The most common questions I get when people find out that I write this blog are “where do you go to book your tickets?” and “how do you find the cheapest tickets”
The answer to the first question is “there’s never one place/site that I use” – there’s no silver bullet. The answer to the second question is “by jumping through a lot of hoops” (even then, I don’t necessarily book the cheapest tickets).
It’s important to bear in mind that I don’t feel the need to get the lowest price when I’m booking a trip – I just need to know that the price I got wasn’t bad and that I booked it knowing what my other options were.
The problem with booking ” the cheapest ticket” is that it often comes at the expense of something intangible….like sleep, comfort or convenience. It’s hard to put a price on those but they always factor into my thinking.
A good example of the hoops I jump through to ensure that I get value for money (if not the cheapest price) came when I booked a recent trip to Cyprus – and I reminded myself of a “trick” that may help some of you out.
My Trip requirements:
Date requirements: Sometime towards the middle of November – preferably departing on a Sunday
Trip length: 2 nights
Flight requirement: Any airline as long as the flights are non-stop
Car Hire: Yes – something cheap.
Accommodation: None needed
With those requirements in mind I headed over to the first place I always go when I need a flight – the ITA Matrix Search site – and I brought up the prices for all non-stop flights that would give me a 2-night stay.
Based on my requirements it looked like Sunday 15 November was going to be my best bet – yes the £132 fare in the middle of the week looked tempting but it didn’t fit with my calendar.
The flights on the 15th looked like this…..
The return flight on Aegean was fine but the outbound would get me into Cyprus at 2:40am…and that wasn’t ideal. There were a couple of things working against this flight:
- Assuming we landed on time I wouldn’t get to bed much before 3:40am and I had to be up at 7am – that’s less than 3.5 hours sleep and that doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy.
- I have no status on Aegean which means I wouldn’t be able to select a comfortable (a.k.a. less uncomfortable) seat for the flight…so that ruled out getting any sleep on the plane.
As all Aegean flights fly to/from Cyprus on the same schedule I knew that a date change wouldn’t help me…so that only left British Airways.
I re-did my Matrix search to only show the non-stop BA flights:
The first thing I noticed was how they were consistently more expensive than Aegean…and by quite a margin. That was annoying….but I guess it’s the price you pay for (a) convenience and (b) limited competition.
Now, there are a couple of issues with the Matrix search:
- It doesn’t generally show Low Cost Carriers on European routes (LCCs)
- It doesn’t show British Airways “hand baggage only” fares (HBO fares)
Issue #1 meant that I knew I’d have to go to the LCC airlines’ websites to see what they were offering.
Issue #2 didn’t really affect me as, although I didn’t have a need to check luggage, I wanted to be able to select my seat on the plane…. so that ruled out an HBO fare.
Note: British Airways managed to further devalue their offering when, back in March, they changed the rules to ensure that no one (not even passengers with top-tier BA/OneWorld status) could select seats for free on HBO fares.
How did the LCCs compare?
Before I went any further I checked what the LCCs were offering and, as I limit myself to flying out of Heathrow or Gatwick (Stansted and Luton are to much of a hassle to get to for me), that meant checking easyJet and Norwegian.
Both fly out of Gatwick and both offer direct flights to Larnaca but their schedules are very different – during November easyJet flies a daily service to Larnaca while Norwegian flies just twice a week (Tuesdays and Saturdays).
Still, that left me with two possible LCC options:
Option 1 – Fly a roundtrip with easyJet
Option 2 – Fly outbound on easyJet and return on Norwegian.
Option 1 priced out to £131.54 including seat selection…..
Option 2 priced out to £102.65 including seat selection (easyJet outbound £54.55 + £48.10 Norwegian inbound)
Option 2 was the clear winner out of the two and, were I to book it, would give me the chance to try out Norwegian on a short-ish flight before I try them out across the Atlantic (something I’m hoping to do in the next year).
Now I needed to see how much car hire would cost….so I headed over to Kayak.
I never book “Economy” cars because, as a rule, they’re one step up from a mule…only less comfortable and with less equipment. So I searched for a “Compact” car….which is 2 steps up from a mule….
Total cost of the car was £21.
Adding that on to LCC option 2 gave me a total trip cost of £123.65. That’s not bad at all and I’d get to review a new airline for the blog (bonus!).
At the back of my mind, however, were two of the “intangible” things I mentioned right at the beginning – sleep and convenience. Gatwick is the less convenient of the two major London airports and, were I to take the LCC option, I’d be flying out of Gatwick at 7am…..and that’s a 4am rise at the very latest.
The thought of a 4am rise prompted me to give British Airways another try so I decided to see just how the flights would cost out on BA.com.
If I could move my calendar around so as to make a midweek flight an option I could get an HBO flight for £164.41….
…but an HBO flight didn’t get me seat selection and who knows where I’d end up when BA allocated seats? I’d probably end up in a middle seat at the back of the plane if they’ve read any of my posts on them!
The full-fat fare which would get me seat selection (as well as a baggage allowance that I didn’t need) was exactly as the Matrix search had shown – around £205 for midweek…..
….and around £240 on my preferred dates.
And these prices still didn’t take into consideration the fact I’d need a car! Adding the car into the equation would give me prices of £226 for the midweek flight or £261 for my preferred dates (based on rental prices from Kayak).
At this point the LCC fares were looking like the clear winners.
The choice was either a hideously early start and £124 with the LCCs or, at best, £226 with British Airways – for £102 I was going to have to suck up the early start.
But then I remembered something I haven’t had a need to try for a long time – there’s a “trick” that you can sometimes use to get cheaper flights on BA. It’s a trick that should, logically, make absolutely no sense….but it works….sometimes.
The idea is that you tag on an ultra cheap hotel or car rental on to your British Airways booking – even one that you have no intention of using – and that can, sometimes, significantly reduce the cost of your trip.
I know it sounds like it doesn’t make sense but take a look what happened when I tried it…..
Rather than using the “Flight only” search option on the British Airways homepage, I used the “Flight + car” option:
I decide to stat with my preferred dates just to see what price I’d be quoted and, once I’d filtered the car options to show me “compact” cars, this is what BA.com showed:
The price had come down to £173 (from £240) and I was getting a car thrown in!
Not also that the screen say that I would get “Executive Club benefits” which meant that, with this fare, I could choose my seats…..
…..and I had a guaranteed 23kg baggage allowance (which I didn’t need).
British Airways were offering me a £67 discount on the flights I wanted AND they were throwing in seat selection, a baggage allowance and a car that I needed as well. It was nuts but I wasn’t complaining!
Suddenly the LCC option wasn’t looking as good as it had looked just a few minutes earlier.
The choice I was now left with was this:
Do I book the British Airways flights & car for £173 or do I save £49 and go with the LCCs and the car from Kayak?
In favour of British Airways:
- Flying from Heathrow not Gatwick – shorter journey
- No middle-of-the-night start
- Earning AAdvantage miles
- Better lounges at Heathrow
- Food and drinks included in the cost of the ticket
In favour of the LCC option:
- Save £49 – although the saving may be less if I purchase food and/or drinks onboard
- I’d get to try out the Norwegian offering
I didn’t have to think about it for too long – I went with British Airways.
I didn’t need the AAdvantage miles (I already have status sown up for 2016/17) and I can easily bring my own food with me if I’m flying LCCs (so the extra cost of food and drinks on the LCCs don’t bother me) but I’d happily pay £49 not to have to get up at 4am 🙂
- LCCs can look cheap (and often they are) but you really have to price things out fully before you get the complete picture.
- The “trick” of searching for a “flight + car” or “flight + hotel” is well worth bearing in mind – it really can save you money.
- Intangibles matter. You can put a price on more sleep and more comfort…..it’s just not a fixed price. It depends on just how much more sleep and comfort you’re getting 🙂
It’s also worth remembering that this situation applied specifically to me and the considerations could be very different for someone in a different situation.
Had this been a family of 4 traveling (rather than just me on my own) the savings from flying the LCCs would have been almost £200 (possibly more as they wouldn’t be selecting the more expensive, exit row seats, on the LCCs) – and that’s a nice chunk of spending money for the trip. When you think about it like that, the 4am start could be more palatable (although I don’t think your kids would thank you for it!).