The comprehensive guide to finding & booking cheap flights
And by comprehensive, we mean comprehensive! We want to warn you from the start that this guide to finding and booking cheap flights contains a LOT of information. If you still want to learn some tricks for saving money on flight bookings, then please read on…
Travel can be expensive, but there’s good news! It doesn’t have to be if you follow certain tricks that we have learned over the years. If you have a passion for travel, you probably also have an interest in seeking out the best deals to allow you to get the most out of that passion. We’ve spent a great deal of time researching and testing ways to get the best airfares to enable us to travel as much as we do, and we’d like to pass on some of our tips for seeking out these cheaper fares, as well as other ways to save on flights.
As with finding deals for anything, it pays to shop around when looking for cheap flights. The main places online you can buy your flights are:
They set the prices for their tickets, and occasionally have flight sales. Find out when their sales are if you are set on using a particular airline. Even during sales, however, booking direct with an airline will not always get you the cheapest fares – but check anyway just in case.
Online Travel Agencies (OTA)
They are the middlemen who sell flight tickets for airlines, as well as lots of other travel products. Depending on the type of ticket sold, OTAs have some flexibility on pricing, and more often than not you will find the same flight cheaper on an OTA than on the airline’s website.
The OTAs we like to use for researching and booking flights are:
- Expedia (which also owns ebookers, Hotels.com, Travelocity and more)
- Netflights (generally these guys are better for long-haul flights)
These sites list all companies who sell airline tickets – OTAs, airlines and traditional offline travel agencies. You can search by flight class and include travel brokers, charter airlines and budget airlines. The metasearch sites we like to use are:
- Kayak – the feature we like is being able to filter options based on whether or not you want to check in bags so you can compare costs more accurately.
- Skyscanner – gives you fare options in a monthly view to find exactly when is cheapest to fly. It also has the option of just showing you when is the cheapest time of year to fly to your chosen destination. It has very good coverage of budget flights, searching over 1,200 airlines and travel sites in total.
- Momondo – we like Momondo as it shows you the cheapest and most expensive dates around your flight, as well as helpful insights such as the cheapest airport to fly from/into. It doesn’t do it for all destinations, but it has the biggies such as New York, Dubai, Sydney, Cape Town.
Some of the more niche airfare checking sites are:
- AirFare Watchdog – good at finding sale & error fares
- Kiwi.com – combines all airlines to create routes that are cheaper than booking a return with one airline
- AirWander – lets you extend layovers into stopovers enabling you to visit 2 destinations for the price of 1
- JetRadar – includes budget airlines, which many search engines don’t
It’s also worth checking Google Flights. It can be a useful starting point before going to some of the others as it has a cool map view, but in our experience doesn’t always offer the best prices.
In summary, OTAs or metasearch sites are the best bet for consistently lower fares. Our overall favourite for flight bookings is Skyscanner.
When searching for flights, it pays to be secretive. Some companies use your own search history data against you. Ed and I have often done exactly the same search for airfares at the same time using different devices and got completely different results. Some airlines, online travel agencies and metasearch sites change prices based on your previous searches, mostly increasing them, so we recommend using incognito or private browsing for your searches.
In Chrome and Safari, you can go incognito by clicking Control, Shift and “N”. For Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, click Control, Shift and “P”. This will open a new browser window where your device and information are not tracked, so you will not be shown inflated prices as a result of your previous searches. If you want to start with a clean slate for each flight search, close all your incognito windows, open a new one, and then start your flight search.
Be flexible on travel dates
If you can be flexible as to your travel dates – even just by a couple of days – you can potentially save yourselves thousands of pounds when booking flights for a family of four. Not that we want to be seen to promote this kind of behaviour, but we do sometimes fly a day or two before the end of a school term if it means saving hundreds of pounds. Luckily we have a supportive head teacher who recognises the benefits of family travel.
If you can be flexible, there is a website called www.triptivista.com that allows you to scan a whole month to get the cheapest option for a holiday length that you decide (e.g. I want to travel from London to Bangkok in October for 10 days). Add the origin, destination, number of days you want to take off, number of passengers and min and max date you want to scan flights for.
Again, if you can be flexible, Skyscanner offers a similar feature by giving you a whole month view, allowing you to pick the cheapest days to travel. Here’s how:
1. Go to the Skyscanner website
2. Enter your departure & arrival cities
3. Click on the departure date and it will allow you to enter either ‘specific date’ or ‘whole month’. You can go one step further by selecting ‘cheapest month’ if you are not dead set on travelling in a particular month.
4. Hit ‘Search flights’.
Kiwi.com and Google Flights work similarly to Skyscanner, plus they have map views as well, so you can see where the airport is. For tracking when and where is cheapest to fly, Hopper also offer price analysis and track fluctuations (i.e. when is best to fly).
Be flexible on departure or arrival airports
Being flexible with airports – and even cities – can unlock some significant discounts. If you’re planning a road trip from A-B, could you do it from B-A instead? Some of the larger cities have a number of nearby airports so you perform a search for those airports and compare prices.
Don’t assume that flight prices will be similar from them all. All airports have different overheads and taxes. We live close to Luton. It is undoubtedly more convenient for us to fly from there, but when we search for flights, sometimes we find it is much cheaper to fly from Stansted, Gatwick or Birmingham, even after taking into account the extra cost to get to these airports. You need to obviously weigh up the saving versus the inconvenience of landing somewhere and having to take a one hour taxi at 3 am versus a ten minute journey!
You can find out which airport is the cheapest for your flight when using Skyscanner by selecting the ‘add nearby airports’ option when you search and then un-tick the ones you don’t want to fly from.
This works for your arrival airport too – but be careful – if you’re not sure where the airport is and how to get to and from it, you could end up spending more in airport transport costs and therefore negating the saving you made on the fare.
Be flexible on departure cities
Airline pricing is a crazy world which we do not claim to fully understand! What we do know is that sometimes you can find returns much cheaper if your origin is not your local airport, particularly if your local airport is one of the main London ones (Gatwick or Heathrow). This is because the airport taxes are so high flying out of London. If you fly out of another hub like Paris, Rome, Amsterdam or Dublin, you will probably connect to the same flight you would have taken from London, and you will save hundreds of pounds.
This obviously involves a separate flight to get to that alternative airport which is not great for your carbon footprint, but with the savings you make on the flights, you can choose to offset your footprint by paying a little donation which goes towards planting trees or another similar green initiative.
We’ve saved significant amounts on a family trip from London to Vancouver by booking a return flight from Dublin to Vancouver, and a budget flight from London to Dublin. The flight from Dublin actually takes us back to London and we then take the same flight we would have taken if we had departed from London, but because we aren’t ‘departing’ from London, we save £1,600 for a family of 4! There are the connection times to consider leading to an overall longer journey– but for a saving that great, we think it is worth it.
This particular price discrepancy was down to the difference in airport tax between Dublin and London, but is along the lines of what’s known as “Hidden city” ticketing, related to booking flights with connections, and not taking the whole route. There’s now a website dedicated to showing hidden city tickets called Skiplagged – however the airlines don’t want this publicised and are taking action against the website. Some things to bear in mind you use this flight price trick:
- If your luggage is checked, it may go on to the final destination. For this reason it’s best to have carry-on luggage only or check with the airline before booking what the situation is. Sometimes you can ask at check-in to have the bags offloaded where you want, but we couldn’t guarantee this will work!
- You may not be allowed off the plane if the same plane is continuing onward to its final destination. Again, check with the airline.
- Airlines may detect that you did not take your connection. We are not sure what the consequences of this are, if there are any at all, especially since people miss flights all the time. You can’t miss the first leg of your flight as the next leg will be cancelled (ie we have to take the Dublin to London section of the flight, rather than boarding in London). On the way back, we will exit at London and not take the connecting flight on to Dublin. We will have hand luggage only. Wish us luck on cramming everything in!
Be point savvy
Have you ever taken a ‘free’ flight? When we say free, we mean excluding the taxes as you still have to pay the taxes when paying with miles, but it is still a significant saving and it feels great! In recent years the value of airline loyalty schemes has diminished but there is still reason to collect points.
Airline reward credit cards
You can sign up for an airline rewards credit card that earns points with a particular airline. For years we have been members of the BA Amex scheme. We collect the companion voucher and this has allowed us to travel to South Africa as a family of 4 for £900 which would have cost over £4000. We put all of our household spend on it (and pay it off each month as the interest rates are very high) – and make sure we meet the annual spend (£10,000 for a premium card or £20,000 for a blue card). You collect miles faster with the premium card and the spending threshold to get the companion voucher is lower, but there is a £195 a year annual fee. This is more than covered by the savings you make so we think it is worth it. If you do decide to take out a card, please feel free to use our referral code above in the link.
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General travel reward credit cards
There are also more general travel reward cards that let you redeem points across a variety of airlines. We recommend using your card for everyday purchases, and to treat it like cash and paying your balance off each month. That way, you won’t be charged interest, and you’ll effectively get your points for free! The best card around at the moment seems to be the SPG Amex card which is linked to Starwood Hotels (Marriot, Westin etc) – but can also be exchanged for airmiles. The rate is 3 points to 1 mile so it is not the best deal around, but you can quite easily collect a lot of points with bonus sign up points of 30,000 (when you reach a certain spend within the first 3 months – currently £1,000) and 9,000 for referrals. We have decided to use our points this year for a 3-night stay in a Westin in Vancouver. Vancouver is an expensive city for accommodation, and this hotel would have cost over £300 a night, but with 35,000 a night, you pay just £40 in taxes. If you do decide to take out a card, please feel free to use our referral code above in the link.
We collect Tesco Clubcard points as we have a mortgage with Tesco, a credit card, fill up the car at Esso stations, and do our grocery shopping at Tesco. This all adds up and you can convert the vouchers to BA miles. For every £2.50 of clubcard vouchers you exchange, you get 600 BA miles. We also exchange our vouchers for cross channel ferries as £10 in vouchers gets £30 towards the ferry, which is a great saving.
We use Topcashback and Quidco which give you a % off travel booked. I’ve included our referral links as it is mutually beneficial to sign up through a referral with both sides getting a referral reward! They usually only ever offer around 1% for flight bookings, but every little helps as Tesco claims! You can, however, get great deals on hotel bookings, particularly with companies like Expedia and Booking.com (on the subject of Booking.com, please feel free to use our referral link. We get £15 for a referral and you get £15. win win), offering up to 12% cashback. ebookers also have the Bonus+ reward scheme that allows you to earn 1% cashback to redeem on a hotel booking. Some airlines themselves offer great cashback deals, such as Emirates, who were offering 6% when we booked with them via Topcashback. You must make sure you click through Topcashback or Quidco to the site you are going to purchase your flight from though, otherwise the cashback won’t track.
If you know exactly when and where you want to go, if very rarely makes sense to wait to book. Although it does happen, airline tickets generally don’t get cheaper as the departure date approaches.
Flights are often released 360 days before. The latest research from the comparison site Momondo found that it’s generally best to book 60 days ahead and that booking then can be up to 30% cheaper than booking on the day of departure. You can use Momondo’s ‘Flight Insight’ tab on many routes to see the data regarding the ideal booking date. It will vary by destination (see Flight Insight for info).
One thing to note if you are booking using airmiles, it is always best to book as early as you can as there aren’t many miles seats per flight and on popular routes, they sell out very quickly.
Timing is everything
The Airline Reporting Corporation in partnership with Expedia Group recently released its fifth annual comprehensive study of worldwide air travel trends. They analysed air ticket purchase trends for the world’s most popular domestic and international routes and in conclusion, they recommend:.
- Best day to book is Sunday. Worst days are Thursday and Friday.
- Start the journey on a Thursday or a Friday
- Include a Saturday night stay
Include a stop-over in your itinerary
Save money on booking a flight with a stopover rather than a direct flight, and plan the stopover as part of your itinerary. A night or two in Dubai or Rekjavik have been done and were great!
You can book your own multi-day layovers, essentially allowing you to see two destinations for the price of one. Rather than spend a day sitting in the airport, you can spend multiple days exploring the city you are laying over in. AirWander is a specialized search engine for doing exactly this. Put in your origin, final destination, and number of days you want to stopover. AirWander will return a list of places you can visit on your stopover, often even cheaper than a regular flight search engine. You can also do this if booking direct on an airline’s website.
Look at package rates
Book a package on an OTA
Airlines sell package (flight + hotel) rates and allow OTAs to distribute these rates too. A cool hack when booking on an OTA website is to look for a package where you only book a hotel for a portion of your trip – maybe only for one night, and you will still get the package rate. We’ve saved over £300 on a London to Austin return flight using this method, plus got our first night in Austin included!
Book a package but don’t stay
Booking a package holiday with a charter flight to your destination can sometimes be much cheaper than booking a scheduled flight. For destinations such as Orlando, package holidays can be extremely reasonable. It won’t always work, but it’s worth a try. Plus, you get extra protection from ATOL or ABTA for combination bookings.
Mix up your airlines
Long gone are the days when it was cheaper to book a return flight with the same airline. Research from Skyscanner suggests that taking single journeys with different airlines could save you quite a bit, particularly on short-haul flights with the budget airlines.
Doing a comparison of all the flight options on the airlines is easy with metasearch websites. Their results will pull up the cheapest way to fly one way or return to a destination, regardless of airline. If you don’t want to mix it up, you can deselect the airline combination checkbox.
Budget airlines are cheap – but watch the fine print
Budget airline fares will come up on your OTA or Metasearch site but beware because the fare displayed will probably not include baggage allowance, food or seat allocation. Budget airlines are just that. Budget. They offer a no-frills service but they will get you from A to B. If you are looking for the cheapest fare and don’t care about the frills, then go for it as they are pretty good value – although the £0.01 fares of Ryanair seem to be a thing of the past!
If you are travelling as a family with small children, you will inevitably have to pay for the privilege of sitting with your children which will push the price of your ticket up. If you don’t pay to be seated together, you may have to rely on a kindly stranger to look after your child for the flight. Whilst this may be appealing for some parents looking for a peaceful flight, we can’t imagine many would be very keen on this idea! Before you book, always read the fine print.
- Check where the airport location is (some budget airlines fly to airports further out of town which will cost you more in airport transfer fees).
- Ensure you’ve booked & paid for your luggage allowance before your flight. Make sure you stick to the strict restrictions on weight, height, and number of bags allowed. Some airlines (e.g. Ryanair) will charge a hefty fee if you’re over.
- Print your own ticket. Some airlines such as Ryanair will charge a fee if you do not print your own ticket.
Use the Easyjet ‘book the wrong date’ trick
We found a clever way to book cheaper Easyjet flights during the school holidays after reading an article on using Easyjet’s ‘Flexifares‘, reported by MoneySaving Expert. Essentially you book a flexi fare which lets you change the date of your flight 24 hours after booking, without paying the fare difference. Date changes need to be within 1 week before and 3 weeks after the original booking date. For example, if you wanted to fly on 25th July (in school holidays), you could book for 4th July and then switch 24 hours later (assuming there is availability). It can be tricky as there is no refund if you find there is no availability on the date you actually want. It obviously only works too if the flexi fare you choose (which is higher than the standard fare) is cheaper than the standard fare on the day you want!
Search for airline fare errors
AirFare Watchdog and Secret Flying are great sites for finding mistake and sale pricing as they show all slashed ticket rates in one spot. As we have already mentioned, Skyscanner is a great tool for showing flights for an entire month. This will allow you to easily spot a significantly reduced fare against other flights showing for that month. Although not necessarily error fares, Jack’s flight club is also great for doing the hard work for you and pointing out cheap fares
Know how ‘codesharing’ works
If you like flying with a specific airline or know the exact flight you want, ‘codesharing’ could be a way to get a flight with that airline via another one. Some airlines team up to sell seats on each other’s flights, sometimes at a different price.
Codesharing flights are included in comparison site results, so you’ll find them using the sites we have mentioned above. It should be clear on the comparison site Skyscanner, eg, London to New York, BA flight (operated by American Airlines) or Finnair (operated by BA). BA codeshares under the One World Alliance with Iberia, Finnair, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, American Airlines etc. Put simply, book via a partner airline to grab a seat on the same plane for less (sometimes).
If you’ve made it this far, we’ll throw in a bonus tip for you. While buying your flights via an OTA is usually cheaper than with the airline direct, buying travel insurance is not.
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Please do let us know if any of these tips help to save you some money on your flights. We’d love to hear from you!