Here are my top tips on how to purchase a cheap flight, some of which have been learnt from experience, others from research, and still more from my own costly mistakes. If you apply this information correctly, you can sleep easy on your plane journey safe in the knowledge that the person sitting next to you has paid more for their seat than you have (for yours). Unless, of course, it’s some savvy traveller who like yourself has taken the time to read this – or me, who took the time to write it. Please enjoy, and have a drink on me with your savings. But not on the plane, unless it’s complimentary!
HOW FAR IN ADVANCE OF TAKE-OFF YOU SHOULD BOOK
One of the most important factors influencing the price of a ticket is how long in advance it is booked. The graph below shows the average price fluctuations on international flights relating to when the ticket is purchased. Contrary to popular belief, booking significantly more than three months prior to take off will actually cost you more on domestic flights. This is because, although tickets typically go on sale a year before the flight, the airline companies only start managing the sales in earnest a few months before the plane is due to take off. As you can see from the international airfare graph, around five or six months before take-off is the superlative time to make your booking.
This changes to around sixty days for US domestic flights as demonstrated in the domestic airfare graph below.
Notice that the prices increase almost exponentially as the scheduled flight approaches? There is very good reason for this, and it’s not because the plane is nearing capacity. Airline companies don’t want to lose out on the most lucrative customers of all: those who require a flight at short notice and therefore have no choice but to pay the premium. This may be exploitative: people who need these flights at the last minute must often be responding to some kind of emergency. But with airline companies, the dollar rules.
CHOOSING WHEN TO GO
For every destination there are typically two seasons: high and low, or peak and off-peak if you prefer. It’s no surprise that ticket prices are much lower in off-peak. Interrelated with this is your starting point. For example, if I am heading to Australia from the UK in the Australian summer, I will pay much more both because it is peak time in Australia but also because it is winter in the UK; if you have ever experienced a winter in the UK you may understand why many people choose to escape one.
“But I want to go in peak season”, I hear you protest.
Of course a lot people have no choice when they take their holiday due to work commitments, but if you are a frequent or long term traveller, are you so sure? Places can be equally as nice to visit in low season, I would argue often more so, and accommodation is also less expensive. I’ve known countries where activities and transport are cheaper too, and with less tourists you get a better idea of local life.
Those who have a working holiday visa and are therefore intending to stay at their destination for a year (or two), experiencing the full spectrum of the seasons anyway, should definitely take advantage of this and travel in off-peak. Both your outbound and return flights will be much cheaper.
If you must go when it’s peak season, make sure you avoid flying close to a major holiday: this will also hike up the price considerably.
HOW, WHEN, AND WHERE TO BOOK YOUR FLIGHT
You have three main options when booking your flights: the traditional travel agent, phoning the airline directly, and using online comparison sites. As with everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to each alternative.
The Travel Agent
Travel agents work on commission, meaning you will almost certainly pay extra. But for this you get a personalised service and a trip tailored exclusively to your needs. I would definitely consider this for a short holiday or even an extended multi destination trip if I had the funds. However, since this article is concerned with getting the cheapest deal possible, I have discarded this option.
Phoning the Airline Directly
Phoning the airline directly can yield great results if done correctly: that is to say, it requires a great deal of attention to timing to get the best deal using this method. The major problem with it is that you can’t compare different airlines with one another unless you phone them individually for a quote, and then the quoted price may not be available for long. I suggest trying a couple at the right time and seeing if they compare favourably with your online comparison searches.
Let me elaborate. According to Peter Greenburg, an American travel expert, the best time to get really cheap tickets directly from airlines (this has to be done by talking to someone and will not be available on automated services) is 12.01 am on Wednesday morning. The reason for this is that tickets that have been booked, and then are not paid for (you have 24 hours before you have to pay for a booking), go back into the system at midnight on Tuesday. This means there is a very good chance of a great deal if you phone the airline shortly thereafter. It is important that you note the time zone of the airline company’s hub, and work accordingly.
Comparison websites are my own personal favourite. You can put aside a couple of hours to check them out without fear of being put on hold, or having to wait to talk to someone who is not a robot.
Get yourself a large cup of tea (or coffee) and dedicate a bit of time to this as it will save you money, often a lot. Beware of hidden fees, though. Even on international flights, you can no longer guarantee baggage is included, as I found out to my cost recently. Before you make a purchase, double check this and counter in the charge.
Also, make sure you check that the day, month, and even the year is correct before you do the final click (or tap) for the purchase. One slip of a mouse (or finger) can change these. You could end up going to the airport a month earlier than you actually booked and having to transfer the date in a frantic phone call, resulting in the ticket costing twice the original price. Who would be stupid enough to do that? Ummm…
I suggest opening several pages on your browser with a different comparison site in each. Remember, more direct flights are usually more expensive. If you have to do several changeovers on an international flight, chances are the flight will be cheaper. Also, late night take-offs and arrivals often tend to be cheaper as they are less desirable. But if you organise your searches by cheapest to most expensive, which is the default setting on most comparison sites anyway, you will be able to examine the details of the cheapest flights and decide whether the saving is worth the inconvenience.
Often several sites will offer the exact same results in terms of price and carriers. That’s because they often host many of the same airline companies and employ the same algorithms. Don’t let that put you off: they have enough differences to make each search worthwhile.
Booking a cheap flight this way requires a little bit of patience. Timing is all important here, too. Flying on the weekend is always more expensive, so avoid that if at all possible. Try a search for every weekday of the week you wish to travel. Changing one day can make hundreds of dollars difference to your quoted price. There are various reasons for this, not least that demand is greater on some days. Less people travel on Tuesdays statistically, so that day will often yield the best results. But try them all.
Conventional wisdom dictates that the best time to actually make your booking is on Tuesdays around 3pm. That is because airlines often announce deals late on Monday night and it takes to around noon the next day for their competitors to catch up. This may be true of domestic deals and is certainly worth looking out for, but a study by Texas A&M University found that tickets were actually around five per cent cheaper when purchased at the weekend. New data released by the Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC), which is responsible for half of all tickets sold in the United States, correlates strongly with this, and finds that Sunday had the lowest average ticket price with Saturday running a close second. Here are their findings in detail:
This may be taking it to extremes a little bit, but Peter Greenburg also postulates that the time of the month also has an effect on ticket prices. Sites are busier after payday, so wait until after the seventh of any given month, and a few days after the fifteenth to avoid those who are paid fortnightly (every two weeks).
Another trick is to try secondary airports. Most large cities have secondary airports which some budget airlines prefer as the fees tend to be cheaper. Comparison sites make it easy to do this: if you enter the name of the city, they will give you your options as to which airport. Unfortunately, a lot of these budget airlines won’t be listed on most comparison sites. So find out the name of the secondary airport, find out which airlines fly there from the airport’s website, and then get a quote from those airlines’ websites. Hard work? I never said this was easy! One thing though: make sure the airport in question is not too far from your final destination, or if it is that there are good public transport links. Depending on where in the world you are, this could eat into your saving considerably.
Hold on to your hats for this one. Flight prices actually differ depending on where you make your purchase, or more importantly, where you appear to make your purchase. You simply have to change your ‘point of purchase’ when pricing your ticket. The ticket price will then be given in the currency of your fake location and a simple currency conversion will show you how much you save. Although this works for normal international flights, it often works best when booking domestic flights from another country. For example, if I was to book a domestic flight, say between Bangkok and Phuket, outside Thailand, I will almost certainly be quoted a much higher price than if I appear to be booking it from inside the country. This can be as much as ten times the price, so not to be sniffed at. For more detailed information on this, please click here.
Finally, if you are flexible with your destination, there are great deals to be had as airline carriers try to get rid of unwanted ‘stock’. Google Flights, Sky Scanner, Kayak, and other sites have an ‘explore’ function or something similar that allows you to search for cheap destinations. Personally I think this is great for long-term or experienced travellers. It will open up opportunities for destinations that may not immediately spring to mind. Why not take a road less travelled and save money at the same time?
Here are some popular comparison sites that may help you book that cheap flight:
Skyscanner.com – My all-time favourite for its ease of use and great results. It’s a large international company not affiliated with any airlines, which is important as this means there is no bias. Even without a multi destination function it still beats the opposition as often as not.
Momondo.com – Similar to Sky Scanner in that it does not sell flights directly and is not affiliated with any airline. Many experienced travellers recommend this site as the best. Definitely try this one.
Orbitz.com – Orbitz is a very popular flight search engine, particularly for Americans, although I would exercise caution when using it. It is affiliated with a number of carriers: this is rarely beneficial you, the consumer.
Expedia.com – Another popular search engine that is affiliated with both airlines and hotels. Expedia has thousands of partners, which means there is still huge competition for customers within Expedia – good for us. I used to use it a lot, but recently I’ve found that other websites beat its airfares consistently. Still, check it out.
Kayak.com – A little bit US-centric, but has a nice simple interface, and worth running a few searches even if you’re not from the US.
Vayama.com – According to various experienced travellers, Vayama often offer flights much lower than the competition, so they are worth checking out. A word of caution though, they appear to have more than their fair share of disgruntled customers according to online reviews. It’s not a bargain if you don’t get there… I have yet to use them.
STA Travel – This is a great site if you are studying: students get the largest discount here, but if you’re under twenty-six you are also entitled to a discount. Definitely include this site in your searches if you are either or both of these.
Google Flights – A site that didn’t originally make my list because it is still in its developing phase. Google Flights is the fastest search engine and returns results almost instantly, but I think it still lags behind its competitors in terms of price. Also, sometimes the quoted price jumps when you are directed to the carrier’s website: their prices are not always up-to-date. Worth including in your search, though, and it will only get better.
So that is that, really. The secret to this game is timing and perseverance. Leave no stone unturned and you will be sure to get a bargain. But even if you only apply some of this advice, you’ll still save money. And that means more cash in your pocket to enjoy wherever you go.
Do you have any other tips on how to get a cheap flight? If so, please feel free to leave a comment below. Any questions? Same. I will get back to you. If you want to contact me privately, please use the contact form accessed through the main menu.