HOW TO FIND THE BEST VALUE FLIGHTS
Since our return to full time travel I’ve been organising a LOT of flights. And boy, are these the times I miss my travel agent days. Going from having the world at my fingertips with our live global flight booking system, to having to rely on the same resources as every other mere mortal is painful. But at least I’ve retained the knowledge, insight and know-how that comes from seven years working in the travel industry. I know exactly what I’m looking for when researching the best value flights. These days I just have to go a roundabout way to find them. Which got me thinking about all the tips, tricks, hints and insider info that is second nature to me, but might not be all that obvious to you. So I figured it’s time to share.
While flight search engines are a great place to start, they won’t necessarily turn up the best deal. And by ‘best deal’, I don’t just mean the cheapest, but also the best value for money and time.
With a bit of inside knowledge you too can search smarter, to find a flight deal that is a great price and ensures you make the most of your trip. Whether you’re looking for a short break close to home or planning a round the world trip, here’s what you need to know to find the best value flights.
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WHERE TO START?
Online Comparison Sites
The first place to start when researching your flights is with a comparison search engine. There are a few out there, but my two favourites are Skyscanner and Google Flights. I always check both as they can sometimes return slightly different results. And if they don’t, well, I know I’m on to a winner!
If You Know Where & When You Want to Travel…
If you have a particular destination and dates in mind, a quick search on either of these websites will point you to the cheapest flights straight away. You can compare flight times and duration, then click through to the specified website to complete your booking.
If You Know When You Want to Travel, But You’re Flexible With The Destination…
If you’re looking to get away, but don’t know exactly where, Skyscanner and Google Flights both have some great search tools you can take advantage of to find the best value flights.
On Skyscanner just enter your departure city and dates of travel, then select ‘Everywhere’ in the destination tab. This will bring up a list of the cheapest destinations to fly to for your dates.
On Google Flights you can search a couple of ways. First, you can enter your departure city and dates of travel, then click on the ‘Where to’ field to bring up a list of suggested destinations and approx prices. Or (my personal favourite), click on the burger menu at the top left (three horizontal lines, resembling a burger) and select the ‘Explore Map’ function. Up pops a map, with prices for destinations all over the world from your chosen departure point. You can zoom in and out to focus on certain regions and click on the cities to bring up more info including airlines and flight time. We never would have visited Taiwan if it wasn’t for this awesome map highlighting a cheap deal over Lunar New Year.
If You’re Completely Flexible About Where & When You Want To Travel…
If you don’t have specific dates to travel and just want to find out the best value flights over the next few months, this is possible too.
On Skyscanner click on the departure date field and select ‘Whole Month’, then choose a specific month or hit the ‘Cheapest Month’ tab. Hit ‘Search’ and you’ll be presented with a list of destinations and the cheapest prices for your chosen month or over the next few months.
On Google Flights, navigate to the Explore Map page and hit the date field. This will bring up an option to select specific dates or flexible dates. You can choose a whole month, or search all of the coming 6 months. You can also choose the length of your trip – weekend, 1 week or 2 weeks. Then, hit ‘Done’ and play around with the results on the map until you find something good!
If you’re flexible with your departure/arrival airports and want to check out a few options this is also easy to do. On Skyscanner just select the ‘Add Nearby Airports’ box. The results will highlight any different airport combinations in red.
On Google Flights just hit the ‘+’ button in the departure or arrival fields to add multiple airports, or simply separate your entries with a comma. Hit the ✔️ button when you’re done and ready to search. Look at the airport codes in the results to figure out the different routes.
SEARCH FOR YOUR FLIGHTS ON SKYSCANNER NOW
Research Budget & Charter Flights
While Skyscanner and Google Flights are a great place to start, they don’t always give you the full picture when it comes to flight options. While I’ve noticed more and more budget airline flights appearing in search results, there are still plenty of instances when budget airline options fly under the radar. The same goes for charter flights.
It definitely pays to do your own research. Double check if there are any budget airlines that operate flights to or from your destination. Wikipedia is a great source of reference for hunting them out. You can also do a quick search online using some keywords like ‘low cost airlines Asia’, or ‘South America budget airlines’. Stumbling upon Cebu Pacific when planning our first trip to the Philippines back in 2012 felt like we’d struck gold, with budget flights and an extensive network making our trip so much cheaper and easier.
A cheap flight to Jeju Island with budget airline Jeju Air
Charter flights, while largely associated with package holidays, may also be a cheaper option for you depending on your destination. You can book just your flights with a charter airline then do your own thing when you get there. You’ll be limited to specific dates for flying as charter flights don’t operate every day, but you’ll benefit from a direct flight. If you’re travelling to a region with an existing package holiday market (think the Caribbean, North Africa, Goa, etc.) then do your research. It might just save you a fortune compared to regular scheduled airlines!
Look Offline Too
While we’re on the subject of thorough research and covering all the options, don’t forget to look offline too! This is especially true if you’re planning a more complicated itinerary involving multiple flights and destinations.
There’s a perception that booking with a travel agent will cost you more money than booking it all yourself. After all, aren’t they working on commission?! While the commission part may well be true, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be the one out of pocket. It’s the airlines, tour companies, travel insurance providers, etc., that pay the commission to the agency. A smart travel agent will want to find you the best price possible to ensure you book with them. So do your research before and let them know the best prices you’ve found so they can try to beat it.
Some travel agencies, like STA Travel, also have exclusive fares negotiated direct with airlines for students, youths and even teachers. Having worked for them for 7 years, I know how good these discounts can be!
When To Book
Generally speaking, the earlier you book your flights the better price you’ll get. This is because airlines have different fare levels, even within economy, and the cheaper fares sell out first.
Let me explain further…
Let’s say there are 100 seats within economy. The airline will allocate a certain number of seats to be sold at a certain price, or fare level. This fare is represented by a letter of the alphabet. For argument’s sake, let’s call them D – A. ‘D’ seats might be priced at £250, ‘C’ seats £300, ‘B’ seats £400 and ‘A’ seats £600.
When flight seats become available to book (usually around 10 months in advance) it is of course the cheapest fares that people book first. So booking 8 months in advance means you’re likely to get availability on a cheap ‘D’ fare. However if you book 2 months in advance, it’s more likely that all the ‘D’ and ‘C’ fares will be sold out. Only the more expensive ‘B’ and ‘A’ seats will be available.
Of course, this is a simplified example of real-world flight pricing, but you get the gist. In reality you’ll likely never know what fare level, or ‘letter of the alphabet’ you’ve booked. This is just behind-the-scenes airline info to help you understand why flight prices can differ.
Everyone is travelling in economy. However, you may have paid considerably less or more than the person sitting next to you depending on what fare level you managed to get available at the time of booking.
Ultimately, if you have fixed dates that you need to fly, get your tickets booked as early as possible to ensure you get the best value flights. And if you’re flexible with your travel dates, be sure to check prices for flying on different days. There may be cheap ‘D’ seats available on one flight, but only expensive ‘A’ seats available the next day.
When To Fly
Airlines are annoyingly savvy when it comes to deciding on the price of their fares. They know fine well that demand will be higher during busy travel periods like Christmas, Easter and school holidays. And so, their fares are higher too. Conversely, during quieter travel periods, airlines want to encourage people to fly, therefore their starting fares are cheaper.
As a general rule of thumb, seasons can be split into low, shoulder and peak travel periods.
Note that exceptions can always apply. Holiday periods such as Easter or special festivals/celebrations/events can all cause price spikes during what is normally considered low or shoulder season. Examples could be Songkran in Thailand, Golden Week in Japan or a huge sporting event.
The Best Time To Fly For Cheap Flights
If you can, always travel during the low season to take advantage of the best value fares. This means low season in your own country, but also the destination you’re travelling to.
For example, February is considered low season for travel from the UK. But with Lunar New Year celebrations in East Asia or Carnival in South America prices spike in February to these destinations. If you’re flying to/from the southern hemisphere, these low/peak travel dates will be flipped on their head. And while winter is generally considered low season in Europe and North America, it’s peak season for popular ski destinations.
How to Score the Best Value Flights For Peak Season Travel
If you must travel during peak season here’s a couple of tips to try and keep your costs down.
Take Advantage of Seasonal Pricing
Flying out the day before a season price hike can make a huge difference. This is true even if you’re still flying home during peak season. For example, fares from London to Sydney in December might start from £1200 return for departures from London between 9-15 Dec. However, the cheapest possible fare for departures between 16-23 Dec might be £1600. Leaving on the 15th instead of the 16th would save you £400 (subject to availability). Travelling the day before a season price increase saved me hundreds of pounds when flying to Australia at Christmas one year.
Another trick to avoid paying peak season fares is to search for flights from alternative airports where holiday dates might differ. For example, Scottish school holidays usually start earlier than English summer holidays, so flying from Newcastle or Manchester may be significantly cheaper than from Glasgow or Edinburgh.
It’s not always obvious what an airline’s exact dates are for a particular low, mid or peak season. You can usually find them in the nitty gritty fare rules under ‘validity’, ‘valid for departures from’, ‘valid for outbound travel between’, or such like. Otherwise, viewing prices over a week or month can easily highlight when there’s a difference in price.
HOW TO FIND SALE FARES
Airlines don’t usually advertise upcoming sales so if you want to grab a bargain sale fare you need to be on the ball. You’ll want to be alerted to the fact that a sale is on as soon as it’s announced and jump on it.
If You Are Flexible With Your Travel Plans…
If you’re flexible with your travel dates and destination, the best way to stay up to date is by signing up for mailing lists with airlines, travel agencies, flight comparison sites, etc., and following them on social media.
Signing up for general flight deal emails from Jack’s Flight Club (UK/Ireland/Europe departures) or Scott’s Cheap Flights (predominantly targeted at the North American market) is also a good idea. They both offer free (limited) services and premium (paid) services, sending out emails about bargain flight deals to destinations all over the world.
If You Have Specific Travel Plans…
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a deal on a specific route and date, your best bet is setting up fare alerts. You can do this on Skyscanner and Google Flights by first searching for your chosen flights. Then hit the ‘Get Price Alerts’ button on the top left in Skyscanner, or toggle on the ‘Track Prices’ button on Google Flights. You’ll then receive emails alerting you to any price increases/decreases, allowing you to monitor the fares and snap up a cheap deal if it appears.
Note that airlines are unlikely to have sale fares for travel during peak season. If that’s when you need to travel, your best bet for a great value fare is still to book as far in advance as possible. Don’t hold out for a potential sale!
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Search engines like Skyscanner make life a lot easier when it comes to narrowing down the options. But if you truly want to find the best value flights, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and think outside the box. Here are a few tips to help you hunt down the best flight deals.
Check Nearby Airports
Some places are just expensive to get to. There may be few airlines flying there, limiting your options and hiking the prices up.
Flying into a nearby airport and taking public transport or local budget flight to your final destination may be far better value for money in the long run.
Look For Flights In And Out Of Regional Hubs
Skyscanner and Google Flights won’t always find these options for you, even if you select the nearby airports function. So, it’s always worth comparing routes yourself.
Price up flights to the most popular airports in the region you’re travelling to (keep in mind this might include those in an entirely different country!). Then jump on Rome2Rio to find out how best to get to your final destination, or check out local budget flight options. Total the approx costs of this indirect route versus a more direct flight and you’ll quickly see if it’s a money saver or not.
Here’s a few examples of the most popular hubs in each region:
Let’s say you wanted to visit Hoi An in Vietnam. The closest airport is Da Nang, but the cheapest flights you can find from London are £539 return. A far cheaper option would be to fly into Ho Chi Minh City (£311 return), then take a budget Jetstar flight to Da Nang for £37 return. This works out nearly £200 less! Or you could save even more money by taking a bus – Rome2Rio flags up various transport options.
A Word Of Warning
Of course, there are various factors you should consider before opting for a flight routing like this. How much extra time will it take and are the savings worth it? Do you need a visa to visit? If you’re booking same day flights, do they arrive in and depart from the same airport? You should also be extra careful when booking two separate flight tickets to ensure you have enough time to collect your bags, check in for the next flight and allow for any delays. If you miss one flight because the other is late, the airlines won’t take any responsibility.
Nothing to do with a shark. Open jaw flights mean you fly into one airport and out of another. If your trip involves travelling around different regions, countries, or even continents, then an open jaw flight could be the best way to save you both time and money.
How Does It Work?
Let’s imagine you’re planning a trip to Thailand for 2 weeks. Skyscanner might find you a great deal on flights to Bangkok. But what it doesn’t know is that you actually want to spend just a couple of nights there. You plan on visiting Chiang Mai for five days, island hopping around the Andaman Coast for a week and ending up in Phuket. So really, flying in and out of Bangkok isn’t that convenient. You’ll have to spend time and money getting back to Bangkok at the end of your trip just to fly home. Flying into Bangkok then out of Phuket makes much more sense, and doesn’t eat up precious holiday time getting from A to B. A search engine isn’t going to suggest this route to you though, so it’s up to you to look for it!
Fly In And Out Of Different Countries
Generally speaking airlines won’t restrict you to flying in and out of the same country, or even the same continent, on an open jaw ticket. This means they are ideal if you’re planning to travel overland around a region. For example, you could fly into Mexico City and out of Panama City, travelling the length of Central America in between. Or book a ticket into Bangkok and out of Delhi, jumping on a cheap Air Asia flight to get you from Southeast Asia to India. Fancy an epic African overland adventure? Fly into Cairo and out of Cape Town and explore everywhere in between!
Start And Finish Your Journey In Two Different Places
With open jaw tickets it’s not just your arrival and departure airports that can be different. The start and end points of your journey can be completely different too.
I was scratching my head for ages and comparing endless options when researching the best value flights to get us from Korea to Australia, then on to Mongolia. Ideally we wanted to fly out of our closest airport Busan and into Melbourne. Then travel around Australia and fly from Brisbane to Mongolia. As Mongolia was the most obscure of these destinations, followed by Busan, I checked out each airport info page on Wikipedia to find out which airlines operated there. Air China ticked the box for both, as well as flying to Melbourne and Brisbane. Hoorah! Instead of using various airlines, with overnight waits and multiple transits in each direction, I found one ticket to take us from Busan via Beijing to Melbourne, and from Brisbane via Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. And for a very reasonable price I might add.
While the example above is pretty specific, you can apply this to your own trip easily. There are so many options out there, you just need to look for them. We’ve taken advantage of open jaw flights a lot over the years and love how much easier they make route planning, not to mention the time they save because you don’t have to backtrack to your original destination.
So How Can I Find These Types Of Tickets?
Whether you’re looking on a search engine like Skyscanner or an airline’s own website, you need to click on the ‘Multi-city’ or ‘Advanced Search’ option. Then you can add your departure and arrival destination and hit the ‘Add Flight’ button to add another sector.
Won’t It Cost Me More?
Maybe yes, maybe no, but it’s always worth checking. Airlines will generally calculate the total price by adding the return fare for each destination together and dividing by two. In the Thailand example above the return fare to Bangkok may be £350, Phuket may be £400, so the total for you to fly into Bangkok and out of Phuket would be £375. However, the cost of getting from Phuket back to Bangkok would be more than £25, not to mention the extra time involved, so this flight would work out much better value in the long run.
Also, many full service airlines (as opposed to budget airlines) give better fares for return flights compared to one-ways. A one-way ticket often costs around two thirds of a return, sometimes ridiculously more. Therefore, booking an open jaw ticket can be much better value than buying two one-way tickets.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREEBIES
Scoring a freebie stopover is like getting two holidays for the price of one. Working in multiple stopovers to your ticket, well that just gives me the biggest flight geek buzz ever! So what exactly are these stopovers I’m talking about?
The majority of airlines will call one destination home, or their ‘hub’. Unless you’re flying directly to or from that hub, your flight will always go via it, where you’ll change planes and while away a few hours. Flying from London to Delhi with Emirates? You’re going to transit through their hub in Dubai. Travelling from LA to Beijing with Korean Air? You’ll change aircraft at Incheon Airport.
The beauty of these transits is that airlines will often allow you to add in a stopover at their hub for free. Or at very little extra cost on top of your overall ticket price. Sometimes it can even make your ticket cheaper! With Iceland Air for example, throw in a stopover in Reykjavik when flying from Europe to America and your flight will be cheaper. This is because your first destination is now in Europe, not North America, and the taxes are less.
Often there aren’t any rules on how long you can stay at this stopover destination, other than completing your entire journey within the validity of the ticket. This opens up so many opportunities to see more of the world and truly score a fantastic value flight deal! Both my parents and a couple of friends have explored Istanbul thanks to a stopover on a Turkish Airlines flight. Another friend spent a week in Tahiti after I booked him a stopover with Air Tahiti Nui when flying from Auckland to Paris. We’ve taken advantage of stopovers in Dubai, Oman, Finland, and many other destinations around the world.
To add in a stopover when booking your flights, just use the same ‘multi-city’ or ‘advanced search’ function mentioned before.
Want to score a serious bargain flight deal? Book your next trip with an airline like Emirates who offer multiple stopover options on one ticket. These are incredible value and might take you places you never thought of going before! I wouldn’t have travelled to Sri Lanka or Southeast Asia back when I was 19 if it wasn’t for one of these bargain beauties.
Take Advantage Of Existing Flight Routes
The secret to booking one of these tickets is taking advantage of existing flight routes. Let’s consider a couple of examples.
Not a bad price to fly to the other side of the world and back.
BUT you can take advantage of SO many more stopovers on the way to and from New Zealand and get a much better value deal on this ticket.
Wow, only an extra £149 to add in stopovers in Southeast Asia and Australia, bargain!
Umm, £278 more to visit Dubai, Southeast Asia, Australia and Bali as well?! YEP! And you can spend as long as you like in each place, as long as you use all the flights within the validity of the ticket (in this example 6 months).
Sounds amazing but you just don’t have the time to travel to all these places? Scale it down a bit, without compromising on getting a great value flight. Stick to just two or three destinations. In the above examples you could combine just Australia and New Zealand in one trip, or just city breaks in Dubai and Bangkok plus NZ.
How To Find And Book Multiple Stopover Flights
The best place to start when searching for a flight with multiple stopover options is the airline’s own route map. Emirates is my absolute favourite for these kinds of tickets because they have such an extensive network. You can get so much more for your money because of this.
Use The Airline’s Route Map
Go to the route map on the Emirates website and play around with routes. Enter your departure point and click around on some destinations to see the flight route. If a dotted red line appears alongside a solid red line, this tells you there are two route options. The dotted line means the flight will make an extra stop before/after Dubai on the way to/from your chosen destination. If you didn’t want to actually stopover here you would just touchdown, maybe get off the plane and wander around the airport for an hour, then get back on the same aircraft again to continue your journey. But if you do want to stopover, then you can build this into your ticket.
In the screenshot below you can see the possible routes for a trip between London and Auckland. The solid red line shows the most direct route: London – Dubai – Auckland. But the dotted red line shows an alternative route: London – Dubai – Bali – Auckland. This tells you that stopover options on the way to/from Auckland are Dubai and Bali.
Fancy a stopover on the way to/from Australia? Click on the five different Australian destinations and you’ll find alternative dotted routes for flights to Melbourne, Brisbane (both via Singapore), and Sydney (via Bangkok). This tells you that a stopover is possible in Bangkok on the way to/from Sydney, or Singapore on the way to/from Melbourne or Brisbane. A stopover in Dubai is always a given too, as it’s the hub of Emirates airline. Codeshare flights with Qantas open up even more possibilities (like in Route 3 above), so play around with your flight search and see what you can find!
Combine your stopovers with open jaws
On top of these stopovers, you can combine open jaws in your ticket to really take advantage of a great flight deal and see more of the world. Why not fly into Bangkok, but out of Singapore on your way to Melbourne? This would allow you to spend a few weeks or even months travelling around Southeast Asia before heading Down Under. Planning to see both the South and North Islands of NZ? No need to waste time and money backtracking, just fly from Sydney into Christchurch, then out of Auckland onto Bali or Dubai.
Do Stopovers Cost Extra?
Emirates will usually allow you a free stopover on the way to and from your final destination, plus another stopover in each direction for £100 each. So that means two extra stopovers at no extra cost, or four extra stopovers for only £200 more (plus any tax differences). That’s a bargain!
Emirates multistop tickets generally offer the best value for money when travelling from Europe to Australia or New Zealand, with stops in Southeast Asia on the way there and back. A couple of other great routes you could combine are Male (Maldives) and Colombo (Sri Lanka), or Hong Kong and Bangkok.
How Can I Book Multiple Stopover Flights?
Once you’ve identified potential routes on the route map, all you need to do is search via the ‘Advanced Search’ or ‘Multi-City’ search function to bring up flight options. You can usually add up to ten flights.
A Note On Availability And Pricing
In order to get the best possible deal on your flights it’s good to know how these ticket prices are calculated. You want all your flights on the way to/from your ‘point of turnaround’ (ie. the furthest away destination) to be in the cheapest possible fare level. Even if just 1 flight out of 7 is more expensive, it will bump up the cost of every single flight on that half of your journey.
In the example of Route 3 above, let’s say that all flights on the way to Christchurch are available in cheap ‘D’ seats, with the exception of the Singapore – Sydney flight. This flight is only available at a more expensive ‘B’ seat fare level. This means that every flight from London – Christchurch will now be calculated at the ‘B’ seat price, making it more expensive overall. However, there may well be cheap ‘D’ seats available on the Singapore – Sydney flight a few days before or after. Congratulations! Your whole journey from London – Christchurch will now be calculated at the cheaper ‘D’ fare level.
Unfortunately, outside of the travel agency-type booking system, airlines don’t always clearly display fare level availability. As time-consuming as it is, the best thing to do is check each individual flight and look at the monthly calendar to see which dates are the cheapest. Note these down, then go back to ‘Advanced Search’ and put all the cheapest dates in for your flights. This will help you avoid those busier flights with only more expensive seats left, keeping the cost of your whole ticket down.
CHECK THE RULES & INCLUSIONS
A final word on weighing up the best value flights out there.
READ THE RULES.
In particular, pay attention to the fees for changes and cancellations, and know what is and isn’t included.
A cheap flight might turn out to be more expensive than the next best fare after adding on baggage, meals and so on. Also, if your plans change and you have to alter your travel dates, change your destination, or cancel your flights altogether, a flight with lower cancellation/change/reissue fees will minimise your financial loss.
So, be sure to look at the ‘Fare Conditions’, ‘Fare Rules’ or other small print. Factor this in when comparing the best flight deals. Is an extra £20 now worth it to ensure you have a fully refundable ticket with flexible date/route change options, rather than a non-refundable and non-changeable ticket? You never think you’re going to make changes, but working in the travel industry I dealt with changes and cancellations day in, day out, often for completely unforeseeable reasons.
Does that cheap flight include checked baggage, or will you have to pay extra?
Note that it’s a good idea to purchase your travel insurance at the same time as you purchase your flights as this will usually cover you against cancellation immediately. This way, if you need to cancel or change your flights due to an insurable reason (perhaps sudden serious illness, the unexpected death of a family member, or being made redundant) you can claim money back from your travel insurance provider.
GET A QUOTE NOW
It’s also important to know that if your flight ticket has more than one set of rules (ie. one covering the first half of your trip, and different rules for the return half) then the most restrictive rules apply for the whole ticket. So, if you’re reading the rules and one set states ‘Cancellation fee £200’, and another ‘Non-refundable’, this means your entire ticket is non-refundable.
HOW TO FIND THE BEST VALUE FLIGHTS
So, that’s it for now, all my top tips for scoring the best value flights out there. I hope you’ve learned some useful hints and tricks that will ensure you bag a bargain for your next trip, and every one after that!
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