In the golden age of cheap flights in the early noughties were new low-cost carriers were popping up all over the place, desperate to get a foothold on the lucrative pan-European air travel market you could regularly find yourself flying to some unpronounceable, ex-soviet bolt hole for a weekend break for the spare change in your pocket. If you were willing to book early and happy to fly to an airstrip 100 miles from the nearest city cheap flights were a very real phenomenon.
At some point in the last 10 years though the concept of the cheap airfare seems to have been eroded away and replaced with a china doll pricing structure where discounts might look big and exciting on the outside once you get into them and account for the hidden extras which have come to be associated with ‘low-cost airlines’ the savings rarely seem to be worth having.
Of course, the long term viability of offering 2-hour flights for a quid was never realistic and sustainable and huge hikes in fuel duty and airport taxes have done nothing to help bargain-hungry globetrotters but are it still possible to find a flight cheap enough to make you take a trip you wouldn’t have otherwise considered?
Flexibility still pays
The golden rule of cheap flights was always “be flexible”. Departure time 4 am on a Tuesday? Not a problem. Flying from Bournemouth? Sure that’s only 150 miles away. Going to Bydgoszcz? Never heard of it but why the hell not.
The logic here is that basically, the more inconvenient and less desirable a flight is the less ‘pleasure tourists’ are going to want to be on the plane so the less likely the airline is to fill it. They sell the first seats off cheap and anyone who doesn’t have a choice but to fly to that place, at that time, will end up paying more for tickets later, netting the airline a profit.
So if you got in early, booking months in advance there was the very real probability of getting a flight for less than it would cost for the airline to actually fly you. Offering these very cheap fares to some customers helped low coast carriers make very grandiose marketing statements in their early days like “fly to x for £5″.
With many low-cost airlines going out of business and the big guns like Easyjet and Ryanair no longer the hungry outsiders of the airline industry there’s less incentive to offer super cheap fares but the flexibility principle remains. The cheapest fares are invariably available to the earliest bookers, and, the more horrible the itinerary sounds, the cheaper it’s likely to be. If a carrier has a plane parked up in some remote airfield in eastern Europe and they need it back in London to fly a popular journey in the morning then it’s better for them to earn £10 from everyone who flies than nothing, so these often painfully inconvenient flight times also present your best opportunity of landing a genuine cheap flight.
In order to find these diamond cheap flights in the rough your best bet is to use a fare calendar where you can see the cheapest fares every day for a couple of weeks or a month quickly in a calendar. Most airlines will offer a view on their websites booking system like the one below which will quickly give you an idea of what days and times are the cheapest to fly and spot any bargains.
Fare calendar on easyjet.com showing the cheapest flights over a 3 week period
Where to go
Fare calendars work great when you know where you want to fly and don’t mind when, but the best way to find a really cheap flight is to take flexibility to another level and be flexible with your destination as well. Because virtually every airline and flight meta-search engine is geared up to check prices on flights to and from a single destination actually locating the cheapest of the cheap fares is tricky. Sites like cheapflights.co.uk help by offering recommendations of their best deals across multiple destinations based on your travel dates and a theme.
Destination inspiration from cheapflights.co.uk
To compare or not to compare?
One tool which offers a lot of praise for cheap flight seekers but for me usually fails to deliver is the flight comparison or ‘meta search’ websites like travelsupermarket.com and skyscanner.net which look up rates for flights from a bunch of different airlines and show you the best price. Supposedly. If you’re flying a popular route like London to New York you might be able to save a few quid using these systems but be aware that no comparison site I’ve ever come across shows flights from every airline, rather they tend to favor the ones which pay them a commission, which might mean they don’t show prices from real low-cost carriers like Ryanair, who don’t pay travel agents a penny in commission.
If you want to compare, start by finding out all the operators who fly the route you want to take using a site like flightmapper.net. Then see which of those have exults returned in your comparison engine. Any which aren’t covered check the prices for directly on their own websites.
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Fly from smaller airports
Smaller international airports like Southampton, Bournemouth, Birmingham, and Southend charge airlines less to use them than major hubs like Gatwick and Heathrow so in some cases it might be cheaper for you to go out your way to go to a less convenient airport. Of course, you have to factor in the cost of getting to the airport but bear in mind that if you’re planning on driving, parking is also the most expensive at the main airports so that could be an additional saving.
On the plane
I’ll bet you already know of most of the usual tips of the trade when to comes to the flight itself so I’ll summarise.
- Don’t fall into the airport trap – arrive as late as possible to reduce the temptation to buy an overpriced sandwich or coffee. Change your travel money up in advance as well, never buy from the airport.
- Don’t check a bag, travel with hand luggage only.
- Take a packed lunch – don’t buy food or drink on the plane
- Don’t reserve a seat
- Plan your transport the other end in advance – if you’re arriving at an out of town airport work out the cheapest way into town.
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Packages don’t always suck
Historically package holidays represented bad value 99% of the time because at the end of the day you are paying a middleman (the agent) a commission which inevitably pushes up the price of the holiday. However, package providers who charter planes and block book hotel rooms desperately want to avoid empty seats and vacant rooms so ‘last-minute deals’ do still happen in the package travel arena.
Booking combined flights and hotels on a last-minute deal could save you some cash but again only if you’re willing to be flexible. Always find out the airline you’ll be flying with on a package deal before you book and search for the equivalent price of booking the flight directly with the airline and the hotel separately.
Watch out for sales
Airlines do still occasionally offer genuine sales, especially in low seasons for certain destinations so if you’re serious about finding a bargain and can handle the email spam you’ll undoubtedly get, it’s worth signing up for newsletters or ‘deal alerts’ with any airline that fly from your nearest airport.
So do cheap flights still exist?
To the extent, they used to – no. It’s highly unlikely you’ll find the sort of unbelievable deals you used to on flying in Europe because the incentive just isn’t there for airlines to run loss-leading flights anymore. However, follow some of the tips above and do your homework when booking a flight, and it’s still possible to save yourself a lot of money over simply booking the first and easiest option.