This post features basic flight booking advice for occasional leisure travelers.
Before You Book
- Don’t book too early!
- Get a feel for the average airfare to your destination
- Best fares: ~6 weeks before departure (not always the case)
Unless you found an amazing deal, you should not book your flights months in advance. A better approach is to get a feel for what good airfares to your destination are. (e.g. you should not pay more than €500 for a roundtrip Brussels – New York) Promotions and error fares aside, we generally see the cheapest flights around 6 weeks before departure.
Things to take into consideration
- What’s the reputation of the airline?
- Are there any extra fees to be paid? (e.g. checked luggage fee)
- What are the flight times? Are there any long layovers?
- Select the right seats
When booking flights, you should not only focus on the lowest airfares. Make sure to verify the reputation and aircraft type of the operating airline (e.g. via SkyTrax or Routehappy). You don’t want to be stuck on a 12-hour flight without individual inflight entertainment system. Also check if there are any applicable airline fees. Low-cost carriers are notorious to charge for everything. (e.g. forget to print your boarding pass with Ryanair = €70) Early or late departure/arrival times might be bothersome and so might be long layovers. If the operating airline allows you to preselect your seats at the time of booking (or online check-in), make sure to use tools like SeatGuru to determine the best seats for you.
Where to Start?
My primary tool to find cheap flights is KAYAK.com It allows you to set email Price Alerts to keep track of your airfares and shows a Price Trend indicator which advises you when to book. KAYAK.com also features an Explore function with the cheapest flights to destinations worldwide from your preferred airport. Alternatively to Kayak, you can use the mother of all airfare search engines: Matrix by ITA Software. A very powerful tool with many options, but less user-friendly and you can’t make direct bookings from the site.
When should I book & fly?
Book: Airline tickets tend to be cheapest on Tuesday evening. Flight queries during weekends might return higher fares. Fly: Sunday is the most expensive day to fly, Tuesday and Wednesday are generally cheaper. Adding a Saturday stay to your trip might lower the airfare. Many airlines require a Saturday night stay to get access to lower fares. This allows airlines to distinguish leisure travelers from business travels, as the latter tend to avoid Saturday night stays.
More tricks to lower fares?
- Check airfares from nearby airports
- Combine two one-way tickets
- Add an open-jaw to your itinerary
- Check fares at multiple OTA’s (Online Travel Agencies)
Don’t stick to your usual airport, nearby airports might offer cheaper flights. Lowcostairlines.nl provides a nice overview of which destinations low-cost airlines serve from the Benelux. Combining two one-way tickets (definitely with low-cost carriers) might be cheaper. An open-jaw ticket might be much cheaper too. “An open-jaw ticket is a round-trip ticket in which the traveler does not arrive to the same city of departure and/or does not depart from the same city where he first landed.” Don’t forget to check flights with multiple OTA’s, the same flight query might result in very different results. Some of my favorites: Skyscanner, Bravofly, Hipmunk and Momondo. Once you found your desired flights, make sure to double check with the issuing and operating airline’s websites to make sure they don’t offer a better fare.
Where are the great deals?
Make sure to sign-up for the newsletters of your favorite airlines. If you’re active on social media, like the airline’s Facebook page and follow them on Twitter. Airlines often share deals on their social media channels and announce promotions via mailings. Those are some of the ‘official’ sources to get notified about deals. But there are a number of other channels to get notified about ‘hidden’ deals. Forums like Flyertalk, Vielfliegertreff (German) and BusinessClass.se (Swedish) are generaly the first ones to identify great deals and error fares, but it’s hard to keep track of them. Commercial initiatives like HolidayPirates.com have made it easier for travelers to be notified about great deals. They even offer an iOS HolidayPirates App which can be tailored to send you push notifications for deals matching your travel preferences.
I don’t have time for this. Can you help me?
Flightfox allows you to launch a ‘contests’ in which experts compete to find the lowest airfares or construct the best itinerary for your trip. Once the contest is over (usually after 48h), you select the best solution and the winning expert will receive a ‘finders fee’. Obviously, this service comes at a cost (starting from $24) but it can save you a lot of time and money.
One more thing…don’t waste the airline miles!
Make sure to check if you can earn frequent flyer miles with your flights. Collecting these miles, even in small quantities, can be helpful in a later stage of your travel hobby! Here’s a post explaining how the Lufthansa Miles & More program works.