The quest for cheap flights

Having worked in travel for about a million years, I have seen the industry gradually transform, from a thriving, fun and well paid sector, to a miserly industry dominated by call centres and unenthusiastic agents. For me, being a travel agent meant countless discounted travel opportunities, free upgrades and excess luggage – all I had to do was tell the counter clerk that I was a travel agent with such and such, and in more cases than not, I would get an upgrade and a free pass to the VIP lounge. A lot of these extras were extended to regular travellers too, who could additionally enjoy flexible tickets at a reasonable cost, which included drinks and meals on all flights, and they had the luxury of being able to reserve their seat prior to check in.

Nowadays, things have changed. Rising fuel costs, high airport taxes, the emergence of budget carriers and a global recession, has forced major airlines to keep a tighter rein on their profit margins. They have stopped paying travel agents commission and have introduced highly restricted tickets without luggage allowance, in attempting to lower the costs and compete with their no frills counterparts. Code share flights and inter-airline alliances are all part of the same initiative to keep expenditure to a minimum, while maintaining a foothold in the market. As a result, the options for travellers have increased. But so have the challenges in locating the best deal, since booking your flights is no longer a case of visiting a one-stop-shop.

There are a number of opportunities available to the budget conscious traveller. Below I have listed some general information to consider when conducting your search. Some of these are pretty obvious – “have flexible dates” – while others will only be known to those working in the industry or who otherwise have insider knowledge.

First off – be flexible! Yes, that’s right – certain dates are busier and so the lower fares are already taken up. If you have a few days to play with, it can reduce the cost of your ticket by a significant amount. For example, currently a one-way ticket from London Heathrow to Nice on 1 August 2013, is selling at EUR252, but the same flight a day earlier costs EUR182. This logic applies to avoiding high season – in August, European flights generally cost more. School holidays are busier periods, and sometimes, even weekend flights, particularly when it’s a bank holiday and a lot of people want to get away for the 3 day weekend.

If you are in a position to confirm your travel dates in advance, then take advantage of early saver fares. These are available to those who book a certain number of days/weeks prior to departure. Conversely, last minute deals can also save you money, but will leave you with far less choices and can be risky. This is best attempted with the help of a travel agent, who can monitor the flight and advice on your chances of getting a better fare or not.

It pays to choose your destination carefully. Do some research to see if there are any major events happening at the time you plan to be there. Trying to find a cheap flight to Rio during Carnival, is really a fruitless endeavour. But in some cases, by simply choosing an alternative airport, say, Newark instead of JFK, can make a big difference to the cost.

When searching for flights online, don’t just rely on Skyscanner or other fare comparison site. These websites get paid commission by the airlines they list and so will not include airlines and routes which they do not make money on. Look at individual airline websites. And search the net for low cost, lesser known, regional airlines. I regularly come across airlines I have never before encountered and I book dozens of tickets each day.

In addition to the various online booking tools available, seeking the assistance of travel agent can help you save money and spare you a lot of hassle. Good travel agents have expert knowledge of destinations, airline routes and fare rules. They can tell you if booking a return fare will work out cheaper than 2 one way tickets and they can combine airlines and fares such a way that can save you money. For instance, a route involving different airlines can sometimes be split in to 2 or even 3 separate tickets and cost less than issuing one ticket for the whole route. They can also advise you on things like fare rules, penalties for cancelations and changes and the most appropriate fare available for your particular needs.

Additionally, many travel agents have access to contact or private fares which are unavailable to the public. Consolidated fares are quite a complex subject, which I hope to cover in a future post, but the main point to note is that it’s possible to get such a – albeit, highly restricted – ticket for up to 50% less than what you would find it if you were to book direct with the airline.

Not all travel agents are experts and certainly not all agencies have access to contract rates, but if you find a good agent with the relevant skills and knowledge, it’s worth building a relationship with them. Once the know you and your requirements, they will be better able to advise you and they can keep you up to date on special offers you may not want to miss.

Finally, make the most of frequent flyer miles. There are countless opportunities to earn miles, but here is an article of the 5 Fastest Ways.

Do get in touch if you have any questions or comments!