The trick to cheaper flights? Dip into one of the growing number of fares comparison sites, says Nick Trend.
How quickly things change. I’ve had to book a few different flights recently – including returns to Madrid and to Rome.
For years, the standard options on routes like these would have been easyJet or Ryanair; or possibly BA, or the rival national airline for the destination concerned.
This time I’ve ended up travelling on Vueling – a Spanish low-cost airline – for the Rome visit, and Norwegian to and from Madrid. These were options which didn’t exist a year or two ago on these routes.
So how do you keep up with changes like these?
Because of the way the market operates, the strategy for finding the best-value short-haul flights is different than for long haul. Instead, your starting point should be a fares-comparison site which will give you an overview of the airlines operating any particular route, and a guide to the latest fares available.
The best of these are skyscanner.ie and google.ie/flights, which is steadily becoming a more and more powerful tool.
I personally find Skyscanner easier to navigate, but I’m getting to like the rather slicker Google interface and the way it keeps adding helpful extras – for example, it now has an indication of whether, and by how much, a flight is subject to delay.
Other price-comparison sites to try include travelsupermarket.com, kayak.ie - which recently launched an Irish site - and cheapflights.co.uk.
But none of these sites is perfect, and you need to be wary of a few things when using them. Here are some booking tips:
A critical point to look out for is the booking links you are offered.
Nearly always, as well as (or instead of) a direct link to the airline concerned, you will be offered links to online agents which can book the flights for you. For flight-only bookings on short-haul routes, these will nearly always be more expensive and are unlikely to offer any advantages.
So always book direct with the airline concerned. If there is no direct link to that airline offered, find one.
Watch out for stopovers
Be wary of indirect flights. Most sites offer options which include a change of flight. For those travelling from regional airports with fewer flights to choose from, this may be a good option.
But don’t book such flights accidentally – it can add hours to the flight time.
Check the airports
Most fares are listed as singles, so it can be cheaper to fly out with one airline, and back with another. But this sometimes involves returning to a different airport than the one you flew from.
Remember the extras
As well as the headline fare, “extras” – booking a seat, hold baggage, credit card fees, etc – cost different amounts with different airlines.
Comparison sites can’t give the final breakdown for all options, so if you want to be sure you have the cheapest flights, check these extra costs.