If there’s one thing that casts a little pall over your holiday, it’s when someone tells you they found an amazing deal on a flight to somewhere you’d just booked at a higher price.
So, what’s the secret to getting the best flight deal? Well, there isn’t one – there are five, says TravelSupermarket’s flights expert, Bob Atkinson.
Should you book early? Or wait until the last minute? Or is it completely random?
The economist Makoto Watanabo released a formula in 2010 that declared the optimum time to book was eight weeks before departure.
In January of this year, the respected comparison site Skyscanner published research stating that the best time to book varied from four weeks to 21 weeks before your departure date, depending on where you were going.
The point to take from these findings is that there is no set rule and the ideal booking time varies according to when and where you’re travelling.
Flying on school holiday and bank holiday dates obviously tends to increase prices, for example. But the time of year you’re booking makes a difference, too.
Airlines put flights on sale at different times. The scheduled airlines, such as British Airways and Emirates, release seats around 11 months prior to departure on a rolling basis. Low cost airlines and package operators tend to put a full season (winter or summer) on sale in one go.
The general rule remains to book ahead as far as you can. The reason is that availability will be at its widest then, giving you the best choice of seats in the market.
Flying more than 20 times a year, how do I go about getting the best price? I use price comparison sites such as TravelSupermarket to scour the market for the best choice of flights to my destination, considering both non-stop and connecting services.
I then watch the prices for a few days before booking. I also look at alternative dates near to the ones I originally selected, just in case I can shave a few pounds off the price.
General points to bear in mind are, first, that midweek departures tend to be cheaper than the weekend.
Second, travelling outside the main seasons for a destination usually gets you the best prices – for example, flying in November or from January to March for the USA, or taking a May or June break for cheaper prices to Australia.
Third, a route that involves changing planes may often be cheaper (although at the expense of the time saving of a direct flight).
Canny fliers should also sign up to airline newsletters. That way, you can be one of the first to check out the lower prices when an airline releases a seat sale.
Pre-internet, you could pretty much guarantee that booking a flight with a travel agent would be cheaper than going directly through the airline.
However, with the ease of online booking that situation is often reversed and direct booking is cheaper. The low cost carriers in particular always cost less when booked directly.
But travel agents haven’t completely had their day. The scheduled carriers still offer them special deals, especially when they concentrate on the ethnic markets of the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East and Africa and can shift a lot of the seats for the airlines.
Travel agents also use powerful airline booking systems to combine carriers and seats to find you the best overall deals for your travelling dates – combinations that are often not found on the direct airline sites.
A price comparison engine such as TravelSupermarket can reveal these options in one search and show you whether booking through an agent would be a better deal.
Finally, sites such as Expedia claim they can save you figures of around 15% when you book a flight with a hotel or car hire. This is classed as a package. Which leads us on to…
Again, where you’re traveling, and when, are crucial in working out whether a package offers the best deal.
If you’re travelling outside the school holidays to the Greek islands, say, a package is likely to be far cheaper than a separate flight and bed.
And booking last minute, you may find packages being sold at low prices whereas a flight price is likely to be higher.
Packages to traditional beach and ski destinations, where the big holiday companies such as TUI dominate the market, are also pretty hard to beat.
An added benefit of most packages is that they are sold with ATOL cover, which protects you if anything goes wrong with the airline or hotel. So you could secure a better price and more holiday protection.
In all cases, use a comparison engine to search package prices and stack up their savings against each other.
Avoid being sucked in by the headline price of a flight. Many people end up paying more for extras – sometimes even more than the cost of the flight.
Consider which extras you really need. For instance, could you do without checked baggage or choosing an aisle or window seat?
Can you last the flight without consuming provided food and drink?
And are you able to check in online and print your boarding cards at home?
Extras can exceed the price of the original fare. Baggage costs on Ryanair, for example, are as much as £90 return in summer for 20kg of checked luggage
Having found your flights with a low-cost airline, go as far as the final booking screen, adding on extras such as baggage and seating charges, card fees and onboard meals on the way.
Then you can compare the true value of the flight with one from a “full service” carrier such as British Airways, which doesn’t charge extra for everything over and above the seat.
Another point to consider with budget carriers is which airports they are using. Ryanair, in particular, is often known for using secondary airports. While these may be uncrowded and quick to travel through, they can be far from the eventual destination, so the added travel costs may then outweigh any ticket saving.
If you’re planning a round the world adventure or a longer exploration of one of the world’s continents, then a specialist planner will get you the best deals.
These agents work with airlines to combine fares to your destination, as well as special deals on air passes to get you around when you’re there. They can also advise on round the world fares that are not available to book via the internet due to their complexity.
Another route to consider here is the three main airline alliances. They offer great online tools for planning routings for an extensive trip.
Once you’ve planned possible itineraries on these sites, seek the advice of a travel agent. A little expertise here could save you hundreds of pounds.