After I convinced my boss to let me go remote full time, I started looking for cheap flights that depart later this year. And it started fucking me up. 

Every day, I was deluged with mouth-watering deals — a $362 flight to Brazil?! A $500 flight to Vietnam?!? Soon enough, I’d find myself drooling on my keyboard in a state of ecstasy. I’d become Pavlov’s dog.

After the euphoria wore off, the stress kicked in — should I buy these tickets or not? How do I take advantage of these deals without exposing myself to risk? How do I plan travel during a pandemic?

Below are the rules that I developed to help me navigate this terrain.

Determine Your Essential Destinations

Before you can start deciding between cheap flights, you need to decide on your essential destinations. There are simply too many juicy deals out there right now and you can’t take advantage of all of them. The last thing you want to do is buy flights to countries you don’t really want to visit just because you found a good price. Therefore, you should write down a list of a few countries that you’re 100% sure you want to travel to. These will be the locations that you’ll actively monitor for cheap tickets.

Get Cheap Deals in Your Inbox

Before discussing how to determine which deals to take advantage of, you need deals to choose from. I set up price alerts to all of my essential destinations on Kayak and Momondo with my estimated dates of departure (we’ll talk about how to come up with this soon). I live in SFO, but I also set up alerts departing from LAX because it’s only a $20 bus ride away and there are cheap nonstop flights from there to some of my essential destinations.

While the price alerts are helpful, Scott’s Cheap Flights is way better. You enter your departure airports and they have a full team of employees dedicated to finding the best deals that take off from there. This allowed me to sit back and relax while they did the heavy lifting for me, which got me a $362 roundtrip flight to Brazil for the end of this year.

Only Go for Refundable Tickets

Now that you have cheap flights coming to you without any effort on your part, you can turn your attention to choosing between them. You should only buy refundable tickets because things are too unpredictable right now and, thankfully, many airlines are allowing you to cancel/change flights as needed. 

However, you must make sure to read each airline’s policy’s fine print as all refundable flights aren’t made equal. I’d summarize these here, but airlines’ policies are changing quickly, so it’s best you read the fine print yourself:

Identify a Truly Great Deal

I’ve been considering flights that are 50-60% of their “normal price” to be great deals. To get a sense of what the “normal price” for your route is:

  1. Ask friends that have flown that route recently about how much they spent.
  2. Monitor your price alerts over the course of a few weeks to get a good sense of what the range is. Since all flights are way cheaper right now, this range is probably way better than historic prices, so anything less than the normal lower bound you’ve been seeing is probably fantastic.
  3. Check out Hopper to get a sense of how good the deal is.
  4. If you use Scott’s Cheap Flights, they tell you the regular price so you can just compare it with the deal they sent you.

A general rule of thumb for good deals from the US (round trip): 

  • Africa: less than $800
  • Asia: less than $500
  • Australia: less than $800
  • Caribbean: less than $300
  • Central America: less than $300
  • Europe: less than $500
  • Hawaii: less than $400
  • South America: less than $600

What’s the cost of the ticket?

Even if you’ve found a great deal, you have to consider the total cost of the ticket before deciding to purchase. While most airlines allow you to cancel your ticket, you are given a credit rather than a full refund. That means that if you buy a great deal that costs $1k and you have to cancel it, you’ll still have to spend all of that money.

This is why it’s vital to read the fine print of the airline’s policy. At the time of this writing, United’s policy only allows you to use your credit towards tickets of equal or more value. This means that if you buy a $700 ticket today and then have to cancel it, United will give you a credit of $700 that can only be used towards one flight. If you decide later in the year that you want to use this credit for a $500 flight, United will pocket the difference without crediting you $200. If you find a flight for more than $500, you’ll have to pay the difference. Therefore, you don’t want to buy expensive tickets from United

Delta, on the other hand, will credit you if you find a cheaper ticket. So in the above example, you’d get to keep the $200 credit to use at a later time.

Determine Departure Dates

Ok, so you’ve found an insane deal and if you cancel it you’ll easily be able to spend that money on another ticket. So when should you book your flight?

In short, you want to be hyper conservative when there are so many unknowns. When I saw a great deal for Brazil, I immediately did some research about how they’re approaching the virus and then I searched for expert’s estimated timelines.

Brazil’s president isn’t taking the virus seriously and while the governors have taken it upon themselves to lockdown their cities, having the leader against taking action is a bad sign. This article shows that the lockdowns there are indeed slipping. 

Finding estimates for the timeline of the Brazilian lockdown was challenging but one hack I found was translating my search query into Portugese, searching on google.com.br, and then translating the web pages. This turned up way more local articles. One article said that the peak will be in June or July, another said that it will be in April/May, and the president estimated that the country would peak in 3-4 months. The general consensus amongst these articles is that the country would be able to return to “normal” by September or October, although we don’t currently know what normal will look like.

With this understanding, I started only looking for deals after October. However, I found that many of the deals available in that month were still available in November and December. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to push the trip back as far as possible.

Adjust to the New Timeline

It’s very likely that by following this process your timeline has been pushed back. However, it’s better to accept that than try to force a trip. If you’ve been waiting for years to live in Italy, do you want to stay there when most bars and restaurants will be close to empty? Or would you rather try to make the most of the lockdown at home and have a much richer experience a few months later?

It’s also possible that you might be forced to change the order of the countries you’re going to visit based on the research you did. If South Korea was originally 5th on your list of countries to visit, maybe you should head there earlier than you originally expected.

As you adjust to your new timeline, it’s important to take a moment to think about why you’re traveling (we talk about this in-depth here). For example, I realized that a big reason I’m traveling is because I’m discontent with living in SF and would like to live in different places so I can understand what I look for in a city. While the international countries I want to visit still appear to be getting hit hard by the pandemic, there are American cities that are talking about easing the lockdown. Therefore, I’m going to use this time to live in different cities domestically (once things are better of course), before embarking on my trip around the world. You can find some really unique solutions once you start asking these questions.

In Conclusion

Keep your eye out for great deals, research the policies, look up experts’ estimates, and look for alternatives based on your why.

Good luck!