Gone are the days when you could book return tickets to Scandinavia for £20, to Northern Africa for £50, or a 4 day weekend in a Manhattan hotel including flights for £250. It has now become more difficult to get good deals for your air travel. We tried to write down a few of the things we found useful in getting your plane tickets for a fair price. Much of this also goes for packages and hotel stays.
We’ll readily admit that we’ve not invented all of these tips. They’re not the result of months of research, even though we do like to think that our years of travelling have given us a better understanding of how to save money when booking air travel. Most of this advice has been around for some time and this post boroughs heavily from other bloggers who have come up with similar posts, in particular thriftynomads.com and www.nomadicmatt.com, whose guidance we found extremely useful.
- Follow your airlines
Follow the half dozen or dozen airlines you travel most with through mailing lists/newsletters, on their website and on social networks. This goes for all airlines, but is particularly useful for budget airlines, who often advertise amazing deals exclusively through these channels. Ryanair is particularly big on this. If you don’t want your email inbox to be filling up with these mails, then just create a new email account for this sole purpose, but remember to check at least once per day, as specials don’t last long, sometimes only minutes or hours.
- Fly budget airlines
We’ve all suffered at the hands of Ryanair, easyjet, and other budget airlines, and it’s true, some aspects are highly annoying. However, many expensive airlines are also not that great and if it saves you a lot of money, there is no reason not to choose a budget airline. Different from how it was a few years ago, many budget airlines are now serving far-away long-haul destinations, you can travel around the world using only budget airlines if you like.
Norwegian offers flights to Bangkok (from Oslo) for £131 one-way (March 2017), for example. Wow Air offers London to Reykjavik for under £40, can’t complain about that. There are many others out there.
Be sure you check out where exactly the airport is located and make certain that your luggage doesn’t exceed the permitted levels in terms of number of items, size, or weight. Put heavy items in the hand luggage. Some of these airlines, including Ryanair will charge you a 3-figure sum if you’re just a few kg’s over the limit.
Make sure you understand and include all the fees and additional costs before comparing the budget airline ticket price with regular prices. Often these fees and costs add up to large amounts.
Read the fine print. For example, many budget airlines charge you extra if you haven’t printed out your ticket. Some close their check-in counter an hour before departure and won’t let you plead with them, even if they’re still sitting there and chatting the day away (I once missed a £250 Ryanair flight to Tenerife because of this; I had arrived 58 minutes before departure because of a faulty Stansted Express train).
- Consider indirect flights
Indirect flights with a stopover are often significantly cheaper than non-stop direct flights, especially those with layovers of less than 24 hours.
- Fly off-season and avoid bank holidays
I keep telling my wife that it’s fine to do bank holiday weekends in the local Cotswolds or as a weekend staycation in London, rather than paying tons for an overpriced bank holiday overseas trip, but we do end up doing just that every single time, as far back as I can remember. If you’d instead do your trips during quieter times, you can easily save hundreds of pounds over time. Most people, including us, also find it more pleasant if there is no rush of tourists everywhere, so it’s a clear win-win.
Remember that seasons and holidays/special weekends vary from country to country, sometimes within a country from region to region (in Germany each of the 16 states have wildly different school vacations and even some different bank holidays, due to some states being Catholic and others Protestant).
The weekends immediately before and after a bank holiday weekend or school holidays often have the best deals, because hardly anyone travels for leisure on these days, reducing demand.
- Consider an Airpass or a Round-the-World Ticket
If you’re planning on doing a lot of travelling, then an Airpass or a round-the-world ticket might give you the best value. Many national airlines offer Airpasses for tourists at a reduced rate.
- Book at the right time and for the right times
The prices vary depending on what day of the week you book, and what days of the week the flights are for. Often, it’s cheapest to book on a Tuesday afternoon (mainly because many airlines announce deals on Monday evenings and other providers scramble to match or beat their offers by Tuesday lunch time) and cheaper to leave on a weekday, especially Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but it’s best to check the prices and then decide what’s best for your specific destination. Mondays and Fridays are nearly always the most expensive days, because of the demand by business travellers. With some business travellers now flying out on Sunday night rather than Monday morning, Sunday night flights are sometimes just as expensive.
Different days will be best for different destinations, for example a pure holiday destination will differ from a major city with lots of business travellers.
Flights departing between 8pm and 7am are usually cheaper, because many people find these travel times inconvenient leading to lower demand.
Most airlines and travel websites release their special deals in the early morning, which is the best time to get your hands on a discount offer.
We found that over the whole year it’s best to book in January, not sure why, presumably because everyone’s skint from the X-mas holidays and most people are not looking to spend big on travel, which lowers demand. We’ve found deals that seemed to be two thirds off the usual price during January, typically the more expensive the package or flight, the higher the percentage you save.
According to SkyScanner for the UK it is best to book short-haul flights at least 7 weeks before departure, and at least 18 weeks for long-haul flights, the savings are not as dramatic as many people believe, but range from a few percent to 33%, averaging at around 15%. For the flights that we’ve booked in the past our feeling was that prices increased significantly more over time, often doubling in price, not sure how representative this is. Nearly all airlines allow you to book tickets (directly or indirectly) at least five and a half months in advance.
7. Take a day or two to explore the stopover destinations
Sometimes booking a flight with a stopover location as two separate legs with a day or more in between is cheaper than booking the connecting flight in one go, especially where each leg is with a different airline and one leg is with a budget airline (we find that usually it is the opposite way around, though). We regularly do this, in order to add a further travel destination or two to our trips. Even where booking the two legs separately is more expensive than booking the connecting flight in one go, it is nearly always a lot cheaper than booking a completely separate trip to the stopover location for a different time.
We’re currently planning our next trip to Sydney, which is where my wife comes from, and looking into doing one to two-day stopovers in Dubai and Bangkok, which looks to be £350 more expensive than just booking a standard round trip LHR-SYD, but a lot cheaper than booking three separate trips, including one to Dubai and one to Bangkok, which is likely to cost in excess of £450 per trip, so we save at least £550 (£450+£450-£350) per person, or £1,100 for the two of us, and do not have to bother with two additional tiresome round trips.
- Search for one person and one leg only, and be as flexible as you can be
We always check single flights only, even where we intend to book round trips, after all we just want to determine which flights are cheapest and no need to complicate this process by checking combinations for outgoing and return legs.
When starting out, don’t select a particular day or time, just click on ‘whole month’, so you can see the best options available (just sort the results by price), or even search for ‘cheapest month’ if you’re that flexible, then work your way down to a particular set of dates and times.
- Consider refundable tickets
Sometimes it’s possible to get refundable tickets for just a small or no premium, in which case you can book whatever’s cheapest now, then cancel later in favour of another ticket if that will save you money.
- The cheapest flights aren’t always the best value
If you end up paying a £20 booking fee and £85 for your luggage, there is no free food or WiFi, or the flight times do not suit your local connections at your destination, then the best value might well be to pay a few pounds extra for a better flight. We always prefer to leave on a Friday night for a weekend trip, so that Saturday already feels like a proper holiday, without the hassle of checking in, and we’re happy to pay extra for this. Leaving earlier on Friday would often be cheaper, but that would mean that we’d have to take half a day or a day off, so it’s usually not worth it for us.
Unless you’re a young budget backpacker, you’ll typically not want to invest 5 hours of your life just to save £25 off an airfare, it’s just not worth it. We usually spend about two hours per round trip for the two of us, up to five hours when we’re visiting family in Australia. Similarly, be realistic. If you find a deal during your first search that is 20% or more below the next best deal and for a price you’re comfortable with, then go for it and don’t look back. Chances are you won’t find anything better than this. Don’t second-guess yourself. Buy your ticket and be done with it (see exceptions in this post, such as for getting a refund if price goes down).
- Set up Price Alerts
We have never used price alerts, which you can set up on SkyScanner and most other search engines and which will send you an email notification if the price for a specific flight has gone down, and it seems that most travel bloggers do not use these alerts either. Possibly this is because they’re checking the prices very regularly anyway before booking anything. Also, it would appear that there is a clash between surfing anonymously and setting up alerts.
- Never search for tickets for more than one person at a time
Often, airlines have different price categories and airfare classes and the tickets in each of those categories are limited in numbers, so let’s say there is one cheap flight in one category and one cheap flight in another category. You book separately and each of you gets a good deal. If you look for two tickets at the same time, then the search engine or airline website is going to show you only the standard rate, typically for two (or more) adjacent seats. Often this might just help one of you, not all/both of you, but it’s still money saved nonetheless.
- Collect and use airmiles and similar schemes
My wife loves her Avios points (airmiles) and all our credit cards (including mine, because I’m being told what to do and then do it) are accruing airmiles. We collect airmiles while we pay off our mortgage, buy milk at the corner shop, or top up our oyster cards. We do everything on credit card, in order to take advantage of the airmiles. Some years in the past we saw ourselves forced to book more trips in order to get rid of our airmiles, now no more (which is good, as this was a bit of an inconvenience, now we’re really just saving money on flights we would have booked anyway). I occasionally work abroad and commute internationally over the weekends, so there is usually no shortage of flights to book. You can transfer your Clubcard and Nectar points into Avios too.
Some of the airmiles set-ups have complex rules with different tiers (you get x amount of points for each pound spent for flights, and x times 2 points for money spent at restaurants, etc.), and they do change their rules frequently, so make sure you’re always aware of the small-print in order not to miss out on it.
Usually the airlines whose frequent flyer programme you’re on have further programmes, such as dining rewards programmes, for which you need to sign up separately.
If you have close family who fly only very rarely, so don’t need their points, it might be worth asking them if they’d be ok transferring their points to you. You can always transfer the points back to them, if needed. Similarly, you might offer to do purchases (for example of your relatives’ flights) through your airmiles credit card and they can refund you for the expense.
- Book either as far ahead as possible or book last minute
Last minute can work in exceptional circumstances, if really booked just a day or a few days ahead on websites that focus on last minute trips, and if you’re very flexible with regards to what type of trip to what destination you’re looking for. For everything else, the rule is always: book as far ahead as possible, prices are bound to go up, day by day. Booking early saves so much money that in many cases we’d advise you against waiting for any sales, just book now, unless you’re flexible with regards to destination and/or dates/times. The last two weeks before departure are nearly always very expensive, often more than twice the early bird price.
SkyScanner recommend www.holidaypirates.com for last minute flights and advise to also look for cancellation holidays, where tour operators give a way whole packages at a steep discount when the initial customers are not able to go on that trip. We’ve not done any last minute travel in years.
- Choose the right currency
Often it is cheaper to book in currencies other than Sterling. Make sure you pay using a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign-currency fees or screw you over with the exchange rate.
- Travel agents can save you money
The business of a travel agency always involves buying flights way cheaper than the retail prices, then selling them with a healthy margin on top to retail clients. Often, the prices are still significantly cheaper than if bought directly, despite the margin, so it’s worth giving it a shot, especially for combinations of flights such as round-the-world tickets and for very expensive long-haul flights, in which cases you’ll also often find their professional advice and assistance useful. We usually give this one a miss, out of sheer laziness, but it has worked for us in the past, for example for our trip to the Maldives, where our agent got us a deal 50% below anything comparable we saw on the internet.
Do your own research first, then ask the agent if they can undercut the offer you found.
- Errors are human, and cool
Sometimes airlines post faulty prices, for example because of technical glitches or human error, and this might be your big chance to save big bucks.
Best way to spot these is checking regularly on Skyscanner and using tools like Secret Flying and AirFare Watchdog.
- Don’t use any crappy flight search engines
…but do always use several of them. Each differs from the next one, and you’ll never get the exact same prices in different engines. Some don’t list budget carriers, other no websites of carriers whose main landing page is in a language different from English, others no small airlines. Some hide budget and smaller airlines at the bottom or their results lists. Some don’t include certain geographic regions or only do so marginally. U.S. sites might block providers from unpopular countries.
It is always better to use meta-search engines rather than regular search engines. Our preferred choice is Skyscanner. JetRadar and Momondo are good in that they include budget airlines, Google Flights is an ok search tool to find all flights available, and AirFare Watchdog is sublime at finding sales (and error fares as mentioned). Cheapoair is quite ok for the UK too. We also use Kayak.
In addition to the above, you should always search the relevant budget airlines directly on their respective web pages. If not sure which budget airlines are relevant, a quick Google search will provide the answers and you can also check the relevant airport’s webpages for airlines connecting to them.
None of the search engines (or better: meta search engines) give you the best results all the time.
- Don’t forget about local airlines
Often, especially in developing countries off the beaten track, the best offers for short-haul flights are with local carriers who are typically not listed on any search engines. Do a quick google search and then check on the local carrier’s website itself for their prices, including special offers. Do some research about the safety record and reputation, age of their planes, before making your decision, though. South Congo Crashdown Carriers might have an unbeatable price, but your safety is worth the extra twenty bucks.
- Look into bundling hotel, flights, car rental
Usually you can save a lot of money by bundling your hotel, flights, and car rental. We found that we often get our hotel stays for next to nothing. Recently, when buying flights and hotel for Bucharest through Expedia, the cost of our 4**** hotel was less than £15 per night, can’t go wrong with that. On the other hand, don’t blindly go for bundles, compare the prices bundled vs. unbundled before booking anything.
- Use your student card or other discount card, if you have one
I saved thousands of pounds on flights through my student card, a long time ago, including being able to buy a round-the-world trip ticket for back then the equivalent of £400 through STA Travel, who are still around and focus on student travel. Flight Centre is another name. It also helps if you’re under 26.
- Search anonymously
Always delete your browser history and cookies.
Airlines and travel websites track your behaviour and try to scare you into booking right now, by increasing the indicated prices, if they see you searching for the same route on more than one occasion. They are using cookies (and other devices) to do so. This is why you should always research flights anonymously, in incognito or private browsing mode to see the lowest prices.
In Firefox or Internet Explorer, you’ll have to press Command (or “Control” if using a PC), Shift, “P”. This will open a new browser window where your information is not tracked leading to the prices not being raised as you search. Should you be using an older version of OS X, then open Safari, click “Safari” in the menu bar, and activate “Private Browsing”.
In Google Chrome or Safari, incognito is enabled by hitting Command (or “Control” if using PC), Shift, and “N”. What will happen is that your cookies are reset each time you re-opening an incognito window. This means that if you want to keep your previous searches from being “remembered”, potentially inflating costs, then close all your incognito windows, open a new one, and then perform your flight search again.
There are other, more sophisticated and effective ways of dealing with this aspect, including the use of software that allows you to pretend to be located in a country where the average income is low, leading airlines to offer cut-down prices. We’re currently looking into this, but have not completed our research yet. Several fellow bloggers recommended this approach to us. Say, you’re looking to book a flight from Heathrow to Bucharest, why not try if it’s cheaper to book the flight, pretending to be a Romanian citizen in Romania. We also regularly find that simply logging into the local German page of an airline gives us better prices than booking the same flight through the UK page of that airline.
- Book a connecting flight and hop off at the stopover location
Often connecting flights that have a stopover at your destination are cheaper than direct flights to your destination. As long as you only have carry-on luggage, you might consider just booking the connecting flight and hopping off half way there at the stopover.
However, before doing so, make sure that you understand the risks, and that you’ll be allowed off the plane. There is a risk that the airline will detect your behaviour and take measures against you for this breach of their rules, so best to google first if anyone has done before what you attempt to do, with the particular airline in question. It might not be worth the risk, just to save a few pounds. We’ve never done this and do not intend to.
24. Find the cheapest destination to fly to
For years we’ve been wondering why no one seemed to offer this service, then Kayak Explore came along and did just that. You can do open searches that are only limited by a departure airport you enter and a time period, such as a certain month. The tool will then give you some ballpark figures about the prices of return flights to different countries, which you can then research closer separately. This can save a lot of money where you’re open to just flying to any beautiful destination, and it can also save you money where you know you want to do the Visegrad states or the Baltic republics, but you’re completely open as to which airport in that region to fly into and out of. You can then book local cheap budget flights or train travel to travel around the respective group of countries. Google Flights also has a similar tool.
Most of all, relax. Don’t stress with the planning and booking of your holidays. No one gets the best deal all the time and we all have day jobs and a busy personal life to attend to. Booking your travels should be fun, not a chore. Enjoy!