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Hacking Flights Via Currencies (An Advanced Travel Hacking Guide)


Hacking flights via currencies and exchange rates is a travel hacking technique of using different currencies to buy a plane ticket for a cheaper price.

Updated: 2019-04-21.

Knowing how to hack flights means knowing how to hack currency.

This post sort of builds on the basics laid out in the article Travel Hacking Airfare. There, we looked at the “reverse check,’ which is looking up one-way tickets each from the origin’s website (like a one-way from Shanghai to New York on China Eastern Air’s Chinese site, as opposed to their North American site).

Using this method may have gotten you to dip your toes in the subject of buying tickets in a foreign currency, so let’s wade in further.

To hack flight fares via currencies other than your own, you need to get an updated currency conversion rate. The best way is to simply Google it, like this: 100 USD in MXN. If you don’t know the currencies’ three-digit abbreviation, Google will understand typing in the full name.

Now, say I’m looking for a flight from NYC (“NYC” is the IATA code encompassing all NYC metro area airports, such as JFK, LGA, EWR, etc.) to PVG (Shanghai Pudong Airport, China). The first thing we need to do is establish a baseline, or a ceiling, which is the price to judge all other prices by. I use Kayak.com for this, as they aggregate over 200 other websites’ prices into their own.

Sample Cities & Dates: NYC – PVG, 5/31/12 – 6/13/12, all nonstop. A search of Kayak on these dates turn up this flight, on China Eastern Air:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 1

As you can see, the cheapest that Kayak came up with was this nonstop flight, leaving JFK on 5/31 and arriving in PVG on 6/1, because of the time difference. This is an average price, as of 2012, for a peak travel period between New York and Shanghai, but let’s see if we can do better. Let’s try the ‘One-Way Hack’, to see if buying two one-ways will work out to be less expensive than buying both at the same time, though this is rare:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 2
Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 3

Well, that didn’t help us at all; the fares for the exact same flights purchased separately total almost $1400 in all.

So, what do we do now?

First, notice one thing. Do you see the little blue links on the bottom of each Kayak quote? These links show you the three cheapest places Kayak found to book the tickets. It seems China Eastern Airlines’ homepage is the cheapest place to book that ticket.

However, one thing that Kayak doesn’t do is tell you that this is the North American version of China Eastern Airlines’ website. This is the site which is formatted for the best display in North America, but actually is a completely different entity than their real homepage. As a Chinese airline, it makes sense their real homepage (www.ceair.com) will cater first to the Chinese population and Mandarin language speakers.

That’s why they have a separate webpage for their English-speaking customers. So, let’s see if this website offers a different price for our trip to Shanghai.

First, I check the one-way fares, just to save the best for last. According to Kayak’s search of the North American version of their site, the one-ways are significantly more expensive purchased separately than just springing for a roundtrip fare. Here’s what I got:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 4

That was the exact same flight, leaving JFK at 4:35pm and landing in PVG at 7:30pm on 6/1/12. The price listed is in Chinese Yuan Renminbi, which we’ll get to in a second. This next photo is the return flight, also the exact same flight, leaving PVG on 6/13 at 11:30am and arriving at JFK at 2:15pm:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 5

Yes, I see that some of the days surrounding it are cheaper, but that falls under another lesson, at another time. For now, let’s stick with this example. And yes, again, I know I haven’t searched the roundtrip fare from China Eastern Airlines, but I want to convert these two one-ways first. OK, so now we have our prices, albeit in CNY (Chinese Yuan Renminbi). Heading over to XE.com, and after plugging in these two numbers, I get this:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 6

So, these two one-ways, purchased separately, add up to $1023, which is cheaper than Kayak’s $1038 price. Great, we have a $15 savings, but actually it would be better for you to book this at Orbitz if this was the end of the line, as currency exchange fees may total about $20, depending on your bank or credit card issuer. Luckily for us this isn’t the end of the line, and we can plug in that roundtrip query on ceair.com:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 7

We can already see where this is headed. Again, just to confirm, these are the exact same flight numbers, times, and dates we’ve been using all along. So, what is the conversion of 3,860 CNY?

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 8

“Holy Shit!” you say? I still say this every time I do it, because it doesn’t seem possible. Yet there it is. Now, let me swipe the rug out from under your feet. This fare, as opposed to Kayak’s fare, is listed without taxes and fees. Here is the price from Ceair.com, after the fees:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 9

Which converts to this:

Hacking Flights Via Currencies example 10

So, maybe it’s a mere $30 savings, give or take, but it’s still a strategy to always try. Every time you look is a completely different scenario, and there is no telling how great a deal (or not) you may come up with.

Keep in mind that whether you book on the North American version of this site or the Chinese homepage, there will be an exchange fee either way; you are paying a company that does business in China, therefore your currency will need to convert to CNY prior, and the currency exchange fees charged by your bank will be incurred, whichever site you use.

Some of you may ask why I showed you the $611 fare to begin with, if it was without taxes. Well, because there is a way to cut out the extra $400 that the airline wants to charge for taxes and fees, but it is quite a bit more complicated. It is legal, and works in many countries, and involves requesting that money back as a refund, since you paid it to a government that is not your own. You must do this as you exit the country; hopefully I can talk about this some more in the future.

For now, just take the extra 10 minutes and open a few extra browser windows, and who knows? It could save you hundreds of dollars on your next international flight!

Hope you enjoyed this article! For more, check out our full travel hacking strategy guide. If there was a word or phrase here you didn’t understand, have a glance at our travel terminology glossary to look it up. Thanks for reading!

Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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