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9 mistakes you’re making when booking flights

Photo of Tamara HinsonPhoto of Tamara Hinson
By Tamara Hinson

7 June 20246 min read

A view of the clouds and sky through the window of an aircraft also showing the plane wing

From the soaring cost of add-ons, which once came as standard, to the algorithms that hike up prices on popular routes, it can feel like finding a cheap flight has never been harder.

But get smart about how you book, and you’ll have a good chance of walking away with the flight you want at a price you like.

These top tips – with a little input from industry experts – will help you bag a bargain.

1. Not going incognito

Don’t be surprised if fares start to increase when you make repeated searches for similar flights – something that happens when airlines (or at least, their tech) realise you’re keen to bag a certain flight.

The solution? Go undercover.

“By turning on incognito mode on your browser, you avoid cookies, which hike up the fares you’ll see,” says frequent flyer Jeremy Clubb, founder of Rainforest Cruises.

"Equally, a VPN (virtual private network) can be helpful when you're booking a flight. You can take advantage of the inconsistencies airlines have when pricing their flights in different currencies.

“If you use your VPN and search as though you’re in another country with a lower cost of living than your own, you might well find the prices of your ideal flight are lower.”

2. Booking too early

We’re all for being prepared, but booking flights too early could see you miss out on a last-minute bargain.

“Unless you’re planning a trip during known high demand periods, booking more than eight weeks before your departure date means you risk missing the fare drops that typically come along four to six weeks before the flight departure,” says Dr Volodymyr Bilotkach, Associate Professor in Aviation Management at Indiana’s Purdue University.

3. Missing out on release-day fares

That said, there are some fares (think Ryanair’s £9.99 prices) that are unlikely to drop further so it pays to be ready to pounce if the flight is right.

easyJet has also confirmed to MoneySavingExpert that their fares are demand-driven, “so they start low and rise as more seats on the aircraft are booked." It can mean cheaper prices on the morning new flights are released.

Signing up to airlines’ newsletters can be a good way to hear about when new seats go on sale – but remember to do your research on prices beforehand to know if it is really a good deal.

4. Not booking on a Sunday

Did you know that the day you book can be as important as the day you fly?

According to Expedia’s Air Hacks report, travellers can save up to 13% when making a booking (note: making the booking, not taking the actual flight) on a Sunday instead of a Friday.

The report also found that flights departing after 3pm are 50% more susceptible to cancellations than the earliest flights, which brings us to our next tip…

5. Ignoring early flights

That early morning flight may sound like a painful way to start your day, but discounting it could cost you time as well as money (as these flights are usually the cheapest).

That’s because these flights are much less likely to be delayed – there won’t be a backlog of aircraft waiting to take off, and a large number of airplanes used for early morning flights will have arrived at the airport the night before, so there’s much less chance of delays relating to the planes’ inbound arrival, too.

6. Not factoring in layovers

Nothing ramps up stress levels like a panicked dash across an airport – and it’s all too easy to underestimate how long that dash might take.

“When accounting for layovers in your itinerary, it's not just about the duration but also about understanding the quirks of the airport,” says Jan Luescher, the jet-setting CEO of luxury travel social network A Small World.

“The sheer size of some airports means you’ll need a lot of extra time. Take Dallas’ Fort Worth International Airport, where walking between some gates involves covering a distance of 2.3km (1.43 miles).”

7. Prioritising prices over practicality

Sure, that dirt cheap flight to Iceland might look like a bargain, but is the reason it’s so cheap down to the fact that there’s no sunlight during the month of your visit, or that the mercury rarely will rarely stray above zero?

Booking a cheap ticket is a false economy if you’re going to have to spend the money you saved on unexpected taxi rides due to avoid bad weather, or if the attractions you’ve dreamed of seeing are closed because you’re visiting during the off season.

8. Not being flexible when it comes to airports

This one’s especially important when it comes to America, where some of the most popular cities are surrounded by multiple airports.

For example, if you’re heading to Washington DC, consider flying into Baltimore – flights to the city are often much cheaper than ones to Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport (which is 48km from the city centre), and it’s just a 70-minute train journey to get from Baltimore’s BWI airport to Washington DC.

It applies to big cities in Europe, too. Capitals such Paris and Rome, and cities like Milan, have multiple airports servicing flights from the UK. Low-cost airlines tend to snap up slots in those further from the city centre.

Do some research on connections from airports near your destination and factor in the prices to see where you’ll come out on top.

For example, the £10 train (each way) from Milan Bergamo Airport, about an hour from the city’s central station, could be worth it if your flight is significantly cheaper than those going to the closest airport, Linate.

9. Underestimating the cost of added extras

You might well think you can squeeze everything you need for a cheap weekend in Rome into a Ryanair-friendly bag, but if it all goes wrong and you’re forced to pay for checked bags at the airport, it’s a false economy.

Take the time to think about exactly what you’ll be taking (and what added extras, such as shopping, you’ll be bringing back) and err on the side of caution. However, this doesn’t mean getting sucked into an airline “bundle.”

For example, when booking an Economy Light ticket with Virgin Atlantic, you’ll be bombarded with ads pointing out the benefits of upgrading to Economy Delight, although, as with most airlines, if your only goal is adding a checked bag, you’ll be better off sticking with the basic fare and adding your checked bag separately.

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