Ultimate guide to cheap flight ticket bookings

There’s lot of posts on the net that claim to explain how to book cheapest flight tickets. Most of them simply advise you to book early while others subtly try to promote their own booking sites/services. Lot of people approach me stating they need to go somewhere and if I have a way to get them cheap tickets. I don’t have any secret sauce for getting cheap tickets particularly when someone has a date and destination fixed and doesn’t have any flexibility. On the other hand if you’re flexible with date and destination, there’s a lot that can be done to fly at much cheaper price.
In this post I am sharing an ultimate guide to booking cheap flight tickets. Booking cheap tickets is NOT a function of time. Booking earlier doesn’t always guarantee you cheapest rate. Booking cheap ticket is a direct function of how flexible you’re w.r.t travel date as well as destination and the science of what price is cheap, normal vs expensive, coupled with how much of a gamble you’re willing to take.

When you set out to book a cheap flight ticket, first figure out which of the following categories you fall under:
Category 1: Fixed date and destination, traveling in short notice (next few weeks)- In this case, there isn’t much one can do to get great deals
Category 2: Fixed destination, very flexible with dates or planned travel date several months away
Category 3: Will travel to wherever it is cheap whenever it is cheap

Once you decide which of the above category you fall under, check below table for right approach. If you’re in category 1 then there’re not much options- book whatever is cheaper. If it is category 2 and 3 then you have more chances of saving than simply booking earlier or booking at prevailing rates.

Category 1: Fixed Date & Destination, Must travel.
Situation: Date & Destination fixed, have to travel, date is very close
Situation Description: Least flexible way but most of us face this situation due to compulsions- some family events/ business meetings/event etc which need to be attended- so dates are almost fixed and there're no other viable alternatives- like train etc
Ticket Booking Approach:Not much flexibility so no secret sauce, book cheapest available/most convenient flight

Additional Steps:
1. Scan popular OTAs like Cleartrip, MMT etc- they keep running offers from time to time, which if available and genuine, might save a few hundred rupees. Be aware that most offers are tricky- they give in one hand, take back in other, or often need you to spend more to utilize the cashback. But at times there will be genuine offers- like this one on cleartrip.
2. Try previous evening/next morning or nearby airport if viable Airports with lots of flights are usually cheaper than airports with very few flights per day (Chennai Delhi is lot cheaper than Chennai-Jaipur or Chennai Lucknow)- you can check flight+ bus/train option.
3. Don't compare prices just at first page on various portals. Compare at the final payment page. Some travel sites show low price in first page and then increase it in between or add lots of fees in final stage. [Check this makemytrip trick]
4. Note that some airlines are not listed on portals like MMT, Cleartrip (Example: Air Deccan, TruJet etc)- if your destination is served by these airlines, check directly on airline website.
5. If prevailing rates feel very high, you can risk n wait- fares may drop closer to travel date or in some cases they can go up as well (if demand is good)- this will be a risk you've to take

Summary: Since you have to travel anyway and travel date is very close, this doesn't leave you with lots of options. You've to book on whatever best available deal- can try to save a few hundred rupees by exploring 4-5 options given above, but otherwise, not much room for

Category 2: Fixed Destination, Flexible dates/travel date several months away
Situation: You've decided to visit a destination but have liberty to select any date or there's lots of time to travel date. This means you're not under a pressure to book asap and wait for right opportunity/reasonable price before booking.

Situation Description: From my own example, I wanted to visit Orissa (Odisha) but earlier there were no direct flights between Chennai and Bubhaneshwar. Later Indigo and AirAsia have started direct flights, but initially price was high. So I waited for a sale when price was lowest and booked.

Ticket Booking Approach:
Step 1: Identify normal and cheapest possible fare for the destination
You need to find out what fare between your city and planned destination is cheap, normal and high.
For example, Chennai to Delhi one way- anything around Rs 2500-3500 is usually cheap, around 5000 is normal and anything about 7000 is high
Between Chennai and Port Blair- a return ticket of around 7500 or less is usually cheap, 10000-12000 is normal and about 15000 is on the higher side.
Between Chennai and Coimbatore- Lowest I've seen is around INR 1000-1200, Rs 2000-2500 is normal and anything above Rs 3500-4000 is usually high. Below is a table containing my observation. Do a similar chart for destinations you've in mind.
#
Origin
Destination
Lowest fare I’ve seen (Return)*
Normal Fares
Last minute high fares
Remarks
1
Chennai
Delhi
5000
7000-8000
10-15k

2
Chennai
Coimbatore
2200
3500-4500
8-10k

3
Chennai
Port Blair
7000
10000
15000+

4
Chennai
Dubai
12068
15-16k
25k+
5
Chennai
Bali
10000


Air Asia
6
Chennai
Yangon
8900
15-16k
25-30k
Air Asia
7
Chennai
Osaka Japan
17000
25-30k
40k
Air Asia
8
Chennai
Australia
21000
30-35k
50k

9
Chennai
Colombo
7500-8200
10-12k
15k+

10
Chennai
Mumbai
4000
6-8k
10k+

*in past 12 months, including convenience fee, cheapest possible fare (excluding bag, meals etc where optional). I've an additional list here for lowest fares on AirAsia Destinations.

You can arrive at above number by checking prevailing fares for multiple dates (near term, long term etc) and during sale and during normal days, peak season, off-peak season etc. Keep checking fares regularly over a month or two and you will get a sense of what is lowest and what is normal and what fare is very high for your destination.

This is similar to 52 week high and low numbers available for a stock price while buying shares. If the share price is closer to 52 week low, then it is a good chance to buy more of it- if it is closer to 52 week high, then you should sell your stock or wait to buy

This takes some effort, but is critical to decide right price. Getting a sense of this price range for your intended destination from your origin city is very important to decide if the price you're seeing is reasonable or can get eve cheaper.

Step 2: Check if lowest rate is available for any of the future dates
Now you know what fare is lowest and what fare is normal for the destination you've in mind. Try the following:
Step 2A: Check prevailing fares for various dates in future- different date combinations suitable for you. You can use fare calendar offered by MakeMyTrip and AirAsia to check cheapest dates. If you spot a fare very close to lowest fare you've noted down, you can skip to Step 2C, else go to Step 2B
Step 2B: You see that current fares are not cheap enough for the destination you're targeting. Do the following
  • Set alerts in Skyscanner,google flights so that you will be notified when prices drop
  • Identify 2-3 airlines that fly to your destination- create an account, so that you will be notified if they have a sale
  • Wait for few weeks, retry step 2A and check if prices have got any better. Or wait for next sale to check the prices. Here is a 10 point guide to make the most of AirAsia sale. Since you're under no compulsion to travel immediately or mandatory, you can afford to wait till you see a fare which is closer to lowest possible fare.
Step 2C: You've spotted a fare which is reasonably close to lowest fare you're aware of. Now you can optimize a bit further and book
  • Try a few adjacent onward and return dates, to check if there're still cheaper options
  • Check if connection time is worth (sometimes, selecting a slightly more expensive option with less transit time might be worth it
  • Check if the season and flight timing are convenient (No point going to Korea in winter, if you're arriving at say 9 PM, then you've to spend a bit on hotel accommodation for that night, if there's no public transport during your arrival, you have to spend a lot on taxi etc. Check these factors are favorable
  • Check for any hidden costs- auto added baggage, insurance or high convenience fee etc
  • Know the terms- non refundable fares/cancellation charges etc, so that you're aware of the risks involved
  • Once you've convinced yourself that this is the best deal, go ahead and book
I am sharing my own examples below:
Odissa: When I checked on Indigo, Chennai-BBI return fare was around 5000+ which I felt is bit high and not worth it. Then when Air Asia started Chennai-Bhubaneshwar flights, in a previous sale they were selling for Rs 1998 one way, or 4000+ for return. I was tempted to book but my gut feeling suggested me to wait. In their recent sale, they were selling Chennai-Bhubaneshwar one way for 1498 (return ticket for Rs 3094 (including net banking convenience fee). I felt this price is reasonable, found it tempting and have booked a few tickets to Bhubaneshwar. There could be another sale in future where same ticket is sold for Rs 1000 one way- I don't know. I could have waited further, but I decided to book since I felt Rs 3000 return is reasonable and worth it.

Dubai: Dubai was on my radar since long, but return tickets were usually expensive at the range of 25000. This month, I suddenly spotted a return fare on FlyDubai for Rs 12000 return, which was very tempting and I booked instantly. I doubt it will get any cheaper. 

Summary: Key here is to know what price is lowest, being patient till you spot lowest possible fare, taking some risks (like no-refunds) and booking quickly when you spot a fare which is very close to lowest possible fare. Since you're very flexible with your dates, you can wait for months to book and book for dates when fares are lowest.
Category 3: Flexible with date and destination
Situation: You've a true wanderlust- willing to go anywhere and everywhere, whenever you find lowest priced tickets. Objective here is to make maximum use of your money, by traveling to any destination that is accessible for very low price.

Situation Description: Let us say you'd like to explore South East Asia- Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and so on. You're not locked on to any particular country or city, but want to explore for lowest possible fares

Ticket Booking Approach:
Step 1: Identify budget airlines operating to regions you've in mind- Let us say Air Asia and Scoot for South East Asia. This is because low cost airlines can take you to a destination for as much as half to one third of what it costs in Full Service airlines.

Step 2: Once you've zeroed in on an airline, identify 4-5 destinations they fly to that excite you- Let us say you're targeting Osaka in Japan, Hanoi in Vietnam, Bali in Indonesia and Melbourne in Australia. I am saying 4-5 because it is hard to focus on all destinations at a time. Target 4-5 at a time, book and travel, repeat for other destinations later.

Step 3: For these destinations, start tracking the prices- what's normal ticket fare, what is the lowest you've seen. The steps are similar to what's explained above (in Category 2). You need to know the price range.

Step 4: Once you know the lowest fares to your destination, check prevailing fares- if they are not close enough to lowest fare, wait for few months or wait for a sale by airline. (Step 2 under Category 2 Above). Book when you're satisfied you've spotted lowest fare.

Summary: Since you're not locked to any one destination and have an idea of what price is lowest, your strategy should be to wait for a sale/promotion during which you are very likely to see a price close enough to the lowest price you've noted. If the price is not tempting enough, don't book. Wait for better price in next sale. There is always a next promotion- airlines will not have any plan to shut operations after current sale, though their ads often promote every sale as now or never opportunity. Once you know what's lowest possible fare, wait for it patiently, so that your savings are maximum.

Some points to keep in mind:
  1. Book Early, Save more is NOT true. If you're trying to Book for Feb 2019, you may see a much higher fare compared to May 2018. This is because Airlines set a standard price for long term and tweak the prices regularly depending on promotions, load factor (demand for seats), competition fares and several other factors. Your objective should be to wait for the right moment (lowest possible fare) and grab them
  2. Risk involved with lowest fares: You should be comfortable with various risks involved in booking promo fairs months in advance. You can refer this post for various tips to avoid paying high cancellation charges.
  3. There is always a bit of uncertainty- accept it and live with it- even the best rates airline may cancel some flights, there could be delays and other issues in service industry, despite best planning you may not be able to go, 2 days after you've booked, you may realize that prices have dropped another 30%, you might do a mistake of booking on wrong dates or something like that and may have to pay heavily- these are part of the experience- don't get upset.
  4. Typically best place to book is Airline's website. There could be few exceptions as OTAs often run promo codes- you should double check that offer is genuine (no hidden tricks) and savings are real.
  5. Check the value proposition- A full service airline might be more expensive than low cost airline- but if you're spending extra on bag, meals etc what is the ultimate savings? Would full service airline is worth the premium to you? Similarly paying bit extra for more convenient flight timings etc. An early morning flight might be 500 Rs expensive than previous day late night flight- but if it can save you 1000 Rs on hotel stay, overall early morning flight may be better. Objective should be to save on overall travel as a whole, not merely on flight.
Do share your thoughts and comments. Let me know if you find this post useful and practical or too complicated.
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2 comments:

  1. I usually start with the 3rd approach and end up with the 1st approach as getting leave and permission from my organisation is a big pain. Jokes apart, I have found airfares lower than the ones listed by you. For instance Chennai - Delhi at 4K when travelling in the middle of the week. So weekdays - weekends matter so do local holidays

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. Chennai Delhi return for 4k is sweet deal.

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