The travel advice clinic: Flights edition

The travel clinic: Flights edition

Welcome to the second edition of my travel clinic, where I share advice I’ve picked up over years of planning trips. These are the tips and tricks that I use to keep costs down and make my travel life easier. The first edition was all about accommodation, but this time we’re talking flights. I have to admit I’m happier travelling by train, but there’s a lot of the world you can only really get to on board a plane. The flight might only be a relatively small part of the trip, but that doesn’t mean that delays and bad service can’t spoil your holiday. So how do you find the right airline – and for the right price?

Plane sunset

Plane wing sunset

How do you find the best flight deals?

There are so many different flight booking sites you can easily waste days searching for the best deal. Skyscanner is one of my favourites to start with, especially if you’re flexible on dates or location – I love their ‘everywhere’ search for a last-minute trip. If you’re more fixed on dates or routes then try comparison sites like Kayak and TravelSupermarket. It’s also worth trying consolidators like Expedia or Opodo as well as package tour operators (sometimes it’s cheaper to book a package and not use the accommodation).

It’s a good idea to follow the airlines on social media or sign up for their email newsletters to get notified of upcoming sales. You’re also advised to empty the cookies from your web browser after searching as the site records your visit and can up the price when you come back. If you can then book in advance – around 60 days is best – but not too far as the prices aren’t properly calculated before six months in advance. The cheapest time to fly is usually on Tuesday or Wednesdays in the early morning or late at night, and steer clear of busy periods like Christmas, Easter and the school holidays. If you can’t book early then there can be last-minute bargains if airlines still have seats available.

Budget airlines may look cheaper but make sure to factor in all the extra fees for baggage, booking fees and credit card surcharges. And remember that cheapest isn’t necessarily best for flights, you also have to factor in other things like the number of connections and transfer times. That flight which saves you £100 might not be such a bargain if you lose a day’s holiday and end up spending half that on airport food.

Vintage plane at Goodwood Revival

Historic plane at Goodwood Revival vintage event

I’ve found a really cheap flight with a random airline, how do I know if they’re any good?

Sometimes a great deal shows up on a flight search but it’s with an airline you’ve never heard of. So how do you find out how good they are – and more importantly how safe? Skytrax ranks airlines from one to five stars, based on the quality of the plane and the service. Everything from the cleanliness of the bathrooms to the enthusiasm of the staff is rated, in both economy and business class, plus there are reviews from recent travellers. Five-star airlines include Cathay Pacific, Singapore and Qatar Airways going down to Korea’s Air Koryo with one star. British Airways gets four stars, Easyjet three and Ryanair two.

Even if you’re not too bothered about the frills then safety’s still vital. It’s hard to compare safety records but Airline Ratings do a one to seven star ratings system. Generally domestic carriers in Africa, Asia or South America come out worst as if a plane is permitted in European or US airspace then it’s usually safe.

Plane flying above skyscrapers

Plane overhead

Is it worth paying the extra for business class?

It depends on your priorities! I would love a bed in business class for long-haul flights but the price difference has always been so big that I’d rather spend the money on accommodation or activities instead. I’ve flown business class a couple of times this year though on short-haul flights, either using air miles or where the price wasn’t that much higher. The main difference was getting fast-track access through security, airport lounge access, a bigger seat (two people share the space for three seats) and better food and service. Flying from London to Marrakech it was only £50 extra to fly business class which was almost what we’d pay for dinner and drinks at the airport. If you do want a taste of luxury without splashing out on a pricey ticket, then you can pay for lounge access – No 1 Traveller Lounges give you fast-track security as well as getting food, drinks and spa access for £18–£40 (depending on location).

BA lounge

The BA Business Class Galleries Lounge at Heathrow

Are frequent flyer schemes worth it?

If you fly a lot, frequent flyer schemes can be a good way to earn free flights or upgrades. But you need to weigh up whether you’re likely to fly with the same airline (or at least one from the same alliance) often enough to make it worthwhile. If you’re just searching by price it’ll probably be cheaper to use different airlines or budget carriers that don’t have frequent flyer schemes. Most major airlines have their own schemes and they combine into different alliances – Oneworld (including British Airways, American Airlines and Cathay Pacific) and Star Alliance (Air Canada, Air New Zealand and United) are the biggest two.

As well as earning miles by flying, you can collect them by signing up for credit cards – with the most offers found in the US. You can also collect miles by shopping online and on car rental and foreign currency. You can use your miles for flights (either partially or in full) or upgrades, though there’s limited availability so you need to book well in advance. You still have to pay airline taxes, which are really high in the UK, so sometimes a long-haul economy flight doesn’t work out much cheaper using miles, but redemptions are better value in business class or for short-haul trips. See Head for Points (UK) or The Points Guy and Travel Hacking Cartel (USA) for lots of information on collecting and redeeming miles.

View from the plane window

View from the window

Can I get compensation if my flight is delayed or cancelled?

I know all about this one! Under the EU’s Denied Boarding Regulation, you get certain rights if you’re flying with an EU-based airline (or on a non-EU airline if it’s flying from an EU airport). If you’re delayed over two hours you’re entitled to refreshments as well as hotel accommodation if you’re stuck overnight.

You can also get compensation if you’re delayed over three hours, though ‘extraordinary circumstances’ like extreme weather, strikes or wars are excluded. The airlines have tried to count technical problems as extraordinary circumstances, but they lost a court case and their appeal was recently thrown out, so you can now claim for flight delays back to 2005. The amount depends on the distance you’re travelling and how late you are – starting from €250 if you arrive three hours late on a flight under 1000km, up to €600 if you’re four hours late and travelling over 3500km. You’re also entitled to a refund if you decide not to fly.

Flying into the sunset

Flying into the sunset

Do you have any other flight questions or tips and tricks to share? The next travel clinic will be about photography, so if you have any questions get in touch.

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Tips and tricks for saving money and getting the best deal on flights – including booking tips, frequent flyer schemes and delay compensation.

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  • Reply
    December 4, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Great advice. I haven’t tried Skyscanner but will definitely start there for my next flight.

    • Reply
      December 4, 2014 at 11:31 am

      Skyscanner is great – it’s good for researching trips too as you can see which are the cheapest days and months to fly to a certain destination, or if you know you want to go on a certain date but don’t mind where then you can see which destinations come out cheapest.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    December 4, 2014 at 10:16 am

    We use an American Express BA credit card for our business expenses – when we’ve reached a certain spend we get a companion voucher for a free flight when we travel together – which is great for long haul. We still have to pay the tax though. Great tips Lucy.

    • Reply
      December 4, 2014 at 11:26 am

      The companion vouchers are really good if you can get them – we didn’t manage to spend enough this year but if you can use the card for business expenses then that’s perfect!

  • Reply
    December 4, 2014 at 11:16 am

    I didn’t know it’s best to book them 60 days in advance, I’ve always tried to book the summer trips as early as possible since I’m afraid I won’t find any seats left or hotel rooms at good prices. I love Skyscanner, I use it all the time when I want to find out what airlines fly to a certain destination and at what rates. 🙂

    • Reply
      December 4, 2014 at 11:29 am

      I don’t usually manage to hold out until 60 days either if the trip is already confirmed – I get too worried the price might shoot up! Apparently it’s best not to book too early as the airlines don’t have a very accurate picture of demand so base the prices on general info and tend to be quite cautious.

  • Reply
    Packing my Suitcase
    December 4, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    That was a great one… complete!! I have nothing to add at the moment… but Im now curious to check the Skytrax app, I still didnt know this one! 😀
    Ohh I also love Skyscanner, but I think there is only one thing missing in their app to make it perfect: the option of choosing multiple destinations, which I find very useful!

    Great great post Lucy 😀

    • Reply
      December 5, 2014 at 10:40 am

      That would be a great feature for Skyscanner – you can search by country or city but it would be good to be able to add multiple cities at once.

  • Reply
    Mani (A New Life Wandering)
    December 4, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I also love hipmunk for flights.

    • Reply
      December 5, 2014 at 10:41 am

      Thanks for the tip, I will have to check that out next time.

  • Reply
    December 5, 2014 at 12:55 am

    When traveling, I generally have stuck with Kayak and Expedia, but Skyscanner sounds easy and useful! This post provided very useful tips when traveling and great recommendations.

    • Reply
      December 5, 2014 at 10:42 am

      Thanks so much, Skyscanner is definitely worth a try, particularly in the trip planning stages as it makes it easy to search over multiple dates.

  • Reply
    December 5, 2014 at 3:45 am

    Thank you so much for these tips! Searching for flights can be so frustrating, so I’ll definitely keep this page bookmarked for my next trip! 🙂

    • Reply
      December 5, 2014 at 10:42 am

      Thanks, and hope it comes in useful!

  • Reply
    December 5, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for the Skyscanner tip; I’ll have to check it out, I, too, have used hipmunk, but I still find good old Kayak the best for dealing with multi-city trips. And I have always suspected there was something fishy going on with prices when I checked multiple times – thank you for the great tip to empty the browser cookies! Finally, I loved that photo of the historic plane!

    • Reply
      December 7, 2014 at 8:36 pm

      Great plane isn’t it – it was at the Goodwood Revival event, everything is 1940s and 50s style from the cars and planes down to the clothes, it’s a fantastic event!

  • Reply
    December 6, 2014 at 7:54 am

    Or… You use your superstar travel agent to do the searching for you and to find you the best flights/deals available!

    • Reply
      December 7, 2014 at 8:37 pm

      That’s certainly a good option if you don’t want to do the searching yourself!

  • Reply
    December 6, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Great tips. We fly a lot on airmile points. You need to buy groceries, gas etc. anyway, why not collect points as well. I must say British Airways is a wonderful airline. Our latest flight to Spain was delayed by 24 hours. It was most upsetting but we were treated extremely well by BA, put up in a 5 star hotel and given discounts and refunds. It pays to fly with a quality airline. (that was a flight using airmile points too)

    • Reply
      December 7, 2014 at 8:32 pm

      Very true, I don’t many any special efforts to collect air miles but the normal spending on my credit card and groceries is enough to get a free flight every couple of years. British Airways are generally really good – I tend to use them when I can (despite making a huge mess up of the refund on my recent delayed flight!).

  • Reply
    December 7, 2014 at 8:36 am

    Great advice here! Everything I ever wished I knew at some point, but now my theories can be proven! Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      December 7, 2014 at 8:27 pm

      Thanks so much, hope some of the tips will come in useful!

  • Reply
    December 8, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    These are lovely tips Lucy. I have to travel during the school holidays so I tend to be on the mailing list of various airlines and booking agencies, in case of any good deals. Once I flew from Berlin to Manchester with BA at a return flight of £98.00. Easyjet was €240.00 at the time, so it sometimes pays to shop around.
    I find that if you book earlier then budget airlines are unbeatable, but if you’re late, book a scheduled airline as the price is either the same or cheaper!

    • Reply
      December 9, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      Yes being tied to school holidays does mean you have to work a bit harder to find a bargain! It’s definitely work shopping around and trying a combination or budget and regular airlines as it varies so much.

  • Reply
    December 11, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    A comprehensive article Lucy. I use Kayak to compare routes and schedules, but buy directly on airline sites.

    • Reply
      December 16, 2014 at 10:17 am

      Thanks Madhu, yes I try to buy direct with the airlines too, it seems that you get better treatment if there are problems with delays etc if you do.

  • Reply
    Pola (Jetting Around)
    December 11, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Good advice, Lucy, and I love the name of this column. 🙂 As far as flights, I’ve had great luck with Kayak and Airfarewatchdog, but keep hearing great things about Skyscanner. I’ll check it out next time I book.

    • Reply
      December 16, 2014 at 10:18 am

      Thanks Pola, I’ve not used Airfarewatchdog before but will have to give them a try next time.

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