Budget Travel: Booking Your Flights
Updated: Jan 27
(This post originally appeared on my other blog, Shona McCarthy Travels. But I have decided to shut that down and develop this blog. Thank you for reading!)
A view of the Li River in Yangshuo, China. Taken during a study tour in 2017.
These days, travel is an increasingly common way of spending vacation time, a gap year, or retirement. This is partly due to an increase in the number of budget websites, which help you to search for low-cost airfare and affordable accommodation. But which website is the best?
Booking Your Tickets
Sorting the good flight booking websites from the bad can be a complex and confusing process. Some services will advertise incredibly cheap plane tickets. But, on closer examination, you have to pay steep fees for baggage, food and other basic travel requirements. Other websites will seem to charge more, but they will give you excellent value in terms of emergency care, food and other necessities. So, in this post I’ll tell you which websites are best, and which would be best avoided. Bear in mind, saving money on your plane tickets can sometimes mean enduring long layovers, which some people will mind. But I find that layovers typically pass very quickly, as getting off the plane always takes a long time. Many airports will offer you free wifi, and some even have tourist activities, stores and restaurants you can enjoy without having the leave the airport. Providing the airport allows it, you can also use your layover to take a nap. Getting cheap flights is easier when you book well in advance of when you actually want to travel. But with the right website, you can still access cheaper options, even on short notice.
Screen Capture of the Flight Centre Website, early 2019
Flight Centre For many years, Flight Centre’s online search was the best way to locate cheap international airfares. I depended upon it when booking my tickets to Taiwan and China. They were cheap and convenient since their website used to have the added feature of being able to book multiple stops on the same trip, and you could compare different routes in terms of cost, time, number of transfers and airlines.
However, the fact that an increasing number of other budget options now exist means they have had to repeal their “Price-beat” guarantee, and in order to book flights, you may not only need to deal with Flight Centre Staff, but they will attempt to sell you their own insurance and attempt to persuade you to buy a more expensive ticket than you planned on. Flight Centre has had to change their company structure to be more oriented around attracting and maintaining a wealthy clientele who can afford to pay for lavish experiences and packages.
These changes mean that Flight Centre no longer offers the cheapest options available even for return flights, though they do make it easier to find relatively affordable options compared to simply booking with an individual airline. Consequently, while I would have recommended them a few years ago, I don’t recommend them now for the budget traveller.
Taken from the Flight Centre Website. While it was once possible to view multi-stop options through the website, it is now impossible to book a more complex journey without speaking to a consultant and trusting that they are giving you the cheapest option.
A screen capture of the Cheap Flights website, early 2019.
While I haven’t actually booked with the Cheap Flights website yet, I have looked through their options carefully, many times, anticipating my next journey. I find that they are everything Flight Centre was a few years ago and possibly a little better. They offer you the option of accessing “Hacker” fares, which means that they will show you how to access a cheaper overall fare by booking shorter flights with independent airlines.
This means that if you are looking to travel on incredible discounts for a little more labour, you have that option. The only pitfalls I can see are that it means you’ll have to check in your baggage at many more intervals on your journey, and you become wrapped up in the complicated affair of making sure your baggage meets the requirements of every single flight you book. Baggage rules can vary wildly between Domestic and International air tickets, meaning you may end up paying baggage fees anyway. Also, you have to book quickly to ensure you don’t miss out on the fares themselves. This can all be stressful for the first-time traveller. So, to me it seems more reasonable, to book simple flights with this website. You’ll still be able to access some incredibly cheap flights providing you sort your search results by “Cheapest”.
Taken from CheapFlights.com. $950 is an excellent price for return tickets to Osaka, particularly with Japan Airlines and on such short notice. As you can see, going to Cheap Flights meant I could access this option without having to do another search with Kayak. So, this is a saving of both time and money!
The Skyscanner website, 2019.
I first encountered Skyscanner in 2007, when I was considering a visit to Philadelphia. I never went through with it, as airfares were much less affordable at the time. Even now, Skyscanner is relatively expensive compared to Cheap Flights.
This can be surprising since Skyscanner searches airlines that are often touted as the most affordable airlines in the world. These include Air Asia and Fly Scoot. But then, this may be because Air Asia and Fly Scoot are not without their drawbacks, which I will explain later. All in all, I don’t recommend Skyscanner.
Skyscanner offers you the ability to compare many flights, but you will ultimately pay more with them than you would on Cheap Flights.
Out of all the comparison websites I researched, Webjet was the only one that I could come close to Cheap Flights in terms of quality and price. They only differ slightly in terms of price. However, they do not offer you “Hacker” options. This might not matter to you if you don’t want to take that route. Webjet only searches major airlines, meaning that you don’t have the option of using cheaper, domestic airlines closer to your target location. So, it makes a good option if simplicity and easy travel is more important to you than saving money.
Webjet’s layout is much more simple and visual than Cheap Flights. This can be good if you would prefer your booking process to be more straightforward.
With so many budget airlines available on the market, it can be tempting to think that it might be cheaper or easier to simply book with the airline itself. Airlines like Tiger Airways, Jetstar, Air Asia and Fly Scoot have all been known as places you could go to get cheap airfares. Around 10 years ago, I did virtually all of my domestic travel with Tiger and Jetstar. To this day they remain the most affordable airlines for travel within Australia. I’ve known people who have travelled with Air Asia and Fly Scoot without complaint.
But, they are no longer the cheapest options, for reasons that become clear once you begin to book. Budget airlines are able to advertise as having cheaper fairs by quoting the cost of booking your ticket, without food, checked baggage, or any of the other basics you’ll need to travel with a reasonable degree of comfort. This can be a way of saving money if you are happy to bring your own food onto the plane and all of your luggage will fit into carry-on baggage. But this will tend to only work for short trips to locations where you can cheaply buy anything you might be need when you land. This is something some people do, but not everyone wants to spend their travel time trying to look up the words for “toothpaste” and “XXXL Underpants” in the local language.
Part of the advantage of booking with a website that compares fares is that most know the ticket terms and conditions have to be comparable between flights for it to be any comparison at all. Since some airlines always have food and baggage and entertainment built into their tickets, this means all airlines on these websites need to display their prices including these options. So, surprisingly, I don’t actually recommend budget airlines for the budget traveller.
Jetstar’s international tickets don’t compare well to other international carriers. Especially when you consider that meals and baggage are not built into the ticket.
The Airfares Flights website, early 2019.
Comparison Sites I DON’T Recommend!
With all that being said, there are some comparison websites I could confidently recommend against. eDreams, Expedia, BYOJet and Airfares Flights all have some fairly serious problems that you would likely want to avoid. Airfares Flights is not a typical comparison website, in that they only connect you through to other comparison sites, so it is only as good as the comparison sites it connects you to. Which isn’t good, since those comparison websites all seem to be relatively expensive. BYOJet is costly, even when you compare its fares to big name airlines. eDreams, Wotif and Expedia are happy to compare airlines that don’t include checked baggage and meals with airlines that do. So, you can waste a lot of time on these pages trying to decide whether you want inflight entertainment, or whether you’d rather just sleep or read, and you’re not saving any money in the end, anyway.
Airfares Flights is not your average comparison website. It really, really isn’t.
After having researched all of these different ways of booking airfares, I would comfortably recommend either Webjet or Cheap Flights as the best websites to book your plane tickets. They appear to offer the best international rates, with good value for money and few if any hidden charges. Cheap Flights is best if you want to have access to the cheapest possible options, while Webjet is best if you want more simplicity but to still get a great price. Mind you, this is only true at the start of 2019. Since the airfare market is competitive, things may change and other companies may begin to lower their prices.