Travel hacks: Top tips for finding cheap flights

Flight booking has moved on since the days of popping down to the travel agent on the high street. Today, you have the tools used by travel agents at your fingertips, but there’s still an art to finding the best deal.

Try these tips.

Myth busting

Before we get started, there’s no ‘cheapest’ day to book, though there are definitely cheaper days to fly. And despite what you may have heard, using your browser in ‘incognito’ mode or clearing cookies after every search is unlikely to make much difference to the fare.

Be a midweek flyer

Demand and prices peak at weekends, while Tuesday and Wednesday are usually the cheapest days to fly. Click on the date field while searching on Google Flights to bring up a calendar showing how prices vary on different dates. Most airline websites display a calendar of daily fares when you search, making it easy to spot the cheap days to fly.

Understanding flight bookings

Airlines use dynamic pricing to sell seats for the highest price they can get, so fares go up and down with demand. Seats are released in staggered batches, with smaller allocations in the cheaper brackets – if you see a good price, grab it.

Shop the sales

Many airlines offer sales in January, September and dates such as Black Friday. Sign up for airline newsletters and travel news services such as going.com and theflightdeal.com for prior notice. Always investigate whether the price really offers a saving.

Pay attention to the route

Always sense-check the routes in the search results. Watch out for tight connections, long layovers, different outbound and return airports, and complicated combinations of airlines, which can increase the risk of missed connections and lost luggage.

Lonely Planet's The Travel Hack Handbook is available in NZ bookstores.

Supplied

Lonely Planet’s The Travel Hack Handbook is available in NZ bookstores.

When to book

Book early. Most airlines open flights to booking about 11 months before departure. Closer to the departure date, cheaper classes fill up and availability dwindles – try to book at least five weeks ahead. Last-minute bargains are rare – prices usually increase around 21 days before departure.

Book online

You can find almost any flight on booking sites such as Expedia (expedia.com), Momondo (momondo.com) and Kayak (kayak.com), but their algorithms may be biased towards certain carriers or routes, and sites may not show you all the fare options. It’s always worth checking airline sites too, particularly for student discounts.

Compare booking sites

Booking sites compare routes and airlines, but it’s often useful to compare booking sites. Search on the comprehensive Skyscanner (skyscanner.net) or Google Flights (google.com/travel/flights) to see the

prices that different travel agencies and airlines are charging for a particular route.

Beware seasonal price hikes

Airlines use dynamic pricing to sell seats for the highest price they can get, so fares go up and down with demand. Seats are released in staggered batches, with smaller allocations in the cheaper brackets – if you see a good price, grab it.

Plot your route

Your destination might be an island with only one airport, but that might not be the best way to get there. There could be a larger, busier airport nearby, just a short ferry-ride away. Try these tips for route planning.

Find out who flies where: As a first step, investigate which airlines fly to your destination. Wikipedia pages for specific airports usually include a list of airlines and destinations that you can use as a rough starting point. Continue the search for direct routes on airline websites and at FlightConnections (flightconnections.com) and FlightMapper (flightmapper.net).

Direct or connect? Flying to your destination without stopping is the quickest choice, but it might not be the cheapest. Competition between airlines is fierce, so look out for cheaper fares combining a short-haul flight to a nearby country and then a long-haul flight from their main hub.

Multiple airlines? Be wary about booking connecting flights with different airlines. If the whole route is covered by a single airline, they’re responsible for getting you and your bags to your destination if you miss your connection. If multiple carriers are involved, you might be on your own if the first flight is delayed.

Layover tips: For any connecting flight, check the layover time. Less than two hours might be too tight to make your connection; more than four hours means a long, boring wait. Allow extra time if changing airlines; always check if flights leave from the same terminal and see if you need to collect your bags and check in for the second flight.

Fly nearby: Check out alternative airports close to where you want to go – eg Charleroi and Beauvais for Paris; or Stansted, Luton and Southend for London. Clicking on the map in a Google Flights search will reveal prices for flights to all the airports in the vicinity. Budget airlines fly to hundreds of smaller airports, but always factor in the price of local transport to your final destination.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Juliette Sivertsen, Tyson Beckett and Hayden Tan review the new line up of snacks that Air NZ are going to be offering in the coming year.

Make your flights count: When it comes to aviation, points mean prizes, so make full use of loyalty programmes, credit cards and frequent-flier programmes.

Be a frequent flyer: Always join the frequent-flier programme – or claim the points if you’re part of an affiliated scheme. Members of the big airline alliances (SkyTeam, Star Alliance and Oneworld) offer reciprocal credits for frequent fliers of partner airlines. Some hotel loyalty schemes will also let you claim credits for qualifying stays in the form of points for partner airlines.

Credit and loyalty cards: Credit cards linked to Airpoints and other airline point schemes are a great way to build up credits. Use your credit card wisely (and promptly settle the balance each month) and your points tally will soar. Don’t overlook click-through points on shopping and dining portals run by airlines.

Use your points: Airlines set aside an allocation of seats for award bookings, so you can’t use your points for every flight, and you’ll have to pay the tax, fuel surcharges and airport service charges, even if the ticket is free. However, the points threshold for booking business-class and first-class seats might be lower than you think. Search for ‘award’ or ‘reward’ flights on airline websites and remember that award points can be used for upgrades as well as new bookings.

GETTING AN UPGRADE

Don’t expect to be bumped up to first class just for smiling sweetly. Airlines give priority to frequent-flyer club members with healthy points balances or people with special reasons for upgrading – for example, a broken leg. Dressing smartly, asking politely and arriving early will increase your chances.

If the airline asks for volunteers to be bumped onto a later flight, see if you can get an upgrade as part of the deal. Upgrades are a solo traveller’s game – nobody gets an upgrade for the whole family.

The above is an extract from Lonely Planet’s Travel Hack Handbook, and has been republished with permission from Lonely Planet © 2022.

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