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5 booking hacks to get the cheapest airfares

It was only when I missed a flight home from Italy recently and needed to book 3 tickets at the last minute for myself, my son and his friend Joe that I realised – thanks to Joe – that there’s an art to getting the cheapest fares. Here’s what you need to know:

Search for single (not multiple) tickets:

We needed 3 flights that day from Bologna to London so I went on to the British Airways’ website and searched for 3 tickets and the results showed that there were only 3 seats left, all in business class, at a cost of €550 each. According to my search, there were no economy tickets left. As there were no other flights from any other airline that day, I was about to book the expensive business class seats when Joe shouted ‘Stop’. Instead of searching for 3 tickets on BA’s site he searched for just one and hey presto, BA showed it had 1 economy seat left for €417. He booked that seat, then did another search for another ticket and…what do you think?….yep, BA had miraculously found another available economy seat, also for €417. Naughty BA, clever Joe.

Search in secret:

After Joe had booked 2 seats, I said I’d book the third because I wanted to use my Air Miles to pay some of the cost and sure enough, when I searched online for one seat it showed it had yet another available for €417. However, I didn’t book it immediately because I had to go and look up my Air Miles’ account details and when I went back into the BA site a few minutes later and searched again for a seat, the price had gone up to €479. Joe explained that airlines’ booking systems can spot when someone is regularly browsing their site and they increase the price to panic them into booking asap. To avoid this, you need to put your browser into private mode so the airline booking system doesn’t recognise you each time you enter the site – think of it like wearing a disguise, a funny hat and a moustache sort of trick. To browse in private mode on a Mac using Safari, go to the task bar, click on File then choose ‘Open New Private Window’. On an iPhone, simply click on the Safari icon, then click on Private in the bottom left-hand corner. I don’t use a PC or Android phone, but I’m sure you can find out how to use Private mode on these and on other browsers quite easily on Google.

Fly to/from a different airport:

Sometimes it can work out cheaper to travel a bit further to/from another airport, especially if that airport has a wider choice of flights. Sometimes this might even mean travelling to or from an airport in another country, just over the border from your destination. For example, you might fly to Bratislava in Slovakia to get to Vienna in Austria. It’s certainly worth looking on a map for nearby airports and checking the fares.

When we were travelling back from Italy, I realised (when it was already too late) that instead of flying home from Bologna, which has a limited number of flights to the UK, we could probably have driven a few hours to Rome, from where there are many more flights. I’ve just searched for flights from both airports and flights from Rome to London are around €100 cheaper than from Bologna, so we could probably have saved €300 on 3 flights. Doh! We flew home from Bologna because that’s where we’d started our holiday and picked up our hire car, but it might have been cheaper to fly home from Rome and pay an excess fee to drop off the hire car at Rome airport instead. I’ll know what to do if there’s a next time!

When researching a trip, it’s always worth considering flying into one airport and out of another. If you’re hiring a car for the whole of your trip, you’ll probably be able to pick it up and drop it off at different locations, you’ll just have to pay an extra charge.

Always check multiple sites

Price comparison sites like Skyscanner often have the cheapest fares, but always check the airlines’ own websites as well because sometimes they offer the best deals to passengers who book direct. And don’t assume the budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair are cheaper than the traditional airlines like BA because they’re not, especially for last-minute fares and not when you’ve added in the cost of luggage etc.

Beware when searching for airline websites like easyJet and Ryanair on Google that you don’t end up on imposter sites, which look like the real deal but are actually intermediaries that charge a booking fee to secure flights with airlines. My friend got caught out by one of these, thinking she was booking direct with easyJet when in fact she was on an eDreams page that looked just like easyJet’s.

Also, check holiday flights like Thomas Cook Airlines, TUI and Jet2.com as they often have cheap fares.

Here’s a sneaky tip that might or might not work…

If you’re canny you can save a lot of money (especially when travelling long-haul) by booking 2 return flights and discarding the return portion of each ticket. So how does this work? Well, airlines often sell cheaper tickets in overseas markets than in their home destination, so, for example, if you’re in the UK and you book a return BA flight from London to Toronto you might pay less than someone in Toronto who books a return Toronto to London flight. This is because national airlines tend to be the most popular in their home markets so other airlines discount their fares in foreign markets to encourage bookings. Airlines also tend to offer cheaper return tickets that restrict you to a minimum length of stay or include a Saturday night. So what you do is you book a cheap return flight on BA from say London to Toronto (which might restrict you to a Saturday night stay, which might not be convenient) then from Toronto you book return flight to London at a more convenient time and you discard the return portion of both tickets. Get it? The only problem is that airlines don’t like it, it’s contrary to their terms and conditions and, if you’re caught, they could prevent you from boarding your return flight. In reality, they’re not likely to catch on to what you’ve done before you complete your trip, but if you’re a member of their frequent flyer programme they could chuck you out and seize your points, which Air Canada threatened to do to my brother after his second offence! You’ve been warned!

Have you got any booking hacks you’d like to share? Click on the comment button below 🙂

Linsey McNeill

A journalist and travel writer of 35 years' standing, a once-a-week yogi, terrible skier and out-of-order mum to 2 teens. Previously Editor of TravelMole.com, bylines also include The Telegraph, The Times, The Observer, the London Evening Standard, Which? and The South China Morning Post.

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