Not all cheap flight comparisons are the same – there are four very different types. This guide will take you through the right ones for the right jobs to save time and minimise costs.
There's also a full listing of the free flight returns available by manipulating credit card introductory deals, so you can jet off for free.
Travel Money Checklist
Key facts before you start
When looking for cheap flight deals, timing's crucial:
Unlike package holidays, book flights early. Business folk will pay top dollar at the last minute, so airlines hike prices.
Whenever you need to travel, the internet's a powerhouse for super-speedily finding the cheapest flights. Before you start scouring for deals, here are the key facts you need to know.
Going to a classic holiday destination? Consider a package
The internet's great for flights or DIY city breaks. But if you're going away specifically for seven, 10 or 14 days to a traditional holiday destination, then package holidays, where everything's wrapped up in one, often come up trumps. See the Cheap Package Holiday guide.
Plus most package operators are ATOL-protected (though always check before you book) so if the company goes bust or something goes wrong, your holiday is automatically protected.
This means you'd get a refund if you haven't left yet, or you could carry on the trip and still get home if you're already there.
However, unless you've booked your flights directly with a flight provider that's also ATOL-registered (such as Thomas Cook), this doesn't apply to standalone flights. Importantly, ATOL protection was extended from 30 Apr 2012, see Know your rights below for full info. Read the next two tips for how to protect against airline collapse.
Pay by credit card for extra protection
Even if you think the airline's safe as houses, it's still important to protect yourself as fully as possible. The easiest way is to book on a credit card, as when the transaction's over £100, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act means the card company's equally liable if something goes wrong (see the full Section 75 Refunds guide, or the Chargeback guide for protection on debit card purchases).
This means if the airline goes bust, you can at least get your money back from the card company. Always pay your card off in full at the end of the month so you're not charged interest. It's also possible to get scheduled airline failure cover; see Cheap Travel Insurance.
But if you book flights and hotels directly, unless the provider's ATOL-registered, there's no protection. So always book DIY flights on a credit card (repaid in full to avoid interest) to get Section 75 protection on £100+ transactions.
Importantly ATOL protection now includes flights and accommodation or car hire booked from the same company within a day of each other, even if they're not part of a formal package. See the MSE News story ATOL travel protection extended for full info.
When it comes to travel insurance, most policies are designed to cover packages. The biggest issue's lack of cover for knock-on consequences. For example, if your policy covers scheduled airline failure and the airline collapses, you may be able to claim the flight's cost, but not cash paid upfront for a hotel.
To beat this, scout out policies that specifically cover 'indirect loss' - check the small print. For maximum cover, look for increasingly available, though pricier, 'independent traveller' policies. Read the Cheap Travel Insurance guide for more.
If you might need to change the date, beware cheaper flights
If you aren't too fussy about the exact details of your flight, it's possible to get it for far less than if you'd specified an exact seat class, time, or that you wanted to bring your cat as hand luggage.
Do be aware the cheapest flights tend to have strict terms and conditions though, with limited changeability, and it's tough to get refunds. So always check the exact terms before booking.
How to beat budget airline 'extra' charges
Outrageously, budget airline ‘extras' include taking bags, checking in or even just paying. The Budget Flight Fee Fighting guide has tricks to beat those nasty charges, from paying the right way to beat the fees, to multi-pocket jackets so you can take extra carry-on luggage.
You can get a year's travel insurance for £16
Never, ever just automatically book costly travel insurance via your airline. Instead consider a year's policy for roughly the same cost, starting from just £16 at the time of writing. For regularly updated best buys and catches galore to avoid, read Cheap Travel Insurance.
If you're staying in Europe, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) gives you free or discounted medical treatment in state-run hospitals in any European Union country (and a few others). Don't consider it a suitable substitute for travel insurance though, as it doesn't cover possessions, baggage and repatriation. Read the full Free EHIC guide.
Always check if your airline auto-ticks insurance
Some cheap airline and holiday websites may automatically add expensive travel cover when you book. Make sure you double-check the full cost, and remove any rogue policies before paying (usually by unchecking multiple boxes).
You may already have travel insurance, but even if not, it's always cheaper to grab a Cheap Travel Insurance deal than buying from booking sites. You'll often get wider cover, too.
Going to the USA? ALL States travel requires an ESTA
Everyone from the UK going to the USA by air or sea, even those just passing through, must fill out the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) in advance or they'll be turned back.
For full info on how it works and how to avoid paying more than the official $14 per person fee, read the ESTA guide.
There are two types of flight: scheduled, where you fly with big name airlines; and charter flights, where package holiday firms provide flights for their holidaymakers. Which site to use depends on your plans.
Know when 'n' where you want? Use screenscrapers to compare scheduled flights
Is it a traditional package holiday destination? Compare cheap charter flights
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Cheap scheduled flights For when you know the specific dates and destinations
A screenscraper's a form of price comparison site that uses clever technology to find and compare cheap flights which match your criteria. Enter your trip details and it zips them to scores of normal airlines, budget airlines and flight-broker sites.
In other words, they're search-and-report sites that 'scrape' the data off other sites' screens to get your prices. They don't all search the same sites, so...
Always use at least two to be sure.
Top picks (click 'use it' to go there or 'full info' to read more):
Ease, speed and price
If you really want to play to find cheap prices, Skyscanner* is a good place to start. Quick and easy to use, it found some of the cheapest results in our price comparison.
It has strong coverage of budget airlines, plus it now includes the option to specify economy, premium economy, business or first class searches.
It searches over 1,000 airlines, and also grabs results from about 200 online travel agents, including Opodo, Expedia, Ebookers, Lastminute, Govolo, Seat24, Netto-travel and Netflights.
Quick stats: Allows you to search by flight class? Yes - economy, premium economy, biz class, 1st class. Includes charter airlines? Yes. Includes travel brokers? Yes. Includes budget airlines? Yes. Searches over 1,000 airlines.
Best for: Extra breadth (incl some charter flights)
TravelSupermarket* includes lots of scheduled airlines and some charter airlines. It's easy to use, though can be clunky, and lacks the charm of our other two picks - but it still comes up with a good range of cheap prices.
Like Kayak and Skyscanner, it allows you to compare premium economy seats. These are usually on international flights, are slightly better than standard economy and can include more leg or seat room, better food and power points.
As well as direct airline searches, TravelSupermarket grabs results from 16 online travel agents, including Avro, Bravofly, Budgetair, Ebookers, Emailflights, Expedia, Flightline, Holiday Genie, Last Minute, Major Travel, Netflights, Opodo, Southall Travel, Travelpack, Travelup, and Wefly.
It also brings up some charter flight results in its searches, including Thomson, Monarch, Avro and FlyThomasCook.
Quick stats: Allows you to search by flight class? Yes - economy, premium economy, biz class, 1st class. Includes charter airlines? Yes. Includes travel brokers? Yes. Includes budget airlines? Yes. Searches 28 individual airline and online travel agent websites.
Best for: Gadgets, gizmos and filtering
For its range, speed, accuracy and filtering tools, Kayak's* another very strong contender. Whilst technically it's a meta search engine, not a screenscraper, the results are similar.
The key difference is that Kayak pays for search results rather than scraping them. It checks availability in real time - the price you see is the price you get.
It shows its strength and power with its toolbar, which lets you instantly find the right trip from your results.
It also allows multi-destination searches (select 'multi-city') so you could fly from Manchester to LA, drive to Vegas, put $10 on black and fly back from there in time for tea (well, almost). As well as direct airline searches, Kayak grabs results from Opodo, Ebookers, Lastminute and Expedia.
Quick stats: Allows you to search by flight class? Yes - economy, premium economy, biz class, 1st class. Includes travel brokers? Yes. Searches 100s of travel sites.
Further screenscrapers to extend your search, many with other strong features, are Fly.com, Momondo*, TravelSpec*, Dohop, Mobissimo, and Kelkoo*. For long-haul flights, also check the flight brokers below - most importantly Travelocity, which some screenscrapers can miss, and Expedia*. Discuss which one you prefer in our forums.
Cheap flights with hotelsGets extra protection
Flight brokers have direct commercial relations with airlines and can offer their own special deals. Many can give extra discounts if you book hotels with them too.
The big benefit of this, since 30 April 2012, is that if you book a flight and hotel with the same firm (ie, a travel broker) within a day of each other, you get ATOL protection – the same that package holidays have had for years.
This means if the airline or tour operator goes bust, you get your money back or an alternative holiday. See the MSE News story ATOL Travel Protection Extended for full info.
This advantage is strong, but sometimes you’ll find it's far cheaper just to use screenscrapers to compare flights, and the best price found using the Cheap Hotel Prices guide, than using them. In that case, you need to balance the gain of the protection against the extra cost.
Best for: Range, hotels and special offers
Expedia* is the flight brokers' big brother. Its strengths are allowing multi-destination flight searches with a good range of special offers, plus it includes charter airlines and travel brokers.
Book your hotel and flight together and there's often an extra discount. It's covered in searches on Skyscanner, Kayak and TravelSupermarket.
Quick stats: Allows you to search by flight class? Yes - economy, premium economy, biz class, 1st class. Includes charter airlines? Yes. Includes travel brokers? Yes. Includes budget airlines? Yes. Searches over 300 airlines.
Exclusive special offers, often missed by scrapers
A close second, Travelocity is often excluded by screenscrapers, but it has some strong exclusive special offers which make it worth looking at separately.
It also found some of the cheapest results in our comparison, though sadly it doesn't include charter airlines or travel brokers.
Quick stats: Allows you to search by flight class? Yes - economy, premium economy, biz class, 1st class. Includes charter airlines? No. Includes travel brokers? No. Includes budget airlines? Yes, searches 100s of airlines.
Filter options and special deals
With a good amount of filter options, Opodo* was founded by nine large European airlines, including BA and Air France. It doesn't search charter airlines or travel brokers, but it handily allows multi-destination searches.
While Opodo's included in all searches by the screenscrapers above, special deals mean it's still worth checking direct.
Quick stats: Allows you to search by flight class? Yes - economy, premium economy, biz class, 1st class. Includes charter airlines? No. Includes travel brokers? No. Includes budget airlines? Yes. Searches data direct with airlines.
Now time for serious bargain hunting
Uncover Lastminute.com's secret flight mega-bargains
It's worth noting these secret flights can be quite tricky to find. They're only released at certain times so aren't available all the time.
When they are available, it tells you the departure and arrival city, flight length and whether there's a stopover, but you'll only find out exact airports, airline and departure times after you've paid.
The hidden nature can occasionally mean dirt-cheap prices, as airlines protect their direct trade.
Its top secret flights only include scheduled flights, so you won't find charter flights or low cost carriers. However, Lastminute.com's told us top secret flight prices are always cheaper than booking direct, or booking the same flights as branded.
There's a sneaky way to locate clues about these, and you don't need Miss Marple's powers of deduction. After all, there are only a limited number of flights going somewhere in a day!
How to uncover the secret flights
Step 1. Search for your dates
Step 2. Narrow down the flights
Kayak will come up with 100s of results - you need to eliminate some. Check the ‘non-stop' or ‘one-stop' box on Kayak's results page, depending on whether or not the secret flight has a stopover. Then, go down to the ‘duration' section (in the filters, bottom left) and drag the arrow so it matches the length of the longest of your two return flights.
Step 3. Match up the flights
This will often enable you to match up the results on Kayak with the Lastminute secret flights, or at least work out which airline it is and airports it uses, if there are a few similar results in a day.
There can be substantial savings here, though of course, it varies by flight. For example, one £190 London to Dubai secret flight turned out to be a Royal Brunei Air trip from Heathrow. The cheapest price comparison listing for the same trip was £240.
Add your tips/feedback: Lastminute Secret Flights discussion
Sneakily work out how many cheap seats remain
Spot a dirt-cheap flight seat, and its limited nature means you don't know how long you've got to decide. Yet there's a sneaky trick to manipulate the booking system, and work out how many bargain seats are left.
Many airlines let you book seats for up to about nine passengers. Pretend to make the booking for more seats than you need, and if the cheap fare's still available for nine seats, then you've got breathing space. If the fare shoots up for three, four, or five seats, you need to grab it as soon as possible.
Student or under 26? Grab specialist deals
Specialist youth travel agent STA Travel guarantees to beat any scheduled flight price offered by competitors. While it specialises in finding deals for students and under-26s, its price guarantee's open to all.
Sadly, the guarantee doesn't extend to flights booked directly on airlines' sites, but if you fit the age bracket and happen to find a cheap agency deal, it's worth calling it to see how much it'll beat it by. Let us know how you get on in the Cheap Flights discussion.
Ethnic travel agents may undercut these
The UK's a melting pot of different immigrant and ethnic communities, and this can be used to great advantage for a cheap flight booking. Niche travel agents often specialise in finding deals to those communities' linked countries.
For example, Shepherd's Bush in London (home to MSE Towers) has some Caribbean specialist tour agents. Or buy the Jewish Chronicle, which has companies advertising cheap flights to Israel. If you know of a cheap specialist travel agent, please add your finds/read others.
Upgrade your flight, possibly for free
There's only one way to guarantee a flight upgrade, and that's to pay. But free upgrades aren't unheard of. From pulling in favours from airline-based contacts, to simply choosing your flight carefully and playing the odds, you can boost your chances even before you book.
If you don't fancy your chances of getting a freebie, there are also various ways to buy upgrades on the cheap. Read them all in the full How To Get A Flight Upgrade guide.
The FlightChecker Finds all dirt-cheap budget airline sales
Budget airlines commonly promise 'a million seats for £1' - yet try to book and suddenly they're nowhere to be found. Our FlightChecker tool is designed to beat this. If you're flexible, it'll tell you when - and even where - to go for ultra-cheap flights in Europe.
Find when & where to fly cheapest
The FlightChecker searches 13 budget airlines, including Easyjet and Ryanair. Simply enter your travel dates, destination and how long you want your trip to be. It has a special feature - tell it 'I'll Go Anywhere!', enter the maximum price you're willing to pay including taxes and charges, and it'll find all the flights that fit.
Budget airlines are renowned for adding extra charges (see Beat Budget Airline Charges for how to avoid them). To help avoid nasty surprises, the FlightChecker includes the option to factor in baggage and card payment charges from the start, or add them later.
You'll also find a range of different graph views to help see at a glance when it's cheapest to go within your date range, plus filters to instantly hone your results.
How it works:
The technology behind the FlightChecker's slightly different to other sites. Rather than 'scraping' data for each query, it uses spidering technology to trawl sites every few hours and build a massive database of over 900,000 flight prices.
This is the only way to do it speedily. The only minor negative is very occasionally a few flights listed have sold out once you check them.
Using the tool, you can decide your holiday dates based on the cheapest price (then read Cheap Hotels & Hostels for cheap places to stay). 'I'll Go Anywhere' search results let you quickly find matching flight routes by clicking the result boxes.Use the FlightChecker
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Cheap charter flight finders For traditional holiday destinations
Charter flights are bespoke flights by package holiday companies to ferry their passengers.
If you're off to a traditional package holiday destination, you may be able to find one super-cheap. Tough luck if you're flying to Timbuktu, but quids in if you're off to Malaga.
As the operator books the whole plane, there's occasionally spare capacity which they can offer very cheaply to flight-only customers - after all, it'll only go to waste if unsold. The top charter flight comparisons are:
Combining scheduled & charter
Flightsdirect* lists scheduled, budget and charter flights in one place. The search isn't comprehensive, but keen charter prices and simple, easy to read results make it well worth a look.
As it's part of a proper travel agent, you also get full ABTA and ATOL cover, so you won't be left out in the cold should the airline fail.
Special charter deals
Search engine Avro* is part of the Monarch Group (along with Cosmos Holidays), which means it may occasionally come up with deals that can't be matched elsewhere. It offers both charter and scheduled flights, and again, it's fully ABTA and ATOL-registered, so also covers you for airline failure.
Belt 'n' braces
TravelSupermarket* lists scheduled and charter flights in one place, and is easy to use.
The search is more limited when it comes to charters, but does include the likes of Thomson, Monarch, Avro and FlyThomasCook.
Further tricks to slash the cost
It's worth trying a final few tricks to see if you can cut the charter flight price further:
Go direct to charter airlines for belt 'n' braces
For belt 'n' braces, it's worth going direct to charter airlines and travel agents, and just asking them for top last-minute charter deals. On the web, there are MyTravel*, Monarch*, Thomas Cook* (though ensure you read the How safe is Thomas Cook? MSE news story before booking), Thomson* and First Choice*, but local travel agents can often beat them. Again, all these are ABTA and ATOL-registered.
Book a package but don't stay
If there are no charter flights, consider booking a package holiday and just not using the hotel - this can be much cheaper than booking a scheduled flight. For destinations like Orlando, package holidays can be dirt cheap. Also see the Cheap Package Holiday article.
Free flights loopholes
Free flights may sound like a pipe dream, but they're often possible, and not just for budget airlines. Loopholes will get you on Flybe, Ryanair, and, through Amex, Virgin, BA and more. There are essentially two ways to fly gratis:
1. Promotional flight sales
Budget airlines, especially Ryanair, often have 'free flight sales' (or technically 1p or £1 sales) to build up a customer base. Always check the sale price says 'includes taxes or charges' though, or it can still add up to about £30 each way. All free flight sales are included in the weekly MoneySaving email.
Even when these fees are included, you may still have to pay extra on top for check-in, baggage and more. Even so, done right this shouldn't usually add up to much more than £10 to £20 per person. See the Ryanair £1 Flight Sales deals note and Budget Flight Fee Fighting guide for more info.
2. Credit card freebie flights
There's a way to manipulate credit cards to get free flights at no cost (or just pay taxes). Many airline-linked credit cards offer free return trips as an incentive if you successfully apply for a card.
To get them you need to spend above a trigger threshold. Often this is set very low, so simply buy an apple or anything else you'd usually buy. In short:
Spend the trigger amount on the card, whether 1p or £1,000, ALWAYS repay it in full so there's no interest, then get the free flight and cancel the card.
The only reason not to do this is if you can use your credit score for something better, such as cutting the cost of your debts, though it's also a good idea not to apply for too many cards in quick succession - full details in the Credit Card Freebies guide. With all these deals, the redemption flight is subject to availability, but usually there's a decent range.
Free European flight with Flybe, excl taxes and charges
Minimum spend 1p
Grab Flybe's credit card and once you've spent anything on it, you'll be sent a voucher for a return flight on any of its European routes.
Also, if you are approved for the card and spend on it before 28 Feb 2013, you'll get two lounge passes.
Taxes aren't included, so you'll have to pay these. But the beauty here is that there's no minimum spend. Buying a bag of crisps (or an apple for the health conscious!) still qualifies for the freebie. Just make sure you pay the card off in full to ensure you avoid the 18.9% representative APR.
Freebie: Free European flight voucher. Representative variable APR: 18.9% APR. Min spend trigger: No minimum. Taxes included: No. Official APR Example
Free European flights with Ryanair Ryanair credit card
Take out a Ryanair credit card and you'll get a European flight once you've spent £100, a European return if you spend £3,000 over a set six month period, and a further European return if you spend £3,000 in the six month period after.
The non-transferable free flight vouchers last eight months from issue, but you have to pay taxes and charges on top when you use them. Ensure you repay in full to avoid the 19.9% representative APR.
Freebie: Ryanair flight. Representative variable APR: 19.9% APR. Min spend trigger: £100. Taxes Included: No. Official APR Example
TWO FLIGHTS TO PARIS or ONE TO Turkey Amex Gold CHARGE CARD, spend £2,000 in first 3mths
Get a Amex Gold* charge card, do £2,000 of your normal spending on it within three months, and you'll get 20,000 reward points.
These can be transferred to 11 frequent flyer programmes and redeemed, for example with BA, for two return flights to Paris, Milan or Berlin, or one return flight to, eg, Istanbul.
You'll have to pay any taxes and charges for the flight, but this is still a great deal.
How do CHARGE cards work? Charge cards allow you to spend on them, but require you to pay off in full at the end of EVERY month - set up a direct debit to ensure you don't forget. There's no interest charged, but there's a £12 fee - and a default on your credit file - if you fail to fully repay within 10 days of getting your statement.
There's also a £125 fee for the card, but Amex waives this for year one. You need to earn £20,000+/yr and to pass a credit score to get the card, which is accepted in all retailers which take Amex. One supplementary card (for a partner/friend) is provided free.
Freebie: 20,000 reward points. Representative variable APR: N/A. Min spend trigger: £2,000. Taxes included: No.
Think before adding the 'insurance'
Payment protection insurance is commonly sold with credit cards. The idea is it'll make some payments for you, usually for a year, if you are unable to (eg, if you lose your job).
In many cases it has been mis-sold, where borrowers didn't realise they were signing up for it, or it was totally unsuitable for them, and some big lenders have been fined.
The protection isn't always bad, though policies sold with cards are often overpriced (you pay a monthly amount depending on the size of your balance). If you want it, compare the lender's cover with standalone providers such as Paymentcare* or Best Insurance.
Always be vigilant to check you aren't getting more than you bargained for when you fill in the application, then check your statement each month to check you aren't inadvertently paying for extras if you didn't ask for them.
3. Earn 'free' flights with Avios (Air Miles)
Many mistake Avios (which replaced Air Miles in 2011) for a frequent flyer scheme. Actually it's a points scheme like Nectar and Clubcard, earnable in Shell, Tesco and by spending on credit cards, though its rewards are travel-focused.
For example, convert Clubcard vouchers into Avios points and £37.50 buys a BA return to Prague (excluding taxes).
Unlike the old Air Miles system, Avios charges passengers taxes and fees on flights, usually £70-£90 for European return flights. Yet under its Reward Saver scheme, you pay a fixed £30 fee on most short-haul flights, as long as you earn at least one point the year before you book.
For 30 ways to push it to the max, see our Avios points boosting guide.
Quick flight tips 'n' tricks
There are other tricks that can help cut the cost - and offer you better protection to boot.
Check what's included before you buy
The CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) website has a useful airline charges comparison table which shows extra fees for a host of big airlines, as well as luggage allowances, credit card charges and even whether a meal's included with your ticket. While you should always double-check these with the airline before you book, it's handy to see the real cost of your ticket.
Carbon offset your flight
We hope that this guide will help you fly more cheaply, though not necessarily more often. If you've saved serious cash (or even just a little), you may want to spend a little on carbon offsetting your flight.
Monitor all airline discounts
If you're flying a good number of months away, it's worth signing up to the email lists of all the relevant airlines. Often they email details of short-term sales, so if you've definite plans you can be ready to pounce at the right moment (and of course this site's weekly e-mail includes the best of them).
Before you do that, always use a screenscraper to benchmark what a realistic price should be. Especially good for sales are the newsletters of British Airways*, Opodo*, American Airlines, Air France* and KLM*.
Get the best seats
Once you know what the flight is, there are a few sites which should help you improve it. Use Seatguru to check out the plane's seating plan so you can see whether 18E beats 19C. Also try similar site Skytrax, which includes airline reviews and rankings.
FlightStats details punctuality on current flights and other data, while if you'd prefer to know what you'll be eating on the flight before you board, Airlinemeals.net has photos and reviews to whet your appetite.
Find shared shuttle buses for cheap airport transfers
Resorthoppa* lets you book transfers between airports and popular resorts across the globe. It offers basic shared shuttle buses as well as private transfers, and forumites report it can turn up some very competitive prices (though always check these for yourself before you book). It charges £1.50 for paying by debit card and £3 for credit cards though, so watch out for these.
Our own MSE Jenny says: "From my experience, don't expect anything too posh if you opt for a shuttle bus, and allow plenty of time to get to the airport. After all, if there are hordes of other passengers to pick up, you don't want to miss your flight."
Feedback's generally positive, though there are reports of occasional problems with missed pickups, so factor this in if you're considering it. If you've used it, please let us know how you've got on in the Resorthoppa forum discussion.
Share a lift to the airport
TransferWithMe.com helps you find people to share your airport transfer with. It's free to register and search on, and the site's simple and easy to use - though there's no guarantee you'll find a match. Still, it's worth a try to see if any others are going in the same direction. If you've used it, please share your feedback in the forum discussion.
Check if you can buy duty-free on arrival
If you're looking to buy duty-free goods but don't want to have to carry them on the plane, website Duty Free On Arrival has a handy airport search that gives info on whether you can buy duty free when you arrive.
However, don't assume buying duty-free is always cheapest. If you're after an item, use the MegaShopBot to quickly check prices online before you go. This'll help give you a benchmark to compare with the duty-free price when you get there.