How I Hacked the Cheapest International Flight

Written by Matthew Furtney


I finished my master’s degree at MIT with a sense of accomplishment, an extra 25 lbs. on my belly, and that pull of wanderlust you get when you just need to escape from routine for a while. There was enough money in my bank account to last a year on a shoestring budget, so I decided to spend some time to travel, re-orient, and loose some of that weight I gained stress-eating Chipotle burrito bowls.

My girlfriend lived in another state at the time, so I packed the things in my dorm, moved them across the country into her apartment, and immediately started looking online to find myself a one way flight out of the country.

When I lived in Boston, I had money, but no time to travel abroad. So I window shopped my flights, looking but never buying. With Boston as my origin, I often found tantalizingly cheap international flights. After I left Boston, I assumed it would be easy to find flights for less than $500 USD round trip.

But I assumed incorrectly. Looking for international flights to Europe from rural South Carolina was like shopping for a winter coat in the tropics. There were few options to choose from and no good deals. The best international airports were over 2 hours away by car in Atlanta and Charlotte. Prices were astronomical.

I think this is when many people give up on traveling or decide to spend more money on the flight, but I took it on as a personal challenge. If I couldn’t find a reasonable flight at an airport near me, then I would search the whole country for a cheap flight and use that airport. I wouldn’t pay a penny more than necessary. I would become the champion of cheap Trans-Atlantic flights.

cheap money

So to start, I googled: “cheapest flight from US to Europe”. I found blogs, more blogs, and some expensive flights. Sure, these were some great blog articles about other people finding cheap flights, and there were some itineraries that would get me there. But there were no search tools for comparing all of the airports and days.

Next, I tried brute force. I spent two weeks revising a method to chicken-peck airport codes into the google flight search, skyscanner, kayak, and ITA matrix to find the cheapest routes from the US to Western Europe. I did dozens of queries and sorted the results in excel. I researched the budget airlines, and which routes they flew, adding PVD, EDI, MAN, and MCO and dozens of others to my list of budget airports. I realized that the cheapest route across the Atlantic Ocean changed from day to day. The airlines had dynamic pricing models that were hard to keep up with.

This problem was too dynamic to solve by hand. I eventually gave up on booking the cheapest flights, and used my new method to book some really, really cheap ones instead.

But my manual search method was unreasonably tedious. It should have been easier to find cheap flights. I dreamed of finding a simple chart that would help me compare all of the prices at a glance.

During my travels over the next month, I stayed in hostels and with friends. Still dogged by my new obsession, I asked other travelers about how they booked their flights, and how much they paid. Lucky for me, this was a pretty normal thing to talk about in a hostel.

I talked with people from every populated continent, but none of them knew of a site that could show the cheapest flights from one region to another over a range of dates. The prices and layovers that some of my fellow travelers had endured seemed absurd compared to what I had paid. I realized I could help people travel more if I made a tool to search more broadly for the cheapest flights.

When I got back to the US, I designed a way to automate the tedious process I had used to book my own flights. I got a bare bones program running on my own computer, and then built a web app to display the results on a user friendly chart.

Example chart of prices

Now, that elusive chart exists. All the data is in one place, and everyone can easily find the cheapest direct flight to europe and decide if the savings are worth the detour.

tour-detour on a bus