The cost of flights is often the biggest outlay of your trip. But the airline world is a confusing one, here we offer advice on how make sense of it all
Different airlines charge for different extras and travel shops and carriers alike offer deals that claim to be the best. You can use the internet and the expertise of professionals to get the best deal.
Book flights with low-cost airlines early and online Flights with ‘no-frills’ carriers almost always get more expensive the closer you get to the departure date, especially for perennially popular destinations. They are also usually cheapest bought direct from the airline’s website.
Check the departure date Long-haul fares vary sharply according to the date you travel; for example, a flight to Australia on 10 December can be £300 more than one on the ninth. Speaking to a real person rather than looking online usually unearths the best fares – ask an agent to check dates either side of your first-choice departure.
Be free and easy Look for cheap flights to airports near to but not in your chosen destination. Or take a magical mystery tour: input your chosen departure date at Sky Scanner and it’ll provide a list of possible flights in ascending price order; just pick the cheapest and see where it takes you!
Book your trip on a Tuesday We know it’s cheaper to fly Wednesday to Wednesday, rather than Saturday to Saturday, but it can also be cheaper to book your tickets midweek (particularly on short-haul flights). Most people book at the weekend, so travel companies set their prices higher at those times.
Consider an airpass If you’re taking numerous flights round a particular country or region within a short period of time (say, 21-31 days) they are worth looking into. Also, look into routes run by local low-cost airlines.
Find a cheap upgrade While flying first-class remains the preserve of the wealthy, premium economy and business class are often not much more than a regular economy seat. This varies massively by airline, so shop around to see if you can get more space for less. Try ‘foreign’ airlines (national carriers on routes not touching their home country –
eg a European carrier such as Air France/KLM flying London to New York) for the best deals.
Look out for airline alliances Many airlines join together to form alliances, essentially to broaden their network by working with other airlines that service different routes. For example, the oneworld alliance, which includes BA, American Airlines, LAN and Iberia, allows you to fly to, say, Ecuador within the one alliance, even though no one airline flies UK-Quito. The benefits are better flight prices and connectivity, as well as some multi-stop tickets and passes that allow you to book great-value round-the-world itineraries.
Add up the extras How cheap is that low-cost flight really? Don’t just go by the advertised fare – take into account the check-in, baggage and other additional charges before deciding which flight is the cheapest.
Check in online With some airlines you can select the seat you want. By checking in as early as possible (usually 24 hours in advance online), you may be able to secure an exit or bulkhead seat – extra legroom with no extra cost (to compare seat pitches see Seat Guru).
Be bumped Do you dread turning up for your flight and being told that due to overbooking you can’t get on? Some people like nothing better... This happens less frequently these days (airlines have more sophisticated booking controls, and more and more reservations are non-changeable) but if your flight has been overbooked you may be asked if you wouldn’t mind being ‘bumped’.
If you’re bumped at an EU airport, or at a non-EU airport and are flying into an EU airport on an EU airline, you should be entitled to Denied Boarding Compensation – for example, if your flight is up to 1,500km and you’re delayed by up to two hours you’re entitled to €125; if it’s a flight of more than 3,500km and you’re delayed more than four hours you get €600.
In other circumstances (eg flying from San Francisco to Miami), airlines may ask for volunteers who are prepared to be bumped. The volunteers will be booked on a later flight, or a flight via another airport. In addition they may be offered some combination of a voucher for future travel on the airline, free meal vouchers, upgrading to business class, a free hotel for the night and other perks.
Like the sound of these benefits? If you have the flexibility, try to book flights that are likely to be oversold (popular business or leisure routes at peak times),
and then volunteer to be bumped at check-in!
Carry empty waterbottles You may not be allowed to pass security with a full waterbottle, but take empty ones through and fill them from the fountains air-side to save buying expensive mineral water.
Sleep at the airport If you have a very early or unsociably late flight, check out
the guide to sleeping in airports, which rates the kip-ability of airports worldwide, and isolates the best spots for snoozing. This could save a fortune on airport hotels.
Book a package and ditch the hotel With the flurry of low-cost airlines, this isn’t necessarily the bargain it used to be but consider long-haul packages. For example, we found a First Choice all-inclusive one-week package with direct flights to Costa Rica for £417; Trailfinders’ best flight-only deal (not even direct –flying via Madrid) was £635.
Join a frequent flier scheme You can earn freebies – and you’ll also be higher up the queue when (rare) free upgrades are handed out.
Don’t assume you’ll always find the cheapest deals online. Many airlines allow travel shops such as Trailfinders to sell their flights at a discount – cheaper than on the airlines’ own websites. Also, it’s vital to pick up the phone if you want anything other than a straight there-and-back ticket.
Talking to a real person allows you to ask plenty of questions, too – but what should you be asking?
1. Can I fly from my local airport for the same price? Some airlines sell flights from regional airports for the same price as flights from London. For example, you can depart from Manchester or Birmingham with Qantas to connect at London for your long-haul flight at no additional cost. This also means your baggage gets checked all the way through and the airline is responsible for getting you to your chosen destination should you be delayed.
2. Can I get free flights at the other end? Some airlines offer additional flights for free. For example, Malaysian Airlines offers a free side-trip to places in Malaysia if you’re flying to Australasia: buy your UK-Australia flight and get free KL-Penang-Langkawi-KL flights provided you book accommodation for the duration of your stay. This is a great way for the airline to get more tourists to see its country.
3. Are there any ‘Inclusive Tour’ airfares available? Discounted IT fares allow you to save money on your flights if they’re booked in conjunction with hotels and tours (a minimum of one night’s accommodation). For example, one Wanderlust staffer was quoted £600 for an Iberia flight to Ecuador, or £480 for a BA ‘IT’ fare, which included flights and three nights at a gorgeous hotel in Quito.
4. Can I add a stopover? Every airline has a hub where they touchdown on most routes. Most of these stopovers are free with just additional taxes to be paid. Also, ask if the airline offers stopover packages, which can be cheaper than booking a hotel independently.
5. Can I book transfers? Some airlines provide free transportation to and from the airport; for example Eva Air offers free transfers with National Express to your departure airport.
6. Can I upgrade? Many airlines offer Premium Economy, more comfy than economy but far cheaper than business class. BA and Air New Zealand offer sector upgrades for shorter distances, for example Singapore-Sydney for approx £250 plus taxes. Upgrade your longest sector to get your money’s worth.