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How to Find Cheap Flights [The Ultimate Guide]

You're looking to find an inexpensive flight. But finding the best deal is not always that simple. So you ask yourself:

The search is over. In this this guide, we have put together everything you need to know to compare prices, how to choose the airline that genuinely offers the best price, and the pitfalls to avoid.

So here it goes.

Why do airline ticket prices vary so much?

Everyone knows it these days: airline ticket prices change all the time.

Although there are lots of reasons why ticket prices evolve over time, there are 5 key factors that influence these variations.

Your traveller profile

Leisure passenger

As a leisure passenger, your expectations are different from those of a business passenger.

And that’s perfectly natural.

When you're going on holiday, you will try to get the best deal, at any cost.

The flight itself is, of course, already part of your trip. But let's be honest – the holiday doesn’t start properly until you’ve arrived at your destination, or even your hotel.

Which is why you’re prepared to make certain concessions on your ticket to get the best price:

...because any savings you make on your ticket mean more spending money for your holiday!

Business passenger

When you travel for work, it’s a whole different story.

The flight is generally not the only thing you have to do that day, and certainly not the most important.

Every minute you can claw back is time you can use to fine-tune your presentation, or have a rest.

Which is why you would like faster checks at the airport, or priority boarding. Naturally, Business Class offers a wider range of services than Premium or Economy and comes with a whole bunch of extras, both big and small. But this convenience and level of comfort always comes at a price.

The services you add

First and Business Class come with a package of services included in the ticket price:

But, flying Economy Class doesn’t mean you don’t want any of these services!

If you have young children, you’ll appreciate priority boarding to allow you to put your bags away and get your family settled without getting stressed.

If you’re visiting relatives for several weeks, taking one or several heavy and possibly bulky items of luggage is practically a must. It’s always nice to bring them something special and come back with some souvenirs – or do a bit of shopping.

Also, some airlines don’t allow you to choose your seats without paying extra.

All travellers have different needs.

But, of course, paying less for your ticket means fewer services are included. You can always add services à la carte, but that will inevitably push up the total ticket price.

Flexible travel dates

When you’re going on holiday, you typically know on which dates you’ll depart and return.

Firstly, you need to make sure that your employer is happy for you to be away during that time. Then, you need to find a nice place to stay at your destination.

These three elements – work, accommodation and flights – can be a bit of a juggling act, but as soon as they match up, book your flights.

There is very little chance that you will change the travel dates at this point, simply because everything else has been arranged accordingly.

But not all travellers are able to specify the exact dates for departure and return at the time of booking.

This applies in particular to people travelling on business. Sometimes, they don’t know exactly when the job will be completed.

This is where a flexible date ticket comes in.

It’s not strictly speaking a ticket without a date, but rather one with dates that can be changed.

Obviously, being able to change dates means that the airline always needs to keep seats available on all of its flights. It's a small, paid-for luxury that is not often provided.

Our tip: it can be more cost-effective to just buy a single ticket and the return separately as soon as your dates are set.

Supply and demand

There are two factors here that have a major impact on pricing: events and sale history.

Events

In any given year, there are all manner of international events, both recurring and one-off.

On such occasions, there is a massive influx of visitors arriving from all over the world.

Obviously, hotel and restaurant businesses as well as airlines seize the opportunity of this heightened demand to increase prices.

The reason is simple enough: even though these are exceptional events, planes still have the same number of seats and hotels the same number of rooms, and so prices rocket.

Sale history

Airlines have been keeping a record of sales on their destinations for several years, comprising information such as average price, the average time between ticket purchase and travel and how quickly an aircraft fills up, for instance.

Booking systems adapt according to this data (almost in real time) to generate maximum revenue for the airline.

This is called yield management or revenue management.

A plane flying half empty is not very profitable.

This is why, depending on destination and timetable, ticket prices can drop a few days before the departure date.

Conversely, when the system notices a peak in demand for a particular destination at a given moment, it automatically raises the price to maximise revenue.

If you think this mechanism looks remarkably like the stock market, it’s because it works in a very similar way.

Everybody wants a ticket? The price goes up. Nobody wants one? Prices drop.

This is why it’s always best to book your flight as early as possible and why people flying on the same plane in the same class have sometimes paid very different prices.

Where you buy your tickets

Prices will not be the same if you buy your ticket from a travel agent as opposed to online.

Travel agent

Your local travel agent has additional expenses such as renting office space, paying salaries to its staff and paying for utilities (gas, water, electricity).

They will also be able to advise you on your flight and accommodation for your trip. Incidentally, they also offer a guarantee in case of problems, such as cancellations, for instance.

This is why an agent generally imposes service fees, which are reflected in the ticket price.

Online

There are three main places where you can buy tickets online:

One is not necessarily cheaper than the other, there are no hard and fast rules.

It all depends on when you book your flight, and on the destination.

Sometimes you might well find a cheaper flight on the airline’s website, another time it might be with an online agent.

You need to shop around!

(Don’t panic – we will give you the lowdown on what to do later in this article.)

The myths of booking flights online – true or false?

Before we tell you how best to find cheap tickets, let's first talk about some of the myths surrounding the booking of cheap flights online.

Are they true, or just myths? For instance:

No need to keep looking, we will give you a straight answer to all your questions.

Myth #1: The later I buy my ticket, the more expensive it will be

Answer: that’s true 98% of the time.

For every flight and every class, there are price brackets with a quota of available seats.

For example, for 250 seats in Economy there are 10 available at the lowest price. The next 40 are a little more expensive... And the prices continue to go up until they reach the maximum bracket.

So, the later you buy (close to the departure date), the less chance you’ll have of finding the cheapest tickets.

This system, which is linked to the yield management we mentioned earlier, means that two people sat next to each other in the same class with exactly the same service might have paid completely different prices.

Some people claim that you have to buy your ticket a specific number of days in advance in order to get the best tariff - this is false. That point in time varies according to airline, destination and the time period before travel.

So for the other 2% of the time, do ticket prices drop?

It’s possible, even if not very common or automatic, and not all airlines do it.

A flight that is not completely full costs the airline a lot of money.

Therefore, in some cases prices can drop a few days before departure. So it is absolutely possible to find a cheaper ticket by buying at the last minute.

The real question is whether you really want to run the risk of not getting a seat in order to – maybe – save a few bob? Without even knowing whether or not the airline will drop the price at the last minute?

Our tip: book your flight as early as possible. Generally, the earlier, the better.

Myth #2: If I buy my ticket at the weekend, it’ll be more expensive

Answer: this is mostly true.

Remember that yield management we talked about before?

(It’s the system that allows an airline to calculate the highest price a passenger is willing to pay based on sale history and demand.)

It’s the reason why this myth isn’t one.

Of course, it depends on the airline, destination and how far in advance you book.

But, in general, you will pay more if you buy your ticket at the weekend or at peak times.

Also, some cancelled flights go back on sale in the IT systems – on a Tuesday. This is why it’s one of the best days to book a flight.

So, what day of the week should you buy your ticket?

Our tip: book your flight on a Tuesday or Wednesday, ideally between midnight and 7am, or in the afternoon.

Myth #3: Travelling at the weekend costs more than during the week

Answer: this is true for Economy Class passengers.

For organisational reasons, most people leave for and return from their holidays at the weekend.

Many holidaymakers prefer inexpensive Economy Class tickets. As a result, prices go up according to peaks in demand: the weekend.

For Business Class, the opposite is true.

Business Class seats are often sold to passengers travelling for work. Therefore, they are in high demand Monday to Friday.

Business Class tickets are therefore usually more expensive during the week than at the weekend, particularly on Mondays and Fridays.

To make sure you travel at the best possible time, take a look at https://www.whereandwhen.net. This site provides information on the best time to book and travel, taking into account your departure and arrival airport and time of year.

So when is the best time to book to get the best price?

Our tip: for flights in Economy, travel on a weekday, ideally between Tuesday and Thursday.

Myth #4: Buying a ticket directly on the airline’s website is always cheaper

Answer: false.

For some destinations and during certain periods, airlines sometimes make a deal with a flight comparison site or an online agent.

They sell them a bundle of reduced-price seats to incite customers to book via a platform other than their own website.

At other times, they prefer selling seats for a flight for which there is poor demand by entering into a temporary partnership with a flight comparison site or agent.

It’s exactly the same principle as in a supermarket, where certain items are sometimes on sale to promote a brand or to get rid of stock.

But this doesn’t happen automatically. As always, much depends on factors that are never divulged to the general public.

Our tip: always compare prices between online travel agents, a flight comparison site and the airline.

Make sure you compare like for like, for example two tariffs including hold baggage and a meal.

Also, make sure the online travel agent doesn’t add any hidden charges (such as credit card fees).

In fact, some online travel agents tend to publish a price that is artificially low, due to various subterfuges.

Be on your guard!

Myth #5: Buying a ticket via a price comparison site or agent always costs more

Answer: false.

Comparison sites and agents sometimes have arrangements with airlines who allow them to sell tickets below what they themselves offer.

It benefits both parties:

Our tip: as a general rule, the bigger the agent or comparison site, the more partners it will have. It therefore pays to check prices on the most well-known sites.

And, as always, do check with the airline, too.

Myth #6: Transaction fees for methods of payment are rigged

Answer: false – but some clarification is required.

There are absolutely transaction fees that apply when you pay online. These are not the same depending on the payment method used.

Therefore, some fees are, for example:

However, all this has been regulated in Europe, preventing merchants from hiding or demanding transaction fees as they please.

Our tip for a cheaper ticket: if possible, change your payment method. Also, it's sometimes worth obtaining a new means of payment and save the transaction fees at checkout.

Myth #7: You never get a good deal when buying a ticket at the last minute

Answer: that’s often the case, but...

There is just one central system managing an airline's ticketing. Wherever you purchase your ticket (airline, agent or flight comparison site), it is that system which manages availability and bookings.

Only a small proportion of tickets is available at the best price for every flight. Once these are sold out, it moves on to the next tariff and so on, until the last available seats, which are the most expensive.

As time goes on, tickets become more and more expensive. So, most of the time it is better to book as early as possible to get the best price.

However, it can sometimes pay off to wait until the very last minute.

Obviously, this will not always be possible, but if:

... you’ll be able to travel for less, though not necessarily just by buying the ticket.

In this scenario, you can book a package holiday to get a cheap ticket, either through a last-minute deal from a travel agent or a holiday auction site. In both cases, you purchase the flight and hotel accommodation.

But sometimes you can find just the flight at a cheaper price at the last minute.

This applies when an airline knows that a given flight will be fairly empty. To avoid flying an empty plane (which is very costly for the airline), ticket prices are dropped at the last minute, generally within 7 days before the flight.

So how do you find a cheap flight at the last minute?

Tips for getting hold of cheaper tickets:

  • By changing your departure or return date by a few days, you can sometimes make huge savings. Booking engines show several dates at once, which makes it easier to find the best tariff.
  • Compare the overall cost of your flight and hotel with those offered by online travel agents or holiday auction sites – sometimes the best deals can be had with a hotel + flight bundle.
  • Instead of booking a return flight, check out the price for 2 singles. It can work out cheaper to buy two separate tickets instead of a return.

It all depends on when you want to go and which system you use for your purchase, of course. But in general, you should book as early as possible.

Is a cheap ticket genuinely cheaper? How to compare two airlines

A flight is a flight, right? In theory, there is no difference between two tickets, and the airline offering the best price always wins.

Well... not exactly.

The price advertised at the beginning does not show all the important details regarding your booking. It can sometimes be misleading, particularly with low-cost airlines or Economy Class tickets.

Which is why it’s so important to verify what’s included in your ticket.

In particular:

Cabin and hold baggage

Some airlines include an item of hold baggage in the ticket price. However, the weight allowance is sometimes quite low for long-haul flights.

Air Belgium passengers, for example, can take at least 30kg, and that’s in Economy. Others allow just 23kg, and any excess weight will, of course, be charged.

Other airlines will simply charge you extra for putting baggage in the hold. If you can’t make do with cabin baggage, you are looking at an additional charge.

Some airlines require payment just for taking a piece of cabin baggage! So unless you're happy to travel with just a handbag or little shoulder bag (good luck with that), the price of your ticket will creep up further.

Pay close attention to what you’re allowed to take with you, as any additional baggage will very quickly push up your ticket price.

Food and drink

Food is often not included in the ticket price, usually with low-cost, short-haul carriers. You’ll have to pay, even just for a sandwich.

But there can be nasty surprises even on medium- or long-haul flights. For example, if there is just one meal included (instead of two), or there is no choice of menu or no drinks included.

Make sure to check which meals and drinks are included and if there is any choice (other than a vegetarian option).

When you’re on a long-haul flight and have two meals on the plane, being able to choose what to eat is far from being a luxury. But sometimes, it’ll cost you...

Departure and arrival airports

Travelling from the main airport of a major city can be both a blessing and a curse.

On the plus side, you will have better access, more duty-free shopping and sometimes more services, like a dedicated lounge.

But these benefits also invoke the downsides of large airports, such as:

Which is why travelling through secondary airports can prove to be more advantageous. They are generally less congested, less crowded (meaning faster movement through security) and offer cheaper flights.

Depending on where you live, they can even turn out to be closer to you.

For example, if you were travelling to the French Antilles from Belgium or Northern France, you can now fly from Brussels Charleroi with Air Belgium, instead of Paris Orly. It’s easier and closer!

That being said, when you travel via a secondary airport you might need to factor in more time to get into town. But an extra hour’s travel time at the destination might translate to a nice saving on your ticket!

Choice of seats

Some airlines take great pleasure in offering the lowest possible price, and then make you pay for the most basic services.

Such as a choice of seats, for instance.

If you’re travelling with your family (or simply don't like sitting at the tail end of the aircraft), choosing where to sit is a legitimate requirement.

Just make sure you won't be made to pay for this ‘option’.

Private lounge and priority boarding

This applies mainly for Premium Class tickets.

(Typically, these services are always included in Business Class, rarely in Premium and never in Economy.)

If you’d like a bit more comfort, make sure that the term ‘Premium’ isn’t just a marketing ploy used to sell you what is, in effect, an Economy ticket.

A Premium ticket should offer at least the following included in the price:

... as is the case with Air Belgium.

Hidden charges at the last minute

What could be more annoying than finding a flight at a good price, only to see the cost explode when it comes to payment?

The culprits are always the same:

As usual, if the price seems too good to be true to begin with, it probably is.

Therefore, before you choose which airline to travel with, go right to the end of the booking process to find out what the final price is, not just the one advertised at the start.

Terms of sale

Some airlines ask you to confirm your return flight – this is illegal.

Although you do have the right to object to this practice and take legal action, it’s much easier to quickly check before buying to avoid logistical, bureaucratic and possibly legal hassle.

Also, imagine you’re travelling with a friend, who drops out at the last minute. So you ask a relative to join you instead. Some airlines will ask you to pay a surcharge to change the name indicated on the ticket.

Make sure you carefully read the general terms of sale and take them into account when choosing your airline.

12 tips for finding an inexpensive ticket

As we have seen, not all tickets are equal and the price at the outset doesn’t tell you what is included in your purchase.

Here’s a quick recap of our top tips for finding an inexpensive flight:

  1. Book your flight as early as possible – generally, the earlier, the better
  2. Visit all websites anonymously or on a different computer – don’t buy your ticket from your usual browser until you're certain of your dates
  3. Book your flight on a Tuesday or Wednesday – ideally between midnight and 7am, or in the afternoon
  4. For flights in Economy, travel on a weekday – ideally between Tuesday and Thursday
  5. Compare prices between online travel agents, flight comparison sites and airlines – the airline doesn't always offer the best tariff
  6. Check prices on the most well-known sites – as a general rule, the bigger the agent or comparison site, the more partnerships they have (and therefore, the best prices)
  7. Be flexible with your travel dates – by changing when you travel, you can sometimes make huge savings
  8. Compare the overall cost of your flight and hotel, not just the airline ticket – the best deals can sometimes be a hotel + flight package
  9. Check the price for two single flights – it can work out cheaper to buy two separate tickets instead of a return, especially if you’re not sure about your return date
  10. Go right to the end of the booking process (without paying) – some airlines and online travel agents hide additional charges that don’t appear until it's time to pay. Purchase the ticket with the lowest total transaction cost rather than the lowest ticket price shown initially
  11. Change your payment method – this can reduce or eliminate transaction fees
  12. Don’t take out cancellation insurance, if your payment method already offers it – credit cards often include cancellation insurance, so check before you buy an additional policy you don’t need

In Summary

Don’t be fooled!

Between the airline you choose, where you buy and what options are included, the difference in price can add up to hundreds of euros between two airlines – for the same flight, at the same time, in the same class and with the same options.

Always compare multiple websites and multiple airlines, taking into account any options you might want.

That’s the only way to find a cheap ticket!