A winter getaway to Oaxaca, a first-time visit to France, a family reunion in Philadelphia, and an autumn drive through New England—the trips that Scott Keyes had planned for 2020 were quickly put on pause by mid-March when border closures, travel restrictions, and safety concerns brought air travel to a standstill. But that hasn’t stopped him from planning future trips; he’s got flights booked for a trip to Spain in March 2021.
“I’m excited about this trip, looking forward to it and dreaming about the places I’m going to go and things I’m going to do and what I’m going to eat,” Keyes told TripSavvy. “Daydreams are theoretical, but the moment that it becomes real and tangible, and when you can draw joy from it is the moment you have your flights booked. Before that, it’s just an idea, and after that, it’s a reality.”
In 2013, Keyes booked a flight from New York to Milan for $130 round-trip. That incredible find was the unofficial start to his business that would launch just two years later, a flight deals newsletter service called Scott’s Cheap Flights, which sends daily emails to subscribers notifying them of international flight deals that are not just affordable, but downright cheap. Some past examples include $346 from Denver to Rome, $550 from New York City to Sydney, and $175 from Pittsburgh to Tokyo. The service today has about 2 million members, and since its founding, it has transported millions of people around the world by breaking down the financial barrier to travel.
However, these days, Keyes and likely most of his 2 million subscribers have had to rethink travel and put their plans on pause, but Keyes remains optimistic and encourages people to still think ahead to the places they want to go.
“One of the things I’m trying to advise people is that it can be a real source of happiness to be still making travel plans, even knowing that you’re making them in pencil rather than pen.”
That sentiment has driven the mission of Scott’s Cheap Flights throughout the pandemic—that travel is not only a pastime or a luxury but also a major source of happiness, and we can still keep that spirit alive by looking ahead to where we want to go when it’s safe to do so.
“We love to be able to explore and see things, we are curious, and [travel is] an important and integral part of human flourishing. That’s one of the things that I think has been devastating for our mental health and psyches during this pandemic is having that taken away from us,” he added.
The data backs him up. According to an Amex Trendex report released this summer, almost 50 percent of survey participants said that the current lack of travel is causing stress and anxiety. And his solution is on point as well, seeing as studies show that planning a trip can provide just as much happiness as actually taking the trip.
Still, the challenge remained: how do you keep wanderlust alive in a time when moving around the globe is significantly limited due to imposed border closures as well as widespread uncertainty about health and safety? The solution, according to Scott’s Cheap Flights, was to remove the stress and uncertainty from the planning process for travelers, leaving them only with anticipation and excitement of a future trip.
The Turn Toward Domestic Travel
Scott’s Cheap Flights was officially born in a coffee shop in Denver in August 2015. By September 2015, Keyes had received his first email from a subscriber asking if he had a domestic flight deals service. The answer at the time was no—despite probably hundreds more requests for domestic deals following that initial one, Keyes still didn’t feel it was a valuable enough service. Compared to his international deals, which offer an average savings of $550 per ticket, domestic fares typically aren’t that expensive, meaning savings wouldn’t add up as much. “I really had this emphasis in my mind that I wanted Scott’s Cheap Flights to just be those incredible have-to-run-home-and-book-this-flight-because-it’s-so-good types of fares,” he said.
Fast forward five years later, in July 2020, a domestic fares newsletter launched with deals available to 35 airports. (Now, it’s up to 168.) Two main factors were behind this decision. First, aligning with Scott’s Cheap Flights’ core belief that affordable travel is key to happiness, Keyes realized that any amount of savings could improve your trip. “One of the most arduous and taxing things about booking a flight is feeling that you overpaid for it. It’s just a mental drain, and you don't enjoy your trip as much,” he says. (Now, domestic deals curated by Scott’s Cheap Flights save members an average of $200 per ticket.)
And the second, seemingly obvious contributor to the launch was the global pandemic. Even though this domestic deals newsletter had been in the works since late 2019, slated for a release in late 2020, they sped up the timing, recognizing that travel was becoming largely domestic for more people. “We need to make sure we are providing a valuable service for customers, and if we are only sending international and long-haul flights to places people don't want to go right now, we are not doing our members a good service,” Keyes said. Plus, as Keyes notes, nearly a million people are traveling every day, according to TSA data. Even though he hopes they are doing so responsibly by wearing masks and keeping a distance from others, he recognizes that people still have a need or desire to travel, and he wants to help them make those travel plans as seamlessly as possible and give them something to look forward to.
The same goes for the international deals newsletter. While they’re still being sent out to subscribers, they’re much more selective; the newsletters now only include fares for flights that are at least four months out and ones for which the airline is offering to waive change fees, provide refunds, or offer some form of flexibility so that you can plan ahead but also know that you’re not going to be out the money if the trip doesn’t happen.
“We don’t play favorites with any of the airlines or any of the booking sites,” said Keyes. “We just want to make sure you know about the best deals.”
Practical Knowledge in a Pandemic
As a subscriber to Scott’s Cheap Flights, you’re accustomed to getting one or multiple daily emails from the service. But one that landed in inboxes on March 13, the day the COVID-19 disease was declared a pandemic, was different—it didn’t have any deals. Instead, a note from Keyes himself, the email outlined the steps Scott’s Cheap Flights would be taking to help its subscriber base—namely, becoming more selective about international deals, and releasing a coronavirus resources page that’s continually updated with frequently asked airfare questions, predictions about the future of travel, and other helpful information to equip travelers with helpful advice as they make or change travel plans.
That March 13 email was soon followed by recurring weekly newsletters offering even more guidance to stressed and weary subscribers at home. Subject lines read, “You deserve a refund from the airline,” explaining passenger rights as dictated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and “Book in pencil, not in pen,” offering practical tips for planning flexible travel. Every Monday, subscribers get a dose of Scotts Cheap Flights travel expertise sent to their inboxes.
“I think there’s a huge hunger for more information, more knowledge, and more education about airfare and flights,” said Keyes. “We wanted to focus on the hyper-practical for travelers and how they should be thinking about trips and plans and giving tips in a way that's actually going to be actionable for members.”
Newsletters were one result of that goal. Another was scheduling more face time with subscribers, including Facebook Lives, Instagram Lives, and answering questions on Twitter. Sometimes, he presents on a topic, but most times, the sessions were casual Q&As and informal discussions. Keyes says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with travelers feeling grateful and relieved once equipped with the necessary knowledge to make good decisions.
“The thing I love so much is hearing from members when they have a success story—usually when they got a cheap flight that they didn't expect to be able to pay that little for. And certainly, at the beginning of the pandemic, those testimonials shifted toward gratitude to get the refund that they were owed, but didn't think they would actually be able to get,” he said.
Stu Neft, a Pittsburgh-based traveler, has been a member since 2016 but has found Scott’s Cheap Flights particularly helpful throughout the past several months. He’s got three future trips planned, two to Mexico, one to Tokyo—the latter for $175 round-trip. Neft also has benefited from the social chats with Keyes.
“He helped me out with how to go about getting refunded for flights on some European discount airlines when they were only offering me flight vouchers,” added Neft. One final perk he’s grateful for? The Travel Community Facebook group comprising 100,000 Scott’s Cheap Flights subscribers, which he describes as “having access to 100,000 travel agents.”
As the world changed, travel followed suit, and Scott’s Cheap Flights needed to adapt. However, it’s gone above and beyond. It’s evolved to become a primary resource for travelers, even as travel has slowed down, empowering them with practical information while simultaneously stoking wanderlust, so that when things return to normal, we can all get back out and explore beyond our own border again; and Keyes still has his flight booked to Spain. But until that point, Portland-based Keyes has been doing what many of us are—exploring his home state, road tripping along the Oregon Coast, and falling in love with our local landscapes again.
Main Photo: Courtesy of Scott's Cheap Flights; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang