Guide to: Cheap Flights

Photo credit: Sean Glossop

Guide to: Cheap Flights

If you wait until the last minute, flights can get really expensive, but plan ahead and book smart and you can really reap the rewards. Regardless of whether you’re flexible or looking for specific dates and destinations, these helpful hints will help you slash the cost of taking to the skies.

Check comparison sites to cut costs if you know when and where you’re going

If you already have an itinerary, don’t go direct to an airline; use a comparison site get all the info you need, but search across a few as different sites search different companies.

The best comparison sites enable you to search by class and include brokers, charters and budget airlines giving you a full range of options to choose from.

Skyscanner lets you know the cheapest time to fly and gives you options spread over a month so you can really see when the best time to fly is. It tends to favour the budget airlines, covering over 1200 airlines and travel sites all together.

One of the best options is Kayak. Not only does it allow you to search through thousands of flights with ease, but you can filter by credit card fees, baggage inclusion and a whole host of other useful things so you really get an accurate total cost when looking for the cheapest option.

Momondo is a personal favourite of mine, giving you the cheapest and most expensive dates around your flight, but also the cheapest airport to fly from/to. One slight snag with them though, they don’t do it for all destinations, just the big ones like New York, Dubai, Sydney and Cape Town.

To make sure you’re getting the best price, it’s always worth checking Google Flights as a first stop to give you a base line. Alternatively, you can check flights on Fly.com, Cheapflights or Dohop. If you’re looking for hotels too, check Expedia or Booking.com.

Online travel agents can get you huge discounts if you’re booking a hotel too

Online travel agents like Expedia, Ebookers, Opodo, Netflights and Lastminute.com allow you to book your flights, hotels and car hire in one place, often giving extra discounts if you combine more than one. You also get extra protection for combined bookings, which are worth considering, but it’s not always cheaper. Try using the sites mentioned to find your flights and then check our Cheap Hotels guide to find the best price for your accommodation but remember to way up the balance between the extra protection vs. the extra cost.

If you book flights and accommodation with the same broker on the same day, you automatically get ATOL protection even if it’s not a formal package deal. So, if your tour operator goes bust before you depart, your money is protected, and if you’re already abroad, it will get you home. You can find out more about ATOL and other protection in our Holiday Rights guide.

Timing is crucial when booking flights

Unlike Package Holidays, flights should generally be booked early. Businesses pay top whack at the last minute causing prices to soar, so book as early as you can unless you’re holding out for a particular airline or coming sale.

The latest research from Momondo found it’s typically best to book 56 days in advance when the booking is typically 28% cheaper (on average) than booking on the day. The last ‘cheap booking date’ varies by destination though, so use their Flight Insight page to check the data well in advance.

Bear in mind that their ‘perfect booking date’ is approximate, they wont take any responsibility if you wait and the price ends up higher. Always have a budget in mind, and if in doubt, book early.

Momondo also worked out that Tuesdays and after 6pm are typically the cheapest times to fly, while Saturdays are the most expensive so if you can be flexible, check prices on different days and different times so see if you can bring the cost down even further.

easyJet’s ‘Flexifares’ can really beat down the price

A sneaky way to grab a cheaper flight is to use easyJet’s Flexifares, which let you switch dates within a couple of weeks of your departure date without paying any more. It works all year round, but is particularly useful when prices rise during the school holidays.

Basically, you can book the same flights at a less busy time when they’re cheaper, then switch to the dates you originally wanted without paying anything extra. It’s not the most straightforward trick, but it could save you hundreds of pounds if it works. Bare in mind there obviously needs to be availability on the flights you’re switching to.

To improve your chances of success follow these steps:

  • Make sure that at least 20 seats are available for the flights you really want. To do this, get a quote for 20 seats on that flight. If they give you one, the seats must be available. Obviously there’s always a chance they may get bought out in the meantime and you’d be left with flights for the wrong date, but 20 seats is a fairly good bet (go for more if you want to be more cautious), you typically have to wait 24 hours before you can change your flights – they don’t want people using this trick!
  • Book a cheaper Flexifare on a different date. Make sure you don’t; book it for more than a week before or three weeks after the date you really want to fly. As a bonus, Flexifare tickets include ‘speedy boarding’ and one piece of hold luggage but they’re not available on all routes, so check your destination is included.
  • Watch, wait, cross you fingers and wait some more… This is the nervy bit, you have to wait at least 24 hours before you switch dates and of course there needs to space on the flight. You can change your dates as often as you like, but if the availability isn’t there, you won’t be able to switch so consider the risks and have a backup plan.
  • Switch you flights as soon as possible. As soon as the timer hits the 24-hour mark, check the dates you’re after are still available and switch those flights! Hopefully you’ve saved a small fortune! Good luck.

Charter flights might be cheaper than their budget airline equivalents

Charter flights are run by package holiday companies, so typically cover traditional destinations. If that’s where you’re headed, you could grab a great bargain if they’re selling of unsold seats.

To get the cheapest charter flights, compare via FlightsDirect. They have good charter flight prices and as an added bonus, as a travel agent, they include ABTA/ATOL cover.

Check comparison sites like Kayak, Momondo and Skyscanner but also have a look at Expedia or Booking.com.

Go direct to the charter airlines or travel agents and check their top last-minute charter flight offers. You could try Thomas Cook, FirstChoice or Thomson Holidays for this (all include ABTA/ATOL cover), but smaller, niche travel agents will often be able to beat them on price.

If there isn’t a charter flight available, or the prices don’t stack up, consider booking a package but not staying. These don’t always work, but sometimes you’ll find dirt-cheap packages (particularly to less popular hotels) for less than the price of an independent flight. Check out our Cheap Package Holidays guide.

A package holiday could be the cheaper option

There are loads of options for DIY city breaks and flights, but if you’re heading off for 7, 10 or 14 days to a popular destination, a package holiday, where everything’s rolled into one, could be the cheapest option. Most package tour operators are ATOL protected so you have the added security of that, and why pay more to do it all separately if someone else can do it for you for less. Check out our Cheap Package Holidays guide for inspiration.

Specialist travel agents might have specific destination bargains

The UK is one of the most diverse countries on the planet and among its variety of different ethnic communities, niche travel agents often specialise in finding offers for relevant destinations.

You’ll find Caribbean specialist tour operators in Shepherds Bush, firms advertising cheap flights to Israel in the Jewish Chronicle and there’s also Chinese travel agent Omega with branches in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Milton Keynes and Edinburgh for example.

Stop over’s when flying long haul could save you hundreds of pounds

While a direct flight is obviously more convenient, if you’ve got some flexibility and bit more time, an indirect flight can really cut down the cost of your flights and often only adds a couple of hours to your overall journey time.

Check out what you could save using the big price comparison sites like Kayak, Momondo and Skyscanner. Hey all provide details of direct and indirect flights so comparing prices is really simple. See what you could save.

Partner airlines might sell you the same seat for less if codesharing

If you want to fly with a specific airline or know exactly which flight you want, codesharing could potentially get you the same seat for less. It’s when airlines team up to sell seats for one another, often at different prices.

Comparison sites typically show you if it’s a codeshare flight in the search results. You wont see that if you book direct so check out Kayak, Momondo or Skyscanner to see what we mean. If you’re booking a Virgin Atlantic flight, for example, you may find that through one of these comparison sites, it’s actually a Delta flight you’ll be on. This can be quite frustrating if you’re booking with a specific airline intentionally so do your research and if you are booking direct, ask.

Get extra protection by paying for your flights with a credit card

Regardless of how safe you consider an airline to be, always make sure you protect yourself as fully as possible. The simplest way to do this is to book using a credit card. If a transaction is more than £100, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act means the card company is also liable if something goes wrong so booking a flight with a credit card ensures you can at least get your money back from the card provider if the airline goes bust. Always pay your card off in full at the end of the month to avoid interest charges.

When it comes to package holidays, most operators provide you with ATOL and ABTA protection, so if the company goes bust or you experience other issues, your holiday is protected, but if you do it DIY, you’re not covered unless the provider is ATOL registered.

Its important to remember however that if you book through a travel agent, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act DOES NOT apply, since there’s no direct relationship with the supplier (though you may be covered by ABTA/ATOL if the agent is registered). However, if you book flights AND accommodation or car hire from the same company within a 24 hour period of each other, you’re automatically covered by ATOL, even if its not included as part of a formal package.

What about my travel insurance?

The policy you’ve taken out will determine the cover you receive. The biggest problem is the lack of cover for subsequent issues. If your policy covers scheduled flight failures for example, and the airline goes bust, you may be able to claim flight costs, but not money spent upfront for hotels or car hire.

To get around this, look for a policy that covers “indirect loss” (check the fine print). To ensure you have total cover, you could look for an increasingly common, though more expensive, “independent traveller” policy.

Travel Insurance! Never assume you won’t need it, it can cost as little as £9 per year.

Booking without travel insurance means that if you get ill or have to cancel, you won’t be covered, so make it a priority, but be aware that some of the cheaper airlines and travel websites slip expensive cover into the fine print when you make your booking. Always check and remove any unwanted policies before completing your booking (you can usually just un-check the relevant boxes to take it off). It’s often a rip-off and offers far less cover than a dedicated travel insurance provider.

Flexible on dates? Use clever price tracking tools to find the cheapest option for a given route.

If you’re flexible on dates and destination, there are useful online tools to help you find the cheapest options. Momondo is essentially a search engine that works like Skyscanner or Kayak, but its Flight Insight data can really help you work out exactly when and where to travel for the lowest price. It will tell you how far in advance to book a specific route (to the day) and which time of year is the cheapest. Obviously the results are based on averages, so act as a really useful guide – they can’t be taken as gospel. The general rule however, is if in doubt, book early.

Don’t assume that Momondo will always spit out the cheapest price, use price comparison sites to see if they can be beaten, and bare in mind that not all routes are covered by their Flight Insight data.

If you’re an AVIOS collector and absolutely set on taking British Airways flights, you can also check out the BA low price finder where prices and availability are updated every 24 hours (but be aware that availability at the stated prices may be limited and some flights may require connections at the cheapest price).

When to book with easyJet for the cheap-seats

The budget airline releases batches of seats four times a year. You can never guarantee that you’re getting the cheapest seats as soon as they release them as prices are based on demand and don’t account for price hikes and sales, but it is typically the cheapest time to book, particularly for peak dates like the school holidays.

Hidden extras! What’s the real cost of you airline tickets?

Luggage, seat reservations, credit/debit card fees, meals and check-in are just a few of the hidden extras you may have to pay for with a flight booking and it’s not always clear what’s included!

Check out the Civil Aviation Authority website airline charges information to see the extra fees charged by a diverse cross section of the big airlines. It includes baggage allowances, credit/debit card charges and even whether meals are included. You should always check these when making a booking, but its useful to understand the real price of your ticket when you’re doing your homework so you can really find the cheapest flights available.

Cheap airport lounge access lets you live like a VIP and avoid the chaos

Airport lounges are not exclusive to First Class flyers, access can be free with certain debit/credit cards, discounted through some frequent flyer schemes such as the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, or even worth paying full-price for to avoid the chaos at the airport.

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, one of our Travelscoop writers checked in to the Club Aspire Lounge at Heathrow for £24.99. A selection of drinks and pastries were included, plus free newspapers, wifi and plenty of space. Having spent the equivalent of about £20 on food and drink, the 2 hours of peace and quiet only came to £4.99 – a small price to pay to avoid the chaos of the terminal floor and that was without any kind of special offer.

Special passes can start from as little as £13.50 per person, so given how easy it would be to spend that on food and drink anyway, it can be great value – and the stress free environment – priceless!

“Budget” doesn’t always mean, “Bargain”!

Booking your flights with a budget airline can incur hefty extras including baggage, checking in or even the simple act of actually paying!

Our Budget Airlines guide has a number of useful tips to help you get around many of those irritating extras, from the best way to pay to packing to maximise space. You can also check out our EasyJet Tips and Ryanair Tricks guides if you’re flying with one of them.

Some of our useful tips can also apply to non-budget airlines too. If you’re flying with British Airways for example, you can save around £10 each way on short-haul flights with hand-luggage only compared with its cheapest single options with checked bags.

Arrange parking in advance if you’re planning to drive to the airport

Public transport usually comes out on top, but if you’re a large group or family, driving can sometimes be cheaper, but booking early is essential. If you wait until you arrive, you’re at the mercy of the airport – not ideal if you’re trying to cut costs! Even advanced bookings made on the day of travel could save you a few quid.

To make the best of online savings, book well in advance and hunt around. Just like with flights, comparison sites are the best first stop, but you could also try booking direct, perhaps combining parking with a hotel for the night before to alleviate some of the stress – particularly for an early morning flight. You’ll find our comprehensive Cheap Airport Parking guide useful here so check it out.

Renting a car at your destination? Book early for the best rates

Hiring a car for your holiday can be a real money saver when compared with the price of taxi transfers and getting about, but you’ll want to book early to find the best rates.

What could cost you as little as £5 or £6 per day booked months in advance, could double or even triple if you leave it to the last minute or even more if you wait until you arrive!

Our Cheap Car Hire guide has all the best tips for cutting costs on your car hire, but the gist of it is:

  • Extra drivers and sat-navs are all added extras that you don’t need, decide what you DO need, and get rid of the rest.
  • Use comparison sites like Skyscanner, TravelSupermarket, Carrentals and Kayak to get loads of quotes so you can pick the best price for you.
  • Look for extra discounts in the form of package deals, voucehrcodes and cashback or specialist travel-agents to see if you can get the price down even further.
  • Don’t pay extortionate excess charges when you get there, buy independent excess from specialist brokers in advance to keep the costs down without reducing the cover.

Airline ‘Loyalty Schemes’ could earn you free flights

People often make the mistake of thinking AVIOS is a frequent flyer scheme; it’s not! It’s a point’s scheme like Sainsburys Nectar or Tesco Clubcard. You can earn points when you shop or with some credit cards, the rewards are just travel focused.

With AVIOS however, you still have to pay taxes on your flights, so some of the gains can be swallowed up. Opt in to its Reward Saver scheme however, and you pay a fixed fee of £35 for most short-haul economy flights provided you’ve earned at least one point in the previous twelve months.

Check out our Avios guide for more ways to boost your points and see our Airline Credit Card guide for information on cards for earning points with British Airways' AVIOS or the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Remember, this information should not be construed as financial advice, and always pay credit cards off in full to avoid interest charges.

Direct flights are not always cheaper

The obvious search is to look from your departure location to you final destination, but if you have the time and flexibility, there can be big savings to be found by mixing things up.

Flying to the US from Oslo in Norway for example can be that much cheaper that a separate return from London to Oslo could save you money on your overall journey. Alternatively, it could be cheaper to fly out of one airport but fly back/from another. Just don’t forget where you left the car!

Spend some time planning where to sit

Seatguru is great for doing your homework when it comes to planning where to sit to maximise your experience. You can find out if seat 12F beats seat 19A for example. The airline seat maps aren’t always to scale so it’s worth doing you research so you don’t make a mistake and spend the flight with your knees around your ears. Another option is Skytrax, which includes rankings and reviews.

For information on punctuality for current flights there’s FlightStats or if you want to know what you’ll be eating on your flight try AirplaneFood.net.

Pick up you’re duty-free on the way home

Planning to hit the duty-free shop but don’t want to be weighed down on your flight, Duty-Free On Arrival can tell you which airports offer you duty free on arrival.

If you’re travelling within the EU, you could even do ‘Shop & Collect’, where you can make you’re purchases on the way out, but collect them when you get home after getting your luggage and passing through customs.

Don’t always assume duty-free is going to be cheaper. If you’re after something specific, use MegaShopBot to check prices online before you reach the airport so you can make a true comparison.

Use shuttle buses or car sharing to cut transfer costs

You can book transfers between airports and some resorts all over the world using Hoppa.com. It provides basic shuttle buses (shared) but also private transfers, depending on what’s best for you and your budget. Be aware that is does charge for credit/debit card transactions though.

Generally, feedback is good, but there have been reports of occasional missed pick-ups, so bare this in mind when deciding whether to use them. Alternatively, try the Uber pool sharing service.

Picture of John

Posted by John
on 25th July 2017