This section of our international travel guide explains how to buy cheap airline tickets in a two steps process.
First, you identify possible travel routes to reach your destination. For example: Are you looking for a direct flight or do you plan a stop over. Once you decided on these details, enter your flight details into several search engines or airline booking systems and compare the prices.
This approach is straight forward for a direct connection and can become very time consuming when planning a world trip. Here you want to combining several flights to see as many places as possible. In addition, once the possible connections are identified, you can spend endless hours optimizing search queries to find the cheapest ticket.
To not loose ourselves in endless possibilities, we clearly distinguish between the two steps mentioned above.
- We first identify possible travel routes, ignore prices and solely concentrate on the places we want to see. To give an example: Traveling from Europe to New Zealand, we wanted to have a stop over in both directions and therefore first concentrated on identifying possible stopover destinations.
- Afterwards we start optimizing the price, listing the possible travel routes in an excel file. Once you have that overview you can play with additional options. For our flight to New Zealand this resulted in a stop over in Singapore and Sydney while we had a stopover in Dubai on the way back.
Identifying possible travel routes
When identifying possible travel routes, be open to any combination of available airline tickets. Besides direct flights, airlines offer stopover and open jaw tickets: As airlines constantly change their conditions for open jaw and stopover flights, make sure to check their webpage before booking finalizing your booking.
As the name suggest, you will not fly directly but stop at an intermediate destination. You stay there for two to three nights and continue traveling to your final destination. A stopover is neither necessarily cheaper nor more expensive than combining several direct flights but increases your flexibility when planning your travel as it allows you to visit an intermediate destination when flying long international distances.
Basically you have two options to find your stopover flight
- Look for the airline hub
Many airlines offer a stopover at their hub. Emirates for example in Dubai and Iceland air in Reykjavik. Additional options might be available on the home page of the airline.
- Details on search engines
Whenever a search engine shows a non direct flight, have a look at the location you will have to change planes. Chances are you can get a stopover at this airport. To confirm this, open a new search, check the multi-city option and replicate the flight data but enter a different departure date for your stopover destination.
Even if a search engine is showing the stop over connection, check the website of the airline before booking the flight. They might combine the ticket and hotel rooms at a competitive price.
Open jaw flights
An open jaw flight is defined as an airline return ticket where the destination and/or the origin are not the same in both directions. This type of ticket allows you to fly with the same airline to one airport, drive cross country and fly out from a different airport.
Once you have a rough idea about your travel route, start optimizing its price. Possible options are
Flexibility in time
Chances for a cheaper ticket increase if you are flexible on the dates you are flying to / from a specific location.
To easily analyze the effect of the timely flexibility, Skyscanner offers the 'month view'. For each day in a month, it shows you the cheapest flight to your destination. With a single look you know if it makes sense to avoid the main holidays or week ends.
Flexibility in location
As with flexible dates, choosing a different airport to fly in or out of can have a significant impact on the ticket price. This alternative airport might be located close to your destination, think about Newark and JFK airport in New York for example. Alternatively you might think about switching your travel route. Instead of flying into Christchurch and leaving New Zealand from Auckland, try it the other way around. Be careful to take into account the extra costs for reaching the alternative airport. when it comes to the price comparison, though.
Within Sykscanner you can include alternative airports into your query, using the checkbox "Add nearby airports". Alternatively simply look at a map to find alternative airports suiting your travel plans.
Additional points to consider when optimizing ticket prices
In addition to flexibility in time and location be sure to take into account the following points when comparing prices:
Taxes and Fees
Ensure your final price contains taxes and any additional fees for excess baggage weight etc.. Especially when flying with no-frills airlines you need to read the fine print.. Camping gear and camera equipment add to the weight of your bags quickly and they will charge any kg exceeding your baggage allowance.
If you have the option, add some buffer and increase the layover between important flights to 3 hours or more. This increases your chances to get your connecting flight even if the first one is delayed. In addition, stay with one airline or alliance for connecting flights. If you miss your connecting flight due to their shortcomings they will take care of you. If you book on different airlines, it is considered to be your fault to have missed the flight.
To give you a short example why this important: On the way back from Namibia, our South African flight from Windhook to Johannesburg had a one hour delay. As a result our connecting flight to Europe already was on the runway when we entered the airport in Johannesburg and we had to wait 24 hours for the next flight. As a consequence we had to inform our managers that we would not be in office on Monday. Not funny.
When to book
As mentioned in the first chapter of this guide, the best time to book your tickets is 12 weeks in advance for domestic, and 14 weeks in advance for international travels.
Finally a few tips not fitting anywhere else
- Using www.expedia.com.au instead of www.expedia.de when flying to Australia/NZ can save you about 10%.
- You might think about clearing your cookies once in a while as a precaution. Some search engine seem to increase the faire price when you search for the same flight multiple times.
How much effort should you invest?
With all the work involved to find the right airline ticket, at some point, the invested effort is higher than the additional savings you generate.
To better identify from a financial aspect when to stop optimizing the ticket price, we suggest to get a rough idea of how much money your time is worth. In other words, how much money would someone have to pay for one hour of your time. Below some simple steps on how to determine your hourly rate.
- If you are self employed, use the rate you charge your clients minus tax and office costs.
- If you own an apartment and you can do the upcoming maintenance yourself, use the rate the craftsman is charging you.
- If you are an employed, take your annual salary after tax and divide it by your annual working hours.
- Understand what you would rather do than searching for airline tickets. If for example you prefer to watch a movie, take the price for the movie ticket and divide it by the movie duration.
Which search engine to choose and how to use it
In this article we only hinted to a specific search engine here and there but never made any statement on which engine to use when looking for cheap airline tickets. The reason is, the one and only airfare search engine does not exists. Every flight aggregator is continuously extending their feature set and every site might turn up with the cheapest price.
Having said this, please view the following list only as a suggestion and never forget to check out prices on an individual airline sites before finalizing your booking.
Hipmunk comes with an easy user interface including multi city stops and allows to sign up for a price alert thus keeping you informed when price changes in your favor. It offers limited search capabilities on flexible dates as well.
Standard search option with multi city stops if you choose the right server. Expedia.ch for example is not offer it while expedia.de does. Works great to get a first impression for your travel plans.
In comparison to Expedia and Hipmunk, Sykscanner has two features worth mentioning. First, it allows you to enter a country instead of a specific airport and thus automatically searches for multiple airports in your target destination. Second, Skyscanner also allows provides a monthly overview, making it easy for you to see how the date influences the ticket price.
Finding the right airline ticket depends on multiple parameters. Only after deciding on your destination, number of stop overs etc. should you concentrate on the price.
Should you have any questions not covered in the article, do not hesitate to contact us or put your question in the comments.