International airfares make up a significant part of the cost of a holiday to Europe so it pays to be sure you are paying a fair price. Good value doesn’t necessarily mean securing the cheapest fare but finding the fare that best suits your needs. After many years of booking flights for my European holidays (and to other international destinations), I now have a process I go through when searching for flights which I hope you’ll find useful, too.
If you’re a regular reader of this website you’ll know that I worked as a travel consultant for many years so I’m a big advocate of booking flights through a travel agent. That’s not to say I don’t first look at what’s available online, in fact, my research usually starts by visiting a couple of the online booking sites like Expedia or Webjet.
Researching airfare prices
The first thing I determine is which city I want to travel to and from which city I’ll return home. If these are different, as is often the case with European holidays, then I need to do a ‘multi-city’ search on the web. Secondly, I need to specify my preferred travel dates.
In most cases the cheapest fares are displayed first and whilst I might see a ‘bargain’, I always make sure to check the actual journey time from start to finish and how many stops are made along the way. Personally I’d rather pay a couple of hundred dollars more if it means I only have one stop en-route, and preferably that stop will be for less than two or three hours.
Emirates, for example, offers numerous flights per day out of Melbourne to Europe via Dubai with one of these flights stopping in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore on en-route to Dubai, whereas the other flights go directly from Australia to Dubai. The extra stop adds a few hours to the total journey time which can make a huge difference to the long-haul flying experience.
The fares of some of the Chinese carriers (Air China, China Southern and China Eastern, for example) between Australia and Europe are often the lowest-priced but nearly always include a long layover in China. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in Guangzhou airport for six hours or more – by all reports it’s not a great experience.
If you’re lucky enough to be looking for premium economy or business class fares, do be careful when checking online. Often the results that come up include multi-class fares which could include some economy class sectors and the unsuspecting traveller could easily book what they think are business class flights only to find out – when it’s too late – that part of the journey is in economy class. You'll need to click on the link to show flight details to check which class each sector is booked in.
Once I’ve found a price I’m happy with on one of the airfare booking sites (commonly known as Online Travel Agents, or OTAs), then I generally visit the airline’s own website to confirm that the fare is available with them. This is really just for me to get confirmation that the fare is actually available. Too often when searching for fares on one of the above OTAs, I’ve proceeded with the ‘booking’ through to the confirmation process (but without making payment) just to make sure the fare stays as originally quoted. On numerous occasions, a message has come up advising that the fare has increased from the original quote.
With all the information in hand, I then contact my travel agent and ask them to book my preferred flights, giving them specific flight numbers and dates, and advising them of the fare I have found online. If a fare is available via one of the OTAs, in almost all cases a travel agent should be able to match it. Make sure you do give your agent the exact flight numbers, though, as a different flight number can mean a difference in fare.
Why do I book via a travel agent when I’m experienced enough to book the flights online myself, you might ask.
There are a couple of reasons, the first being that having worked as a travel agent myself, I know the value of a good agent. You might not be prepared to put in the time and effort to research airfares like I do, and that’s where a travel agent can really be of assistance. Secondly, by booking through a travel agent I’m given more time to pay. Airlines usually offer a deadline of 72 hours minimum through to 7 days maximum when the payment is due and the ticket needs to be issued. This gives me time to transfer the payment to my travel agent and also gives me a ‘cooling off’ period should I decide that the dates don’t suit or I can’t commit to the trip.
By booking with an OTA, I’d have to make instant payment with a credit card at the time of booking. In almost ALL instances, once an international airline ticket has been issued, fees apply for all changes and cancellations so having pressed the ‘confirm’ button on an OTA’s site, I’m locked in immediately. Some OTA's also charge booking and price guarantee fees and these are paid at the time of booking and are non-refundable.
The other reason I prefer to book with a travel agent is that they can pre-book seats and special meals for me, which otherwise I’d have to do separately by contacting the airline, and, in the case of needing to make any changes or cancellation, they can handle that on my behalf.
Additionally, a travel agent can tell me when any current fares are expiring and prompt me to make a decision quickly if necessary and this information is often not publicised on an OTA. The annual Earlybird fares that are released each year are usually on sale until the end of November but if you happen to be starting your search for an airfare on an OTA on 30 November, you generally wouldn’t have any idea that the fare you’re looking at today will not be available tomorrow.
Other travel hacks
I’ve read lots of other travel blogs that write about their ‘hacks’ to getting the best airfare. Some suggest browsing on the foreign website of an OTA, for example Expedia’s UK website*, as sometimes fares purchased in the UK are cheaper than those purchased in Australia, but I’d be too concerned that there are rules and conditions I’m not aware of and when I show up at the airport my ticket is deemed invalid.
Another suggestion I read recently is to use SkyScanner, which I’ll admit I’ve never done. It pulls in the information of lots of OTAs so you can compare prices and then book via the one that suits you best.
(*In order to log on to a website based in another country, you need to clear your internet browser’s history so that it doesn’t remember that your previous searches are from Australia and automatically display the information and prices relevant to the Australian market.)
With flights booked and paid for, the next step – and a really important one – is to purchase travel insurance. As I mentioned earlier, any changes or cancellation of international airfares come with penalties – often hefty ones – so having travel insurance is a safeguard should anything unexpected happen.
My booking process is just that – the way I research and book my flights. You might prefer to book online and that’s fine, too. There’s no right or wrong way but if you’re starting the search for airfares for the first time, I hope the above info gives you a better understanding of what to look out for. At the end of the day, if you’re satisfied with the price you pay and the route and duration of the journey, then it’s happy days.
If you'd rather travel Business Class (and let's be honest, who wouldn't?), you might find these 6 ways to pay less for Business Class airfares helpful.
Tell me about your experience with booking international flights. Do you use a travel agent or do you book online?