Flying on a budget
Since the 1970s, air travel has become more and more affordable in many parts of the world thanks to the liberalization of air travel regulations, growing competition, increasing efficiency of airline operation, and government subsidies (both open and hidden). It can however still be a large part of your travel budget. This article offers some advice on how to reduce the cost of air travel.
It can also be worthwhile to consider whether other modes of transport make sense, especially if the flight (or a leg of it) is short. For example in many places, perhaps most notably China and Europe, high-speed rail is often a better option. In countries with many islands, such as the Philippines, Indonesia or Greece, consider taking a ferry.
Flying in the 1950s and 1960s, what is now called "the golden age of air travel", was a privilege of the wealthy, or a rare treat for the upper-middle class. Tickets often cost more than a month's salary on short routes and more than a year's salary on trans-oceanic routes. Since then, deregulation and subsidies have driven down both prices and comfort in basic economy. Significant moments include U.S. President Jimmy Carter's deregulation of U.S. airlines in the 1970s, and the EU "open skies" policy of the 1990s and 2000s that allows any EU airline to fly any route in the European Union.
New airplanes are also becoming more and more fuel-efficient, allowing the newest generation of what used to be "mid-range planes" to fly trans-Atlantic routes. ETOPS (extended twin-engine operations) has also made it possible to fly routes with less fuel-hungry two-engine planes that used to require three or four engines. Besides that, more and more fuel-efficient planes, especially in the narrowbody sector like the upcoming A321 XLR enable narrowbody planes to fly "long and narrow" routes with long distances and relatively low demand which previously were impossible to fly directly for anything close to affordable prices. Finally, new airlines have adopted cost-cutting as a business model and aggregators mean that price is often the single most important factor when choosing a flight.
Ticket prices in aviation are not logical. Airlines will often charge more for a flight that is cheaper for them to operate and vice versa. Sometimes a flight with a layover is cheaper than a direct flight to the same destination because the airline faces less competition on the direct route. Sometimes a flight A to C via B is cheaper than a flight A to B. However, airlines will sometimes even sue travelers who book such a flight and then skip the leg from B to C (see below). Flights to "fortress hubs" (served only or mostly by one dominant carrier or alliance) can be expensive. As a result of these price wars and deregulation the airline industry has gone through waves of consolidation, with ever larger conglomerates buying up once proud flag carriers, and some, such as Sabena and the original Swissair, even going bankrupt.
Plan well in advance
- See also: Planning your flight
Starting your planning well in advance will give you enough time to do your research, and allow you more options.
While booking flights well in advance is a good idea, it does not guarantee you the cheapest fares. It can pay to wait if you find no cheap fares when you first look and there is still plenty of time before your trip. Generally, the lowest fares are usually to be had around seven weeks to three months before you travel. This varies though, depending on the distance flown and regional factors - American passengers tend to book closer to departure than Europeans, for example. Sometimes airlines will reduce prices of unsold seats, so you may be able to find a great deal if you're prepared to travel at short notice.
You should book ahead if both your destination and your date of travel are fixed, for example if you are invited to a wedding or want to spend Christmas with family abroad. Flexible travelers (retirees or gap-year travelers come to mind) can benefit from last-minute offers. If you want to go somewhere warm but don't care where exactly, or you want to go to Russia but don't care when, last minute offers might also be a good idea, as the chance that something will fit your plans is bigger if you're not limited in both date and place. In general, last-minute prices will range from "outrageous" to "they want to fill the last seats and will do it for peanuts", whereas booking early tends to get you good, if not ultra-cheap rates on a pretty consistent basis.
Check your options
- See also: Planning your flight#Airlines
On routes between major airports, there are two main types of airlines. A legacy carrier, also known as a major airline, full-service carrier (or flag carrier if founded by or connected to a national government), is usually an older airline, where cost, comfort and service are usually above average, even in economy class.
A budget airline, also called a no-frills airline or low-cost carrier (LCC), usually has cheaper tickets, but less service. They usually charge extra for things such as baggage check-in at the airport, standard size hand luggage and meals. The "buy on board" food offered by LCCs while costing extra is often better than the sad excuse for a sandwich you might get on a legacy carrier (and then sometimes not even that). But the distinctions between airlines have been blurred, and the price of travel on a budget airline may not be less than on a legacy carrier.
Many legacy carriers now provide the same level of service as budget airlines in economy class, especially in the United States and to a lesser extent Europe, and particularly on short-haul routes or even long-haul domestic routes. "Full service" only applies if you are flying in first class, business class or premium economy. Sometimes legacy carriers have their own no-frills subsidiaries. Eurowings (owned by Lufthansa), Transavia (owned by Air France/KLM) and Vueling (owned by British Airways/Iberia) and Rouge (owned by Air Canada) are a few examples.
Popular destinations such as resorts are also served by charter airlines booked through travel agents.
With so many airlines and flights these days, there is almost always more than one way to fly to your destination. Use flight search websites to find out what your choices are. Do not assume that the most direct flight is the cheapest, or that an airline known for low prices will be the cheapest.
Apart from the most obvious airports, look at airports close to your origin or destination too - they might be cheaper. Air rail alliances may also provide ways to get to/from a more distant airport. Wikivoyage's destination guides usually provide information about how to get from the airport to various destinations. Secondary airports are sometimes quite far from the city, so be sure to factor in any extra transport costs and time. It may be cheaper to fly to the primary airport after all. However, sometimes secondary airports are closer to the city center and offer cheaper flights.
Domestic flights — especially in low-income countries — are often cheaper than international flights covering the same distance. See #Take domestic flights when possible below.
Currency fluctuations affect pricing; taxes and airport fees also vary widely.
Airlines tend to charge more for travel during school holidays. Flights to Salzburg Airport from London Stansted with Ryanair go up two- to threefold during the February school holidays, whereas British Airways flights from London Heathrow to Munich cost half of what Ryanair demands. Of course if you have the time, a Deutsche Bahn train ticket from London to points in Germany can actually be cheaper than any flight, particularly if you add luggage or if your final destination is not close to a major airport.
Friday and Sunday evening flights tend to be more expensive. Early Sunday morning and late-night flights can be cheaper.
Flying "against the flow" can often result in savings. For example, during Christmas holidays, many American and Canadian families with children will fly to Disneyland in Florida (or Caribbean destinations). Airlines add flights and assign larger capacity aircraft to these routes. Flights heading south at the beginning of the holidays are full of passengers. Rather than flying these aircraft back nearly empty, airlines often offer heavy discounts to fill seats. At the end of the holidays the situation is reversed: airlines discount southbound seats because of excess capacity. Similarly, expats in Saudi Arabia like to book a cheap holiday during Hajj, heading "against the flow" of all those incoming Hajj travelers on charter planes.
- See also: Flight baggage
You may be able to fly with carry-on baggage only. Some cheaper airfares do not cover extra baggage. Always check for size and weight restrictions on hand baggage, as they vary between airlines. Those offering especially low fares tend to more diligently check whether your carry-on fits their limits (in practice for size rather than weight) and charge quite a bit for extra baggage, especially if only paid for just before the flight when you have few other options. On the flip side, many airlines also allow an extra personal item on board, which can be anything from a purse to a laptop bag - check with the airline as to what is allowed, as this can help you bring those extra few items on board.
If all your stuff does not fit in your hand baggage, you must have the airline transport the rest of your bags in the aircraft hold. This baggage must be "checked in" at the airline counter and transported from there to the aircraft by ground crew. When booking the cheapest fares, you often must pay extra for checked baggage. You can still economize when you have to pay for checked baggage – if you are traveling as a pair or in a group, check whether you can use fewer bags than the number of travelers. The size and weight allowances for checked baggage are usually quite generous, but check those diligently as well, and whether weight limits apply to one bag or the total weight of all of your bags. Checked baggage is always weighed. If it is heavier or larger than the limit, you will usually have to pay a lot extra. Some airlines also charge vastly higher rates if you book extra baggage after the original ticket purchase. It may be more expensive if added on later, and even more so if you have to buy it at check in. Make sure that whatever you buy is enough, but don't err on the side of too much extra baggage – you can reduce the amount you carry if you follow our packing list advice.
The cheapest route may not be the most direct one. Flights requiring layovers are less convenient and take more time, so they are sometimes cheaper than direct flights. This is especially true for tickets bought close to the departure date.
Layovers are flights with intermediate stops at airports of up to 23 hours. Extra long layovers can be used for sightseeing. In many cases only immigration prevents you from getting out of the airport and exploring a nearby city during a layover. Be sure to factor in sufficient time to get back to the airport for your connecting flight, which can be at least eight hours. Check the times needed to get from the airport to the city and back and the minimum times needed to clear security in our destination or airport guides. Airports like Seoul-Incheon and Singapore offer free tours for transiting passengers who have a few hours to spare.
You may have to choose an early-morning arrival and a late evening departure to take advantage of a layover to go sightseeing. Layovers during the night don't offer as much sightseeing opportunities since most attractions are already closed or will be closing soon by the time you leave the airport. Some airlines automatically require you to take the next available flight when connecting, but third-party websites and travel agents might be able to get around those restrictions.
Some airports have connecting traffic that far outstrips its origin and destination traffic. In fact even seemingly "second-tier" cities can have huge amounts of connecting traffic at their airport. Atlanta is not America's largest city, but — as Delta's hub — it is the only airport to serve over a hundred million passengers annually. Some countries – such as Dubai or Iceland – aim to become major hubs, so sometimes connecting through one of those hubs saves you a lot of money compared to a direct flight or a connection through a different hub.
Common layover airports include:
- Between North America and Caribbeans/South America (Miami International Airport, Mexico City Benito Juarez, Panama Tocumen)
- Between North America and Europe (Amsterdam Schiphol, London Heathrow and to some extent Gatwick, Paris CDG, Keflavik Airport, Frankfurt Airport, Dublin Airport)
- Between Asia and Europe (Doha, Dubai International Airport, Helsinki Airport, Istanbul Airport, and to some extent through Moscow especially from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Mongolia, Northwestern Russia and the Russian Far East)
- Between Asia and North America (Hong Kong International Airport, Seoul Incheon, Tokyo Narita, Tokyo Haneda, Taipei Taoyuan, Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Vancouver International Airport; New York JFK and Toronto Pearson International Airport (from Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, and East Asia/Pacific))
- Between Asia and Oceania (Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Singapore Changi Airport, Bangkok Survarnabhumi Airport, Hong Kong International Airport)
- Between North America and Oceania (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver)
- For flights within North America (Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Houston George Bush Intercontinental, Los Angeles International Airport, New York-JFK)
- Between Europe and Latin America (Madrid Barajas, Miami International Airport, Panama Tocumen, São Paulo-Guarulhos, Mexico City Benito Juarez, and to some extent Barcelona El Prat, Bogota El Dorado, Cancun)
- Between Europe and current or former French possessions (Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and Paris Orly Airport)
- Between Europe and current or former British possessions (London Heathrow Airport and London Gatwick Airport)
- Between Europe and former Spanish possessions (Madrid Barajas Airport)
- Between Oceania and Europe (Singapore Changi Airport, Hong Kong International Airport, Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Doha, Dubai International Airport)
- For flights between Pacific Islands (Auckland Airport, Brisbane Airport, Nadi International Airport, Sydney Airport)
Stopovers are any stops that last more than 24 hours between the arrival of one flight and the departure of the next flight. A stopover lasting several days can be a way to explore a country for more time than a mere layover would allow. Some airlines offer free stopovers to promote tourism. For example, Icelandair turned their unique geographic situation into a sales point, offering stopover vacations of a few days at Keflavik at no additional cost compared to a flight with a same-day layover. Flights via Keflavik can also be cheaper if they use short range planes otherwise rarely seen on trans-Atlantic routes. Many airlines charge a small fee (~US$50) for adding a stopover. Stopovers can be booked using the "multi-city" option in search engines.
A "fifth-freedom" flight is an airline carrying revenue traffic between two foreign countries as part of a service connecting the airline's home country. For instance, Chile's LATAM operates a flight from Santiago to Sydney (Australia) with a stop in Auckland (New Zealand), and is permitted to carry passengers between Sydney and Auckland. It carries passengers between Sydney and Auckland (who don't continue to Santiago) as a fifth-freedom right. As airlines are often desperate to fill up seats in the fifth-freedom sector and are typically not allowed to advertise the route as much as the airlines of the two foreign countries, these flights are often cheaper. Fifth freedom flights are getting a bit rarer every year as airlines consolidate, new planes have larger ranges (eliminating the need for intermediate stops) and some countries or blocs try protectionist measures to protect their own airlines. However, they are still often a good deal where they exist. Fewer flights than before are being offered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Examples of some popular fifth-freedom routes include:
- Air China between Madrid and Sao Paulo; and Montreal and Havana.
- Air France between Los Angeles and Tahiti; Miami and Port-au-Prince, Fort-de-France, and Pointe-a-Pitre; Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
- Air Europa between Asunción and Puerto Iguazu.
- Air New Zealand from Los Angeles to Rarotonga.
- British Airways between Singapore and Sydney; New York to Toronto; Johannesburg (as a hub) to Harare, Livingstone, Maputo, Mauritius, Victoria Falls, Windhoek; Colombo and Male; Doha and Bahrain; Abu Dhabi and Muscat; Antigua and St Kitts, Trinidad-Tobago, San Juan, Punta Cana; Nassau and Grand Cayman; Nassau and Providencia; St Lucia and Port of Spain.
- Cathay Pacific between Vancouver and New York City; Bangkok and Singapore; Taipei and Tokyo, Seoul, Fukuoka, and Osaka.
- Delta Seoul Incheon to Manila.
- Emirates between Bali and Auckland, Bangkok and Sydney, Bangkok and Hong Kong, Singapore and Brisbane, Singapore and Melbourne; Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires (EZE); Abidjan and Accra; New York JFK and Milan; Newark and Athens; Barcelona and Mexico City and there numerous other routes between Australia and Southeast Asia.
- Ethiopian Airlines from Hong Kong to Seoul and to Tokyo; Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur; New Delhi and Hangzhou; Harare and Lusaka; Stockholm and Oslo; Lome (as a hub) to Dakar, Kinshasa, Houston, and to Newark; Malabo and Douala; Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires; Kigali and Entebbe; Abidjan to New York (JFK) and Cotonou; Bamako and Dakar; Moscow (Domodedovo) and Athens.
- Latam between Sydney and Aukland; Frankfurt and Madrid; Miami and Caracas.
- Korean Air Vienna and Zurich; Honolulu and Tokyo; Colombo and Male.
- KLM Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta; Doha and Bahrain; Denpasar and Singapore; Kuwait and Dammam.
- Middle East Airlines between Abidjan and Lagos; Jeddah and Cairo.
- Pakistan International Airlines operates between New York and Leipzig/Halle; Beijing and Tokyo.
- Qantas between Singapore and London.
- Royal Air Maroc between Luanda and Libreville.
- Rwandair between Guangzhou and Mumbai; Mombasa and Dubai.
- Singapore Airlines between San Francisco and Hong Kong; Los Angeles and Tokyo, Seoul; New York and Frankfurt; Manchester and Houston; Moscow and Stockholm; Melbourne and Wellington.
- Turkish Airlines Bishkek and Ulan Bataar; Bahrain and Muscat; Djibouti and Mogadishu; Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok; Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.
- United between Koror and Manila; Koror and Yap; Kwajalein and Kosrae.
Many other airlines fly fifth-freedom routes. The de facto hubs for fifth-freedom flights with multiple airlines are Hong Kong and Tokyo-Narita in East Asia, Singapore and Bangkok in SE Asia; Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain in the Middle East, Vancouver and Los Angeles in North America; and all over Europe (to some extent including Morocco and Israel) in different city combinations.
Take domestic flights when possible
In general, international flights tend to be more expensive than domestic flights of the same distance. If you are flying from a city near an international border, it might be worth considering crossing the border and catching a domestic flight in that country, if a city in that neighboring country is your intended destination. For instance, if you are in Hong Kong and wish to fly to Shanghai, consider crossing the border into Shenzhen and catching a flight from there, or using China's excellent high-speed rail system. Likewise, if you are in San Diego and wish to fly to Mexico City, it might be worth considering crossing the border to Tijuana and flying from there. Even if both the origin and the destination cities are further away from the international border it can still be cheaper to fly from the origin city to the city nearest the border in the first country; cross the border to the next country by surface transport; and pick up another domestic flight to continue onward from the other side. For example, if you're traveling from Lima to Santiago de Chile you would fly from Lima to Tacna in Peru, take a bus or train over the border into Chile, and fly from Arica to Santiago. From Brazil to Colombia you can fly first to Tabatinga, where you cross the border to Leticia. There you could have some extra vacation. From Leticia there are flights to Bogota.
Similarly, if your destination is at the border with the neighboring country of the country you are in, you may wish to consider catching a domestic flight to the border and crossing the border by surface transport. For instance, if you are in Penang and wish to head to Singapore, you should consider flying to Johor Bahru and catching a bus across the border. Likewise, if you are in Bangkok and wish to get to Vientiane, you might want to consider flying to Udon Thani and taking a bus across the border into Vientiane. Another example is that if you are in Ciudad Juarez and want to fly to Dallas or Houston just pop across the border into El Paso. From Brazil to Uruguay and Argentina it can be cheaper to fly to Porto Alegre and from there to take an intercity bus.
However, domestic flights are not always cheaper. In Europe, with high speed rail forming fierce competition to airlines, the opposite is often true.
Air rail alliances
- Main article: Air rail alliances
While package deals aimed at German travelers are often sold with rail&fly included anyway, air rail alliances are still a means of saving considerably on airfare that most travelers (and even some search engines) seem unaware of. If you can extend the range of airports from which a flight makes sense by the radius of, say, a five-hour high speed rail ride, you won't be bound to oligopolies at certain airports, you might even arrive quicker since trains tend to be more frequent than flights, meaning your connection time might be shorter. You might also be earn considerable miles. While usually cheaper than buying the tickets separately, sometimes it does make sense to get the whole deal unbundled.
- See also: Aggregators
Intermediaries (such as travel agents) and many airlines will charge extra fees for bookings made over the phone or in person at their desks. Booking online is usually the cheapest or at least not more expensive. But sometimes using an intermediary or talking to a live person may open up some interesting options.
A special group of intermediaries called consolidators by the trade have wholesale contracts with airlines. The contracts allow them to sell airline tickets at prices that sometimes might be lower than what the airline itself might quote. This can be especially true on connecting flights.
Travel agents have similar rights and often have access to more fares or are able to structure more intricate flight ticket and rate combinations than the airline's consumer website would allow. If your itinerary is intricate and unusual, a knowledgeable travel agent might be able to lower your total bill. They may also be able to take advantage of youth or student discounts or similar promotions.
Use the exchange rate to your advantage
Most flights booked from the airlines' websites are sold in the currency of the departure port. Two one-way flights will usually be sold in two currencies, whereas a return (round-trip) flight will be sold only in the currency of the origin. The airlines price into a market, and the airfare will rarely be the same after taking currency conversion into account. The saving (or premium charged) can often be as much as 20%. Similarly if you have a stopover, check the fare if you book the same flight originating from your stopover point to the fare if you book all the way through.
This practice is sometimes called "self-hubbing". Sometimes combining a few especially low-fare flights may be cheaper than any multi-leg ticket you can get from any airline. However, the airlines offering the lowest-priced tickets tend to be point-to-point carriers, not offering connecting tickets and not interlining with other carriers (so their flights cannot be combined with other airlines' flights on a single ticket). This also means any checked baggage is only checked to the connecting city and cannot be checked to the final destination. This will require that you claim your baggage from the baggage carousel (usually outside the secured area), and then go to the next airline's check-in desk to re-check the baggage to the next destination. This adds extra time to your transfer and introduces problems with immigration where applicable. Keep in mind that you can't take liquids over 100ml past security in most of the world - even those bought in the Duty Free Store of another airport.
You are the only person responsible for your flights not connecting, and cannot get compensation for a missed flight. You could be stranded and pay more to get to your destination, or may not be able to get there until there is an available flight. Factor in the possibility of a delay in getting to the connection city. Make sure you know which airport you arrive at and which airport you leave from if the connecting city has multiple airports. You may also need a visa if the connecting airport is neither your origin nor destination country, whereas if a country has sterile transit a visa requirement may be waived if you do not pass through immigration. An interesting opportunity to cobble together an unusual itinerary is making use of leisure destinations - they will often have flights to and from multiple places and even relatively small airports - often at affordable rates, especially when going "against the flow". Antalya in Turkey is a particular example of this.
Skipping the last leg
If your journey involves a stopover and transfer to another flight, it has more than one leg. For example, if you fly from Los Angeles to Sydney via Auckland, then your flight has two legs, even if the airline has issued you only one ticket. This same procedure is also known as "hidden city ticketing" in US parlance.
Ticket pricing is not always a straightforward issue and often less popular destinations may be priced lower than a popular one, even if the former require extra connecting flights. Therefore, you may find that a flight ticket to Karlsruhe with a transfer in Munich airport will be cheaper than a flight to Munich airport only. If you want to go to Munich, you can buy a ticket to Karlsruhe, and not board the plane there while in Munich, but simply leave the airport. This is possible and not disallowed.
But you will have not completed your flight, and airlines can impose various consequences. First, if the ticket is a round trip ticket to Karlsruhe, you would be required to board your return flight in Karlsruhe and usually will not be able to do so in Munich. Or, the airline will cancel the remaining part of the ticket without any refund.
Further consequences to serial offenders by especially vigilant airlines include removal of loyalty program privileges or denial of service. Local law in many jurisdictions allows airlines to deny flying particular individuals.
There is usually enough small print for the airline to be able to retaliate, so game the system at your own risk.
Another problem might be (depending on where and with which airline you fly) that your checked baggage is checked-through, meaning you don't have access to it during layovers. This is often the case on flights through Europe. However, you will be able to retrieve baggage at the transit airport (which is actually your final intended destination) if that country requires you to clear customs along with your checked luggage while transiting, then simply leave the airside area with your luggage and exit the terminal. For example, you are flying from Asia to Seattle but you found cheaper tickets to Vancouver with a layover at Seattle. Upon arrival in Seattle, you pass through US immigration, retrieve luggage and clear US customs. Rather than re-deposit your luggage onto the conveyor belt for next flight to Vancouver, you just leave the airport with your luggage. It also works if you're flying from an international destination to another country with a domestic flight for the second leg of the ticket. For example, you booked a flight flying from Paris to Ottawa with a layover at Toronto (with Toronto being your actual intended destination). Since you must clear Canadian customs upon arrival at your first Canadian airport from an international flight, you have to retrieve your luggage at Toronto Pearson airport. You will be able to retrieve your checked luggage in Toronto and forego your domestic flight to Ottawa.
There are specialist websites that scrape the airlines' booking systems for such connections. If you want to take the risk, you will usually find those sites searching on "hidden city".
Airline consolidators are brokers who buy seats in bulk from the airline, then resell them to travel agents, often those who specialize in discount international travel (known as bucket shops) or sometimes directly to the public. Often, purchasing from a consolidator results in a lower fare than offered by the airline.
With more tickets being sold online, in many locations, physical bucket shops have become less numerous and more expensive than those on the internet. Only distant international destinations are sold on a consolidation basis. In the USA, this means Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the continental USA are excluded. In Asia, however, the distances do not have to be so great.
Some countries do not allow consolidators to operate (especially in developing countries), and airline tickets are sold only according to published tariff rates. However, this applies only to residents of that country (and its visitors who fly to a secondary destination as a local traveler would).
The countries with the most airline consolidators, and the least expensive international airfares, are the United States, UK, Germany, Thailand, and Hong Kong. In addition, Canada also has consolidators, though its international fares tend to be higher than those in the USA. A few other countries in Europe also have them, but tend to be more expensive than the UK or Germany with the exception of flights from France to its former colonies.
When booking with an airline consolidator, it is usually best to book three calendar months ahead. For example, if you wish to fly on 21 June, you may book on or after 1 March. Prior to that date, it is unlikely any arrangements between the airline and its consolidators have been made due to uncertain demand and fuel costs. However, many consolidators will still be willing to sell you a seat many months in advance at higher price, with no hint that prices are likely to go down if you wait. On the other hand, if you wait until the last minute, it's likely that all seats will have been sold out. Sometimes you can get a great deal if the plane is still half empty, but that's the exception. Of course, this doesn't mean that you should wait until three months prior to book travel to a high demand event such as the Olympics. For something like that, it's highly unlikely that the airlines are going to release any seats at all to consolidators, as their whole purpose is to sell excess seats the airlines are unable to sell themselves.
Traditionally, when you first begin booking with a consolidator, it is on a "request only" basis. This means the consolidator must first check your request with the airline before you get your confirmation—usually in two to three working days. With the world now more computerized, sometimes you can get instant confirmation. After receiving your ticket (or e-ticket), call the airline to verify that everything matches. If they don't have your record (and you're not flying immediately), try again in a couple days.
Payment is expected soon after confirmation and there are hefty penalties for changes and cancellation. After flying just one leg of the ticket, nothing is refundable. There may be a small surcharge for credit card payments, but it is often advisable to use a credit card (not a debit card tied to a checking or savings account) to provide protection in case of bankruptcy. Not all airline consolidators (or those representing themselves as such) are honest, and they should be checked thoroughly before any money is exchanged. In the United States, many of the largest consolidators are members of the United States Air Consolidators Association (USACA). They require each member to conduct at least US$20 million in sales annually, be incorporated in the USA for at least two years, and have never filed for bankruptcy or ceased operation. However, some of these consolidators sell wholesale only, and they just resell to travel agents.
Some travel agencies have recognized the value and convenience of booking online. It's a good idea to look for travel agencies who book consolidator tickets and have their own booking engine set up on a company website. You'll have access to three sets of fares through their booking engines, which will give you three chances of finding the lowest fare for international travel. You'll have access to consolidator fares, published fares offered by airlines and online only special fares. If you have a favorite travel agent already, check out their website and see if they offer this option.
Booking online will still give you the convenience of buying your ticket at your own time, at your convenience and still taking advantage of all possible avenues of finding the lowest cost. If you see an itinerary and cost you like, but it shows as unavailable on the booking engine, call your travel agent with your desired itinerary. They may be able to waitlist your flight and still get seats confirmed at the desired cost for your desired itinerary. Travel agents are also able to hold your reservation anywhere from 3 to 10 days before you have to purchase and pay for your reservation. This gives you time to apply for visas and get any other paperwork in order.
Airline miles are available in most cases. Paperless e-tickets are becoming more common even for international destinations. If a paper ticket is required (either by you or the airline), it will be shipped by express mail or air courier service at an additional charge. A paper ticket may show a fare much higher than what you actually paid, and not the airline's cheapest fare (or fare class in coach). This is to your advantage. In case of overbooking, you'll be more protected from getting bumped, and you'll probably get more or better airline miles. This applies equally to e-tickets, but won't be as obvious.
Many of the following strategies are highly advanced and yield substantial savings (50 to 70% off regular fares are not unheard of). However, they are not available from your city all the time. You also cannot be picky about where and when to fly as they often have limited travel dates, length of the trip, departure airports, destinations, and airlines due to the nature of the discount.
These mistake fare deals often disappear within hours because the airline or online booking site often make a loss on each ticket sold this way. Airlines and online travel agencies can and have cancelled tickets that they deemed as "mistake" in the past (unless that is not allowed by certain country's consumer protection law) but they run the risk of garnering backlash. Even if they do cancel your ticket, they will refund your money. Thus, it is wise to wait two to three weeks before making other non-refundable expenses such as hotel and local transportation bookings in case the airline does cancel the ticket. One way to check if your ticket remains valid is to check if the booking confirmation email contains a e-ticket number and to login to the airline's website with the booking reference number. If both succeed, your ticket should be valid.
Do not contact the airline (email, phone, sending a message on social media) to inquire if your booking is valid or if you think the fare is a mistake. It only makes the airline aware of the mistake sooner and closes the loophole quicker, depriving other budget travelers an opportunity to book a mistake fare.
Prices are entered manually by staff and mistakes will happen from time to time. Airlines may price first class seats at economy price by accident. Or an employee may have mis-keyed a $1400 ticket as $140.
A mistake fare also occurs if the currency exchange rate was mis-entered. For example, 1 CAD can be exchanged for approximately €0.66 but the online booking site may have incorrectly entered the exchange rate as €1 for 0.66 CAD. In this circumstance, it is advantageous to book using Canadian dollars. Even though you may not be flying to or from Canada and credit card companies typically charge 3% on the foreign transaction fee, you saved 33% on ticket cost due to the currency mistake.
Fuel dumping occurs when a shorter flight overrides the fuel surcharge imposed on a longer flight. Due to the nature of this strategy, it occurs in connecting flights and only if one leg is much longer (e.g. trans-Atlantic, continental) than another leg. It often involves two uncommon airport pairs because airlines pick up on this travel hack when lots of passengers do it. For this reason, doing a fuel dump on New York to London almost never succeeds. It also often involves having two or more airlines in the same booking because fuel surcharge calculations are often different between airlines which can cause a conflict when the booking engine tries to determine the total ticket price. If the booking only consists of one airline, it is frequently known as "a self-dump".
An extension of fuel dumping is known as "3X" or "third strike". This is accomplished by adding an additional leg that doesn't have to be departing from the same airport (or even the same day) as your intended final destination. You don't intend to board the last leg. The purpose of the last leg is to cause a computer glitch to lower the fuel surcharge so that the website only charges the fuel surcharge from the last, often very short, flight and not the fuel surcharge on the flights you actually plan to fly on.
A legacy airline, major airline or full-service airline usually has a heritage from the time when flying was a luxury. While their price and service levels have lingered at the high end, they usually have special offers today. They typically have one or more hubs and use a hub-and-spoke model for flights. Skipping the last leg (hidden city ticketing) is more commonly found on the routes flown by legacy airlines.
A flag carrier or national airline is a legacy airline which is, or used to be, owned by a national government. Some are very old (KLM and Avianca have been in flight since 1919), but struggle to remain competitive today. A flag carrier usually dominates their home airport, where they might have a whole terminal on their own. In certain regions, particularly the Persian Gulf, flag carriers are still owned by or closely aligned with the national government, and are often the beneficiaries of many open and hidden subsidies. The Gulf carriers in particular have taken to selling themselves as luxury brands.
As of the 2010s, these airlines have reworked their ticket classes. Some of them now have a low-budget ticket class, which is usually on sale. The characteristics of budget airlines (extra cost for personal ground service, seat assignment, baggage, meals, etc.) increasingly apply to the low ticket classes of legacy airlines; at least on shorter routes.
Flag carriers might provide resident discounts for rural or island destinations, especially if the flight is operated as a public service obligation (PSO).
The name of an airline can be deceptive: Norwegian is not the flag carrier of Norway, but an independent budget airline (albeit a decent one), and Hong Kong Airlines is not the flag carrier of Hong Kong (that honour goes to Cathay Pacific). China Airlines is the flag carrier of Taiwan, not China (whose flag carrier is the similarly-named Air China).
The cheapest tickets are often offered by budget airlines, which tend to have restricted service compared to full-service or legacy carriers. Usually the most pronounced difference is the type of aircraft and seat pitch (i.e. the distance between seats). Low-fare carriers usually pack the most passengers possible in their aircraft, which means only offering one class of seating and service, and offering very limited seat pitch and legroom.
Budget airlines often fly as early and as late in the day as possible. Many European airports have limits on night flights, which means you will probably not have to fly before 5AM (check whether there is any transportation to the airport at this early hour). In the USA, the "red-eye" flight has become somewhat of an institution for cost- and time-conscious travelers, meaning a flight where any sleep you might get is on the plane. As those flights are usually not popular, deals tend to be best for them.
Reserving specific seats with more legroom is usually possible for a sizable fee. Depending on the airline, you may find nothing in terms of entertainment or conveniences, but free Wi-Fi and power sockets at your seats. Parents with small children should call the airline and ensure any special requirements are available prior to booking. Change facilities may be simple or non-existent.
Increasingly budget airlines offer premium packages, which usually include priority boarding, a baggage allowance, or even a seat near an exit row. Bizarrely, in many cases those packages are more expensive than buying every single item in them separately, so keep alert when trying to save on those offers.
Finally, meals and drinks are almost always sold on board at inflated prices, although this is becoming the norm for airlines offering cheaper rates. Check the airline's website for information regarding services, and make an informed choice.
Never assume that budget carriers will be the cheapest. Particularly in the United States, the legacy full-service carriers offer the same, or sometimes even less service than some budget carriers for domestic economy, and their fares are often competitive with what the budget carriers are offering. Elsewhere, after factoring in the costs of extras, it can sometimes work out cheaper to fly on a full-service airline, especially if you are booking a trip at the last minute. The only way to be sure you are getting the best deal is to shop around. Frustratingly, many airlines will not tell you what their luggage fees and other unavoidable surcharges are unless you are already several steps deep into the booking process (often after they already asked you for your name). One way to circumvent this nasty policy is to enquire with a bogus name, abandoning the transaction by closing the page just prior to the "pay now" window.
Budget airlines often impose (very) low baggage allowances. These can be as low as 7–15 kg for one item only, and some do not allow any free check-in baggage at all, but some carriers offer generous allowances. Check the carriers' rules carefully before booking. They generally enforce excess allowances at check-in even for very minor amounts over the limit and require cash or credit card payment or they will refuse boarding. For airlines that do not offer free check-in baggage, they usually allow you to purchase check-in baggage allowance either online in advance, or at the counter on check-in. More often than not, purchasing it online in advance is the cheaper of the two options, usually by a significant amount.
When buying tickets on a budget airline, be sure to calculate how much you end up paying for the total fare, including additional charges, and compare them with the price of a full-service airline. As many budget airlines fly to secondary airports that are far from the city, be sure to factor in ground transportation costs as well. Some budget airlines also impose additional fees for passengers who carry a child below 2 years old, without providing a seat for the child. Many airlines these days offer different tickets even in economy class, roughly falling into the categories "bare bones", "some extras" and "full flex". The "bare bones" option commonly only includes the flight itself and maybe carry on luggage. No checked bags, meals, drinks, seat reservations or anything of the kind are available but they may all be purchased for a few euros extra. The "some extras" option commonly combines a few of the more commonly bought extras. Whether that offer is worth it depends on a) whether you actually need those extras and b) the individual airline. Naturally, airlines tend to be as opaque as possible about this or even downright misleading in telling you you save €30 by taking that offer, because they figure in stuff you won't actually need or compare that offer to the maximum prices for the extras included. The "full flex" option commonly includes more options for rebooking and cancellation in addition to other extras. This is particularly attractive to business travelers who might have to rebook on short notice or when for whatever reasons your plans might change; however, do read the details of the rebooking procedure and conditions carefully as even for allegedly flexible tickets there is often a cutoff point after which you'll pay more or forfeit the ticket for any changes made.
Many budget airlines do not provide meals, water or in-flight entertainment. Some sell these on board. Meals or beverages are often overpriced. Meals can commonly be pre-booked to make sure they are available at all or to get a better price. Some entertainment systems offer pay-per-view content.
With security arrangements changing around the world, do not assume you can bring food or water on board, and even if you can, most low-cost carriers will not allow you to consume it on board in order to force you to purchase their in-flight meals. An empty bottle is usually fine with airport security though, and if the airport has any potable water air-side, it's worth a shot. Check their website prior to booking. Some airlines permit pre-booking of upgrades for meals, baggage and other services at a discount at booking. Walk-up payment is often over-priced or the quantity not available to meet demand. Be flexible and prepared prior to your flight (take tissues in case of low toilet paper supply.)
Many budget airlines avoid major airports as they tend to have higher landing fees. Especially in Europe, this often means budget airlines fly out of airfields in the middle of nowhere like Hahn, that can be difficult and expensive to reach. If you factor in those costs at both ends of your flight, the major airport may end up being cheaper after all. In North America however, many secondary airports are closer to the city they serve, reducing this problem. Still, even in North America where public transit access is often the exception not the rule, major airports are usually among the better connected spots while secondary airports sometimes don't even have a public bus.
- See also: Aircraft seating
Seat allocation for budget airlines is generally either pre-booked as a preference at the time of booking or is not available until check-in. Once again, check the airline website carefully and read the terms and conditions prior to providing credit card details. To obtain best seats it is essential that you arrive as early as possible to the airport for check-in and seat allocation. Ryanair for example deliberately seats groups apart unless they pay for assigned seats. The "children must sit next to an accompanying adult" rule is fulfilled by some airlines by charging a fee to one adult and assigning random seats to every other adult in the booking.
While business class is usually absent on these airlines, there can be several sub-classes of seating, where you usually get what you pay for.
- See also: Travel insurance
Discount carriers don't always offer credit for missed flights and may even then not offer a discount for travel at short notice. The $50 fare you prepaid may be lost and a new fare of $450 may be your only option. Always ensure you know what the airline policy is if you arrive late to check-in and with respect to illness. Some credit cards offer flight interruptions or trip cancellation insurance if you purchase the ticket with that credit card.
Budget airlines often contract out their ground-handing service to lower the operating cost (particularly at destinations outside of their hubs - if they even have any). You may find that those ground staff are not well-versed with a specific budget airline because the agent often does check-ins and boarding calls for multiple airlines that day. In case of flight delays or cancellations, don't expect them to have more information than you do since they don't actually work for the budget airlines (they only work for the ground-handling company). In some cases the airline may be stingy and opaque with information given leaving the ground-handling staff barely better informed than the passengers. European airlines are more likely to subcontract ground handling than North American ones. Legacy carriers at their hubs usually have their own personnel, though.
In the event of flight cancellation due to severe weather or mechanical breakdown, this is truly when legacy carriers shine because of their good customer service. Legacy carriers usually have higher frequency on the city pairs and more reserve aircraft in standby to anticipate any irregular operations. Passengers on the cancelled flight will usually be bumped to the next available flight by the same company. If you have a connection flight to catch, it is customary (though not always) for legacy carriers to assist you by booking the next flight by any airline, including its competitor, to the destination so that you will not miss your connection. Legacy carriers often have longstanding partnerships with hotel chains and can put you in an airport hotel for free or at a heavily discounted rate if the delay lasts overnight. Budget airlines may fly that city pair once a day or less frequent. The next flight by the budget airlines could be the next day or even a few days from now. Budget airlines are not even obligated to reserve a seat in the next available flight if that flight is sold out. They often won't even assist passengers in booking an alternative flight, hotel or offer meal vouchers (unless mandated by law) as the ground agents are contracted to another company. Yes, the budget airline will refund your cancelled flight's ticket, often days or weeks later, but you have to pay for a new and expensive ticket at the last-minute walk-up rate on the spot.
Unlike legacy airlines which often participate in alliances, most low cost carriers do not. The importance of airline alliances becomes more clear for international flights. For example, British Airways and Cathay Pacific offer flights from London Heathrow to Hong Kong and both airlines belong to Oneworld alliance. If, for whatever reason, British Airways had to cancel a flight to Hong Kong, British Airways agents can book seats on Cathay Pacific to accommodate passengers. If seats on Cathay Pacific cannot accommodate all affected passengers, British Airways can route the passengers from London Heathrow to other Oneworld alliance members' hubs (e.g. Finnair in Helsinki and Qatar Airways in Doha) to reach Hong Kong. Even in rare events like a computer outage that grounds all aircraft of a certain company, legacy carriers such as Delta, United and American Airlines have existing agreements to mutually assist each other in times of need despite being fierce competitors in the domestic market and in different airline alliances. Few low-cost carriers join alliances, so their passengers do not benefit from the flexibility offered by alliances.
Even if nothing goes wrong with your flight but you needed to inquire about your itinerary or make changes to it, you will find that it is easier to reach legacy carrier's support teams by email, social media, phone or even going to their ticketing office. Budget airlines often go "digital" and only respond to inquiries made via email and social media (and even if they provide support over the phone, they may charge you for the call by the minute).
Read the fine print
- See also: Common scams#"Low cost" airlines
Low service airlines are notorious for their practice of advertising extremely low fares that suddenly stack up with a lot of surcharges once you book them. They justify it by saying that they only sell one ticket for one person sitting in one seat flying with no baggage and anything beyond that should be paid for if you want it, but some push it to the point of absurdity, when entering data in one form automatically checks a box in another that makes you buy (almost certainly useless) travel insurance. Common (almost always inflated) surcharges to avoid are levied on the wrong form of payment (try to have the right kind of debit or credit card handy), failing to print out a boarding pass, check-in that isn't done the right way (usually online), assigned seats, unaccompanied minors, baggage and — most absurd of all — carry-on bags. Before you book, make absolutely sure that you know what you will need and book it as early as possible, to avoid having to pay multiples of the normal price when you suddenly notice at the gate that 15 kg of checked baggage isn't going to be enough, and you'll possibly have to pay €100 for excess baggage.
Other airlines and planes
A regional airline usually operates less busy routes with smaller aircraft. Many of them are allied with a legacy airline.
Their routes usually lack direct competition and can be more expensive.
Holiday charters shine in Europe where they have decades of tradition. Often focused on carrying sun seeking Europeans, and to a lesser extent migrant workers, from the rich but cold countries of the centre, north and west to warm water destinations around the Mediterranean, they virtually all offer tickets to the general public not booked on package deals, either as a matter of course or when they could not fill the plane through their partner travel bureaus alone. Their product tends to be overall quite similar, but there are some that skimp on maintenance, which results in reliability and safety issues. Great deals can be had especially when heading "against the flow"; rest assured that the EU is going to ban everything from its airspace that might endanger European holidaymakers.
Airports tend to have more expensive food and other commodities than local retailers. If you have the chance, get supplies in a supermarket instead.
Security checkpoints ban liquids over 100ml, and water and other beverages might be expensive airside. In places with good tap water, passengers can however carry an empty bottle through security, and fill it from the bathroom tap.
The ride to and from the airports (or between transit airports) might be a significant portion of the total cost (and time). If you ride a budget airline to a far-out airport (such as Stockholm-Skavsta near Nyköping, which is 100 km from Stockholm), the bus ticket might cost more than the flight. If public transportation or buses are available, they are usually the cheapest option. Some airports have "premium" trains that go directly from the airport to some central location and cost more than other public transit options. They are usually aimed at business travelers and a bad deal for cost conscious travelers. In the Anglosphere there is also often a surcharge for the airport station and in some cases a relatively short walk can save you this surcharge.
At night, public transportation might be limited, forcing passengers to take a taxi or another more costly ride. If arriving at odd hours in the night, many taxis will levy a late night surcharge, which can sometimes double the taxi fare.
Some hotels and hostels offer free airport shuttles to their customers. If you can take advantage of such offers, do.
Alternatives to flying
- See also: Transportation#Choosing your vehicle
While there are hardly any practicable alternatives to a trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flight (unless you seriously consider traveling on a freight ship and even that is usually more expensive than a flight) the shorter the distance, the more alternatives open up.
Ground transportation options include rail travel and bus travel. While airplanes fly much faster than even the high-speed trains run, do note the time needed for getting to and from the airport, waiting to embark and disembark, baggage handling, and the time consumed by the often-onerous security procedures. Most of the time, railways go directly to the city center, and the same is often the case with buses. You can also often enjoy more space and comfort on board of a train, and more of your time is spent traveling and not queuing up, so you can sleep, relax or work longer.
In many cases bus or rail travel is cheaper than a flight covering the same distance, as long as it stays under a roughly 1000-km threshold. However on longer distances the economies of scale tend to work against ground transportation and in favor of flying, but be sure to check prices regardless, as sometimes even a short hop flight may be cheaper than the alternative and sometimes even a long overland trip can be a bargain in terms of price. Even though you might reconsider if the cheapest rail or bus fare involves a 30-hour ride and no bed or couchette. While sleeping in coach class is doable and easier on a train than a plane (reclining seats, more legroom, less noise, etc.), sleeper trains were invented for a reason.
If your flight is across a body of water, you may want to see if there is a water connection as well. Water-based transportation is much slower than overground transport or flying, but it has some advantages. For smaller bodies of water, those are the sights and the experience other means of transport simply cannot offer. For larger bodies of water requiring a long crossing, it is often done by means of ferry ships which contain sleeping facilities, so you get your transport and accommodation in one go (and at one price). Generally the largest (and some would argue the best) ferries crisscross the Baltic. They can also be remarkably cheap (cheaper than most standard hotel rooms) if you bring your own food and resist the urge to load up on booze and cigarettes. See Ferries in the Baltic Sea.
Other options to consider
- Tips for rail travel
- Rail travel in Canada
- Rail travel in Europe
- Rail travel in Germany
- Rail travel in India
- Rail travel in Japan
- Rail travel in Great Britain
- Rail travel in the United States
- Trans-Siberian Railway
- High speed rail in China
- High speed rail in South Korea
- Bus travel
- High-speed rail