The Geography of Cheap Airfare

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International travel is much more affordable than you think.

If you are like most Americans, you overestimate the cost of international airfare because you assume it must be more expensive than domestic flights. As counterintuitive as it may sound, however, the recent expansion of international budget airlines have made flying to Europe cheaper than flying between most U.S. cities and some flights between countries in Europe or Asia now cost less than the ride to the airport. Many of my friends are surprised to hear that when I travel abroad, I spend less on airfare than I do on ground transportation, lodging, or food. I’ll let you in on some of my secrets. First, I’ll explain my strategy for booking cheap flights. Then I’ll walk you through specific methods to planning your route that will help connect you to diverse international destinations at an affordable price.

The strategies I describe below allowed me to visit 45 countries this year on a shoestring budget. Note that there are two pockets of the world where international budget travel is easy: Europe and Southeast Asia. You probably don’t need my advice to find cheap flights within these regions, but traveling between regions is another story. Below I explain some strategies for flying into and between different low-cost regions of the world. Please note all the prices I quote in this article were found using the search method I describe in this article. Also, note that that low-cost airline service flying to, from, and within Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia is still extremely limited (and in some cases non-existent).

Trans-Atlantic Strategy

Several days a month, you can fly from the Northeast US to the British Isles for just $82 (one-way) with Norwegian Air. Once in the British Isles, you can fly to many destinations in Continental Europe for under $20! The dates for these cheap direct flights to Ireland and Britain are few and inflexible, however, so as an alternative, I recommend reaching Europe via Iceland. Summer months aside, it is possible to reach Iceland from the Eastern Seaboard for as little as $99 and from Europe for as little as $45 using WowAir. This makes Iceland a perfect stopover mini-vacation on your way across the Atlantic. Lastly, you may find flights connecting North America with Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen on a couple days each month for around $120–180 (one-way).

Trans-Eurasia Strategy

While budget airlines make regional travel cheap and easy in Europe and Southeast Asia, traveling between Europe and Asia is another story. If your goal is to go straight from Europe to Southeast Asia or vice versa, a stopover in Dubai is usually a no-brainer. An optimal combination of flights through this route can run as low as $120 if you book the flights into and out of Dubai separately. However, if you’re interested in visiting destinations in the Middle East, South Asia, or the Caucus, you should consider stopping in Istanbul. Just outside the periphery of the EU budget travel zone, Istanbul can connect you to a large swath of these regions for under $50. Dubai, meanwhile, allows access to destinations in South Asia, such as India and Pakistan, for as little as $60.

Trans-Asia Strategy

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In East Asia, budget airlines have not quite taken off to the extent that they have in Southeast Asia. Still, flights connecting Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong can run below $60 on a good day. From Hong Kong, it is also possible to access major destinations in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, for under $40 making it an ideal stopover when moving between East Asia to Southeast Asia. However, the ultimate Trans-Asia air hub is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, home of prolific budget airline Air Asia. From Kuala Lumpur (KL), you may access Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia for under $20. Additionally, Air Asia offers flights from KL to India and Sri Lanka for under $50 and even direct flights to Japan for around $80. This makes KL the cheapest stopover on a per mile basis when traveling between major regional hubs in Asia.

Australasia Strategy

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Both Air Asia and Jet Star offer low-cost flights connecting Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore with Australia. Darwin is usually the cheapest city to fly into, but it’s far from the continent’s major population centers and boasts few attractions of it own, so it’s more practical to fly into Perth of Melbourne. Keep in mind that domestic flights in Australia can be pricey, especially when traveling between Western Australia and the Eastern side of the country, so the potential for budget travel across the Land Down Under remains limited.


All this information taken together should enable you to find your way from North America, across Europe, and onwards to the edge of Asia on a shoestring budget. Of all the excuses not to travel, your budget should not be one of them.

 

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