14 February 2018

Flight Hacks: Top tricks for booking cheap flights

Ever heard that you can beat unfair airline prices by wiping their cookies (those bits of code that track websites you've visited) from your web browser?

If you don't, so they say, their travel search algorithms will keep rising the price of your flight until you book. In fact, this is just a myth. But with a little effort, you can make a genuine saving on almost any flight. Here's how, with one or two genuine flight-price hacks.

But let's first get that cookie misconception out of the way.

Having your cookies (and eating them, too)

The myth about cookies been doing the rounds for a long time. The claim is that you can dodge flight booking sites' deliberately inflated prices by dumping the cookie cache on your PC or phone, booking in a web browser's 'incognito' mode, or swapping browsers.

Supporters of this idea say they've compared flight prices using clean and 'contaminated' search engines. And it's a compelling idea that, with a little tech know-how, you can beat the big travel companies at their own game.

Like most easy fixes, though, it's almost certainly untrue. A company insider would have long ago blown the whistle on such a scam. Flight prices' fluctuation is instead down to the complex calculations airlines use to try to anticipate demand.

So, how do I bag those £19 flights before anyone else?

Airlines do release ultra-cheap, headline flights to attract attention – sometimes even to places you really want to visit.

You can get ahead of the pack by following budget (and other) airlines on Twitter. There you'll get almost instantaneous news of flight sales. Sure, the tweets may not be the wittiest but you can always separate them out using TweetDeck.

Also get on the emailing list of sites such as  (This link will open in a new window)Airfarewatchdog,  (This link will open in a new window)Jack's flight club and  (This link will open in a new window)Scottscheapflights: They scan the skies like vultures and pick the cheapest flights for your delectation.

And sign up for destination price alerts from  (This link will open in a new window)Google Flights and  (This link will open in a new window)Kayak. They'll email you when fares are likely to increase. Book before they do and the savings can really add up, especially if you're reserving for a family.

Just as with the tweets, you can always filter these emails into a folder and forget about them until wanderlust strikes.

What's the best time for advance booking?

We've all been told to book early to avoid paying over the odds – and it's generally true.

Crunching the numbers from various studies and the advice of flight-fare experts suggests you should start looking for international flights six to seven months before you go and for domestic flights no more than three months beforehand.

You could set up a reminder on your device – even with a link to this article – for when to start searching. Make it repeat every year if you have a regular holiday.

At the other end of the spectrum,  (This link will open in a new window)HolidayPirates is a good source of ultra-last minute flights.

And when's best to actually go?

Sadly, most of us can't jet off at the last minute. But here is is a checklist of money-saving tweaks – balancing saving and hassle factors – many of us actually could consider. We'll eat our sombrero if at least one of the ideas on this list doesn't save you money:

1. Travel in the shoulder season – the period between peak and off-peak seasons. Holiday in April–June or Sept–October, skipping the summer school break, and you'll not only find cheaper flights, but also less scorching weather (and better hotel rates, too) in many sunny spots.

2. If you can, also skip other school holidays.

3. Book at least one leg of travel on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, when seat demand, and thus prices, are lowest. (Bonus: airports will also be less rammed.)

4. Get an early morning flight or a red-eye.

5. Travel on New Year's Day: it tends to be the cheapest of all.

And if you are completely free enough for price and good fortune to determine when you go, try this: go to  (This link will open in a new window)Skyscanner search, leave the 'to' field blank and select 'Cheapest month' for 'Depart' and 'Return'. Then click the green button and start clicking away at your worldwide options.

Try a few of the travel aggregator sites

 (This link will open in a new window)Momondo is one of the most comprehensive,  (This link will open in a new window)Google Flights is one of the cleverest and  (This link will open in a new window)hipmunk has an 'Agony' filter that sorts results by a combination of price, the number of stops and travel time.

When you've found a flight, compare it with the airline's own website just in case it's cheaper. Some carriers want to avoid paying commission to the hipmunks of the world. Same with the budgets: go direct. Many aggregators don't list them.

Book like a singleton

Now you're booking, here's a travel hack that doesn't involve conspiracy theories about travel search engines. Instead, it involves a conspiracy theory about airline seat pricing – and it's actually true.

It works like this: Even if you're travelling with a group, book the seats one by one – as if you were a single traveller. That way, like line fishing, you'll catch the juicy one or two seats that might remain allocated at a lower or sale price.

Book in bulk instead and the airline will automatically tend to quote a higher seat price.

Sure, it takes more time booking singly, but the savings can work out to a handsome hourly rate.

Learn to love layovers

Layovers aren't layovers: they're an extra holiday! Book a cheaper indirect route and extend your stay for a few days in an intermediate city such as Brussels, Madrid or Istanbul. Who's complaining?

To err is aeroplane

It's the ultimate flight hack: Spotting a flight pricing mistake can be like finding a golden ticket in a chocolate bar. Airlines make mistakes, like any other company.

Underpriced fares can be due to human error, false currency conversions or technical glitches. Thrifty Nomads reported a $15,000 (£11,000) San Francisco to Auckland business class ticket mistakenly posted for $1,500.

As inevitable as they are shortlived, error fares are hard to hunt down, but there are two reliable techniques. First, sign up to dedicated sites such as  (This link will open in a new window)SecretFlying.com for reports of sightings in the wild.

Or, if you've got the time, fish for them. Do a series of month-long searches for a favourite destination on any of the travel search engines mentioned here and see if you can spot a price anomaly, like a plump salmon breaking water in a pond.

Good hunting, and enjoy your holiday!

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