There are plenty of posts online about this topic, and most of them seem to rely on unconfirmed sources, random cases read online and even rumours. In this post, I am going to discuss some of the myths and give advice on how to actually find the best flights.
The travel industry is changing
The travel industry has changed a lot in the past couple of years. There are plenty of new players/brands, and the existent ones are now offering more services.
TripAdvisor is now selling flights, hotels and experiences. Google is offering a super-fast flight search engine. Airbnb has now experiences/tours as well, and so does Booking.com, which has also homes and cars. There are also huge OTAs (Online Travel Agency) such as Expedia, which does everything. And then local brands as well, such as Trip.com and Klook in Asia. And the best meta-searches such as Skyscanner are now becoming merchants as well. And even blogs, like TheCultureTrip, are now becoming OTAs.
Within the travel industry, flights are slightly trickier than hotels, cars and tours. Some websites use flights as a means to sell the rest, mostly hotels. This is because commissions for flights are up to 3%, whereas for hotels are up to 15%.
The browser cookies myth
Do you use an incognito window or clear your browser cookies and cache before searching for flights? So then you are doing extra work in vain.
This myth states that airlines use browser cookies to track the number of times you search for a specific flight and increase the price as you repeat your search. The theory behind this is that the more you search for a flight, the more you are interested in buying it, and the more you are willing to pay.
This is wrong. Nowadays, I don’t think any website or application would do it. For sure not the main ones such as Skyscanner, Google, Expedia or Kayak. Nor the airlines. Skyscanner explicitly explains it in detail in this post, together with a few tips and information about prices.
Besides, as we explained above, some websites don’t even care about flights and use them to sell something else, therefore they wouldn’t bother to implement this kind of advanced tricks. If you still have doubts about it, you can always read about GDPR (Europe) and ask any website about what information they use and for what).
The truth about commissions and hidden fees
Do you look for flights on a search engine and then go to the airline’s official website hoping that it is cheaper? The theory behind this is that the search engines add a commission on top. This is not always the case, it could even be very rare or just not possible if you use the right search engines. But you could always find some sellers who add fees to the prices.
So, how do you know? There are multiple business models and cases, and they all vary per website. But you could think the same about Booking.com with hotels, and I think today we all know that Booking has the same price or is cheaper than the hotel’s official website. This is because the commission is negotiated hotel by hotel, and Booking expects and checks that the hotel offers the same price (some hotels offer some “extras” if you book directly with them, such as a bottle of wine, which is cheaper than the commission).
Although hotels are a very different story, many flight search engines also negotiate their commission with the airline or OTA individually, which is not added to the total price. It is also well known that some low-cost airlines do not give commission at all, so the engines here need to decide if they want to include them for free on their searches, or exclude them. I can tell you that Ryanair and Easyjet are included in most engines even with no commission, for a simple reason: people expect to find them.
As a general rule, if there is a redirection to the airline website or OTA, there shouldn’t be any commission nor hidden fee. For instance, Skyscanner, Google Flights (see their price guarantee policy) and Kayak do this, but not always, as they also sell tickets themselves (for some airlines and flights, and in some countries).
I think it is quite rare to find cheaper flights on airlines websites. I don’t think I ever found a single case. On the contrary, I usually find cheaper prices on sites like Skyscanner, which then redirects you to OTAs such as GoToGate. And this makes sense mainly for two reasons:
- The commission/business model explained above.
- OTAs, such as Expedia or GoToGate, act as resellers and in some cases can acquire plenty of tickets in advanced (even all the tickets for a flight), to then set their own prices based on their own algorithms. And they can play a lot with algorithms (machine learning, AI, or whatever you want to call it) because they have extremely valuable data (what people search and buy, basically).
So, how do engines calculate the prices? And what factors affect the prices?
You would think that when you click the search button the engine will ask all airlines and OTAs for prices, then order, filter and display them on screen, all this in real-time. This is far from reality.
It is just not technically possible to do that in real-time. Not even Google, which has probably the best infrastructure and the most advanced searching techniques, can do it.
So this is when it gets complex and tricky. Websites need to use all kinds of complex techniques like caching, price prediction, AI in multiple forms, and more.
And depending on these techniques websites can tend to be fast or accurate, and this is the main tradeoff for them. To display results fast, as Google does, mean that they need to predict and cache, which means that some time may pass from the last time they updated the price based on querying the actual seller, so it could be out of date when the user is redirected to the seller, therefore losing accuracy. (see their price guarantee policy)
Other engines prefer to be more accurate and to do that they contact the sellers more often and perform more calculations in real-time, becoming slower. Skyscanner is one of them.
So, how do I find the cheapest flights?
There is no simple answer, as there is no single technique or magic trick. There are a number of factors that affect prices, and a number of techniques to tackle or take advantage of those factors. It’s up to you the ones you want to use, and it will depend mostly on the following:
- Time: some techniques are time-consuming. How much time are you willing to spend looking for flights? Does it worth spending 2 hours extra to save only £20 pounds?
- Timing: How much time in advance can you book?
- Flexibility: Are you open to fly on a different date/time and from/to a different airport or city?
- Resources and technical knowledge: How good are you with computers? Do you have bank accounts in different countries? Are you capable of configuring a VPN to make a website or application believe you are in a different country and then pay using a different currency?
And the main techniques are:
Timing is everything (Book in advance!)
Normally, the more time advance you book, the cheaper. So unless you are willing to wait for that last-minute sale (if it exists at all), you should book as soon as you can.
Airlines rarely decrease the prices approaching the date. Budget Airlines typically offer low rates as a baseline price, and the remaining ones increase in cost as the tickets sell. Most researches, including one by Skyscanner, conclude that you should be looking to book your flight no later than seven weeks in advance.
One of the keys here is to be aware of release dates. Airlines have a release date for flights occurring in a specific time range. If you know this in advance, you can actually be the first one and pay the baseline price.
For instance, Easyjet released last week all their flights up to 24th October 2020. And they will be releasing the flights for 25th October 2020 – 27th March 2021 in April 2020 (find the official dates here).
Another low-cost giant, Ryanair, typically releases the schedule five to six months in advance of the operation. Their first release for summer 2020 was on October the 1st, 2019 (see here).
On the other hand, British Airways releases the tickets 355 days before departure. You can check their timetables here.
Other dates for some other airlines can be found here, and most of them offer a newsletter that you can subscribe to.
Find the best search engine (or try a few)
Most of you probably know the main players already: Skyscanner, Google, Expedia, Momondo, Kayak, Kiwi, E-Dreams, LastMinute. And there are also alternative websites/apps such as Hopper (app only), Flystein, AirfareWatchdog, and more.
Personally, I use Skyscanner and as I always find the best prices. This study seems to agree with me, and also this one by Which (updated November 2021). Whichever engine you choose, make sure it gives you all the tools you need for a search, and in the device you want (naturally, all companies are strongly focusing on mobile these days).
Some of these useful tools are:
- Price alerts
- Search for a whole month (to compare prices properly)
- Search to everywhere (when you cannot decide where to go, and with filters such as winter or summer destinations)
- Smart suggestion (alternative dates and airports)
- Combination or “mashups” (use of multiple airlines in the same trip)
- Package offering (discount in a hotel or a car by buying a flight)
- Good filters (include -or not- baggage, food, destination type, time, airport, weather, etc)
Choose the right day to Travel
Can you avoid flying on Friday or Sunday? What about long weekends? And during school break? All of these factors affect the price considerably. Most engines offer “flexibly searches” these days, providing tools to easily find better prices flying one or more days before or after the actual search. Use these tools!
And what about Christmas and other festivities? According to Skyscanner, and contrary to popular belief, flying on Christmas Day isn’t likely to save you any money. They also provide a useful Best Time To Book tool where you can get some insights as well.
Other celebrations do make the flights more expensive, some of them a lot more. For instance, during Oktoberfest fest to Munich, Germany. Or during New Year’s eve to Dubai, UAE. There is little you can do if you actually want to be there during that time. However; if you just want to visit the place, better to choose another time of the year.
Some researches concluded that booking 90 days in advance can be up to 27% cheaper than booking five days before departure, that the most expensive time to book can be 5 days in advance and that the best day to travel is Wednesday, and the worst, Saturday. [ref link]
Don’t ignore other costs (baggage, seats, food, transport to the airport)
This is very important nowadays. Budget airlines are now available even for long flights. For instance, Norwegian offers 13-hours cheap flights with no food nor check-in luggage from London to Buenos Aires. And so does British Airways, just to be able to compete.
And the main problem here is when searching because most engines are not able to calculate accurately the exact final cost including all the extras you need. So what you may end up doing is to compare the prices of the flights, and then check the official websites for the extras you need, to be able to compare final costs.
And the cheaper the airline the trickier. Ryanair is probably the master of selling extras and find different ways to do it. As of today, with a standard ticket, you cannot take any cabin luggage, so you need to buy priority that comes with 1 piece of cabin luggage. But you don’t have allocated seats, which are paid extra (for a minimum of £4 per trip per person, but can go up to £20), and the allocation is random -but not that random-, as you will never get a seat next to your partner or family.
Don’t forget about alternative airports, cities and transportation
This is another trick that can work very well. In terms of airports, it is up to you to decide and search engines typically list them all. So you can easily compare the prices and filter them.
Some people just look for the cheapest price without taking into account the price and time to get to a particular airport. This applies especially in big cities such as London, where you have 6 airports to depart choose from.
And it gets more interesting when you look for alternative cities, and the differences can get bigger. The downside is that you need some flexibility and more time to travel and search.
A typical case, at least in Europe, is to fly to a nearby city to then take a train. For instance, we have found much cheaper prices to Salzburg (Austria) during Oktoberfest, so we flew there and then took a train to Munich (1.5 hours). Many European cities are very well connected by trains, and in some cases, they can be taken even from the airport.
As of today, no search engine will look for any flight-train-bus combination. (Is anybody thinking about this already?). This is clearly an advantage of an out-of-fashion (almost pre-historic) human travel agent.
One-stop (or more), layover and other forms of flexibility
As mentioned above, good search engines are now smart enough to show results with one or more stops, with more or less layover, or with multiple airlines on the same trip (two or more singles instead of a round trip).
“Hopper found that fliers can save 5% on airfares by changing from direct to one-stop fares, and 2% above that for moving from a one to a two-stop ticket… A layover of more than 12 hours means an average of a 6% savings on your airfare.” [nytimes.com]
Some people still prefer to search for multiple single trips themselves. It seems to me that manual searches would never be as smart as engines, which invest a lot of money in AI and have full inventories of airlines and OTAs.
The “hidden city” or “skiplagging” technique (Ilegal?)
This is a quite tricky technique, which gained more popularity recently after Lufthansa sued a passenger.
As explained by the main website offering this, Skiplagged.com: “A hidden-city flight is a flight where you get off at the layover rather than the final destination. For example, a flight from New York to Orlando might be $250, but a similar flight from New York to Dallas with a layover in Orlando might be $130. If you’re going to Orlando, we’ll show you both flights. If you choose the cheaper one, you get off the plane at the layover (Orlando) rather than going to the final ticketed destination (Dallas).”
Airlines do not like this technique at all, and some of them are willing to sue or penalise passengers. Moreover, Skiplagged’s founder was sued for deception by United Airlines and Orbitz in 2015, but that lawsuit was dismissed based on jurisdiction, and the website is still online.
Airline errors and sale fares
Human mistakes happen everywhere. Based on this premise, flight sellers can make mistakes when posting their prices online, so there could potentially be a short window of time to buy for better prices.
More established search engines such as Skyscanner have now price alerts as well, so they arguably do the same.
Resident fares and currency exchange
The “resident fares” technique is quite complex and, in my experience, rarely results in cheaper flights. It consists of browsing the flight sellers websites as if you were in a different country, hoping that prices will change by location, which can be obtained by your IP address. This can be done by using VPNs.
In terms of currency exchange, some websites simply let you choose the currency you want to pay with, and that could be an advantage, or not. But there are plenty of factors to consider here, such as the currency and country of your bank account or credit card, the type of account, the exchange rate at that point of time that the website uses (or your bank), etc.
Loyalty programs / frequent flyers schemes
I don’t think there is a lot to add on this topic, or actually, there is too much and should be covered in a different post.
To sum up, most airlines have a loyalty program of some kind, and their points/miles can eventually be used to buy tickets or to buy extras on board, or even to buy other things such as tours and hotels. Some airlines are grouped together and their miles can be aggregated. Moreover, some credit cards also give you points.
The general advice would be to subscribe to these programs as soon as you can, as there is no harm to get points. However; they are designed for people who fly frequently.
This is not a technique to search flights, but it can result in getting some money back, usually a very small amount. Cashback is something that actually works, it can be quite simple but people don’t seem to trust it.
Commissions, affiliate programs and referrals are everywhere in the travel industry. Blogs (including this one), search engines, “influencers”, agencies and resellers of all kinds, all compete for commissions.
Websites like Quidco earn a commission from the sellers, and also give a commission to the end-users. So you go to their website, click on a referral link, spend some money, and sometime later (sometimes a lot) you get your part. The minimum withdrawal in Quidco is £1, and they can pay by Paypal or bank transfer. For instance, Booking and TUI give %4, Expedia, Hotels.com, Lastminute and Avis up to 10%.