Step 1: Check the options
If you want to be really thorough, the best starting point is a website that aims simply to tell you who flies where. Don't risk confusing the issue by going to a website that tells you anything about fares. There are two to consider. Both set out to give a comprehensive picture of non-stop routes to and from the UK with all airlines, and both make a pretty good fist of doing so. However, new routes can sometimes slip through the net, and links from the sites sometimes take you to an online agent or price-comparison website, rather than direct to the airline's own website.
Step 2: Search fare-comparison sitesThe most thorough way of shopping around is to compare fares for yourself by checking one by one through the airlines that you've established fly your chosen route.
But it is much quicker to turn to price-comparison websites which display fares from airlines and online travel agencies. You then click through to the airline or agency to book. Note that the price-comparison websites do not actually sell you anything.
None of the price-comparison websites are 100 per cent reliable. Most do not feature every possible airline, and sometimes they highlight fares offered through online agencies rather than direct from an airline - so check more than one to make sure you're not missing out on the best deal. (And see our cost saving tips in Step 5 to make sure you are comparing like with like). The best of the bunch are:
Step 3: Consider other options
Online agents can be useful for booking flights with traditional airlines such as British Airways, bmi, KLM, Air France and so forth. Also, you can combine flight bookings with accommodation and car hire, which is not only convenient, but often works out cheaper than booking the elements separately.
However, there are drawbacks of turning to the agents for short haul flights. They don't offer all flight options: some low-cost airlines will often be missing from search results, as will some charter airlines. Also, there may well be booking fees for flights with low-cost airlines.
Step 4: Don’t forget charter flights
These are primarily flights offered by the airlines of the big holiday companies, such as Thomson Airways, Thomas Cook Airlines and Monarch Airlines (confusingly, Monarch also offers scheduled flights).
Charters are particularly useful for getting to holiday destinations served by a limited number of scheduled flights, such as Greece and Turkey - and lots of charter flights usefully depart from regional UK airports. The holiday companies try to sell as many seats as possible as part of packages, but to fill the flights, they also offer "seat-only" tickets. Unlike on scheduled flights, on charter flights fares are often cheapest if booked at the last minute.
Step 5: Follow our cost-saving tips
Book well ahead
Fares on scheduled flights rise when seats fill up, and are therefore, as a rule, much cheaper bought months ahead than at the last minute, particularly for travel at peak times. However, do note that fares can also drop if a flight isn't selling well.
You can usually book at least four months ahead, and sometimes as long in advance as 11 months - it depends on when airlines get round to publishing their next winter and summer timetables. Register on airlines' websites for email alerts of when routes become available to book, announcements of new routes, and special offers.
Fly off peak
For example: outside the school holidays, mid-week, and at unsociable hours - though beware false economies: if you travel in the early hours of the morning, there may be no public transport available to get you to/from the airport. Most airline websites present prices in calendar formats, showing you at a glance the cheapest (and priciest) dates on which to travel close to your preferred date. EasyJet is particularly good at this: tick the "Flexible on dates?" box, and you are shown prices across a fortnight around your chosen date, plus lowest fares in other months.
Book a package
Often, it can work out cheaper to book the flights and accommodation together than book the elements separately - particularly with charter flights. This also gives you more protection if things go wrong - as was the case during the Iceland volcano eruption in April, for example.
Fly with different airlines
Most airlines now sell one-way tickets and it may be cheaper to book a seat with one airline on the way out, and another airline on the return.
Check airport options
Some destinations have more than one airport. While fares to more remote, secondary airports can be cheapest, once you've taken into account higher transfer costs to the city or resort, the overall cost of the journey may in fact be pricier.
As you probably know by now, more and more airlines are adding more and more "optional" charges to their base fares: including those for checking in bags, letting you board the plane first, and in-flight food. You can skip these extras by travelling with just hand luggage, forgoing "priority" or "speedy" boarding (which often makes little difference anyway), and taking a picnic for the flight. Beware exceeding checked-in baggage limits, as excess weight charges can be steep.
Watch out for unwittingly paying extra for travel insurance during the booking process - it may be added automatically and you may have to opt out.
Analyse credit/debit card charges: pretty much all airlines charge extra for paying with a credit card, and many also do so for paying with a debit card, though it's often a lower amount.