Air travel on a budget

Thanks to ongoing liberalization of air travel markets, growing competition and increasing efficiency of airline operation, as well as - arguably - hidden and not so hidden subsidies, air travel has become relatively affordable yet, at the same time, it can still be very expensive. Below you will find some advice on how to reduce your air travel costs to make it fit your budget.

Plan in advance

The first and most obvious piece of advice would be to start your planning well in advance, to leave time to research and consider all of the below, and not get committed too early so that your options are still open.

Although it is a good choice to book your flights well ahead, it does not always guarantee you the cheapest fares as it is a myth that the cheapest fares are the first few seats on an aircraft. If there is nothing particularly cheap when you first look, and there is a long time before your trip, you might be better off waiting for a seat sale. Sometimes the airlines will reduce the prices of the remaining seats if they haven't been successful in selling those, so you may be able to find a great deal if you're prepared to leave soon.

Check your options


With the number of airlines and scheduled flights, there is almost always more than one option to complete your desired journey by air. Checking said options out by using flight search websites should be your first step to wrap your head around them. Do not assume that the most direct flight is the cheapest, or that an airline known for low prices will actually be your cheapest option either.

There are no less than five major aiports serving London - and even more in the vicinity


Apart from the most obvious airports, do also look at airports close to your origin or destination - they may broaden your spectrum of options with some more economical ones. Air rail alliances may provide extra option in the form of a ground connection from a more distant airport. Our destination guides usually cover the airports with good ground transportation to a given destination. "Secondary" airports may sometimes be quite far from the destination city, so consider any additional transport costs. It may be actually cheaper to fly to the primary airport after all.

Travel dates

Airlines take advantage of increased demand on tickets during school holidays to increase ticket prices. Flights to Salzburg Airport from London Stansted with Ryanair go up two - threefold during the February school holidays, whereas BA flights from London Heathrow to Munich are half of what Ryanair demands.

Friday and Sunday evening flights tend to be more expensive. Early Sunday morning and late night flights can be cheaper.

Reduce luggage

If you only fly to a place and back again or are visiting friends, you may be able to fly with carry-on baggage only. There are airfares which do not cover any extra luggage and are thus obviously cheaper. Do always check for size and weight restrictions on hand luggage, as they vary between airlines. Those offering especially low fares tend to more diligently check whether your carry-on fits their limits (in practice - for size rather than weight) and charge quite a bit for extra luggage, especially if only paid for just before the flight when you have few other options. On the flip side, many airlines also allow an extra "personal item" on board, which can be anything from a purse to a laptop bag - check with the airline as to what exactly is allowed, as this can help you bring those extra few items on board.

If you cannot fit all the stuff you need into your hand luggage, you need to have the airline transport one of your bags in the hold of the aircraft. As such baggage needs to be "checked in" at the airline counter and transported from there to the aircraft by the ground crew, it is called "checked luggage". As per the above, when booking the cheapest fares, you often need to pay extra for checked luggage. You can still economize when you have to pay for checked luggage - if you are traveling as a pair or in a group, check whether you cannot pack into one bag or at least less bags than the number of passengers. The size and weight allowances for checked baggage are usually quite generous, but check those diligently as well, and whether weight limits apply to one bag or the total weight all of your bags. Checked luggage is always weighed, and being slightly above the weight limit or exceeding any kind of size limit will usually mean you will have to pay a lot extra.

Brussels Airport is less than 15 minutes from Brussels by train, so you can enjoy a visit to the city when you have a long stopover there

Indirect flights

The cheapest route is not necessarily the most direct. As flights requiring stopovers are less convenient and take more time, airlines sometimes price them cheaper than direct flights from other airlines. This is especially true for flights booked within a short time from travel dates, so do not always insist on a direct flight.

You can also use this option to have an extra long stopover that is enough for sightseeing. In many cases nothing but Immigration prevents you from getting out of the airport and exploring the adjacent city during a stopover, but you need sufficient time to do that and return safely in time for your connecting flight, which is usually at least 8 hours. Do check the times needed to get from the airport to the city and back and advice at minimum times needed to clear security given in our destination or airport guides.

Another thing is that you have to choose an early morning departure and a late evening arrival to be able to do so. Some airlines automatically require you to take the next available flight when connecting, but third-party websites and travel agents might be able to get around those restrictions.

Garuda Indonesia flights from London stop in Amsterdam before heading to Jakarta, and since they have the Fifth Freedom, they offer flights between Amsterdam and London for prices often lower than other airlines. And you get to fly a wide-body aircraft as an added bonus!

Fifth-freedom Flights

Fifth-freedom refers to the right for an airline to carry revenue traffic between two foreign countries as part of a service connecting the airline's home country. For instance, LAN operates a flight from Santiago to Sydney with a stop in Auckland, and is permitted to carry passengers between Sydney and Auckland. As Sydney and Auckland are in Australia and New Zealand respectively, and LAN is based in Chile, the right to carry passengers solely between Sydney and Auckland is a fifth-freedom right. As airlines are often desperate to fill up seat vacancies in the fifth freedom sector, and are typically not allowed to advertise the route as much as the airlines of the two foreign countries, these flights are often cheaper than those operated by carriers based in those two countries.

Travellers can often take advantage to fifth freedom rights to experience service on well-known airlines based in distant countries, and yet not spend as much money as they would typically have to pay. Examples of some popular fifth freedom routes include:

The above list is not exhaustive and there are many other airlines that fly fifth freedom routes. The de-facto hubs for fifth freedom flights with multiple airlines are in Hong Kong and Tokyo-Narita in East Asia, Singapore and Bangkok in SE Asia and Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain in the middle east for travel between Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and Oceania. The other set of fifth freedom routes are all over Europe (and to some extent including Morocco and Israel) in different combinations. Of course they can exist in other parts of the world not mentioned too. Shop around for these flights if you can, as they are typically not extensively advertised.

Take domestic flights when possible

In general, international flights tend to be more expensive than domestic flights for the same distance travelled. Thus, if you are flying from a city near an international border, it might be worth considering crossing the border and catching a domestic flight in that country, if a city in that neighboring country is your intended destination. For instance, if you are in Hong Kong and wish to head to Shanghai, you should consider crossing the border into Shenzhen and catching a flight from there, or using China's excellent high-speed rail system. Likewise, if you are in San Diego and wish to get to Mexico City, it might be worth considering crossing the border to Tijuana and flying from there. Even if both the origin and the destination cities are further away from the international border it can still work out less expensive to fly from the origin city to the city nearest the border in the first country; cross the border to the next country by surface transport; and pick up another domestic flight to continue onward from the other side. An example of this is if you're traveling from Lima to Santiago de Chile you would fly from Lima to Tacna in Peru, take a bus over the border into Chile, and fly from Arica down to Santiago.

Similarly, if your intended destination is in at the border with the neighboring country of the country you are in, you may wish to consider catching a domestic flight to the border and crossing the border by surface transport. For instance, if you are in Penang and wish to head to Singapore, you should consider flying to Johor Bahru and catching a bus across the border. Likewise, if you are in Bangkok and wish to get to Vientiane, you might want to consider flying to Udon Thani and taking a bus across the border into Vientiane (just over the border).

Booking methods

Book online

Intermediaries (such as travel agents) and many airlines will charge extra fees for bookings made over the phone or in person at their desks. Booking online is usually the cheapest or at least not more expensive. That said, sometimes using an intermediary or talking to a live person may open up some interesting options

Consolidator websites

A special group of intermediaries called "consolidators" by the trade have wholesale contracts with airlines allowing them to sell airline tickets at prices that sometimes might be lower than what the airline itself might quote. This can be especially true on connecting flights.

Travel agents

Travel agents have similar rights and often have access to more fares or are able to structure more intricate flight ticket and rate combinations than the airline's consumer website would allow. If your itinerary is intricate and unusual, a knowledgeable travel agent might be able to lower your total bill. They may also be able to take advantage of youth or student discounts or similar promotions.

Advanced tactics

Use the exchange rate to your advantage

Most flights booked from the airlines' websites are sold in the currency of the departure port. Booking two one way flights will usually be sold in two currencies, whereas booking a return (that is, round-trip) flight will be sold only in the currency of the origin. The airlines price into a market, and the airfare will rarely be the same after taking currency conversion into account. The saving (or premium charged) can often be as much as 20%. Book whichever way is cheaper. Similarly if you have a stopover, check the fare if you book the same flight originating from your stopover point to the fare if you book all the way through, especially if there have been significant movements in the exchange rate in your home currency's favor.

Self-made connections

Sometimes combining a few especially low-fare flights may be cheaper than any multi-leg ticket you can get from any airline. That said, the airlines offering the lowest-priced tickets tend to be point-to-point carriers, not offering connecting tickets and not interlining with other carriers (meaning their flights cannot be combined with other airlines' flights on a single ticket). This also means any checked luggage is/are only checked to the connecting city and cannot be checked to the final destination. This will require a visit to the luggage reclaim carousel (usually outside the 'secured' area) to wait for and claim your luggage and then go to the next airline's check in desk to check in and re-check the luggage to the next destination in the departures zone. All this adds in extra time to the transfer process.

If you choose to cobble together your itinerary yourself using a cascade of low-fare tickets or travel your last leg (however it may be) on a separate ticket, you may save a substantial amount of money vs. using a single ticket. Do note, however, that this means the only person responsible for your flights misconnecting (i.e. your inbound flight is late for your self-made connection or you forgot the details) is yourself and you get NO compensation. This may result being stranded with a possibly of higher cost of getting to your destination, or even no option at all for a day or more. Therefore, you have to plan for the possibility of a delay in getting to the connection city and also pay attention to which airport you arrive at and which airport you leave from if the connecting city has multiple airports. This will require more time to leave the first airport by local transportation (bus, train or taxi) to get to the next airport across town. If the connecting airport is in a third country (different than the destination and origin country) be sure you also have a visa to enter that country (or to leave the airport transit zone) if required.

Skipping the last leg

While it sounds like a bizarre physical exercise, it is actually a slightly questionable but sometimes effective way of gaming the intricate system of airline ticket pricing. A "leg" is a part of your journey that is a direct flight from A to B. If your journey involves a stopover and transfer to another flight, it basically has legs (i.e. more than one leg). For example, getting from A to B by flying from A to C, and then from C to B will mean two legs (even if an airline will issue you only one ticket for that if you book it so). This same procedure is also known as "hidden city" in US parlance, as either your actual or your fictitious final destination is in a way "hidden".

Ticket pricing is not always a straightforward issue and often less popular destinations may be priced lower than a popular one, even if the former require extra connecting flights. Therefore, you may find that a flight ticket to Karlsruhe with a transfer in Munich will be cheaper than a flight to Munich only. If you want to go to Munich, you can thus buy a ticket to Karlsruhe and simply not board the plane there while in Munich, but simply leave the airport, which is absolutely possible and not disallowed.

That said, technically you will have not completed your flight that way, and airlines can draw various consequences. First of all, an airline will basically require you to complete your itinerary. So, if the ticket in the above example would be a round trip one to Karlsruhe, you would be required to board your return flight in Karlsruhe and usually will not be able to do so in Munich. Moreover, a ticket with a single leg not completed can be canceled by the airline without any refund, so if you did not take the flight from Munich to Karlsruhe, your ticket back from Karlsruhe via Munich might have been canceled and even showing up for the return flight in Karlsruhe you will be denied boarding as the airline's systems will "think" you did not want to continue your scheduled journey - and if the airline's regulations say so, this will be applied to you with all force.

Further consequences to serial offenders by especially vigilant airlines include removal of loyalty program privileges or even denial of service (local law in many jurisdictions actually allows airlines to deny flying particular individuals), and there is usually enough small print for the airline to be able to retaliate, so game the system at your own risk. Another problem might be (depending on where and with which airline you fly) that your checked baggage is "checked through" meaning you don't have access to it during layovers. This is often the case on flights through Europe, but hardly ever on domestic US flights.

Nevertheless, there are even specialist websites "scraping" the airlines' booking systems for such connections, as the reward is sometimes worth the risk for many. The proof is the fact that some airlines have even sued the operators of such websites due to the potential losses it may mean to them. If you want to take the risk, the trick is often called "hidden city" and you will usually find those sites searching for this phrase.

Airline consolidators

Airline consolidators are brokers who buy seats in bulk from the airline, then resell them to travel agents, often those who specialize in discount international travel (known as "bucket shops") or sometimes directly to the public. Often, but not always, purchasing from a consolidator (directly or indirectly) results in a lower fare than offered by the airline. Due to the rapid increase in recent years of tickets being sold online and the "e-ticket," in many locations, physical bucket shops have become less numerous and more expensive than those on the internet. Only distant international destinations are sold on a consolidation basis. In the USA, this means Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, as well as the continental U.S. are excluded. In Asia, however, the distances do not have to be so great.

Not all countries allow consolidators to operate (especially in the Third World), in which case airline fares are strictly by the book with their published tariff rates. However, this applies only to residents of that country (and its visitors who fly to a secondary destination as a local traveler would). For example, residents of country X which allows consolidators can fly cheaply (either one way or round trip) to country Y which does not allow consolidators. However, those in country Y must pay full price to fly to country X, or anywhere else for that matter. This can even have an effect on published fares, pushing them lower in countries with consolidators, and higher in those without.

The countries with the most airline consolidators, and the least expensive international airfares, are the United States, UK, Germany, Thailand, and Hong Kong. In addition, Canada also has consolidators, though its international fares tend to be higher (even when allowing for the Canadian dollar exchange rate) than those in the USA. Similarly, a few other countries in Europe also have them, but tend to be more expensive than the UK or Germany with the exception of flights from France to its former colonies.

When booking with an airline consolidator, it is usually best to book three calendar months ahead. For example, if you wish to fly on 21 June, you may book on or after 1 March. Prior to that date, it is unlikely any arrangements between the airline and its consolidators have been made due to uncertain demand and fuel costs. However, many consolidators will still be willing to sell you a seat many months in advance at higher price, with no hint that prices are likely to go down if you wait. On the other hand, if you wait until the last minute, it's likely that all seats will have been sold out. Sometimes you can get a great deal if the plane is still half empty, but that's the exception. Of course, this doesn't mean that you should wait until three months prior to book travel to a high demand event such as the Olympics. For something like that, it's highly unlikely that the airlines are going to release any seats at all to consolidators, as their whole purpose is to sell excess seats the airlines are unable to sell themselves.

Traditionally, when you first begin booking with a consolidator, it is on a "request only" basis. This means the consolidator must first check your request with the airline before you get your confirmation—usually in two to three working days. With the world now more computerized, sometimes, but not always, you can get instant confirmation. After receiving your ticket (or e-ticket), call the airline to verify that everything matches. If they don't have your record (and you're not flying immediately), try again in a couple days.

Payment is expected soon after confirmation and there are hefty penalties for changes and cancellation. After flying just one leg of the ticket, NOTHING is refundable. There may be a small surcharge for credit card payments, but it is often advisable to use a credit card (not a debt card tied to a checking or savings account) to provide protection in case of bankruptcy. Not all airline consolidators (or those representing themselves as such) are honest, and they should be checked thoroughly before any money is exchanged. In the United States, many of the largest consolidators are members of the United States Air Consolidators Association (USACA). They require each member to conduct at least US$20 million in sales annually, be incorporated in the USA for at least two years, and have never filed for bankruptcy or ceased operation. However, some of these consolidators are wholesale only, and they just resell to travel agents.

Some travel agencies have recognized the value and convenience of booking online. It's a good idea to look for travel agencies who book consolidator tickets and have their own booking engine set up on a company website. You'll have access to three sets of fares through their booking engines, which will give you three chances of finding the lowest fare for international travel. You'll have access to consolidator fares, published fares offered by airlines and online only special fares. If you have a favorite travel agent already, check out their website and see if they offer this option.

Booking online will still give you the convenience of buying your ticket at your own time, at your convenience and still taking advantage of all possible avenues of finding the lowest cost. If you see an itinerary and cost you like, but shows as unavailable on the booking engine, call your travel agent with your desired itinerary. They may be able to waitlist your flight and still get seats confirmed at the desired cost for your desired itinerary. Travel agents are also able to hold your reservation anywhere from 3 to 10 days before you have to purchase and pay for your reservation. This gives you time to apply for visas and get any other paperwork in order.

Airline miles are available in most, but not all, cases. Paperless e-tickets are becoming more common even for international destinations. If a paper ticket is required (either by you or the airline), it will be shipped by express mail or air courier service at an additional charge. A paper ticket may show a fare much higher than what you actually paid, and not the airline's cheapest fare (or fare class in coach). This is to your advantage. In case of overbooking, you'll be more protected from getting "bumped," and you'll probably get more or better airline miles. This applies equally to e-tickets, but won't be as obvious.


While air travel has become a largely commoditized business and the experience is quite homogenous, there are still significant differences in some areas. When choosing an airline unknown to you, especially one branding itself as low-fare, do make sure to read all the small print before booking. Reading online reviews or consulting an appropriate travel-related forum can be advisable as well. Even supposedly reputable and full-service carriers may surprise you with something you might not expect.

Many luggage manufacturers and retailers will sell you bags labelled as "hand luggage sized", but airlines might have different size definitions than they do

Luggage allowance

Low-cost carriers often impose (very) low baggage allowances. These can be as low as 10–15 kg for one item only, and some do not allow any free check-in baggage at all, but some carriers offer generous allowances. Don't assume & check the carriers rules before booking. They generally rigidly enforce excess allowances at check-in and require cash or credit card payment or they will refuse boarding. For airlines that do not offer free check-in baggage, they would usually allow you to purchase check-in baggage allowance either online in advance, or at the counter on check-in. More often then not, purchasing it online in advance is the cheaper of the two options, usually by a significant amount.

Another reason why arriving early for a flight is a good idea is that in case you are slightly above the weight limit you might just throw away something of little emotional and monetary value (or take it as carry-on) to get below the limit instead of paying the excess baggage fees which may well reach the hundreds of dollars even for less than a kilo over the limit.

Low-cost airlines

Spirit Airlines only offers a knee-crunching 28 inches of legroom, and they charge for everything!

The cheapest tickets are often offered by "low-cost" airlines, which tend to have restricted service vs. the so-called full-service or legacy carriers. Usually the most pronounced difference is the type of aircraft and seat pitch (i.e. the distance between seats). Low-fare carriers usually pack the maximum number of passengers possible for their aircraft, which means only offering one class of seating and service, and offering very limited seat pitch and legroom.

Another thing common on low cost carriers is that they fly as early and as late as in any way possible. While many European airports have limits on night flights, this means you will probably not have to fly before 5:00 AM (check whether there is any transportation to the airport at this early hour), in the US the "red eye" flight has become somewhat of an institution for cost and time conscious travelers, meaning a flight where any sleep you might get is on the plane, thus leading to "red eyes". For obvious reasons those flights are often cheaper than those during the day, but there are exceptions. The main reason why airlines fly early morning or late evening flights is that an aircraft has fixed costs whether it flies or not, but can obviously only earn money flying, thus starting flying at 5:00 AM instead of 8:00 AM and ending the day at 23:00 instead of 21:00, the airline might "squeeze" a number of additional flights per day out of the aircraft, thus earning more money, especially on short haul flights. As those flights are - for obvious reasons - usually not all that popular, deals tend to be best for them.

Reserving specific seats with more legroom is usually possible with a sizable fee. Depending on the airline, you may find absolutely nothing in terms of entertainment or conveniences, but just as well free WiFi and power sockets at your seats. Parents with small children should call the airline and ensure any special requirements are available prior to booking. Change facilities may be simple or non-existent.

Finally, meals and drinks are almost always not provided free but rather sold on board at quite inflated prices, although this becomes a norm for most airlines when it comes to the cheapest rates. Do check the airline's website for specific information regarding what kind of services are provided with respect to all of the above, and make an informed choice.

See also the travel guides for low-cost airlines in Europe, Asia, and North America.


When buying tickets on a low cost airline, be sure to calculate how much you actually end up paying for the entire fare, plus the taxes and fees, baggage, meals, etc. and compare them with the price of a full-service airline, including the taxes, fees, baggage, etc., as you will end up paying more than the advertised price and sometimes even more than the full service carrier. If the total price of the fare with the low cost airline is not much different to (or greater than) the price with the full-service carrier and the "full-service carrier" really lives up to its name, opt for the full service carrier.


Many low-cost carriers do not provide meals, water or in-flight entertainment. Some sell these on board, but not all. If you have to pay for meals or beverages, they are often overpriced and expensive even compared to the prices they would cost at the airport. Some entertainment systems offer pay per view content, which is also often more expensive than streaming services you can access on the ground. With security arrangements changing around the world do not assume you can bring food or water on board. An empty bottle is usually fine with airport security though, and if the airport has any potable water air-side, it's worth a shot. Check their website carefully prior to booking. Some airlines permit pre-booking of upgrades for meals, baggage and other services at a discount at booking. Walk-up payment is often over-priced or the quantity not available to meet demand. Be flexible and prepared prior to your flight. (Tip - Take tissues in case of low toilet paper supply)

Seat allocations

Seat allocation for low-cost carriers is generally either pre-booked as a preference at the time of booking or is not available until check-in. Once again, check the airline website carefully and read the terms and conditions prior to providing credit card details. To obtain best seats it is essential that you arrive as early as possible to the airport for check-in and seat allocation.

Travel insurance

Discount carriers don't always offer credit for missed flights and may also then not offer a discount for travel at short notice. The $50 USD fare you prepaid may be lost and a new fare of $450USD be your only option. Always ensure you know what the airline policy is if you arrive late to check-in as well as sicknesses, illness etc.

Read the fine print

Low service airlines are notorious for their practice of advertising extremely low fares that suddenly stack up with a lot of surcharges once you book them. They justify it by saying that they only sell one ticket for one person sitting in one seat flying with no luggage and anything beyond that should be paid for if you want it, but some push it to the point of absurdity, when entering data in one form automatically checks a box in another that makes you buy (almost certainly useless) travel insurance. Common (almost always inflated) surcharges to avoid are levied on the "wrong" form of payment (try to have the right kind of debit or credit card handy), failing to print out a boarding pass, check-in that isn't done the "right" way (usually online), assigned seats, unaccompanied minors, luggage and - most absurd of all - carry-on bags. Before you book, make absolutely sure that you know what you will need and book it as early as possible, to avoid having to pay multiples of the normal price when you suddenly notice at the gate that 15 kilos of checked luggage isn't going to be enough, and you'll possibly have to pay 100 Euros for excess baggage.

See also Common scams#"Low cost" airlines.

Alternatives to flying

While there are hardly any practicable alternatives to a trans-atlantic or trans-pacific flight (unless you seriously consider traveling on a freight ship and even that is usually more expensive than a flight) the shorter the distance, the more alternatives open up.

Ground transportation options obviously include rail travel and bus travel. While airplanes fly much faster than even the high-speed trains run, do note the time needed for getting to and from the airport, waiting to embark and disembark and luggage handling as well as the time consumed by the - often onerous - security procedures. Most of the time railways go directly to the city center, and the same is often the case with buses. You can also often enjoy more space and comfort on board of a train, and more of your time is spent actually travelling and not queuing up, so you can simply sleep, relax or work longer.

In many cases bus or rail travel is cheaper than a flight covering the same distance, as long as it stays under a roughly 1000 kilometer threshold. However on longer distances the economies of scale tend to work against ground transportation and in favor of flying, but be sure to check prices regardless, as sometimes even a "short hop" flight may be cheaper than the alternative and sometimes even a long overland trip can be a bargain in terms of price. Even though you might reconsider if the cheapest rail or bus fare involves a 30 hour ride and no bed or couchette. While sleeping in coach class is doable and easier on a train than a plane (reclining seats, more legroom, less noise etc.) sleeper trains were invented for a reason.

If your flight is across a body of water, you may want to see if there is a water connection as well. Water-based transportation is usually much slower than overground transport or flying, but its has some advantages. For smaller bodies of water, those are the sights and the experience other means simply cannot afford. For larger bodies of water requiring a long crossing, it is often done by means of ferry ships which contain sleeping facilities, so you get your transport and accommodation at one go (and at one price). Generally the largest (and some would argue the best) ferries crisscross the Baltic. They can also be remarkably cheap (cheaper than most standard hotel rooms) if you bring your own food and resist the urge to load up on booze and cigarettes. See Ferries in the Baltic Sea.

Other options to consider

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, March 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.