Between price surges, shoulder seasons, reward systems and seemingly limitless airline options, booking a flight can often seem like the most daunting part of a trip. The good news? It doesn't have to be. With just a few sneaky strategies and a little perseverance, you can beat the elaborate airfare game and become a master of finding cheap flights.
GET IN THE LOOP
For Expedia's commercial strategy director, Demi Kavaratzis, the first step to scoring a low-priced flight is making sure she's the first to hear about any flash sales or limited-time deals run by airlines. "I want the most holiday from my holiday so am always after the best value," she said. "I sign up to e-newsletters so I know when fares are on sale."
Unfortunately, no one can really predict the wild ways of airline sales, which often disappear as quickly as they flash on to banners and emails. So how do you keep up? Sign up to the mailing list of airlines you prefer to fly, or for larger travel agencies. Or keep your already busy inbox out of it and set up a fare alert on your web browser, so when certain destinations or dates drop in price you'll be notified.
GO A TO B, VIA C
Planning a trip to Japan to cheer on the All Blacks? Haydn Long from Flight Centre has a sneaky workaround that could save you some pennies. "If you're travelling to a special event like the Rugby World Cup, you can sometimes get creative and save by flying from A to B via point C," he said. As counter-intuitive as it seems, longer distances don't necessarily mean higher costs - but demand does.
So, while flights direct to Japan will be popular and expensive, getting to Hong Kong and then on to Japan could be cheaper. A trick that often works in your wallet's favour when you're heading to an international event.
RACK UP THE REWARDS
Nothing is cheaper than free and, by signing up for a travel rewards card, you can quickly rack up points simply by hopping on a plane or filling up your car. And when the chief executive of a global travel agency uses this very strategy, you know it's worth a shot. Webjet CEO David Galt said point schemes are a brilliant way to get a sweet deal, as long as you pick one that best suits you.
"Many offers are designed to make your travel with the same airline in order to build your bank," he said, a rule that could mean you spend more per flight than you would save by having the freedom to book with various airlines. "But if you are a pro at scoring points, then you might consider the credit card and group airline schemes that allow you to accrue as you shop for everyday items as well as holidays." [We'll discuss more about points schemes later in the article.]
1 in 7 reviews on TripAdvisor for top hotels could be fake
Portugal: Little to see by tiny villages and sleepy beaches
LAY IT ALL OUT
Every single day around 104,000 planes from almost 6000 airlines whoosh between cities and countries, taking people across the globe. It's a mind-blowing statistic that says a lot about technology, globalisation and travel - but for us? It represents a dizzying number of options to sift through.
Fortunately for you, websites like Skyscanner, Jetradar and Momondo exist; platforms that trawl through thousands of fares in seconds and put them all together in a simple and customisable layout.
Want to fly a certain date, time, airline or location? Or perhaps you want to land a certain time, layover in a specific city or pay as little as possible? These time-saving platforms are here to help.
For finding inexpensive fares, try going into Skyscanner, entering departure and arrival city, select "one-way" then "depart date as whole month". This trick that gives you a chart with the cheapest fare of each day, shown in calendar format.
BOOK, LIKE, YESTERDAY
Don't be mistaken, there is a time and place to be carelessly spontaneous when it comes to travel. Booking isn't one of those times. According to Flight Centre's Haydn Long, unlike certain goods or services, flights rarely ever become cheaper.
"Generally the best money-saving tip is to look to lock in a deal early," he said. "The closer you get to the departure date, the more expensive fares tend to become because the cheapest fares sell out first, typically."
So, if you've got your heart set on a certain time or place, then booking as early as possible is essential to keep costs low.
Now you've saved money on your flights, what else can you do to keep your holiday costs down? Stephanie Holmes has some tips.
PLAN YOUR ROUTE
It's tempting to try and pack in as much as possible, especially when heading to the other side of the world. But the more you see, the more your costs will mount up. Travelling to a few different European countries or multiple states within the US, means you have to pay for extra internal flights or rail journeys. You'll also be forking out for travel to and from airports or rail stations. Although often small, these costs can quickly accumulate. If you want to keep costs down, base yourself in one or two places and take your time to really see them properly.
If you do have to travel more, try to plan your journeys so they happen overnight, to save on a night's accommodation costs.
BUY CURRENCY EARLY
I'm always guilty of leaving this until the last minute, then deciding it's easier just to withdraw money from ATMs and use my debit and credit cards while I'm away. While there are some benefits to this (I earn Airpoints when I use my debit card and my credit card has zero transaction fees on overseas payments), I know I'm not always getting the best exchange rate.
To make your money work smarter overseas, buy your foreign currency in advance. Spend some time watching exchange rates over a period of days or weeks to notice any fluctuations — if you understand its highs and lows, you'll be better informed of when to lock in a good rate.
You can also get dedicated travel debit cards which you pre-load with foreign currency (some will let you load multiple currencies if you're travelling to more than one country). These are great because you lock in the exchange rate at the time of loading, so once done, you no longer need to worry about paying attention to rates. They're also a great budgeting tool — you know how much money is on your card, therefore how much you have available to spend.
SIGN UP FOR FREQUENT FLYER SCHEMES
Even if you don't travel often, it's still worth signing up for an airline frequent flyer scheme. Don't worry about signing up for every single one available but you should definitely belong to Star Alliance, which covers Air New Zealand; and One World, which covers Qantas. Both schemes allow you to earn points on affiliate airlines too — Star Alliance includes Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, and United, while One World covers American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qatar.
Once you've signed up, remember to enter your frequent flyer number on all airline bookings (you can do this retrospectively if you've already booked and also claim for flights taken within the last six months).
There are other ways to earn points too — for example Air New Zealand's Airpoints scheme allows you to earn points on bookings at select hotels, rental cars, travel insurance, duty-free and with more than 60 partners, including New World and Z. If you're an online shopper, use its Airpoints Mall to earn points at sites like The Iconic, Asos and Harvey Norman.
Take the time to learn what benefits your frequent flyer number can bring — the points will quickly stack up and you'll be able to redeem them to pay for future flights or to buy treats like wine, tech or homeware.
FIND THE FREEBIES
When you reach your destination, there are still savings to be had. Many museums and galleries around the world have free entry, but even the ones that charge admission will often have one day or evening a month when it's free to get in.
Walking tours are a great way to get your oriented in a new place, and the Global Greeters Network is a fantastic tool, now in more than 200 destinations. Greeters are volunteers who are so passionate about their city they will show it to you for free. Sign up online for a two- to four-hour guided tour, in groups of no more than six people.
Sites like Facebook, Eventbrite and Allevents.in can be valuable tools for finding fun, free things to do. But the best way to find the cheap, hidden gems of a destination is to ask a local. Get chatting to your taxi driver, waiter, barista or bartender — you'll get insider knowledge that will take you off the tourist trail and into the more affordable heart of your chosen holiday spot.
To hear more from Stephanie Holmes on how to save money when you travel, listen to the latest episode of Cooking the Books with Frances Cook , available now at iHeartRadio or wherever you get your podcasts.