The cost of flights can often make or break a holiday and whether or not you can afford it. Cheap flights are therefore naturally desirable - until something goes wrong.
In this article we'll outline some tips on how to get a cheaper flight from any airline - not just the budget bargain types - and what steps you should take to protect your money if things don't end up going to plan.
How your browser changes the prices
Back in 2012 it was revealed that a travel site in the US - Orbitz - was presenting different hotel rooms to customers, determined by whether they were using a Mac or PC to visit the site. Mac users were offered the more premium suites while Windows users started with the less expensive rooms. The company argued that Mac users, on average, booked the more costly options, so that was why they were presented with them. The story revealed to the world that sites were actually profiling customers based on the technology they were using, something now known as 'price steering'.
Recent research conducted by a university in America, and reported in the Washington Post, found that smartphone users could also be offered different prices to desktop ones. These weren’t from small sites either, but some of the biggest around; including Expedia, Travelocity, Cheaptickets, and Hotels.com. The way these price changes are determined is still something of a mystery, but what seems certain is that you might be paying more than you need, due to your choice of device.
General tips on getting the cheapest
Obviously looking for the cheapest flights is going to involve a fair amount of detective work. Initially it’s a good idea to try various comparison sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and Travel Supermarket, but it’s also worth checking the airlines themselves as they sometimes have deals exclusively on their own sites.
Where you fly from is another determining factor, so if you live near more than one airport be sure to check flights from both. The most galling price hikes, as any parent will tell you, take place during the school holidays. So if you don’t have children then be sure to book dates that coincide with the school term. In many cases they can be significantly cheaper even a week before the kids break up for the holidays.
Google Flights is a great tool for finding cheap flights, and it is now able to track prices and inform you when prices are likely to change to ensure you get the best price.
4 ways to get a cheaper flight
Use your phone
As the Washington Post article mentioned earlier highlighted, you should use your smartphone to investigate flights. Many of the sites named above seemed to offer more favourable deals to iPhones and Android handsets than to laptops and desktop machines. After you’ve looked at the prices, make a note, then revisit the site on your PC. You might not always find there is a massive gap between the prices, and sometimes none at all, but at least you will have narrowed down the chances of missing out on a good deal.
Use Incognito modes on your browser
All browsers have built in privacy modes that allow you to surf the web incognito. Essentially these modes prevent the storing of your browsing history, which is thought to be one of the things that can affect prices. These modes are easy to turn on and off, plus you can run an incognito tab next to a normal one without it having and impact on your PCs behaviour.
To see how to enable private browsing and why it’s a good idea you can follow our guide - Why use incognito mode?
Delete your cookies (for that specific site)
Whenever you use a website your browser will store little digital records called cookies. These allow the site to remember your preferences and keep you logged in as you move from page to page. On the whole they are a very helpful feature. In some cases though they can be used to track your sessions, so that the site builds up a profile of your behaviour.
One example we’ve seen where this can be detrimental is with someone returning to the same site several times and looking at the same flight, while they mull over the decision to click 'Buy' or not. Some sites log this behaviour and increase the price or warn of shortages to encourage you to make the purchase now rather than wait until later. To prevent this from happening (unless of course there are real shortages) you can either use the Incognito mode mentioned above, or delete your cookies. To do this just follow our guide that covers all the major browser types - How to delete cookies and browser history.
Use a VPN
One other factor that can alter the prices you are offered is your location. Sometimes this can be regional, but more often it’s down to the country where you live. Websites can detect your location due to the unique IP address that identifies your network connection.
A VPN is a way of tricking this system by allowing you to use a virtual network address located in another country. Sometimes this can have quite dramatic effects on the price you’re offered for your trip. VPNs are quite easy to setup, but will need a bit of concentration. To that end we’ve created a step-by-step guide you can follow on How to setup and use a VPN.
We also ran down the best VPN services currently on offer.
As with any retail purchase be sure to check the terms and conditions when buying online, and remember that while a VPN is virtual, you’re not. So if a requirement of the ticket is that you live in a certain country you’ll just have to empty your basket and keep on shopping.
How to protect yourself should your airline or holiday company go bust
In the light of the Ryanair troubles and Monarch's collapse in September/October 2017, you might be wondering whether getting a cheap flight is actually a good idea in the first place. What happens when the airline or travel company goes bust?
Well, first, if this does happen to you then our condolences. However, while you might be unable to save your holiday, you do stand a chance of getting your money back - provided you've taken the necessary steps to protect yourself.
There are two key types of protection for travelers. First, ATOL, short for Air Travel Organisers Licensing. It protects customers when a package holiday company goes bust by ensuring they make it home or refunding their money. ATOL covers flights and accommodation when booked together, but it doesn't always cover flights that have been booked separately.
Secondly there's ABTA, short for Association of British Travel Agents. If you've purchased a holiday from an ABTA member then you are financially protected should that company go bust. ABTA provides 24-hour assistance in crisis situations, and can help you to continue your holiday as planned or get your money back.
If your flights and/or holiday are covered by neither ABTA or ATOL you can take out independent travel insurance - such as from the Post Office or alternative providers like Jet 2. Be sure to read the small print carefully to find out what's covered.
Alternatively, if you paid with a credit card (always a good idea when making extravagant purchases), you are protected up to £30K under the Consumer Credit Act.
In case you're looking to rent a car on holiday, these are best car hire websites to try.