Take Advantage of Cheap International Flights by Purchasing Tickets Piece by Piece (2021)

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Depending on where you live, it can be hard to find less expensive international flights from your home airport. Online booking tools often won't be able to show tickets that take advantage of cheap international flights from other cities, particularly on airlines that aren't part of the big alliances.

To take advantage of cheap international flights, you may need to buy a separate ticket to another departure city and/or a ticket from an international hub to your final destination. It can be inconvenient and time-consuming to purchase separate tickets, but it can frequently save you a lot of money.


Opportunities to save money

Traditional airfare searching tools will check most of your routing options, especially if you search for each direction as a separate one-way flight. But even the best tools don't search every option.

  • In the most common scenario, you can make your own way to a "gateway" city. For international flights, fares from some cities can be much less expensive than fares from other cities. Since the cheapest international flights are sometimes with airlines that don't have any domestic partnerships, you won't find these fares when you do a normal search. To get a less expensive overall fare, you’ll need to book two separate flights—a domestic flight to the "gateway" city and an inexpensive international flight from there.
  • For example, rather than trying to book directly from Salt Lake City to Europe, you’d book a "positioning flight" from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or Dallas; and then book a cheap flight to Europe from one of those cities. If you tried booking the full trip, the booking engine probably wouldn't check the potentially low-cost combination of flights on Delta and Condor Airlines.

    This same strategy can also be used when you are traveling to Asia, South America, or other international destinations, although the gateway cities will often differ.

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  • Make your own way from a foreign hub to your destination. Even if you are leaving from a low-cost gateway city or there is a low-cost carrier that flies from your home airport, you won’t always be able to find a cheap flight that goes directly to your eventual destination. Sometimes, the airline that offers the best international flights doesn’t have partners that connect to the city where you want to go. Fortunately, most of the world is now served by low-cost regional airlines. If you can find an affordable flight to the region you are traveling to, you can combine it with a separate flight to your final destination.
  • For example, instead of buying expensive tickets to Vietnam, you can buy a more affordable flight to Hong Kong and then book separate low-cost tickets to Vietnam from there. Or instead of buying expensive tickets to Prague, you can buy more affordable tickets to Oslo or Barcelona and then book separate tickets for the final part of the journey.

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  • For an international trip, you might wind up buying as many as three separate round trip tickets. In the worst case scenario, you won’t be able to find well-priced tickets from your home airport to the region of the world you are travelling to and you won’t be able to find well-priced tickets from any convenient US gateway city all the way to your eventual destination. In that case, you’ll need to piece together three separate tickets—a “positioning flight” to a good international gateway, the “long haul” flight to the general proximity of where you want to fly, and a “final leg” to your desired destination.
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  • You can sometimes save money by making your own connection, even on domestic flights. For example, rather than booking a more expensive flight from Seattle to Nashville, you may be able to save money by booking a ticket between Seattle and Denver and then a separate trip between Denver and Nashville. Because flights are priced as one-ways, you might do this in one direction and book a regular reservation in the other direction. This strategy mostly works when prices to your final destination are more expensive than normal.
  • Making a stopover, rather than a quick connection, can sometimes help. Rather than making a regular connection at an airport in the middle of your route, you might be able to find a lower fare by connecting to a flight that leaves the next day or the day after. And you get the potential side-benefit of visiting an added destination.
  • For example, you might not be able to find a well-priced ticket that goes all the way to your destination on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. But you might be able to find a cheap ticket to the connecting city on Friday and another cheap ticket between the connecting city and your final destination on Sunday, lowering the cost of your overall trip.

    Having some extra time in the connecting city, reduces the chances that you'll have any problems caused by making making an "unofficial" connection.

Potential downsides

Make-your-own connection trips can be problematic.  There are several significant drawbacks to piecing together your own trip using separate flights:

  • You often can't check your luggage all the way through. If you need to check your bags, you’ll need to pick them up at baggage claim at the connecting airport, re-check them and go back through security. This means a lot of extra time at the connecting airport. Carrying-on your luggage makes these combined ticket strategies much more efficient.
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  • With international connections, you may need to go back and forth through immigration. If you can't check-in and get your boarding pass, you'll need clear immigration, make your way to departures side of the airport, check-in, and then go through emigration. This can be really time consuming and you may need to pay some entry or exit taxes.
  • It can be a big problem if you get delayed and miss your flight. When you combine flights on a single reservation and you can’t make your connection, the airline will make every effort to rebook you. But if you book a separate reservation, they aren’t obligated to help. Neither airline might take responsibility for the missed connection. Many times, the airline whose flight you missed will try to accommodate you. However, if they don’t, you might be on the hook for a new, very expensive flight to your destination
  • If you need to change or cancel your flight, you’ll need to pay separate fees. With a single reservation, you’ll be charged a single change or cancellation fee. With separately booked tickets, you’ll need to pay each airline separately.
Mitigating the Risks

One approach for dealing with the risk is to purchase a backup flight. Until recently, this was usually an expensive option. But with the major US airlines introducing free cancellation, it can be a sensible option. Just to be sure that you get to your main flight, you buy a second positioning flight that leaves a little later than your main flight. If everything is going as planned, you cancel the backup flight at the last minute. If not, you cancel the original flight and use your backup.

If you do this with paid tickets, rather than award tickets, you are probably going to wind up with a flight credit (rather than a real refund). So make sure you are using airlines that you are likely to fly again within the year. And don't forget to cancel one of the flights.

Another alternative is to stay a day or more and visit the city you are connecting in. That greatly reduces the risk you'll miss your flight and avoids excessive time but adds days to the total length of your trip.

Finding inexpensive long-haul flights

When you are flying internationally, the key flight is the one that gets you across the ocean.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic eliminated most transatlantic flights from discount operators, such as Norwegian. But fares from the more traditional carriers are still lower than they used to be. Increased competition from expanding Chinese airlines have significantly dropped prices to many parts of Asia.

While it is always considerably better to fly directly to where you want to go, don’t be overly concerned whether a discount airline offers tickets directly to the specific city you want to visit in Europe or Asia. Once you’ve found a good price to get you across the ocean, you can often tack-on additional low-priced tickets as necessary.

There are three general approaches for finding good options. You might want to use more than one.

1. Using Skyscanner to find the cheapest options to a specific destination

Skyscanner is the only tool we’ve found that lets you search for all the flights to a destination, such as all the flights TO Paris. All the other generally useful tools, such as Google Flights, Kayak, etc., only search for all the flights from an airport, such as all the flights FROM New York.

Just enter “United States” (or “Canada”) in the From box and your destination in the To box and you’ll see the lowest fares from a variety of gateway cities. If you are building up a trip segment-by-segment, you'll usually want to use the checkbox to filter to the non-stop options.

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2. Checking gateway cities one-by-one

The drawback of doing a simple search on Skyscanner is that you won’t uncover even cheaper flights that can get you “close” to where you want to go. If you are trying to get to Paris, it may be cheaper for you to fly to London or Oslo or Barcelona and then connect from there.

To uncover additional low-cost flight options, you can search all the flights from each likely gateway city using a tool like the Google or Kayak Explore map.

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The set of cities to search depend on where you live and where you are going. For example, if you are flying to Asia and live on the West coast, you might try Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver. If you live on the East coast, you might add New York, DC, Chicago, Atlanta, and maybe Dallas.

Or if you are looking to fly to Central or South America, you probably want to try Miami, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Comparing that to your local flight options can help you evaluate whether it makes sense to depart from your own city or make your way to another city that has much better fares.

3. Directly checking each discount airline

Another approach is to directly look for fares from discount airlines that you know about. For example, you may know that Condor Airlines, Level Airlines, and Icelandair often offer lower-than-normal fares to Europe, so you can see what is available on their website or by entering likely city pairs into Google Flights.

Booking the final leg

Dozens of “low-cost” airlines have sprouted up over the last couple of decades and it is now possible to fly between almost any two cities within Europe or Asia for incredibly low prices.

So if you can't get a cheap flight directly to your destination, you can purchase the cheapest convenient flight to a “hub” airport in that region of the world and then a separate inexpensive flight to your final destination.

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For example, let’s say you want to travel from Atlanta to Prague in April. Airfares directly to Prague are around $1,300. But you can fly nonstop to London from Atlanta for $760 and buy a separate nonstop to Prague on Smart Wings for $80. While you are at it, you can spend a few extra days visiting London. And, of course, you can add additional destinations or fly home from a nearby city such as Warsaw.

  • You’ll want to check multiple different hubs, not just the cheapest one, as that might lead to a lower overall cost or better connection timing. Make sure to check flights that leave at least a few hours after you arrive in your initial destination. You may need some time to pick up your bags and recheck them for your final flight and you'll want to be able to accommodate any flight delays.
  • Two tools that have great support for discount airlines are Kayak / Momondo and Skyscanner. But you can usually get good results in Google Flights, as well.
  • When you fly to a city like London, there is a good chance that you’ll need to switch airports to connect with a low-cost carrier. This can be true even in cities which only have a single primary airport, because low-cost carriers are often based in less-often-used airports in the vicinity of the city, rather than at the main airport. You need to factor this transfer into your planning, in terms of convenience, price, and timing. It can be worth more money to choose flights that avoid the need for an airport change. 
  • Making a stopover between flights reduces the risk you'll miss your connecting flight. This is especially useful on the return, when you really don't want to miss your flight back to the US. Plus you'll get a chance to visit an extra city. But sometimes you won't have the time and will need to decide whether it is worth taking the risk.



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