When not to book a cheap flight

Everyone loves scoring a cheap flight, and these days it seems there are more opportunities than ever to fly for a fistful of fivers. Nine times out of ten there are some serious strings attached however – whether that’s in the form of an extortionate charge for baggage, or an eye-wateringly early departure. Here are my top five deal breakers that (generally) prevent me from clicking ‘buy’.

When there is a stop-over (of more than three hours)

“It’s only five hours”. “There will be loads to do in the airport”. “I’m sure it will go quickly”.

Haha! No.

Some of the lowest fares – particularly long haul – often have stop-overs, and it can be tempting to opt for a cheaper price at the expense of a few extra hours travelling time. I recently came very, very close to booking flights with Etihad that had a four-hour stop at Abu Dhabi. What stopped me? Several things.

One: Airports are generally boring. They are also really, really big. We must have easily walked several miles whilst exploring the length and breadth of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok to waste time before a flight. The only outcome was that we spent a pile of money on snacks that we didn’t need, and I ended up with sore feet and achy legs.

Two: If you are on a long flight, and even remotely jet-lagged, spending hours sat in a brightly-lit airport lounge with little to do can make time drag in a way you didn’t think was possible. A stop at Dubai airport for two and a half hours didn’t sound too bad on paper, but add a tiredness-induced migraine and general nausea, and it was interminable. I was actually looking forward to getting on the next flight, mainly so I could lie down in relative darkness and not have to move for another eight hours.

Three: You probably won’t be able to do anything useful with a layover, unless it is eight hours or more. This varies by location of course, but if you are in a country where you can pop out of the airport without a visa and take a look around, bear in mind how long it will take you to get to and from anywhere of interest nearby, and how long in advance you need to be back at the airport for your next flight. I was looking into flights from the UK to the US with a six-hour stop in NYC, and surprisingly, the general consensus online was that you would be cutting it very fine to take advantage and see any of the city. Do your research before booking, and check if that long stop is really worth it.

This isn’t to say you can’t have some kind of fun during a stop-over…

When literally nothing except the plane ride is included in the ticket

It’s well known that tickets on budget airlines rarely include more than the option for you to park your bum on a plane seat for a few hours, and that everything from luggage to booking seats to a little in-flight H20 will cost you extra. However, what can still be surprising is just how much this adds up to. A return flight which starts out at a tasty £40, for example, can easily be somewhere in the region of £70-£80 once checked luggage, selected seats and a snack have been added on.

More disturbingly, some major airlines flying long-haul routes are also starting to do the same. I recently fell foul of this by purchasing return flights to Bangkok from Birmingham with KLM. For a return flight, the £430 I initially paid seemed a good deal (short connections; nice departure and arrival times) until I realised this princely sum didn’t include seat selection. Not one to risk sitting in front of the toilets on an overnight flightplane-wing-2 halfway round the world I stumped up the cash, but was not happy. To book seats for myself and my companion for each leg of the return trip cost an extra £85. For this price I could have booked with one of the Gulf airlines (Qatar; Emirates) who don’t currently charge for this service. Or, indeed, any other major carrier apart from KLM. Sort it out guys.

The moral of the story is: be very careful when booking, and make sure you are (a) either certain what the total price may climb to or (b) willing to pay this. Sometimes the ‘more expensive’ ticket with another airline is worth a second look.

When they are being sold through a third-party website

This is something that I have become increasingly aware of, and also increasingly wary of. Many sites or apps that ‘find’ holiday or flight deals signpost you towards amazing prices on third-party websites, and quite often the price is just that little bit too good to be true. I won’t name any names here (mainly because I don’t want to to be sued) but essentially what I mean by ‘third-party’ is a website that sells plane tickets, but isn’t a travel agency or the actual airline. The issue is that often these sites are selling tickets that don’t exist or, don’t exist at that price at least.

The outcome can go one of two ways: the third-party group either contact you and inform you of a price change, requiring you pay extra to retain your ticket, or – worse still – you get to the airport and find you don’t actually have a seat on the plane. (This happened to my friend. He wasn’t happy). The other issue is that after-sales service with third-party sites can vary, and if anything goes wrong it can be hard to get the necessary support. The exception to this rule is Expedia, which I have so far found to be reliable, but otherwise I would always recommend booking direct with the airline. Keep an eye on advance fares, follow airlines on social media, and bag yourself a bargain the safe way.

When the departure airport is the other end of the country

I have a habit of lusting after airfares for flights departing from airports that really aren’t that close to me at all. London Luton is well over 100 miles from my house, but for some reason I always check what I can find from there. Another common one is Heathrow. Sure – the flight might be £120 cheaper from there, but once you’ve factored in train or car travel down to the airport, maybe some airport parking and quite possibly an overnight stay nearby, you’re well over the amount that you’re saving, and also adding hours of travel time to your journey. Going for a departure point that’s miles and miles away also raises your chances of being delayed traffic(and, as a result, stressed) and there’s nothing worse than tearing down the motorway trying to make a flight when you’re cutting it fine. If I’m being sensible, I restrict my search to the most local and convenient airport possible – it’s easier at the start of a trip, and you’ll really be grateful for it on the jet-lagged journey home again.

When it is early in the morning

Morning flights aren’t all bad. If it’s a short(ish) flight you get to your destination at the other end in good time, and with longer flights you travel through the equivalent of ‘daytime’ for your timezone and bodyclock, so jetlag isn’t as much of a drag. What people sometimes fail to acknowledge, however, is the effect it can have on your journey at this end. I was speaking to a friend recently who was chuffed to have got a great deal on a 9am flight from Manchester to Amsterdam. coffeeShe’d get there with basically a full day ahead of her, raring to go – and a 9am flight isn’t too early, right? Wrong. When we worked it backwards, including the fact that she planned to be there around two hours in
advance to check in (so 7am) and allowing two generous hours for the car journey to Manchester (5am) she would essentially be setting her alarm for around 4am in the morning. Yikes. Flights departing between 9am-11am are also ones to be careful of, particularly as they will often force you to travel during peak rush hour times if your airport is an hour or so away. My personal preference is to book flights departing either late morning (11:30am, for instance) or early afternoon. A nice snooze, a relaxed journey to the airport, and a stress-free start to my travels? Yes please.

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