Travel Muse

Top tips for finding the cheapest flights

Jan De Boer provides key advice on how to find and book the most affordable and efficient flights as a student

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Living in a foreign country can mean many things for students at York. The distance, cost and time to get home are all grating factors which will torment you at the start and end of term. I still remember in first year when I was naive enough to simply go for the fastest, most direct flight home, not realising of course that a Swiss Air flight directly to the banking capital of the world was double the cost of any other route. One term of introspection (and serious budget food binging) later and I have never made the same mistake again.

Travelling, be it for holidays or home, can be expensive. However, three years of having to book tickets home has allowed me to generate this top guide to finding cheap flights. Booking in advance, but not immediately, can seem a little non-committal but let me explain. Airline tickets fluctuate in price as the date of the flight approaches. This is not a linear curve; the tickets get progressively cheaper before skyrocketing in price around eight weeks before the plane is due to leave. For me, that means a lot of forward planning and getting my tickets in weeks one or two at the start of term.

Do not book them any earlier though. Several months before the plane leaves is when demand is lowest. Airlines will still be figuring out what size plane to use (example: my flights home have ranged between turbo props and ancient giants of the sky) and they will put the price high, gauging what the demand is like and lowering the price in accordance with what they find out. The sweet spot of when to book flights is, therefore, difficult to nail, but on good days you can get up to 50 per cent off what you would have paid if you wait just a few weeks longer.

Budget airlines are a sore topic for me. I accept that on occasion they can provide great deals that I thought a dream beforehand . However, this comes at a cost. For me it costs me my knee caps as I struggle to fit in the seat, but to others it could mean delays, lost baggage, and sometimes a greatly inflated price.

Don't always assume that budget airlines mean the best deal; regular airlines are slowly closing the gap and provide a much better service. For example, to go from Basel (the cheapest airport in Switzerland) on a "Sleezy Jet" service to Manchester the price was totalled £140. However, once you add bags or a choice of seat, the price skyrockets to over £180 in some cases and, if you don't book at the right time, the results can be disastrous. Meanwhile, a perfectly reasonable British Airways flight was sitting there with baggage (and saved knee caps) attached for £140 from my home airport of Zurich, just a ten minute cycle ride away. If you want the best deal for your needs, it is always best to shop around.

Airlines' main business is to cater for returning customers, and they do that by providing rewards to those who return. These reward schemes shouldn't be the quarry of business execs and can provide huge benefits for students. For example, I have been flying with British Airways a little too much. Thanks to the amount of "Avios" points I have collected since I started uni I could afford to drop the price of my flight down by £40. A slow burn I know, but if you remain loyal, the benefits are well worth the wait.

It is not always necessary to fly straight to your specific airport destination. For example, you could choose a direct flight to Venice or a cheaper flight that goes to Milan first and then involves a train to Venice, which is a three hour journey on a sleek Italian rail service. I would recommend for the best deals. Always remember to click the "nearby airports" button for an even greater selection.

A flight route with a change can usually save you large amounts of money, although one plane had me spending 20 hours in Warsaw. With baggage handling being extremely advanced, it is no great hassle to change planes. One word of advice, however, is do not book a quick changeover with two separate bookings on two different airlines. They will not transfer your bags, and if your first flight is delayed it is not their responsibility to get you there, nor is it the second company's responsibility to rebook you. To them you just missed your flight. Trust me, the one time I tried this it meant a 25 hour layover and 36 hour delay in Toronto City, Toronto Pearson and London - so a mess all round.

To many people, flying can be seen as a great expense that is tacked onto your trip. Indeed, unless you have the luxury of business class, flying is seen as the annoying interlude between holiday and home. It can also be expensive. Hopefully, if you take my advice, you can spend more time on the beach with more to spend in your pocket

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