Not all cheap flight comparison sites are the same – there are four key types. This guide takes you through the right ones to save time, minimise costs and bag the cheapest flights.
We also show you how to grab free return flights by manipulating credit card introductory deals, so you can jet off for free.
Key facts before you start
When looking for cheap flight tickets, 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.
Off to a classic holiday resort? 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, package holidays, where everything's wrapped up in one, are often best. See the Cheap Package Holiday guide.
What's more, 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 has been extended since April 2012, see Know your rights below for full info.
Pay by credit card for extra protection
Even if you think an airline's safe as houses, it's important to protect yourself as fully as possible. The easiest way is to book on a credit card, as when the transaction's more than £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.
If you book flights and hotels directly, unless the provider's ATOL-registered, there's no protection.
Always book DIY flights on a credit card (repaid in full to avoid interest) to get Section 75 protection on £100+ transactions. If you book via a travel agent, sadly you aren't covered by section 75 for the flights or hotel, as there's no direct relationship with the supplier for these.
Importantly ATOL protection 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 ATOL travel protection extended MSE news story for full info.
When it comes to travel insurance, most policies are designed to cover packages. The biggest issue is 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.
How to beat budget airline 'extra' charges
Booking budget airline flights can be a minefield. Outrageously, budget airline ‘extras' can 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.
If you're flying British Airways, handily you can save about £10 each way on hand luggage-only trips with it, compared to its cheapest singles with checked bags.
It operates these cheaper fares across its short-haul network of 90+ destinations (with both singles and returns). You can save around £10 each way on routes to and from Heathrow, London City and Gatwick. This is compared to its cheapest one-way fares with hold luggage.
These cheaper hand luggage-only fares aren't available for transfer flights. But interestingly, if you buy flights on the same route using two separate flight bookings, you can still get the cheaper hand baggage-only fares. See the BA extends hand luggage-only fares MSE news story for full info.
The perfect time to book - at least 53 days in advance
After analysing millions of fares, comparison site Momondo's* latest research found it's generally best to book at least 53 days ahead (last time it did the research it was 59) and that booking then is on average 29% cheaper than booking on the day of departure.
Now it’s important to note that in general, the earlier you book the better. Flights get continually more expensive closer to the date you need to travel. But after 53 days they shoot up.
The exact ‘last cheap booking date’ varies by destination though, so you can use Momondo's ‘Flight Insight’ tab on many routes to see the data for that route (see Find the perfect time to go below).
For example, when we looked at a London - New York return, the price 53 days ahead was £389. The next day it was £397, and by 20 days before travel £477.
Momondo also found that Tuesdays and evenings after 6pm are generally the cheapest time to fly, while Saturdays are the most expensive. If you can be flexible, it's worth checking prices on different days and at different times to see if you can cut the cost further.
Might need to change dates? 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.
The cheapest flights have strict terms and conditions though, with limited changeability, and it's tough to get refunds. So always check the exact terms before booking.
You can get a year's travel insurance for £13
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 £13 for individual insurance in Europe at the time of writing. For regularly updated best buys plus the catches 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? You'll need 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.
For full info on how it works and how to avoid paying more than the official $14 per person fee, read the ESTA guide.
The Government announced in the Autumn Statement last year that it's scrapping Air Passenger Duty (APD) for children under 12 from 1 May - and if you'd already booked before it was announced, you may be due a refund.
APD is charged on all outbound flights from the UK and is based on the distance flown. For example, you pay £13 on an economy flight to Europe and £69 on a flight to the USA (though that's set to rise to £71 from 1 April).
Under the changes, children under the age of 12 on the day of travel will no longer have to pay the duty from 1 May.
If you booked a flight for 1 May or after before these changes were made and paid the APD, you may be entitled to a refund. Here's what the airlines have told us they're doing:
British Airways says it will automatically refund eligible customers and the money will be returned on the day the flight departs.
EasyJet has contacted 45,000 customers with affected bookings - further instructions available on its website.
Flybe has created a claims form for eligible customers to fill out.
Monarch said in January it was about to start emailing eligible customers who will be able to apply for a refund through a link in the email.
Ryanair will automatically refund the duty paid on flights from 1 May - and will also go further, reducing the cost of tickets for flights from 27 March by an equivalent amount to the duty.
Thomas Cook customers with flight-only bookings have been contacted by email with details of how the refund will be made.
Thomson says its customers will be refunded automatically.
Virgin Atlantic says it will automatically refund eligible customers and re-issue their tickets.
For a full list of what all the airlines are doing, see the How to reclaim Air Passenger Duty airline-by-airline MSE news story.
Choose the right flight site
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 to find the cheapest flight tickets depends on your plans.
Know when'n'where you want? Use screenscrapers to compare scheduled flights
Is it a traditional package holiday resort? Compare cheap charter flights
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Know specific dates and destinations?Use screenscrapers to uncover cheap scheduled flights
A screenscraper's a type 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. We've seen some examples where it's cheaper to go via one of these sites rather than going direct to an airline. However because they don't all search the same sites...
Always use at least two to be sure.
Top picks (click 'use it' to go there or 'full info' to read more):
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. It checks availability in real time - the price you see is the price you get.
Its strength is its toolbar, which lets you instantly find the right trip from your results. It 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.com 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.
Cheapest time to travel
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.
Its results can display fare options spread over a month, to give you the cheapest price. It also has strong coverage of budget airlines, plus it includes the option to specify economy, premium economy, business or first class searches.
It searches about 1,000 airlines, and grabs results from about 200 online travel agents, including Opodo, Expedia, Ebookers, Lastminute.com, Govolo, Seat24 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, and while it lacks the charm of our other two picks, 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 17 online travel agents, including Bravofly, Budgetair, Ebookers, Emailflights, Expedia, Crystal Travel, Holiday Genie, Lastminute.com, 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.
Further screenscrapers to extend your search, many with other strong features, are Momondo*, Kelkoo*, Fly.com, Dohop, Mobissimo and TravelSpec. 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.
Need a flight and hotel?Try flight brokers for extra discounts
Flight brokers have direct commercial relations with airlines and can offer their own deals. Many give extra discounts if you book hotels with them too.
The big benefit of this is that if you book a flight and hotel with the same firm (ie a travel broker) within a day of each other, you now 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 ATOL travel protection extended MSE news story for full info.
This advantage is strong, but sometimes you’ll find it's far cheaper just to buy separately - use screenscrapers to compare flights, and get the best price for accommodation using our Cheap Hotels guide. In that case, you need to balance the gain of the protection against the extra cost.
Best for: Range, hotels and offers
Expedia* is the flight brokers' big brother. It allows multi-destination flight searches with a good range of offers, plus it includes charter airlines and travel brokers, so it's a good all-rounder.
Book your hotel and flight together and there's often an extra discount. Expedia is 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 400 airlines.
Filter options and deals
With a good number of filter options, Opodo* was founded by nine large European airlines, including BA and Air France. A close second, 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, its own deals mean it's still worth checking direct. It also came up with strong results in our price comparison.
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.
Exclusive offers, often missed by scrapers
Travelocity* is often excluded by screenscrapers, but it has some strong exclusive offers which make it worth looking at separately.
It found good results in our price comparison, but 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.
Time for some serious bargain hunting...
1. Ethnic travel agents may be cheaper
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. Show more
For example, Shepherd's Bush in London and the surrounding area has some Caribbean specialist tour agents, or buy the Jewish Chronicle, which has firms advertising cheap flights to Israel. You've also told us about Chinese travel agent Omega, which has two branches in the London Chinatown area, as well as Birmingham and Edinburgh.
Don't forget to check prices elsewhere before you buy, to make sure you're getting a good deal. If you know of a cheap specialist travel agent, please add your finds/read others'.
2. Sneakily uncover how many cheap seats are left
Spot a dirt-cheap flight seat, and you don't know how long you've got to decide before it goes. Yet there's a sneaky trick to manipulate the booking system, and work out how many bargain seats are left. Show more
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, it's likely you'll need to grab it as soon as possible.
3.Try specialist travel deals
Specialist youth travel agent STA Travel guarantees to beat any scheduled flight price offered by competitors. While it specialises in finding travel and tour deals for students and under-26s, its scheduled flight price guarantee's open to all. Show more
Sadly, the guarantee doesn't extend to flights booked directly on airlines' sites, but if you 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.
4. The codeshare trick - WHERE TWO AIRLINES SELL THE SAME FLIGHT
If you like flying with a specific airline or know the exact flight you want, 'codesharing' could be a way to get a flight with that airline, via another one. It's when airlines buddy up to sell seats on each others' flights, sometimes at a different price.
For example, an American Airlines return flight from Heathrow to New York's JFK airport for the first weekend in June is £589 if you book with American Airlines, but just £406 if you book via US Airways - a saving of £183, even though it's exactly the same flight.
This works best on popular medium or long-haul routes - simply book via a partner airline to grab a seat on the same plane for less. Full 'how to' and list of codeshare partners
How can you find them? Codesharing flights will be included in comparison site results. This is a warning against booking directly with airlines as you’d miss this trick otherwise. It should be clear on the comparison site, eg, if you book with Virgin but it’s a Delta flight it should say so.
Here’s a list of which airlines may buddy up with each other – this won’t always work, but it is worth checking.
|Airline||Which airlines they codeshare with|
|American Airlines||Airberlin, Air Tahiti Nui, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, US Airways, British Airways, Cape Air Airlines, Cathay Pacific, EL AL, Etihad Airways, Fiji Airways, Finnair, Gulf Air, Hainan Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Interjet, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Jetstar Airways, Jetstar Japan, LAN Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, OpenSkies, Qantas Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Seaborne Airlines, S7 Airlines, TAM Airlines and WestJet.|
|British Airways||Air Baltic, Airberlin, American Airlines, Aer Lingus, Bangkok Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Flybe, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN Airlines, Loganair, Malaysia Airlines, Meridiana, Qantas, Qatar Airwaysm Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, SriLankan Airlines, TAM Airlines, Vueling Airlines and WestJet.|
|Delta||Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, AeroMexico, AirEuropa, AirFrance, Alaska Airlines, Altalia, China Airways, Garuda Indonesia, GOL Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Olympic Air, Saudia, Vietnam Airlines, Virgin Altantic, Virgin Australia International, Westjet and XiamenAir.|
|Emirates||Air Malta, Air Mauritius, Alaska Airlines, easyJet, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Jetblue Airways, Jetstar Airways, Jetstar Asia, Korean Air, Oman Air, Philippine Airlines, Qantas, S7 Airlines, South African Airways, TAP Portugal, Thai Airways International, Valuair and Virgin America.|
|Lufthansa||Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air Malta, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Asiana Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Avianca, Blue1, BMI Regional, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, Germanwings, jetBlue, Latam Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Luxair, Privatair, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, South African Airways, SWISS, Taca Airlines, TAM Airlines, TAP portugal, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines, United and US Airways.|
|Qantas||Aer Lingus, Aircalin, Air Niugini, Air North, Air Tahiti Nui, Air Vanuatu, Alaska Airlines, Alitalia, American Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Bangkok, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Southern, Dragonair, EL AL, Emirates, Fiji Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Jetstar, LAN Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Quantas Link, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, South African Airways, Sri Lankan Airlines, TAM, US Airways, and Vietnam Airlines.|
|Qatar Airways||American Airlines, Asiana Airlines, AZAL, Bangkok Airways, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, GOL, Japan Airlines, jetBlue, Malaysia Airlines, Middle East Airlines, Oman Air, US Airways and S7 Airlines.|
|Swiss Air Lines||Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air France, Air Malta, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, Copa Airlines, Edelweiss Air, Egyptair, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA Airm Germanwings, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss Airways, TAP Portugal, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines, Ukraine International, United Airlines.|
|Turkish Airlines||Adria, Air Astana, Air Canada, Air China, AEGEAN, Air India, Air Kyrgyzstan, Air New Zealand, Air Malta, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian, Avianca, Croatia Airlines, Egyptair, Ethiopian Airlines, Etihad Airways, Garuda Indonesia, Iran Air, JetBlue, Kuwait Airways, Lufthansa, Luxair, Malaysia Airlines, Pakistan International, Oman Air, LOT Polish Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Rwand Air, UIA, SAS, Singapore Airlines, Swiss, Tap Portugal, Thai Airways, United and US Airways.|
|Virgin Atlantic||Air China, Air New Zeland, All Nippon Airways, Delta Air Lines, Jet Airways, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways and Transaero Airlines.|
5. Easyjet School hols trick - beat the flight price hike
We've found a clever way to bag cheaper flights using Easyjet's 'Flexifares', which let you switch dates by a few weeks without paying extra. It works the whole year round - but it's particularly useful when prices shoot up during the school holidays.
The idea is to book a Flexifare on the same route at a less busy time when flights are cheaper. Then after 24 hours, provided there’s capacity, you can switch it to the dates you originally wanted at no extra charge. It's not the easiest trick in the book, but if it works it could save £100s. Show more
MSE Steve used this trick (read his blog here): "We had to go away in the last week of May, prices were through the roof because it was half-term. Flights for the family, travelling at the weekend with luggage, cost £836 all-in. But booking flexi-flights two weeks earlier cost just £405. After a nervous 24-hour wait we switched them to the weekend we wanted - £431 saved!"
Forumite Green1960 saved £700 on flights to Lanzarote in the school hols: "When we went on the Easyjet website the flights were over £1,500 including bags. We then booked the flexi flights, which were £848 - a saving of £700. A bit nerve-wracking for the 24 hours, but we know it works. There must be availability obviously on the dates you are changing to."
Here's how to do it:
Step 1: Check at least 20 seats are available on the date you want to fly. This trick is a bit of a gamble - because you have to wait before switching your flights, there's always a risk the seats you want could be snapped up in the meantime and that you could be left with a ticket for the wrong dates.
Our suggestion then is that you pretend to book standard tickets for a large party on the dates you actually want to fly (but don't actually go through with the purchase). If you can still get a quote for, say, 20 seats, chances are there'll still be room once you switch flights. The fewer seats there are left, the more of a gamble you're taking.
Step 2: Book a cheaper Flexifare on an alternate date. Find and book a 'Flexifare ticket' on the same route, no more than three weeks before or one week after you want to fly. As a bonus, these tickets also include speedy boarding and one piece of hold luggage - but they aren't available on every route so check your destination's included.
Step 3: Watch and wait. This is the nerve-wracking bit. You'll need to wait at least 24 hours until you switch your Flexifare tickets to the dates you want. You'll be able to move each ticket by up to one week back or three weeks forward if there's space on a flight. You can change the dates as many times as you like - but if there's no availability you won't be able to switch.
Step 4: Switch your flights as soon as you can. As soon as the 24 hours are up, log on to the Easyjet website, check the dates you're after are still available and switch your flights.
6. Easyjet refund trick - get the difference if the price drops
If you've booked a flight with Easyjet, check the price afterwards to see if it drops. The airline's little-known price promise guarantees that if you do find the same flight for less after booking, you'll get the difference back as a credit voucher. You'll need to have booked direct though and you won’t get the difference back if the lower price you’ve found is a sale price. Show more
MSE Guy tried it: "I booked a flight back in January 2015 to travel in September. In April, I went to book someone else on the same flight and found tickets were £16 less than what I paid. I called Easyjet's customer services and after confirming the details, it emailed the voucher instantly - all it took was a quick call."
Here's how to do it:
- Check if the price has dropped. Compare the price Easyjet's website lists with what you paid. If it's cheaper, and there isn't a sale on, then you should be able to claim the difference. Don’t forget the final price you paid may include extras such as baggage, seat selection and a card fee, so factor that all in.
- Call to claim your voucher. Have your booking reference and flight details to hand, then call Easyjet's customer service department on 0330 365 5000 (as it's an 03 number, the call will be part of your minutes allowance or cost no more than a standard number). Unfortunately you have to call - you can't claim by email or letter.
- Use your credit voucher within six months, by phone only. The difference in price will be sent to you as an Easyjet credit voucher by email, usually immediately. However if you don't get it, check your spam folder. You'll then have six months to use it on any Easyjet flight - you'll have to call up when booking but Easyjet says you'll always pay the price it quotes online.
Does it work on other airlines?
Unfortunately it seems to be limited to Easyjet - we checked other popular airlines (British Airways, Flybe, Jet2, Monarch, Ryanair, Thomas Cook Airlines, Thomson and Virgin) and couldn't find any that offer the same.
However British Airways, Ryanair and Virgin will refund the difference if you find the same flight cheaper with another firm, eg, a travel agent, as long as you booked direct in the first place.
7. 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. Show more
From pulling in favours from airline-based contacts, to 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.
Totally flexible on your trip?Nerdy tools to uncover when and where's cheapest
If you're totally flexible on your dates and just want to find when's cheapest, two canny tools help you hone exactly when and where to go for dirt-cheap fares.
1. The FlightCheckerFinds when and where for the best deals
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 where to go for ultra-cheap flights in Europe.
Important. We're having problems with Ryanair prices. Some Ryanair results may not be accurate in the tool, so ALWAYS check these before buying.
The FlightChecker searches 11 budget airlines, including Easyjet and Ryanair. Simply enter your travel dates, destination and how long you want your trip to be. It has a handy 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 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 that very occasionally, a few flights listed may 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.
2. Momondo's 'Flight Insight' toolCrammed with stats to hone when and where's cheapest
Search via flight comparison Momondo*, then click the 'Flight Insight' tab if available for your route. This nerdy fun tool reveals how to hone perfect prices for 150+ popular routes from the UK. Overall, it found it's generally cheapest to fly on Tuesday, and book at least 53 days ahead.
Best for:Nerdy data to hone when's cheapest
Colourful flight-finder Momondo* is a meta-search site that works similarly to the screenscrapers above. Its real strength lies in its 'Flight Insight' tool, a powerhouse of stats to help pinpoint when to book, which day to fly and even which airport's cheapest.
How to do it
To use the tool, put your dates into Momondo* and click 'search'. If it's available for your route, you'll find a 'flight insight' tab at the top of the results. Click it - you'll find handy stats in the tabs on the left to help you hone your dates.
Click 'days to departure' to see how the time to book affects the price, while 'seasonality' shows the time of year prices are likely to be lowest. Try the other tabs to see how price varies by the day, airport and more.
When we checked, London-Phuket prices were cheapest in April and most expensive in December. Yet for a London-Hong Kong search, prices were lowest at 47 days before departure, and November trips came up cheapest.
Which routes does it work for?
It works for over 150 of the most popular routes from the UK (most leaving from London), and about 1,800 worldwide. Sadly it isn't available for every route yet, but Momondo says it's adding more routes as it gets more data.
Of course, the results are a useful average to help plan your trip dates, not a cast-iron guarantee. Once you've got these, don't assume Momondo will always come up cheapest - try the other screenscrapers above to see if you can beat it.
Can I get it cheaper by booking even earlier?
Momondo's 'days to departure' graphs only go back 60 days, but it may occasionally be possible to get it even cheaper by booking further ahead.
When we checked the cheapest time to book for five different return flights, three were cheapest by booking about six weeks before departure. Yet one was cheapest booking 10 weeks ahead, and another by booking a whopping 50 weeks before. So if you've time, start looking as early as you can, just in case.
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. Searches over 700 travel sites and airlines, including Expedia and Opodo. Includes budget airlines? Yes.
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Off to a traditional holiday resort? Try cheap charter flight finders for dirt-cheap deals
Charter flights are bespoke flights run 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:
Ease and price
TravelSupermarket* lists scheduled and charter flights in one place. Its search is slightly more limited when it comes to charters, but does include the likes of Thomson, Monarch, Avro and FlyThomasCook. Its search is easy to use, plus it found some of the cheapest results in our price comparison.
Avro* is part of the Monarch Travel 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 it's fully ABTA and ATOL-registered.
Belt 'n' braces
Flights Direct* 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. It's part of a proper travel agent, so you also get full ABTA and ATOL cover.
Extra CHARTER flight tricks to slash costs
It's worth trying a final few tricks to see if you can cut the 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 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 sometimes be much cheaper than booking a scheduled flight. For destinations like Orlando, package holidays can be dirt cheap. It won't always work, but it's worth a try. Also see the Cheap Package Holiday article.
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 more through Amex and others. There are essentially two ways to fly gratis:
1. 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 there's usually a decent range.
TWO FLIGHTS TO PARIS or ONE TO Turkey Amex Preferred Rewards Gold CHARGE CARD, spend £2,000 in first 3mths
Get an Amex Preferred Rewards 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 12 frequent flyer programmes and redeemed, for example with BA, for two return flights to Paris, Milan or Berlin, or one return flight to Istanbul.
You'll have to pay taxes and charges for these flights, but it's 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.
Free European flight with Flybe (YOU PAY taxes and charges)
£250 min spend
Grab Flybe's credit card and once you've spent £250 in the first six months, you'll be sent a voucher for a return flight, which can be used on most of its UK & European routes.
Taxes aren't included, so you'll have to pay these. But the beauty here is that the minimum spend is relatively low. 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: £250. Taxes included: No. Official APR Example
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).
There have been hundreds of thousands of cases where it has been mis-sold. Either 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 and check you aren't getting more than you bargained for when you fill in the application, then check your statement each month to be sure you aren't inadvertently paying for extras you didn't ask for.
2. Earn 'free' flights with Avios
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, wiping out some of the gain. These can be up to £100 for European return flights with BA, for example. But if you opt for its Reward Saver scheme, you pay a fixed £35 fee on most short-haul economy flights, as long as you earn at least one point the year before you book.
For full info, plus 30+ ways to push it to the max, see our Boost Avios Points guide.
Quick flight tips 'n' tricks
There are some other canny tricks that can help you find the cheapest flight for your needs, get the best seats, find transfers and more.
Uncover 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, Airplanefood.net has photos and reviews to whet your appetite.
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.
Beware using multiple web pages when booking
A few forumites have reported problems booking flights while having two or more web pages open, where the flight details get booked using the wrong details from an older search.
If you're using more than one page to search, it's a good idea to close the other pages before you book. Forumites recommend clearing your internet cookies and starting with a new browser page too, or even using a different browser altogether to look for quotes. Always double check the exact details of the flights before you book.
If it's happened to you, contact the airline or booking site straight away to see if you can get it amended (see How to Complain for help). Let them know it's a known fault others have reported too. Yet sadly you've few rights if the airline refuses to correct it, as it'd be difficult to prove it's their error, and it may charge you fees to amend or cancel.
If it's happened to you, let us know in the Wrong Flights Booked forum discussion.
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. Ones to try for sales are the newsletters of British Airways, Opodo*, American Airlines, Air France* and KLM.
Find shared shuttle buses for cheap 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 there's 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.