Buying an airplane ticket is a mixture of buying a TV and doing business on the stock exchange.
It’s similar to the first in that your decision should never rely on one website only: you have to check options on different portals, look at different flight times and maybe even consider different (but close) cities. You can also wait for special offers to find the best deal. It’s similar to the stock exchange in that prices can move up or down quite randomly. Taking all this into account, apart from the skills gained through lots of practice, you need a lot of luck too in order to buy your ticket at the best price.
Use more than one website
You should never stick to one plane ticket searching portal, you need to check the prices on several pages. There are big travel pages like Expedia, Kayak or Skyscanner, which compare the prices of numerous airlines. One of my favorites is Skyscanner.hu, although you should keep in mind that this page only gives you prices – you cannot book your tickets here. Instead it redirects you immediately to the airline in question or to another website where you can buy the tickets. The prices may differ a little from the offer. Usually everyone has their favorite search portal which they believe in almost religiously, but my experience tells me it’s worth browsing through all of them because you might find that the best offer is not on your favorite site. When you see which airlines operate your flights, be sure to check the airlines’ own sites as well – they might have a special offer on, or they might just be selling the ticket cheaper.
Most websites list their search results according to price, starting with the cheapest ones, but this isn’t always true. For example on Delta’s results list, the flights are not in order – you need to check all of them. I usually use the fare comparison pages for the search but the airline’s own site for booking and buying the tickets, as long as I receive them at the same price. For one, I can give my frequent flyers number, this way I don’t forget it and, if anything comes up later on (maybe I want to modify my ticket, book a seat or just have a few questions), it’s usually easier to deal with customer service if I have a direct booking.
Don’t forget the low-cost airlines
Many of the big plane ticket search sites don’t take low-cost airlines into account, so search them separately or use Skyscanner.hu, which lists them too. With low-cost airlines, it’s important to take into account that they have additional costs as well, especially for checked-in baggage. It can also be annoying if the airport used by the budget airline is far away from the city center. In this case, the cost of reaching the city adds to the overall cost of the trip. If – with all the additional costs – the low-cost price is barely cheaper than the traditional flight, then it’s worth considering if the discomfort is worth it. Kiwi.com (formerly SkyPicker) is also a great search page which combines low-cost and traditional airlines in its search.
If you are traveling to Asia, then AirAsia is unbeatable – operating on low-cost prices but offering almost the same service levels of traditional airlines. More so, in my experience, they are the only airline which greets its arriving passengers with umbrellas stocked on a shelf, just in case it’s raining when they walk to the terminal building from the plane.
From Brussels you can reach many destinations with TUI (formerly Jetairfly) and Brussels is reachable by many low-cost flights (from most parts of Europe). Of course you need some luck to combine the tickets because the best TUI prices are last minute deals, but budget flights to Brussels are usually cheaper if bought a couple of weeks beforehand. But sometimes a good pairing can happen.
Fly to a nearby airport
It’s worth searching not only for the city you want to travel to, but surrounding cities too. This way you might find a much cheaper ticket and overall end up with a better deal – even with the train or bus ride costs added on. For example if you want to visit Amsterdam, the trip could be cheaper with a low-cost flight to Brussels or Eindhoven, then buy a bus ticket connecting the cities (the bus ticket comes in at 19 or 24 euros). On Kiwi.com you can check where the closest airports to your destination are.
There is a fast and simple method to check where it’s best to fly to and from. Let’s say you want to tour Ireland. At this point it doesn’t matter which city you fly to, your goal is to get to the country in the cheapest possible way. A lesser known site Google.com/flights/explore is the most useful one, where you can give a whole country as a destination. Type your city in as the Departure city and Ireland as your Destination. This way the search engine gives you a list of flights from your city to –in this case – Dublin and Cork, and you can also see that the former is attainable at a much lower price.
Similarly you can vary departing airports too, to see if it’s cheaper to travel to a far away destination from a nearby town. Also say you want to visit the Caribbean Islands but you don’t know where the best flights go to? You can give the whole area as your destination! On this page, you can’t book tickets but you do get a general picture of the best routes and average prices, and also when you can expect the lowest prices in the coming months.
In general, you can fly cheaper to a place where more airlines fly to, because the competition is bigger. That’s why you can usually get to Brussels – to which, being the center of the EU, more airlines fly to – for pennies.
If you see a good deal, grab it!
On planes you don’t only have economy, business and first class, there are also multiple paying categories within one class, meaning you pay a different price for the same class ticket depending when you book. Airlines don’t usually sell their tickets all at once, instead they sell them in small quantities – especially the advertised, lower priced ones. As soon as the lower priced tickets sell out, the next category appears at a much higher price.
If you check a few website over the course of a couple of days, you’ll soon get a picture of what is an ʺexpensiveʺ and what is a ʺcheapʺ price to your destination. So if you see a favorable advertisement or find an exceptionally good ticket, grab it immediately!
Be flexible with your dates
Many websites offer the possibility of searching +/- 3 days, but certain pages go further. On Skyscanner you can give a whole month or even a whole year as your departing and arriving dates, so you can definitely find the best prices. Kayak.com only shows a 7 day timeframe, but you can see the out and inbound flights arranged in a matrix, allowing you to easily choose which two dates are the best combination.
It matters when you travel
It’s good to know that you can buy the cheapest plane tickets if you spend Saturday night in the city too. Airlines set higher prices for short, weekday flights due to business men who wish to return home as fast as possible, and who are willing to pay the higher prices as well.
As business commuters often depart on Monday and return on Friday, and tourists depart on Thursday/Friday before returning on Sunday, you generally find that the cheapest flights are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. In fact I have come across business trips that lasted from Monday to Wednesday, where it was cheaper to buy two return tickets with long timeframes and then use only one ticket from each purchase.
It’s also important for business travelers and people going on short trips to pay attention to when the plane departs and arrives. It doesn’t make much sense to plan a weekend away if you arrive on Friday night and have to leave early Sunday morning.
Think in sections
Most people travel with the same airline there and back, but it can sometimes be worth using a different firm for the trip back. With longer trips that have transfers, it’s also worth taking a look at whether it’s better or not to buy separate tickets for the different sections of your trip. It might be possible to buy a low-cost ticket for part of your journey. This type of solution has its risks of course, because if the first flight is delayed, the different airline won’t wait for you, whereas if you transfer with the same airline, you actually have a chance if your first flight is delayed. You can avoid this problem if you leave enough time for the transfer, and if you check in advance whether your next plane leaves from the same terminal, or the same airport in the same city.
When combining airlines, pay attention to the fact that you probably can’t check in your baggage all the way, unless the two airlines have a separate agreement for this. If they don’t, then you have to leave yourself time to go out, pick up your luggage, check them in again with the second airline, plus standing in queue to check yourself in too.
Sometimes when you travel with the same airline, you still have to pick up your luggage between connecting flights. This mainly occurs where your transfer departs from a different airport. If for example you’re taking Air France from Budapest to Martinique, your Budapest leg arrives into Charles de Gaulle, but the overseas transfer departs from Orly. In cases like this, the search engines offer you tickets which leave you enough time to catch a bus to the other airport. However be sure to double check if you’ll actually have enough time for the transfer.
Cleverlayover.com keeps an eye on the combined routes of different airlines. Most search engines only give results for an airline and their partnered airlines for your route. This website however also checks if it’s cheaper to travel to your destination from an intermediate stop with a different firm. The drawback is that you cannot check-in your luggage all the way. The upside though, is that because it’s two totally different tickets, you can spend a few days at the intermediate stop.
Try it the other way around
If there are no low-cost airlines from your departure city to your destination, and you don’t know which city to use to get a low price, that’s when you should use the best trick in multi‑segment ticket buying: you should try your search backwards. In situations like this, try searching on websites that let you leave your destination blank. Now comes the trick: enter your departure city as your destination. This will give you details of all the cities that you can get to from your destination – including your real departure city. Maybe this way you’ll find cities where low-cost airlines fly to and have frequent sales.
Pretend you’re somewhere else
Sometimes you can find totally different prices on the same search portal depending on the country you say you’re in. Go to one of the comparing sites and check what prices it gives you if you say your home country is different. Then compare the prices of the different currencies to see which airline has the best prices. Once you’ve done this (let’s say XY airline is the winner and it would be best if you were Spanish), check prices on the airline’s own website as if you were a Spanish citizen.
Search according to price
This is an option if it’s not your date, but your destination that’s flexible. It might be that you can only get away for a long weekend at a set time, but it doesn’t matter where you go. That’s when you should use a flexible flight ticket search engine like Drungli.com, which lists the cheapest tickets for you chosen dates, and only requires your maximum price, the days you will spend there and the month in which you’d like to go. Google.com/flights operate in the same way.
You can find a similar service in Liligo’s ʺMap searchʺ function, where you can even set your preferred temperature if, for example, you want to go to a warm place in winter (unfortunately this search does not include low-cost airlines).
Watch out for special offers
There are websites that will check special offers for you, even tariffs that are obviously the results of a mistake or a typo. The most well known of these are Holidaypirates.com and Secretflying.com, where you can find not only flights, but complete vacations and hotel bookings.
The German Ltur.com also has good offers, if you don’t mind taking a vacation in the middle of winter on a sunny island with a bunch of German pensioners.
Use frequent flyer programs and never forget to update the points you earned. It’s best to type in your frequent flyer card number when booking the flight and verify it at check-in to see if it’s in the system. It’s a much bigger hassle to credit your points after a trip. In order to be even more effective in earning miles, you can use an air miles credit card during your everyday shopping, which then lets you exchange your earned points to plane tickets. Frequent flyer programs are especially useful when buying one-way tickets, because you only need half the amount of points for those.
Some low-cost airlines, like WizzAir have regular special offers specifically for frequent flyers passengers. During a widely advertised campaign, frequent flyers may also have the opportunity to buy special offer tickets a day earlier than the rest of the public, giving them a bigger chance of bigger savings.
It’s also good to know that some airlines occasionally have offers with miles. For some flights they sometimes give double the amount of miles, or award you more generously if you travel in a higher class. You should look out for offers not only when collecting points, but also when using them. Lufthansa’s Miles and More program, for example, has a monthly newsletter letting you know which destinations are the ones for which, at a given time, you only need half the amount of points cashed in, than other times.
Sign up for the newsletters
Since it’s impossible to watch every airline’s website all the time, sign up for their newsletter, and ʺLikeʺ their social media pages, to know about their offers as soon as possible. There is only a limited amount of best offer tickets, so speed is inevitable. Many ticket search sites offer to let you know whether the price of the ticket you’re looking for is going down or not. Yapta.com is like this, and it offers a money-back guarantee for a few airlines, if their ticket prices fall after your purchase. Airfarewatchdog.com is useful to get continuous price offers for a specific trip.
It’s not been proved, but there is a rumor that the airlines know where you’d like to travel and when based on your cookies (the information stored by the websites you visit) and if you search for the same ticket more than once, they show it to you at a higher price. To be on the safe side, just delete your search history!
Book seats in time
With some low-cost airlines, you have to pay in order to choose where you’d like to sit, but on traditional airlines you can usually do this prior to the flight. Most of the time you are given the choice at the time of booking, but if not, you can add your reservation number and name later on the airline’s website and choose your seats. If you can’t find this option, call the airline, sometimes it’s possible to book your seats by phone.
If you don’t want to sit in the middle, it’s best to choose your preferences in advance – aisle or window seat. The easiest way to check which seat is next to the aisle, near the toilet, near the emergency exit, is to look it up on Seatguru.com. What if the plane is full and the only place you could sit is in the middle of the row, which gives you the chills already? Or if you’re travelling with someone, but there are no seats next to each other? This is what Expertflyer.com is made for, here you can ask for a notification if the seats you’d prefer become available as a result of a cancellation or anything else.
Make use of your free stopovers
Many airlines allow you to spend some time (usually a day or sometimes more) in the city of your transfer, if you’re not taking a direct flight. In such cases you can basically discover an extra city for free. When you search a longer trip – if you find more than one option for the same price – choose the transfer so you can spend an extra day somewhere. If you can’t find an official stopover option, you can still find tickets where you have to wait quite a few hours for your transfer. Set your search results to show the longest trips first, and then choose accordingly. With this option, you don’t even have to worry about your baggage, as you can check that in until your final destination.
Play with your return ticket
It is rare, but sometimes two one-way tickets are cheaper than a return one – it’s worth a glance in your search. You can also check how much an open-jaw ticket would cost. This is when you leave from a different airport/city than you arrive to (e.g.: you take a bus or a low-cost airline between the two cities). An open-jaw ticket like the one mentioned is also good when you want to visit two areas.
You don’t have to buy everything at once
You may think that as many passengers are on the plane, they all bought their tickets at a different price, and this isn’t far from the truth. It’s visible on the tickets as well. There are different ʺcategoriesʺ in economy class too, which only shows in the price, not in the service. When the cheapest tickets in a class are sold, that’s when the more expensive categories in the same class are put on sale. Sometimes there may only be one ticket left in the cheapest category and this doesn’t show up if you look for two tickets. So if you’re buying more than one ticket at once, make sure to check how much it would cost to buy a single ticket, in case that is cheaper. It won’t be a problem when booking a seat, because you can request seats next to each other even if your tickets are in two different categories.
Pay attention to comfort too
So you’ve finally found it, after a gruesome search for finding the cheapest ticket, but take a look at the second and third cheapest too. It may be that the next cheapest aren’t that much more expensive than the winner, but they may be much more comfortable e.g. shorter transfer times or you don’t need to get up at 2 a.m. It’s worth paying a little more for that extra comfort so you don’t arrive dog-tired at your vacation. Hipmunk.com lists results not only according to price and flight time, but also according to agony, taking all the above into consideration.
A technical tip
When you finish booking on a website, don’t ever close your browser before the reservation email lands in your Inbox. If it’s delayed and you have to shut down your computer, at least save the booking reference number. If for whatever reason your ticket doesn’t arrive, you can call the airline and they can find your reservation by the reference number and send your tickets to your email address.
(The above article is a chapter in my book ʺTravellina: A World Traveller’s Handbookʺ, in which I go through the entire process of traveling just as thoroughly, step by step, from dreaming to safe keeping your memories: Világutazók kézikönyve)