We have found flights being sold for six or eight times the price we eventually paid for them – even on the exact same aircraft, on the exact same day!
Here are the top techniques we have found for getting cheap flights, all over the world.
1. Use comparison websites
It is incredibly time-consuming to do searches on all the websites of individual airlines. Instead, we use comparison websites, and only search individual airline websites if we know they fly the route, but they don’t show up in the results.
Momondo.com is our favourite flight-search website as it includes all the low cost carriers and generally has flights listed around 5% cheaper than the other websites listed.
- Generally has the best flight at the best price
- Sorting by “best” nearly always puts the cheapest, most convenient flight first
- Three-week price view helps pick the cheapest day to travel
- Select the window of departure/arrival times to align with connecting transport or avoid uncouth times of day if you don’t mind paying a bit more for a decent sleep.
- Filter by length of flight and stops layovers – perhaps you don’t want to see 50+ hour gruelling marathon flights after all
- Gives several options for booking the flight – the 2nd cheapest may actually turn out best if the lowest listed price has surprise credit/debit card fees
- Fare Alerts are almost useless – the emails notify that new prices exist – not whether they have gone up/down or what the new price is
Remember to book directly with the low-cost airlines to avoid paying overheads.
If you search both SkyPicker and Momondo, you are pretty much guaranteed the best deal.
SkyPicker.com is great for seeing where you can go at a glance.
- The most powerful search ability – if you want to search for flights less than $300 and 12 hours duration next summer departing on Friday night and returning between 4 to 7 days later around noon, you can!
- Choose destination based on price – great for when you’re up for adventure
- Use a radius search for nearby airports which may be cheaper
- The only site we’ve come across which lets you search from anywhere to a destination (great for booking our “Maldives on a shoestring” trip)
- No extra fee for paying by credit/debit card (rare)
- Misses some low cost carriers
- Not as cheap as momondo
If you find a good flight here, try searching the individual legs with momondo’s ticket builder as their prices are generally lower.
WhichAirline.com still has a few nifty features, but the database of flights is now the same as SkyPicker’s after they were acquired in 2014.
- Flight visualisation – understand at a glance the total length of travel and layover details
- Ability to specify multiple departure and/or destination airports. This can be very handy when departing from or going to a town which doesn’t have an airport itself
- WhichAirline uses SkyPicker’s database so don’t expect to find something new
- Fare fewer search options than SkyPicker. Eg, you must pick exact dates or search a single calendar month at a time.
What about Skyscanner, Kayak and Hipmunk?
In our experience, these flight search engines haven’t performed poorly. I suspect that they are generally recommended by people who are largely US-based, or don’t use budget airlines very much.
Hipmunk.com gains first place for craptitude. It stunned us by not finding a single flight between Sydney and the Maldives in the next 90 days.
Skyscanner.com doesn’t allow any flexibility in dates while searching, so we entered the cheapest day that came up with SkyPicker. Skyscanner came back with $438 vs SkyPicker’s $268. Similar names, different prices! Not good enough, Skyscanner!
Kayak.com (USA) gave us prices ignoring the low cost carriers which were more than twice the cost of SkyPicker’s. Using the exact same search on Kayak.com.sg (Singapore) we got much lower prices but the best result was actually SkyPicker’s – and you get cheaper going direct. Not good enough, Kayak!
All three don’t allow for time flexible searches. The exception to this is Kayak’s +/- 3 days option, and Hipmunk’s 90 day graph – which is only for the next 90 days, not any 90 days you wish.
2. Hide your identity
Your web browser tracks all sorts of information about where you’ve been and what you’re interested in using cookies. If you seem particularly interested in something, you’ll probably pay more for it, right?
It sounds like dirty tactics, and it is – but luckily there is something you can do about it – use the private or incognito mode of your web browser. This mode will not transmit any cookies or information about your web browsing history.
You can also be tracked by your IP address – avoid this by using a VPN to give you a different IP address each time you use the site.
If you’re after a VPN, Private Internet Access is high speed, cheap ($US3.33/month), easy to use and has a no-risk 7-day trial.
3. Book direct with low-cost airlines
Comparison sites make their money from commissions. Sometimes the quoted price at the comparison website is higher than the price charged by the airline at their own website. It’s always worth checking.
Low cost airlines pay low or no commissions, so you generally get a cheaper price if you book the same flight direct from their website.
Full-service airlines, generally charge you more if you search for the same flight directly on the airline’s website. Strange, huh?
The rule of thumb is: if they charge you extra for a meal, it’s cheaper booking direct.
4. Book using a local IP address and in the local currency of the airline
We have found price reductions of more than 10%, simply because we used an IP address in the home country of the airline.
How do you use an different country’s IP address? Using your VPN. If you don’t have one, we recommend Private Internet Access – high speed, cheap, simple, with a 7-day trial.
We have also found savings when paying in the local currency – using exorbitant exchange rates is one way for airlines to boost their bottom lines.
To pay in the local currency, without being hit by your bank’s exorbitant exchange rates and/or ridiculous “international purchase fee” costs (one bank charged us $15 for a single overseas purchase – needless to say, they lost our business after that), you need to find a fee-free bank account that issues you with a Mastercard / Visa card and charges you only the international Mastercard / Visa daily exchange rate.
Currently, we have a card like this issued by Citibank, which operates all over the world. If you don’t have access to Citibank, find the best deal you can out of the banks available to you. The key attributes to search for – no fees on international transactions, and no curency conversion fees.
5. Get price alerts
It’s a dark science picking the best time to buy an air ticket. Prices fluctuate from week to week, so it’s helpful to know if a price drops so you can nab it at the lower price.
WhichAirline’s alerts list the dates where the price had dropped and the new prices for those dates. As the emails titled “Deals” so don’t expect to be notified if the price rises, however this is a good one to use as it covers pretty much all low-cost airlines.
Skyscanner’s emails are informative with the price per person, total price, and change (up or down) since the last alert. If the airline you want to fly is listed in Skyscanner’s database (compare it to Momondo and SkyPicker to check), this is a good one to use.
6. Adjust your travel dates to low-fare days
Sometimes, changing your travel date by a single day can change an airfare by 20%, 30%, even up to 50%. While it is not practical to search one date after another in a website, there are comparison websites (for example, http://momondo.com) which automatically show you the airfares for a few days each side of the date you entered.
7. Pack carry-on luggage only, or pack for your lowest baggage allowance leg
While it is not always an option to fit everything you need into carry-on luggage, especially with the radical restrictions on what you can take into the cabin with you, if you have the option of leaving the bulk of your stuff somewhere while you jet off on a short side trip, you can save yourself $20 or more on your airfare.
Many low-cost airlines will quote a fare that does not include any baggage allowance. You can also save by booking a “hidden city” fare at Skipplaged – you get off at a layover, and throw away the remainder of your flight.
Most airlines charge a hefty fee if you arrive at the check-in counter with overweight baggage. Be alert for variations in baggage allowance from one carrier to another – even long-haul international flights can have low baggage allowances. We recently had an international flight with a 15-kilo baggage limit, while the flights we took on either side of it had 20-kilo limits.
9. Find the low-cost carriers
Not all low-cost carriers will show up in aggregated flight searches, so make sure you know which low-cost carriers fly the routes you want to travel.
The Low Cost Airline Route Map is useful for finding out who goes where in Europe.
9. Get on the bacon lists of the relevant airlines
Unlike spam, which is unsolicited commercial email, “bacon” is commercial email you have asked to receive.
Most airlines operate an email list, and send out special offers and discounts. In some cases, you can even specify which routes you would like to watch.
We have found amazing deals by being subscribed to these email notifications, including tickets from Europe to Thailand for only 277 euros, and tickets from Sydney to KL for less than $250 AUD.
10. Plan your travel from hub to hub
Every airline has at least one “hub” city, where the majority of their ground services are located – catering, maintenance, etc. In some cases, to travel from City A to City B will require you to travel from City A to the hub city, and then from the hub city to City B.
Flights between major hub cities are more frequent, and subject to more competition, than flights to more remote destinations.
So, if you want to fly from, say, Chiang Mai in Thailand to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, you may find that it is cheaper to fly from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur, and then from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh, because a major airline in the region, Air Asia, has its hub in KL.
11. Use ground transport hacks
Some airports are just expensive airports. We expect the cost of flights to be roughly the same for flights of the same duration, but it turns out that tickets to one airport can be three times more expensive than tickets to the next airport, just 100km away.
For example, if you want to go to a Thai island in the Gulf of Thailand (Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, etc), the closest airport to your island will be Koh Samui.
Flights to Koh Samui are notorious for being more expensive than flights to the two nearby mainland airports, because, basically, they know it is almost entirely wealthy tourists taking those flights. Local Thai people may fly into Surat Thani, but they are unlikely to fly to Koh Samui.
If you take a ferry to the mainland, and go to Surat Thani airport (less than an hour by bus from the ferry wharf at Don Sak), you can get a plane ticket to the exact same destination for less than half the price.
To put real numbers on this example, if you wanted to fly to Kuala Lumpur on October 31, 2015, it would cost you a minimum of $140 from Koh Samui.
Jump on a ferry to Surat Thani airport on the mainland (total cost for ferry and bus, $20), and your ticket from Surat Thani will cost you just $44.
That’s some saving!
So remember to check the two or three closest airports, and also check ground transport from the nearest capital city. For example, there is an overnight ferry from Pattaya (Bangkok) to the Gulf of Thailand islands, which may well be cheaper than flying, and also saves you the cost of a night’s accommodation.
12. Check for payment fees before booking
Just when you think you’ve nailed the cheapest fare to a destination, you arrive at the payment page and they ask another $17 to pay by card – and they don’t accept PayPal. Sound familiar?
Grumpily, you try to buy the same fare on another site only to find that the price has gone up there… so you go back to the original site (which has now timed out), and try to buy the ticket again – only to find out that it’s gone up there, too. They know you want that seat, and they’re going to squeeze you for it!
The solution is to find out beforehand who charges what for payment fees. You may be better off selecting the 2nd cheapest ticket booker if they don’t charge credit/debit card fees.
We’ve found the following sites to not charge payment fees:
- SkyPicker and Zuji don’t charge card fees at all
- Helloworld don’t charge extra for debit cards
- mytrip.com don’t charge extra for Visa credit cards
To find a booking website’s payment fees, google for “COMPANY.com visa credit card fee”