Learning to Fly… Smart: How to get the best flight deal

The days of £1 flights may be over, but there are still travel deals to be had for the discerning traveller. NICOLE CROWLEY lets us in on a few tips of the trade, and shows you how to avoid blowing your budget next time you fly.

 
 

Flight tips

I CAN’T begin to count the times I’ve heard a New Zealand traveller bawl at the value of the Great British Pound. We seem to encapsulate an annoying little habit to double the cost of everything in sight, exaggerating and miscalculating the exchange rate until you hear: “£2.50 for a coffee? That’s, like, over five dollars.”

Unfortunately for travellers, it’s a given that the exchange rate is nothing to write home about. In particular, airfares can easily soak up the largest chunk of your pound and deliver the most amount of stress, making your ‘quick getaway’ feel (read: ‘cost’) like a full blown holiday.

With tourism still shaky all over the world and fuel prices climbing higher – surpassing even the cost of airline salaries – there is little margin for airlines to make a profit and slash their fares to match competitors. Bottom line? The days of ‘£1′ flight sales are virtually extinct.

But before you write off travelling as an exorbitantly expensive hobby, or fall victim to the complacency of settling for the ‘cheapest fares guaranteed’ here’s a list of tips and tricks to bear in mind when purchasing your flights. The savings could mean the difference between the hostel and the four star hotel.

The perfect time to book is…

Eight weeks in advance, on a Tuesday or Wednesday, at 3pm.

The day you book can have as much of an impact as the day you depart. Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, concluded that 3pm Eastern time on a Tuesday is the ideal time to book, based on a three-year investigation into flight prices.

In general, analysts have concluded that prices seem to be higher in the mornings, and can decrease in the afternoons. The rationale posits that business travellers, who make up a large portion of the flight market, are more likely to book their travel in the mornings during the week, on their corporate accounts.

Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, three of the biggest online ticket-sellers, all say their busiest day for reservations is Tuesday and the slowest day is Saturday, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The report claims that many sales occur on a Monday night and by Tuesday competitions have surfaced to match the slashed fares, often by 15 to 25 per cent. By Thursday and Friday, these offers have sold out or expired and flight prices stagnate around the upper price bracket for the weekend. Expedia claims that Saturdays have about half the volume of Tuesdays.

The second consistent finding was what economist, Makoto Watanabe, coined the ‘eight week rule’. The logic here is that travellers are rewarded for booking in advance. Naturally, work schedules and personal conflicts make an eight-week plan somewhat difficult, so as Watanabe says, “In order to make consumers take their chances, airlines have to offer advance purchase discounts.”

Not surprisingly, ticket prices are severely hiked the closer to the date you book. If you are flexible, flying mid-week bears considerable price benefits compared to the weekends. For instance, a quick search on British Airways from London to Prague in December had a price difference of £198 from a Wednesday flight to a Saturday flight. Flying earlier in the morning and later in the evenings can also deliver cheaper prices as these are the least popular times.

Budget airlines… Mostly.

Budget airlines like Ryan Air and easyJet are notorious for their alluringly low fares. But what you are paying for is little more than the seat. The first factor to consider is the baggage allowance. If you’re booked in for a short trip and can champion the easyJet carry-on test at the gate, then these airlines often offer the best flight deals. easyJet have no weight restrictions for carry-on, yet it is strictly one piece and must fit within the display case measures, lest you risk a £40 fee at the gate. Adding checked luggage will set you back £14 each way.

Ryan Air is slightly worse. Adding a checked bag will hike up the airfare from £15 each way for 15kg and will rise dependant on the weight and the peak of the season.

The price of the airfare is also dependant upon the airport in which you depart. Most budget airlines, and the cheapest fares, will depart from Stansted, Southend and Luton due to the lower airport taxes. But before you hit ‘Confirm Now’ and swing the shiny new carry on across your shoulder, do the calculations.

Let’s consider Ryan Air who recently advertised return flights to Poland from London Stansted for £6. Really, you know it’s a bargain since you’ve just spent five times that on dinner. Then, calculate. The Stansted Express train will cost a minimum of £22.50 each way, and a checked bag will hike the fare another £30 return. Naturally, £6 was the lowest fare available and the dates and flight times were severely limited, meaning that a readjustment on the flight time would bear a price penalty. Even before payment fees are surcharged and dates are jumbled, that’s a neat little £75 to add on.

Airlines such as British Airways and Swiss Air can sometimes scare bargain hunters away with their steeper fares, but you should consider this includes 23kg of checked luggage, Heathrow is a tube ride away on your Oyster and complimentary amenities are available on board.

The Cheapest Fares Guaranteed

While this one isn’t necessarily untrue, it can be misleading at best. Comparison websites such as Expedia, SkyScanner, fly.com, CheapOair and Kayak have exploded in popularity over recent years. While some survive off advertising costs alone, many are funded with alliances from airlines themselves.

That said, these sites should form the basis of your initial search. By searching multiple deal sites you will be able to identify which airlines are consistent in offering the lowest fare. Step two is to check-in directly with the airline’s website advertising the cheapest flights.

Why? On a recent trip to Berlin, the lowest fares were generated through the search engine CheapOair and promised easyJet to deliver the best deal at £159 return to Schoenefeld. Upon the final pages of my online booking I was agreeing to a £11.34 debit card surcharge. Switching tactics to search easyJet directly for the identical flight, it was advertised at an additional £3, yet attracted zero fees to pay via debit card. In this instance, booking direct is a more economically beneficial approach despite online deals websites promising to deliver the cheapest flights. Guaranteed.

The final word

The days of cheap travel seem numbered. Personally, 2012 saw a wealth of travel misadventures on my behalf, from overpriced last minute flights last to fraudulent tickets via Gumtree, building a firm foundation to pave the way for smarter traveling.

While amazing deals are planted like hidden gems on the Internet, remain vigilant and search hard. Consider the total costs, sign up for mailing lists, join frequent flyers and try to remain flexible for the best fares. Bon voyage!

 
 

 
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