you do a Google search you may also find some good discounts. It's always worth checking out Voucher Codes to see what they have on offer in the way of cheap airline tickets.
Last but not least, Jack’s Flight Club, an enterprise started by a single travel enthusiast, sends out newsletters for cheap flights and offers: you can choose between a free and a premium service, which help you track the most cost-effective options for your trip. Jack's Flight Club is one of the few UK-based services of this type, and it is excellent, securing you big savings on long and short haul flights.
I recently bought a return flight to Costa Rica for £340 following a tip from one of Jack's emails. Also at the time of writing this article I received an email from Jack's Flight Club advertising flights to Vancouver, Philadelphia and Calgary for £180! and I am just subscribed to the free service.
The paid service is only £35 for a whole year, you can subscribe here and make sure that you bag that cheap flight for your gap year. From what I can see the savings you could make on your ticket will easily pay for the subscription fee.
Where to search
Only recently a couple I know saved forking out an extra £200 for airline tickets to India by taking my advice and deleting the cookies. This is awesome, however the sad thing is they have been going to India every year for the past ten years, I hate to think how much money they threw down the drain in the past.
So, the moral of the story is make sure you delete your cookies after any search to make sure that your search always brings you the cheapest flights, or turn on anonymous browsing, to fend off this cheeky monster.
What are the best search engines?
Now, let’s get to the hard part - there are so many websites out there that it is easy to feel like you are spending more time searching for a cheap flight than you will on the gap year itself.
While you will invariably be looking at least a couple of options before you make your decision, we have narrowed down the main competitors in the field to give you a sense of what works best in each website:
Skyscanner is one of the most popular fare comparison websites out there; and its definitely my favourite, perhaps the star tools of the platform are the very easy to use ‘everywhere’ and ‘anytime’ functions, allowing you to search for flights while keeping departure dates and destination flexible. You can also search all airports within a country and for the cheapest month for a given route. With its no commission policy, great comparison tools with other websites, and fast response, Skyscanner is straightforward to use and understands the modern traveller’s need for flexibility.
Momondo also provides an ‘anywhere’ function, and its price chart which appears on the top of the results page shows you the cheapest airline ticket prices for the days around your selection. It compares other deal websites and redirects you to book there. One of its outstanding features is the Trip Finder, an excellent and creative way to inspire you with different destinations based on your preferences (cheapest, warmest, cultural, etc).
Kiwi.com another smart option, with its map visualization of your chosen route which also shows you alternative destinations with relative prices to help you plan your journey. Its interface is very simple, smart and gives fast response. Like Skyscanner, it provides ‘anywhere’ and ‘anytime’ functions, as well as a multiple destinations search. Unlike many other websites who redirect you to other websites for booking, you can book directly with Kiwi, and their guarantee protects layover flights from delays and cancellation.
Kayak features a Price Trend graph to let you know whether you should wait to book or book now based on previous price trends for that route, which is a great tool to help you find those cheap flights. It also provides a smart price prediction tool that highlights good deals when you are inputting your flight dates. Kayak checks on different ‘deal’ websites for fares, where you are redirected to book.
Google Flights is quite a recent addition to this field, and its impressively fast response is one of its strongest assets, and its ability to find cheap flights is quite good. Its search results page gives suggestions for cheaper dates as well as a handy map visualisation tool for your route.
Tripsta is not quite as smart or full of functions as its competitors, but its eye for prices is quite skilled – Tripsta found me the cheapest option of all the other websites when searching for the same route on the same days. Its search options are only semi-flexible though, showing you fares for up to 3 days before or after your selection.
Charter flights - A cheap option for your gap year travel
While these websites are a great way to go when you are checking for cheap flights for your gap year travels, you might also want to check charter flights, as sometimes these offer surprisingly good deals – I once flew from London to Cancun for £255 this way!
Charter flights are offered mainly by the big tour operators on the high street, you know the ones I mean - the likes of Thomas Cook and Thompson Holidays. "Hold on a minute," you might be thinking "I'm not planning a boozy weekend in Tenerife but a gap year," well keep reading my friend and you might be surprised.
These big tour operators book entire planes to ferry their customers around, but more often that not they will have empty seats, and these can be snatched up at incredibly low prices as they will want to fill the whole plane. So, you can buy a cheap plane ticket with a tour operator to start your gap year, and not end up with a package holiday.
But, if you think that they only fly to European destinations think again! You can fly to U.S cities, Central America and South East Asia, and even though they don't cover Australia or New Zealand they will fly to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and to Bangkok in Thailand. From here you can get cheap flight connections to all the main cities in Australia and New Zealand.
I have taken advantage of cheap charter flights over the years and bagged really good bargains, for example, as mentioned before a couple of years ago I flew with Thompson to Cancun in Mexico for £255. I didn't stay in Cancun, as I don't like tourist traps, my destination was Belize. An overnight bus to Belize city cost me around £60, while a direct flight to Belize city would have taken me back £593!
More recently I travelled to Costa Rica, again with Thomson, (read my posts how to volunteer with animals in Costa Rica and Permaculture course in Costa Rica) I received a flight alert from Jack's Flight Club and when I checked who it was with it was with Thomson. The return flight to Liberia in Costa Rica cost me £340 while everywhere else tickets were going for £630!
The couple next to me on the plane to Costa Rica had paid £1000 per person for a week in an all inclusive package deal in some resort by the beach. I spent £400 while I was there for 14 days; that included a rental 4x4 vehicle, petrol, all my food and accommodation, surfboard hire and the odd beer.
I travelled around the Nicoya Peninsula discovering amazing beaches, met awesome people and visited a natural reserve. Did I felt smug? Yes I did!
That's the main difference between travellers and tourists, we do our research and we make our own plans therefore we have a much better experience... for cheaper! be smart and plan your gap year travel the right way!
Book cheap flights with Skyscanner for your gap year travel
Skyscanner is perhaps my favourite airfare comparison website out there – there are a variety of reasons for this, but mostly it’s the flexibility, the ease of use, and the fact that they, unlike others, do not hike their prices based on your previous searches and your cookies that make the difference.
Let us walk you through the different searches that you can do with it and some of its money-saving tools:
This is an example of a super flexible search: while for obvious reasons you can’t search ‘everywhere’ to ‘everywhere’, this is pretty close, allowing you to search flights from all airports within a country (e.g. UK), to everywhere, on the cheapest month.
This is great for those of you who are completely flexible and budget driven. You can also search for flights between two specific destinations on the cheapest month, and Skyscanner will give you this screen:
After selecting the cheapest month for you, this screen allows you to look at the best offers for each day and to pick the dates/prices you prefer. This is great for those of you who have a specific destination in mind, but can be quite flexible about the time of year for your trip.
Now let’s go back to our standard LDN-BUE search to get into some of the filtering features of the results page:
As you can see, the left side bar provides plenty of filtering options for layovers, airlines and journey length. You can also provide a preferred time of departure for each flight, as well as excluding particular nearby airports from your list, if there is any that is particularly inconvenient for you.
Flying to a Different Airport on your Gap Year Travels
Sometimes, flying to a smaller, less trafficked airport close to your final destination – and by close we mean that can feasibly be reached with public transport - can be cheaper than flying directly to the destination, especially if this is the capital city of a given country.
If I search for flights to Montevideo in Uruguay, for example, instead of Buenos Aires, this is what I get:
With this simple trick, you have over £100 of savings on this route, and you could then travel by ferry to Buenos Aires for as little as £30 – and think of the cool views you would get on that ferry!
Conversely, you might think that a layover is usually a good way to cut the price of your flight, when actually sometimes flying direct can be a lot cheaper. You can see that here through this search for flights to Cologne:
In this case, having a stopover would double the price of the flight! Going direct of course also ensures that your journey time is the shortest possible. This tends to be the case for shorter or highly frequent flights; whereas for longer flights, the luxury of not having to stopover tends to cost more:
On this flight to Moscow, for example, the stopover saves you almost 60 quid, though it does of course increase the length of your journey. So depending on your destination and how well-connected your nearest airport is to it, you might find that a layover or a direct flight can work best for your gap year travel on different occasions.
Student Discounts for your Gap Year Travel
There are a few websites and travel agencies that are geared for young people and students offering student discounts on airfares to different destinations round the world. Some of them tailor specially for gap year travel.
I decided to put them to the test and find out if they actually offer valuable discounts on airfares for the student crowd, you will be surprised with the results!
I ran a very simple test - I searched for a return a flight from London to Bangkok departing on the 4th of September 2017 and arriving back in London a month after.
STA Travel - The most expensive of all, and where is my student discount? What are the benefits of being a student? Not on their flight prices that's for sure.
Student Universe - A bit better than STA but still not good enough and the question remains - how is being a student giving me any benefits? So far the answer is it isn't. It's also worth noticing the return flight takes nearly 19 hrs.
Skyscanner - I have to say that this is my favourite tool and my first choice when booking flights. They just make searching for cheap flights so easy as there are loads of filters. I also never had any problems while booking because you book directly with the airline, no middleman involved. So far the cheapest, I'm biased maybe, but not surprised. Worth noticing its the same flight that STA want to sell me for £404.27.
Kayak - This is the same flight and at the same price as Skyscanner, but I still prefer to use Skyscanner to book my ticket as I am not buying straight from the airline like with Skyscanner. With Kayak I am buying the flight from Fly Sharp,
I've never heard of Fly Sharp, have you? These small travel agencies tend to be really hard to get hold of if any problem arises, like the need to cancel or alter your flight for any reason. Also their customer service is generally iffy, just to put it politely.
Momondo - This is definitely another of my favourite tools, just because it's so visual. You can see the prices for the days before and after your desired dates so you can change accordingly. In this case its the cheapest but also the longest flight, a total of twenty extra hours, compared to the other flights. For a saving of two pounds its not worth it. I don't know about you, but I definitely can think of better things to do with my time.
Cheapoair - I have never used this one before, I definitely like it and the price is just £3 more, but I am bit puzzled, why do they advertise that you will benefit for being a student? It never asked me the question while doing the search.
Only three airlines appear on the searches: Cathay Pacific, Oman Air and Air China. Before booking I will be looking at whether they charge for luggage, are there free meals on board and what the on-board entertainment consist of.
When trying to search for cheap flights for gap year travel and for the purpose of this test, it seems that going through student only websites don't bring any added benefits, and Skyscanner is ahead of the game once again!
Paying for your gap year travel
I recommend using a credit card for buying your tickets - yours or your parents (your parents is better). Bear in mind that paying with a credit card will usually incur a fee, as opposed to debit cards, but it will also add extra protection to your ticket, as you can claim back any expenses for cancelled flights.
You should check if your credit card has air miles offers, or if you’re just about to get one, look for one that does!
Before putting down your credit card digits, always remember to check the small print: most of the ‘amazing’ online deals you will find will be non-refundable and non-exchangeable.
If you’re uncertain about the dates or time of travel, it might be worth spending some extra money for a flexible option and avoid the endless calls to customer service to try to get it altered without spending a fortune.
If you don't have a credit card yet and don't know where to start I have created a how to pick the best credit cards for your gap year travel to make the most of your air miles, and tricks to bump up your air mileage through your credit card.
Some websites offer 24 hour cancellation policies, which means you can purchase a flight and then cancel it if you find a better deal the next day – though this is only safe if you have enough funds to pay for both flights, as the refund may come much later!
Check out this great infographic by cheapflights.com on how to get that cheap airline ticket.
Why not try slow travel on your gap year instead?
I know we’ve been going on and on about flying, but sometimes travelling by road on your gap year can be the best option for you. This is particularly good for European travel or travelling within one country – unless it’s a huge country like Australia or the US.
This kind of travel is referred to as slow travel - a relaxing immersion into the culture of one place, allowing you to live like a local for your time there instead of rushing to see the sights.
This way of travelling, much more road-based and less hectic than catching 10 flights within a month, focuses more on the experience of your gap year travels, rather than the number of cities you can tick off your bucket list.
There are many positives about travelling by road: first of all, you get extra flexibility with your itinerary. For example, if you are planning to go from Venice to Rome, why not go by train and stop in Florence on the way? This way, you get to experience much more of the country you’re travelling in, and take in a lot more of the culture.
Secondly, whether you’re travelling by train, car, or coach, you are more likely to have more flexibility in the size of luggage you are allowed to carry, as well as number of bags. It can also be cheaper, less stressful, and more environmentally friendly.
If you’re thinking that this option might be for you, check out Rome2Rio. This site compares all possible means of transportation between two places, whether it’s flights, buses, trains or ferries, and lets you compose the perfect gap year travel at the perfect pace for you.