Direct approach: how to find a cheap flight

Jane E. Fraser offers tips on securing the best deal on flights.

Ever feel like you spend almost as long searching for a cheap flight as you spend actually sitting on the plane?

How do you get a great deal without the frustrating journey around cyberspace?

For many years Webjet seemed to be the answer, allowing consumers to compare flights and fares from several airlines on one screen.

But while Webjet continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, strong competitors have emerged. In many cases these sites are charging no booking fees, while Webjet's fees can now add almost $50 to an international booking and nearly $30 to a domestic booking.

Online retailer Direct Flights (www.directflights.com.au) has stood out among competitors in the past year, with cheap fares for top-tier airlines such as Emirates, Thai Airways, Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines.

Long-time player travel.com.au has also had excellent fares in the market, making it consistently one of the cheapest options despite charging a booking fee.

Another development has been the emergence of several sites that compare fares from travel retailers, as opposed to airlines.

The site airfaresflights.com.au, for example, compares fares from companies such as Flight Centre, STA Travel, travel.com.au, lastminute.com.au, Zuji and Expedia.

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And because each of these retailers sells for numerous airlines, this is the closest thing to an exhaustive search you can find.

A search for an airfare from Sydney to London on airfaresflights.com.au brought up more than 800 options, listed from cheapest to dearest, potentially saving hours of time searching individual websites (you need to check the rules and availability of each fare).

The site is not a booking engine, merely a comparison site that directs you to the retailer's website once you have found the cheapest fare.

On the domestic front, a similar service is provided by I Want That Flight (iwantthatflight.com.au), which compares available flights from the four domestic carriers.

There is no charge for this comparison; the site makes its money from advertising.

The downside of this option is if you choose to make your outbound and inbound journeys on different carriers, as many domestic travellers do, you are directed to two different websites to complete two separate bookings.

If you made the same booking through Webjet, you could do it in one hit but would pay a booking fee for the convenience.

Webjet (webjet.com.au) is moving to ensure it remains competitive, announcing recently it will offer "home-brand" airfares, where the identity of the airline is not revealed until you confirm the booking.

This allows airlines to sell seats at discount prices without alerting their competitors and should lead to some bargains for travellers.

The home-brand airfares may also incorporate value-adds such as travel insurance, car hire or hotel benefits.

However, if you want to limit the time you spend searching for a fare, the best bet is to check Direct Flights and airfaresflights.com.au (which includes travel.com.au).

In a broader search for a return fare from Sydney to London, we found six different prices for the same Malaysia Airlines flight.

The fares, including booking fees where relevant, ranged from $1831 to $1884, a difference of more than $50.

Direct Flights and travel.com.au had the cheapest fares, with Webjet coming in as the most expensive once the $49.90 booking and price-guarantee fee was incorporated.

The final stop before booking a flight should always be to check the airline's own website, as you will sometimes find an even cheaper fare.

It was not the case on this occasion the cheapest available price on the Malaysia Airlines website was $1874, but it can pay to check.

APPLES WITH APPLES

When comparing airfares, particularly international fares, it is important to ensure you are comparing like with like.

? Check the airlines - it might be worth paying a few dollars more to be on a leading international carrier with better food, service and entertainment.

? Check the routing and stopover times, as cheap fares often have middle-of-the-night departures, make more than one stop or have lengthy stops that push out the total travelling time. Some travellers are willing to spend eight hours in an obscure airport in order to get a super-cheap flight but many others are not.

? Check that the flights you are comparing are going to the same airport, as many cities have multiple airports and what you save on the airfare you could spend on a transfer into the city.

? Make sure all the quoted fares include taxes, as some retailers still quote fares excluding taxes and surcharges.

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