Travel & Holidays > Guides

How to get a cheap flight this Christmas

Richard Bayston

Richard Bayston
Sep 21, 2016


There’s a lot to be said for going away for Christmas.

It’s one of the few times of the year when most people can be sure of a few days off at the same time as their kids, and it’s an ideal opportunity to get a romantic break, escape the snow - or plunge into it, depending on your preference!

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Christmas holidays are very popular, but costs can spiral out of control 

Trouble is, if you know it and I know it, then airlines know it. Christmas flights are some of the most expensive out there. So how do you get the best break for your budget?

 

1: Don’t Book Too Early… Or Too Late!

Generally, fares rise the closer you get to departure. But don’t book next year’s holiday just yet. There are two contradictory pressures on airlines: get the best price, and fill the seats. Just before a flight, airlines know business passengers will pay over the odds to fly today, right now. Seats are expensive; even cancellations.

A year in advance, airlines can afford to wait for customers who will pay the asking price. But there’s a sweet spot, typically between eight and three weeks out from the flight, when airlines want to sell the seats enough to discount them and business passengers don’t want to buy them. The exact window depends on your destination, but flights booked three weeks from takeoff are roughly 10% cheaper than those booked six months in advance. Closer destinations (and those most likely to be holiday rather than business destinations) are most strongly affected by this, but there’s a lot of variation: the best time to book a flight to Greece is 3 weeks in advance. Fly to Turkey and 13 weeks is the magic number; fly to the USA and you should be booking over 20 weeks in advance! Budget airlines are the least affected.

Hack it: The Re-book

Some airlines will let you book a flight during a cheaper time period and then cancel and re-book at no extra cost. So you can book a flight for November - the cheapest month of the year - in October, then shift the flight date to December and pay the same. This one doesn’t always work, and some airlines charge re-booking fees - so use it at your own risk!

 

2: Fly to a nearby destination and use local transport

Flying directly to a desirable destination? So is everyone else. That’s why the tickets are so expensive. But many places have cheap local transport that means it makes more sense to go for a near miss and then do the last leg by local flight or even train. This is especially true in the USA where local flights within individual states can justify a significant detour in terms of the cost. But it’s also true in Europe where transport links are good. Flying to a slightly less convenient airport in the same country can save a significant amount of money. If you have time to spare, you might even want to consider flying to a different country, and using local flights or other transport to finish the trip.

Kayak Explorer provides a location/price comparison service that lets you see whether flying somewhere nearby your target destination could save you money.

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Kayak Explorer - shows you where you can get to and for how much

 

3: Design your own journey

Buying a return flight to and from your destination, leaving and arriving at the same airport, and flying with the same airline, is the standard approach. But it’s far from the only way to build your journey.

Indirect Flights

Sometimes direct flights are significantly more expensive. By working backwards with a map and our travel price comparison service, you can figure out flights to cheaper destinations and then fly from there to your ultimate destination. This may look like the previous point, restated; it’s not.

Flying to a nearby destination, you might fly to Milan rather than Rome and finish the journey by train. An indirect flight might see you fly to Dublin from East Midlands Airport, then on to Malaga - cutting almost £200 off the £900+ direct fare. Add stops in Glasgow and Amsterdam to the same journey and you can cut the price to £523 for a family of four. The strategy relies on creating a journey out of several cheaper flights to or from less popular airports. You can build your own journey from scratch, or compare flight prices with us, so we can construct it for you.

Use different airports

You don’t have to fly to and from the same airports. It might be cheaper to leave from East Midlands Airport and land back in Birmingham. These are usually small differences that aren’t worth the extra effort, but longer flights to Australia, Asia or the Americas might leave you holding a few hundred pounds in change if you land at a different airport: well worth getting someone to pick you up for!

Hack it: The Deadstop Layover

A layover is a stop on your flight. For instance, when you catch a plane to Karlstad via Oslo, Oslo is the layover. But on some flights it might be cheaper to fly to Karlstad via Oslo than it is to fly to Oslo. When that happens, a ‘deadstop layover’ is buying a ticket to Karlstad - then leaving the plane in Oslo.

You’re getting the reduced fare, but airlines really don’t like this and some will blacklist you if they catch you doing it. There’s also the risk that your connecting flight will actually be on the same plane, in which case you might not be allowed to leave the plane at the layover destination. So use this one at your own risk!

 

4: Get a Room: Flights Plus Accommodation Are Sometimes Cheaper Than Just The Flight

In the spirit of the deadstop layover, some package deals can work out to save you money on flight plus accommodation - and some are actually cheaper than the flight itself!

Again, it’s about supply and demand: if you promise to fill a seat and a room, you’re cutting down on spare capacity and saving the company money.

Where are you likely to find these? In traditional tourist areas in the off season. The Spanish riviera, the south of France, Southern Italy, and so on, are all carrying a lot of spare chain hotel and resort capacity in the off season. Fill it and you’re doing them a favour: you’ll find that reflected in the price. For ski resorts that’s less likely to be true: there are still deals but they’ll almost never come in under fare alone.

Budget airline EasyJet has some very low cost packages available. Look for them under the Special Deals section of it’s website, and you’ll find flight-and-hotel packages for £80 per person, and city breaks in Berlin and Amsterdam for £140 and up.

 

5: Search Incognito To Keep Prices Low

When you visit a website, it almost always puts cookies on your computer. Cookies tell the site what you do and where you go, what links you click and what you look at on the site. Unfortunately, flight comparison sites could play a supply and demand game with this: if you look at a particular journey on the same price comparison site several times, it’s obviously important to you. The result? The price goes up! Try it and see for yourself!

The solution: use your browser’s incognito setting.

That’s ‘Private Browsing’ on the Safari menu in Safari, Incognito in the File menu of Chrome or in File>New Private Window in Firefox - of the three, Firefox is the most secure. In Windows Internet Explorer it’s under Safety via the gear icon, and Opera puts it in Tabs and Windows in the O menu.

When you use this setting your cookies are automatically deleted when you exit the private browsing window. Open a new one and return to the site: it doesn’t recognise you, because it can’t find the cookies, so the price doesn’t change. If you stay in the same private browsing session cookies won’t be deleted and the price will rise. You have to turn it off and back on again each time.

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Searching incognito can drive down seat prices

Hack it: You Don’t Want To Start From Here

Obviously some destinations are more expensive to fly from. But some are more expensive to buy from. The same flight, leaving the same airport at the same time, can have a very different cost depending on whether the website you’re buying from thinks you’re from Britain, America or Armenia.

There are a couple of ways to make this count in your favour. One is to use a VPN, either your own or a peer-to-peer service like Hola, to disguise your location. The website will ‘see’ you as being in the country of your choice and treat you that way, but this is a dodgy way to go about things and we really don’t recommend it. That’s why we didn’t link to Hola; sorry, guys.

What’s better is to buy your ticket in the ‘foreign’ version of the website. Find the language selector, choose another country and watch the URL bar. if the website now ends in something other than .com or .co.uk - like .de or .se - you’re on the ‘foreign’ version of the site. Downside: you’ll need Google Translate to figure out what’s going on. Upside: you’ll sometimes get far cheaper tickets! (Check with a currency converter to make sure, though.)

Another method is to use Google API tools, and simply reverse your journey. When we searched for a family-of-4 Christmas flight to and from Barbados, from UK airports, the price was £4,697. Reverse the origin and destination so we’re buying our tickets in Barbados and the same flight cost £2,755. Sometimes this is down to timing, so be careful - and obviously a flight that starts in Barbados isn’t much use. But you can buy your tickets like you’re in Barbados by buying them from the airline website in the local currency, says blogger Erica Ho.

 

6: See a Specialist: Some Airlines Specialise in Certain Destinations

Some airlines will take you anywhere. Others have a different business model, existing mainly to fly expatriates, visitors, students and immigrants back to their countries of origin for important events.

Look around and you’ll find them catering to China, Singapore, Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan to name just a few. Usually you won’t find specialist airlines flying to Europe, the USA and so on, but if you’re going somewhere in the global South or East, or to the Caribbean or latin America, it’s worth looking into. Other possibilities include specialist clubs that cater for certain holiday destinations, like clubcaribbee.co.uk which is specifically for the Caribbean (surprisingly).

Want to find your own? Advanced Googling 101: Open the Wikipedia page that lists the URL suffix (.com, .co.uk, etc) by country.

Find the country you want to fly to. Say it’s China; their URL suffix is .cn. Open Google (or, you know, Bing) and type ‘cheap flight London Shanghai inurl:.cn’ - and you’ll get search results whose websites are registered in China. It’s the ‘inurl:’ operator that does that, and you don’t want any spaces: ‘inurl:.cn,’ not ‘inurl: .cn.’

 

7: Extras Add Up: Beware the Money-Making Scams of Budget Airlines

Super-low-cost budget airlines open up the skies. But they’ll empty out your pockets just as quick if you’re not careful. Their business model relies on cutting to the bone then charging for everything that isn’t being allowed onto the plane. So read their list of charges and luggage rules carefully before you take a deal with a sting in the tail.

With some airlines, you might not be able to take your carry-on luggage on if the plane is full, so be ready for check-in charges. Others have strict luggage size regulations, so don’t wait til you’re at the airport to find yours is too big. EasyJet charge £10 per kilo for excess baggage, for instance, so read - and pack - carefully. And don’t bank on taking your own drinks, sunscreen, or even contact lens solution in your carry-on!

With others, it’s seats, meals or other items that aren’t included in your ticket price. Ryanair charge more for meals than they do for tickets a lot of the time, so it pays to be wary and never assume anything is covered by your ticket price. (They’ll also charge you the extra if your infant has their second birthday between the flight out and the flight home!) This is one of those times in life when you need to pour yourself a big drink and actually read the terms and conditions, preferably not in the airport.

Key Points:

Do your own research, and don’t buy anything until you’ve read the small print. Take it on trust and you could ruin your holiday.

Look outside the box for deals on flights; be prepared to compromise.

Be prepared to do some traveling in return for slashed costs, either here or in your destination country.

For more news and holiday deals, check our holiday and travel section.

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