5 tips for getting the cheapest flights with the best airlines

Looking through the clouds in flight

When it comes down to budget travel, we’ve never been afforded more options – be we travelling from Sydney to the Gold Coast with Tiger or Perth to Singapore with Scoot. But flying cheaply doesn’t have to mean flying with one of the world’s no frills airlines, who usually provide their budget service by skimping on the luxuries you’re usually afforded as part of your journey, or at the very least making it an optional extra.

By the time you add in your meal, baggage, entertainment, bottle of water, pillow and all the things you find inclusive on other airlines, you’re often not saving much at all. So, if you want to fly cheaply, but still enjoy all the frills with one of the world’s leading airlines, what should you do? Here are our top tips:

1. Compare as many airlines and routes as possible

The first tip is an obvious one. Look around. I use comparative tool SkyScanner as a starting point for any journey I’m about to embark on. It’s not conclusive but it will give you a good idea of the sorts of options and routes that are out there. Using the trans-Pacific route as an example, If you’re OK with not flying direct from the East Coast of Australia to the West Coast of the USA, look into some of the airlines that stop off along the way.

Air New Zealand are one of the world’s best airlines, and will often be cheaper than those that fly direct, depending on whether or not they’re having a sale. The same can be said for Hawaiian Airlines, whow will use Honolulu as your entry port for the US. From there, consider connecting to a different airline for service onwards if Hawaiian don’t offer it. There’s even Air Canada, who go via Vancouver. Earlier this year they had return fares to New York that were the cheapest I’d ever seen.

If the flight from Sydney is costing too much, see how much it costs from Brisbane or Melbourne – or even Adelaide. You’d be surprised at how much price difference can exist between the capital cities. Now that Virgin Australia is moving back to Melbourne for the trans-Pacific, I’d expect prices to become particularly competitive there. And then all you have to do is get a low cost connecting flight internally to make it work.

Adelaide has been offering particularly good fares to Europe lately. If you are flying to Europe, consider going via the US – this, too, can end up being a cheaper alternative. I’ll get to more on these sorts of fares later in the article.

The routes can take longer, but they can often save you a lot of money.

2. Fly mid-week and off peak 

For all airlines, the price of a flight will fluctuate based on demand. The more demand there is for a route, the more it will cost. During holiday seasons, especially over Christmas and New Years, flights are going to be expensive across the board. If you do need to fly on peak season, then book early – the earlier you book, the cheaper it will be. But if you don’t have to fly in peak season, then don’t – you’ll be amazed, too, at the difference a day can make.

When choosing your dates for travel, many services (especially when booking directly through the airline itself) will allow you to look at the prices +/- three days, which will permit immediate comparisons. You’ll usually find that mid-week travel (Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday) is going to be the cheapest way to depart on either side. But it all depends on the route – so points one and two on this list should be considered simultaneously.

3. Use a travel agent who price matches

Once you’ve found your dates and a fare that suits your budget, find a travel agent who price matches. Using an online travel site like Zuji might give you the cheapest fare, but you’ll be left without any support should things go wrong during your travels. Having a travel agent you’ve met and dealt with in person can help in a situation where things go awry, and if they are willing to price match, you’re going to get the exact same price with better service.

They may also know of upcoming sales or some other alternatives (perhaps exclusive to their company) that may be suitable. But going into them having researched what you want, with some prices in hand, keeping in mind the first two points, is always a good idea – especially to ensure a price match.

Hot Tip: If you are booking online, booking directly through the airline you’re flying with is always your best option. I’ve had a number of instances where an airline hasn’t helped me out in a situation because I’ve booked through Zuji or even Expedia – who in turn have told me to talk to the airline. In the end I just had to pay a fee to sort the situation that I got back with my Travel Insurance (shout out to 1cover for being so helpful in those situations).

4. Look into multi-stop fare deals

Travel agents are especially good in terms of their knowledge for some of the more out of the box ticket offerings. Be they circle fares, open-jaw fares, travel passes or around the world deals.

Tale for instance One World’s Visit Asia pass. This allows you to fly as much as you want within Asia (so long as you are not a resident of one of the Asian countries), for a set fee. I’ve heard Singapore Airlines offer a similar deal, as do other airlines through Star Alliance’s Circle Pacific Fare. If you’re planning to travel to a lot of countries, it can be a great way to ensure you’re flying Cathay Pacific or Air New Zealand instead of a budget carrier, while paying similar prices.

Likewise, consider around the world fares from One World or Star Alliance, that will bundle a group of airlines together to take you around the world. Even if there’s only one primary destination for your travel, it can end up a similar price to a return fare. It just depends on where you need to go! Some airlines like Air New Zealand and United may offer these fares directly, but your travel agent will be the best person to talk to about these sorts of opportunities.

I mentioned earlier, too, the idea of getting to Europe via the USA. This would be best described as a Circle Fare, and it essentially would provide you a return flight from Australia to the US, and then a return flight from the US to the UK. I once managed a fare that saw me fly Sydney to LAX return, then I got myself to New York, flew direct New York to London, and then returned direct from London to Los Angeles before heading home. I paid about what I would normally pay to fly return to New York – keeping it under $1700. This fare was found with United Airlines, and then booked through a price matching travel agent.

And finally there’s the open jaw fare. Looking again at United, consider flying Sydney to San Francisco, then driving to Los Angeles and flying back to Sydney from there. Recently I was able to save over $400 doing this, just because the dates lined up that the Sydney – LAX route. It’s still charged at the rate. Similarly, whenever you’re in the US, look into airports that are driving distance from your destination. Flying into Buffalo New York instead of Toronto, Canada may require you to hit the road for a few hours, but can save you a lot of money.

5. Subscribe to e-newsletters of discount travel sites

Travelzoo, Zuji, STA Travel and more will be the first to know about a lot of the best deals out there. There’s no “best” one out there, but the more you’re subscribed to, the more you’re likely to know about the best deals in town. And as I publish this, Virgin Australia is having their weekly “Happy Hour” deals. So keep an eye on things like that too.

If you’re flexible with time, and are willing to put in some research over the course of a few weeks (keeping in mind offers change daily!), you will get some pretty amazing domestic and international deals that rival the budget airlines in a big way.