Travel Hacks – Searching for the best flights

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How To Search For The Best Flights At The Best Prices

You would think that you just jump online and find the best flights and prices quite easily. However that isn’t always the case. If you are intending to book there and then, sure you will probably be OK, however if you are looking to get prices for a flight you intend to book in the future there are ways to ensure that you don’t get robbed by the airlines or booking website.

Step 1 In How To Get The Best Flights

Firstly think about what browser you are using and consider using an Ingocnito or Private window for searching for flights. Most airlines and booking websites do use tracking cookies which is why you often find a cheap flight, go back in a few days and the cheap flight isn’t available any longer. A lot of people just assume that flight is now full, or the cheaper seats have gone. That is rarely the case.

Mostly – that’s just cookies telling the website that you are back and clearly very interested in whatever you were searching for. Once they know you are a captive audience, of course they show you more expensive flights. Unfortunately that’s just the digital world we live in. There are ways of getting around that however!

This isn’t a typical “look how I book flights” fluff piece. This is going to actually go into all the factors that might make a flight way more expensive than you think it is going to be. So while I think you will find it very informative and easy to understand, it is pretty indepth. Buckle up!

Step 2 Use The Proper Browser Tab

Typically I use Brave as a browser and usually LOVE it. It blocks so many extra cookies and ads that it makes browsing really safe and easy, however it can also block popup’s and cookies that may be required by some websites. Usually you just notice that something seems stalled or just isn’t working, and that’s when it dawns on me that I have to allow more cookies to make things work, which is super easy to do. I would say this happens maybe once a month to me and I work in IT. It doesn’t feel super restrictive and I have to say Brave’s “In Private” Window or the “In Private with Tor” window does ensure you aren’t tracked in almost any way, however particularly the Tor version can mean that some booking websites won’t work. I do think its always worth trying Brave first and if it doesn’t work move to Chrome or Firefox.

Which ever browser you use however, make sure you do use the “In Cognito” or “In Private” option before you search for anything. Typically the option to do this is in pretty much the same place in every browser as below.

On the top right if you are on a desktop or laptop click the 3 little dots and then choose the In Cognito or In Private option.  If you are on mobile or a tablet you might have a hamburger menu instead. 

Open a new In Private or Incognito Window
Open a new In Private or Incognito Window

Step 3: Know What Website to use to Search for Flight Deals

Once you have a private browser window open, I usually use either Jetradar, Momondo or Google Flights. Typically JetRadar is my first option as I find it the best and easiest to use, however be sure to untick the “search hotels” option if you don’t want to also see hotels available.

I did always used to use Sky Scanner however I have found that some of the booking engines they refer you to are less than scrupulous, which isn’t Sky Scanners fault – but it bothers me personally.

The biggest thing to remember here though is that smaller airlines and some of the cheaper airlines won’t show.

Often it is worth Googling for “flights Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur” for example if you are closer to a slightly smaller airport just to see what airlines do fly. Don’t do anything with that for now, but knowing of other options if they don’t show in your search is never a bad thing. Just remember to stay in your private window.

Usually I will do this search first, screen shot what I need to, clear my cookies and then open Jetradar, but I am paranoid. Not without cause however.

This example below will show you the value of a private window. A few months ago I was searching for flights from Berlin to Moscow as we were supposed to be in Europe now and were going sailing on this massive lake outside St Petersburg. Just before Covid hit I realised I hadn’t booked flight tickets, so in a bit of a panic jumped on and did a quick search just to see how much they would be.

In a daft turn of events, I forgot to open a private window however got results for around $360-$380 per flight per person. No bother, that was all I needed at that point. I was using Skyscanner this time which I can’t say for sure had any higher level of tracking cookies than any of the travel/flight websites but that’s who I was using.

A few days later I remembered I hadn’t actually booked the flights so did the search again, once in a normal browser window and once in Brave In Private With Tor window and these were the results!

In Private Window Flight Search Results:

Flight search results in an In Private window
Flight costings in an In Private Window

I did this search in Brave using a Private Window and flights were about $365 each from Berlin to Moscow. Around the same price as when I had originally searched so that was no worries and I was ready to book.

Out of interest I did the same search again in a non private browser (knowing I had searched prior in the week and I would have cookies stored on my computer) and this was the result!

Standard Browser Flight Search Results:

Flight search results without a private browser window
Flight search results without a private browser window

This time the website was able to see that I had searched for these flights prior (because both searches were in a normal web browser window) so of course now they know I want or need them and look how much the exact same flight is.

$552.00 each. That’s $187 per person more.

$374 total for the exact same flight at the exact same time, it’s just that the website knew I had searched before, so was trying to convince me to book as it looked like the cheaper flights were gone and they were only going up from here.

We all know that websites (especially travel booking websites) do this, but on such a short flight we would have pretty much paid for an extra seat if I hadn’t of known to use a private browser and clear my cookies!

So – consider yourself educated about flight searches!

Before you even start:

  • In Private Browser &
  • Clear all your cookies if you can before you search.

Step 4: Comparing Prices Of Flights

Booking flights is like booking accommodation, there are many more factors than just cost that come into play.

If you find a cheap flight, great, however jump onto that airline’s website and find out what baggage is actually included and consider all the other factors that come into play. I have an article about The Real Cost of Flights that might help you to understand how bad the knock on effect can be.

If you have a flight that is $25 cheaper on Skyscanner than it is on Google Flights (Google flights is almost never the cheapest, but they sometimes have airlines the other two don’t) don’t actually trust that amount until you get to the booking page. Websites like Jetradar, Momondo and Skyscanner are just booking engines really so they almost always direct you off platform to the actual booking site.

Sadly a lot of these websites add fees as soon as you get there so your $199 flight becomes $249 in a hurry. Check right through to the end before you trust the price.

Also remember to check the currency if you are Australian. I’ve made the massive mistake of booking a flight thinking it was an OK price (I remember it wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t terrible) only to find out when it appeared on my credit card that the price was USD! I almost cried. I think the Aussie dollar was like 60c at that point so it was SO EXPENSIVE once the conversion came through. I always check that now.

NB: This is worth noting if you are using your Private Browser window. Some of the co0kies that might be blocked could be the location cookies, so make sure you check what the currency is for those Aussies of you out there. Actually Canadian’s who also just use a $ symbol, this goes for you too.

Step 5: Check out the actual booking site reviews

COVID has been a great eye opener for how bad some of these airline booking experiences can be IF they go wrong. There are so many flight booking websites out there now, and if it all goes according to plan and nothing changes usually you might never notice anything at all.

However, if it falls apart and the customer service is non existent, or they won’t do refunds, or even advise you of flight time changes, that is a massive cost to add to your already substantial investment.

I have seen reems of 1 star reviews for some of these companies over the last few months since COVID began and almost all of them are based around customer service not being contactable prior to flight times.

This is something you have to work out the risk vs reward scale for yourself, however it is worth thinking about. There are a few that I’ve booked with before and have flown with no challenge, however I would NEVER give money to again seeing how they have (or haven’t) handled this challenge.

Step 6: Pay with a card that isn’t critical to you

I have a Virgin Frequent Flyer account and their membership card doubles as a pre-paid credit card (or debit card I guess it is). Big whoop I hear you say – so many of them have that now – however – this virgin card allows me to make “virtual” cards that I can use for online charges.

Effectively when I make a virtual card it gives me a card number to use that isn’t my actual card number so if something gets charged in error or that number gets out into the universe somehow, I can dispute those transactions, turn off the virtual card and keep my actual card with no challenges.

It’s not a real credit card number so even though Virgin uses it to link back to my account, I can just cancel that virtual card so it can’t be used again with no consequences against my actual card. MAN I LOVE THIS!

If you don’t have someone that offers this service, it is worth just getting a pre-paid card from the Post Office (Australia) or wherever you might get them in your country and use that for any bookings where you aren’t 100% confident in the booking website. At the very least you haven’t exposed your main credit card to any nefarious charges.

Update: December 2023

Sadly Virgin have now stopped with travel cards so I can’t do this any longer. I have now got myself a WISE prepaid travel card and use that. 

Step 7: Don’t rely on the website for flight updates

Remember that if you have booked through a third party they will never be as good with updates as the airline will be. Make sure you upload your booking to the cloud or have it stored in your email somewhere and also downloaded onto your phone if you are going to be somewhere without a data connection. Check your flight times with the airline in the few days before you fly just to be sure you haven’t missed any changes.

Step 8: Know the card fees

I don’t know about other country credit cards but here in Australia, typically most credit cards will charge you a 3% international currency conversion fee. On a $3000 flight thats $90. That doesn’t sound like heaps but if the website charges you a credit card fee of 2.5% all of a sudden that’s 5.5% fees on your $3000 flight. While some online booking services don’t offer other options, some still do. Jetstar for example have POLi as a payment option which is fee free. Qantas also has BPay & POLi as payment options.

Of course if you have found a flight that is $400 cheaper than the airline is offering it, the fees might be just par for the course. However it is worth noting.

Final Notes On Booking Flights

There are lots of other factors to consider like, flight times which could mean you have to take a taxi to or from the airport because the trains aren’t running yet, or long connection times which always mean you spend money in the airport or even arriving early morning when you can’t get into your accommodation so if you don’t want to sleep in the park for the morning you have to spend money in a cafe or shopping centre. So think about what else you might spend money on for your $55 cheaper flight. It might not be worth it.

I hope that information helps you to book your flights with a little more confidence and get the very best deal you can. Remember that flight costs are more than just what you pay the airline. Check out my post on working out the real cost of flights for how to make sure you aren’t actually paying heaps of extras in addition to your fare. 

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She’s always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.