This is just an update to say that I wrote this post more than four years ago and some of the info is no longer useful. For example, we almost always fly to Europe via Westjet now because the seats are better than Air Transat and we have more space, plus we can often get better prices. Our credit card reward points can be used on any airline with no blackout periods so we take advantage of that a lot as well. I haven’t used Flighthub etc for a years now either.
Sometime when I have a few minutes, I will go through this whole post and update any info I feel is no longer valid, but today is not that day, so use your own judgement when reading this blog post.
******* Original post in full *********
Erik and I have flown to Europe five times now and each time, we have found better deals for our flights. In this post, I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve learned and a few tips and tricks for successfully booking flights online.
On our first trip in 2007, Erik and I worked with a travel agent and we don’t regret that because it was our first trip and we didn’t really know what to expect. However on our next two trips, in 2009 and 2013, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and we booked flights ourselves on a Canadian charter service called AirTransat. The seats were a bit squishy, but the price was better than any regular airline flights we were able to find anywhere else.
In 2014, we flew to London and tried using third-party booking sites and found the best price using Expedia. Last year, we booked flights to New Zealand in March, and to Rome in August, and our upcoming trip using Flighthub.com.
There are a number of things to consider and be watchful of when booking flights with discount 3rd party services and I will go over some of the things we have learned so far. However, we are still learning so this list is by no-means an exhaustive one.
If you have never travelled abroad, have no idea where you want to go, have no time or interest in researching information online, and money is not a concern, then by all means use a travel agent. They have tons of first-hand knowledge and connections, and can often make suggestions or find deals that novices will miss.
Booking Online directly with the Airline
If you know where and when you want to go, the next easiest thing to do is to go directly to your favourite airline site and book online. You can try a variety of airlines to compare prices and then choose the flights that suit you best. Often you can use promo codes, airlines points or airmiles to reduce the costs. The advantages of booking directly at an airline site is that you are not dealing with a third party so it’s easier to book seats, make flight changes, or deal with any problems that may arise because you are working directly with the airline.
Booking Online using Third Party Sites
You can definitely save money using third party booking sites but you need to be very careful when using them, read all of the fine print, and make sure you have a clear understanding of the rules and regulations of that particular site. You can find a long list of complaints about many (most? all?) of these sites but in most cases, they are because people did not read the fine print.
Avoid using a third party site if there is any chance that that you will have to change or cancel your flight. Discount fares are almost always subject to fees to change flights, and some cannot be changed at all. There are also often extra fees for booking seats and for luggage although this varies widely depending on the airline and the particular seat sale. Again, read the fine print.
Some third party sites are harder to deal with than others if you have any problems to resolve or changes to make, and airlines will often send you back to the third party site rather than deal with your problems if you haven’t booked with them directly. Keep in mind even airline sites will charge you to make changes to a booked flight, but if you use a third party site, you will have to pay change fees to both the booking site and the airline.
Tracking at Third Party Sites
As you probably know, many websites track you when you’ve been to their site. I believe that many have algorithms that watch to see if you keep checking prices for certain flights and then bump up the prices accordingly. To avoid this, my husband and I often search for flights on different computers (home, work, on tablets etc) and often use “private” browser mode so the website is unable to track us. Most browsers have a private viewing window that can’t track you Safari or Firefox, open a window called “private”, with Chrome, use “incognito”. This can also be a useful tip for visiting any shopping site.
General Tips for Third Party Sites
We’ve found the cheapest flights when we’ve booked as far ahead as possible. I keep reading that flights are cheaper when booked on a Tuesday but so far, I haven’t seen that. Your miles may vary. When I start looking for flights, I usually check the prices every day for a week or so and then book once I’m fairly certain I’ve found a good deal, or at the very least, I price I can live with. In general, mid-week flights tend to be cheaper but not always – it often depends on where and when you are travelling. It’s easiest if you are flexible and can consider other flights a few days before or after your preferred date.
Keep in mind that airlines can sometimes change their flights if you book them a long way ahead of time. Last summer, our flight to Toronto was pushed forward by two hours meaning that we would be unable to make our connecting flight to Rome. Flighthub contacted me and gave me several options to rebook the flight, but you can’t always rely on them checking for you. You need to be vigilant and check that your flights haven’t changed from time to time. Flighthub did not charge me a fee for changing the flight because it was the airline’s fault, although the flight choices were less desirable than before. Overall, I was satisfied with the changes the rebooking went smoothly.
Erik and I booked our Spring flights (Kelowna to Paris in April and Rome to Kelowna in July) at the beginning of October and only paid $880 CAD each for our round trip flight, taxes included. In the past, we have paid as much as $1500 each for a flight to Europe. We have a stopover in Vancouver on the way there, and in Toronto on the way back.)
You must keep in mind, we are flying out of Western Canada – flights from major cities in the US, or Eastern Canada are likely to be less expensive. In addition, we live in a smaller centre and there are no direct flights (although WestJet has just started service to the UK this month) so we normally have to fly first to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal before finding a direct flight to our destination. Some destinations are cheaper than others so you can definitely find better deals depending on where you are going.
In addition, there are a number of cheap discount airlines in Europe (Ryanair and Easyjet are just two), that will get you to another city once you are in Europe. You may want to fly directly to a larger European centre, and then take a discount airline to your final destination. You need to look at all of your options to determine if this is worthwhile for you.
Check the currency. Check the currency. Check the currency. For me, the 3rd party site default tends to be in US dollars. I can’t tell you how many times Erik and I have found a great deal only to realize we forgot to switch to CAD. This happens most often when we are in “private” mode because the site doesn’t have cookies and so always goes to the default.
Most third party sites will push for you to purchase their add-on trip cancellation or medical insurance. In fact, some sites have it already included in the price and you actually have to find the button to deselect it. Erik and I already have good trip cancellation and medical insurance so we do not purchase this through the site. Before you travel, find out if you are already covered though work or your credit card. If not, talk to your insurance person and find out what coverage is offered, then compare it to the policy from the website. You may find you have more confidence purchasing insurance purchased through your own insurance agent. It’s up to you.
Booking Your Flight
When it comes time to book your flight, check over every detail CAREFULLY before you click “book”. I cannot stress this enough. I usually read it aloud to my husband and together we check it over very carefully. When you are comparing a variety of dates and flights, it’s easy to accidentally input the wrong information when you are ready to book.
Input your name and passport information carefully. Make sure every detail is correct. Make sure you have selected or deselected the insurance option. When you are ready – book it! My heart always pounds when I hit that button.
Once you’ve booked your flight, get your booking number and log into the airline website. Sometimes the third party site booking number is different from the airline number so look for both numbers on your confirmation. (Once I had to email the site to find out the correct booking confirmation number). Most airlines have apps as well which are really handy when checking into the airport. Most airlines allow you to check in online and use a digital boarding pass but not all do. Read the information and make sure you know what to do when it’s time to fly home.
Erik and I also like to create an email folder specifically for each trip. Each time we send or receive an email about our trip, we CC each other and put the email into the trip folder. It saves time searching for information later.
Because Erik and I tend to book cheap flights, we do try to find the best seats we can afford and most often, this means paying a little extra to book our seats ahead of time. For example, I think we paid an extra $20 per seat to book decent seats on our upcoming flight. Erik likes an aisle seat and I like a window seat. Since most seats are in sets of 3, this means that I usually have to sit in the middle, which sucks. Therefore, we often try to find seats in sets of two, which are usually near the back, where the plane narrows. Our favourite spot is the first set of two seat behind a set of three because Erik has extra space for his legs. The downside is that we tend to have to wait longer for our meals but I figure my comfort is well worth this minor inconvenience.
An excellent site for comparing seats is SeatGuru. Here you can get detailed information about individual seats on specific aircraft. If you have a flight booked, you can input your airline, flight number, and travel date to find out specific info about the seats on your flight. You can also compare general information about different types of airplanes.
For each specific airplane, you can find out the seat width (distance between armrests), seat pitch (distance between the rows of seats indicating legroom), how far back the seat reclines, and whether it has inflight TV, wifi, or power. You can also see where the seats are in relation to the bathrooms and the location of any bulkhead seats (with a wall in front, more legroom but usually a swing-out TV in the armrest). You can even read reviews about the various airplanes and their seating.
As a special note – Air New Zealand offers you the opportunity to pay to have an empty seat beside you. The downside is that you can’t do this online, only when you check in at the airport. If there is an empty seat on the airplane, they will ensure it is next to you and charge you about $75 CAD for the privilege.
When I flew alone to NZ last March, I had a middle seat in a row of 3 and I paid $75 for the empty window seat. Then I sprawled myself across the two seats for the entire 14 hour flight. It was lovely. I had to explain to the lady in the aisle that I had paid extra for the empty seat so that it was mine to use. She didn’t love it but overall we got along.
Some Third-Party Sites to get you started
Some sites do part of the search for you – you plug in your date and destination and then a half dozen windows pop open with various flights at various sites. Googleflights, Kayak, Skyscanner , Hipmunk, and TripAdvisor are examples of meta-search sites that I have used. However, I find the multitude of window popups annoying so I generally search each site on my own.
Below is a list of third party sites that I have used. There are many more sites and although they sometimes have similar sounding names, they each have different policies so read the fine print carefully. In addition, just to further confuse you, some sites have more than one name.
So – got any flight booking tips you want to share? Let me know in the comments below!