How to save money when buying flights

Everybody knows flying is expensive, says Ruth Jackson. But how expensive can sometimes be up to you.


Squeezing into the cheap seats is getting more tricky
(Image credit: Gene Chutka)

Ever had the sneaky feeling when you board the plane that everyone else on board paid less for their ticket than you did? It could well be that they did. If you know a few tricks, you can shave hundreds of pounds off the cost of your flights. Here's how to go about it.

Firstly, when you are hunting for a flight, use your internet browser's private surfing option, or regularly delete your "cookies" (which allow websites to keep tabs on where you've been and what you've searched for). Many seasoned flight shoppers swear that airlines watch your cookies to see if you are repeatedly searching for the same flight, then put their prices up. There is much debate over whether this is true or not, but better to be safe than sorry.

Second, plan ahead don't leave booking until the last minute. Once you could grab an empty seat that an airline was desperate to fill at short notice. But now "there are so many budget airlines and business travellers willing to pay big bucks at the last minute, that it's no longer the case", says Skyscanner. The flight comparison site says that its data shows the best short-haul prices can be had around seven weeks before take off, while for long-haul flights, it's 18 weeks.

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Third, wait until the weekend to buy. Prices fluctuate constantly and you can pay far more from one day to the next. Booking on a Saturday or Sunday cuts costs on average by 3.95% and 3.37% respectively, according to travel agent Opodo. Also, sign up for email alerts from airlines and booking websites. Many reward that loyalty with exclusive discount codes, and you'll also be the first to know when a sale is happening.

Finally, pick your payment card carefully. This tends to be a choice between whether you want extra protection or the cheapest price possible. Paying with a credit card for flights over £100 entitles you to protection from the Consumer Credit Act, so if the airline goes bust, you can reclaim your costs from your card provider. But many airlines levy extra charges when you pay by credit card, so on cheaper flights you may want to pay with a debit card to save money.

Know your rights on overbooked planes

The majority of flights are overbooked. Airlines argue that this practice allows them to keep fares low, as on average as many as 5% of passengers fail to show up for a flight. But occasionally everyone turns up, and the flight crew is left deciding who to turf off. In most cases, this doesn't result in you being knocked unconscious and dragged off the plane, as happened on a United Airlines flight recently, but if you are refused access to the flight, there isn't a lot you can do about it.

If you have a rock-solid reason for needing to be on that flight you are a surgeon and needed in work or are attending a wedding or funeral, for example then explain calmly to staff and you might be allowed on. But if you are refused, accept the fact, as you have no legal right to be on the plane.

Anyone flying in the European Union, or on an EU-based airline, is entitled to an alternative flight and compensation. The airline should get you to your destination within 24 hours, or offer you a full refund if you ask for one. The compensation you can receive depends on the amount of time you are delayed by, and the length of your flight. It ranges from €125 if you are turfed off a short-haul flight but still arrive at your destination within two hours of your original arrival time, to €600 for a long-haul flight and a delay of more than four hours.

If you're in the US or on a US airline then you are entitled to up to $1,350, depending on the length of your flight and how late you are arriving at your final destination. Elsewhere in the world you will need to check local laws. Not everywhere has legal requirements on overbooking; it could simply be up to the airline to decide.

In the news this week

A sharp increase in inflation means that millions of students and graduates will see a rise in the interest payable on their student loans, says Lucy Warwick-Ching in the Financial Times. The interest rate for loans is set at the level of the retail price index (RPI), currently 3.1%. Higher-earning graduates (those on over £41,000) will see their loan rate jump from 4.6% to 6.1%, as their rate is set at RPI plus 3%. Graduates earning less have their rate calculated on a sliding scale, and all loans are written off, regardless of whether they have been repaid, after 30 years.

There are anomalies in the system: those who started university between 1998 and 2011 will pay just 1.25% (this cohort is charged the Bank of England base rate, plus 1%). Although the Department for Education insists that the system is "sustainable and fair", the thought that my daughter will graduate with a potential £85,000 of debt makes me feel sick, says Jill Insley in The Sunday Times. For many, however, the bigger issue is that in 2015 George Osborne "sneaked" in a five-year freeze on the salary threshold at which repayments start.

Beware of giving away a share of your property, says Ali Hussain in The Sunday Times. It may result in you being evicted from your care home. The belief that you can transfer a percentage of your house to a child, thereby saving on inheritance tax and avoiding the full property value being taken into account when you're assessed for care-home fees, is a common misconception.

There are certain conditions under which your home will not be counted (for example, if it is still lived in by your spouse), but any perceived attempt deliberately to reduce your assets below the £23,250 threshold is likely be viewed in a dim light by your local authority. If the co-owner won't allow the property to be sold, or a deferred charge to be placed on it, there may be no money to cover care-home fees, leading to eviction.

Details of a diesel car scrappage scheme, designed to help improve air quality in the UK's most polluted areas, look set to be announced by the government any day. The plan could see drivers offered up to £2,000 to "trade in their old bangers", reports Jason Groves in the Daily Mail.

Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance. 

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping among many other titles both online and offline.