A lot of my friends often ask me, how do I spot and book cheap flights and hotels. I have offered some tips to travel on a budget in a separate post, which covers aspects like when to travel, planning yourself vs agent and how to efficiently use a credit card, in this post I would focus specifically on my process to book cheap flights and hotels. A combination of tips on both these posts would help you book a vacation and save around 15-20%.
Book cheap flights
The single largest chunk of expense on international travel goes towards flight bookings. Hence, it makes sense to first look at how to book cheap flights. I am a big deal seeker in this aspect. Just because you used a particular website or app in the past is not reason enough to not scout for deals.
Freeze the dates you want to travel on
You may already have a time period in mind when you want to travel. But if you are a bit flexible in your travel dates (let’s say +- 4 to 5 days), chances are you might be able to save. For this purpose, I find Skiplagged mobile app to be a really cool app. This app not only tell you the rates at different OTAs (Online Travel Agents like Expedia etc.), but also the lowest rate at different dates in the vicinity. For example, I initially searched for a return flight from Delhi to Amsterdam for 12th July – 20th July. And it returned the minimum flight price as Rs. 59,296. But note the highlighted graph at the bottom of the screen in the screenshot below.
As you may have noticed, that there is a significant price drop after a few days. To be precise, if I change the travel dates to July 15th – July 23rd, the price comes out to be Rs. 43,673 that is ~26% cheaper.
Please note: The graph above shows the cheapest flight. But the cheapest flight might have too many stops. Hence, this price should be used as an indicator to choose dates, but always look at the flight price of the flight you want to book on these dates. More often than not, if there is as significant a price different between dates as shown above, chances are even the flight you want to book will have a similar price difference.
Look for deals and offers on flights
Remember, most of the travel websites do not have a lot of margin in flights, hence, unless there are specific offers running it is unlikely that one particular website/ company/ app will always be cheaper. Which essentially means that different websites or apps have offers running at different times. Therefore, it makes sense to use a travel comparison app or website to scout for deals. There is a two step process I do this:
Step 1: Find cheapest website/OTA
First I use Skyscanner or Skiplagged app to find the cheapest website. Using Skiplagged app described above, you would have already chosen the dates you want to fly. Now use Skiplagged or Skyscanner (I usually end up looking at both, as sometimes one of these apps have an option which is not there in the other) to find which websites are selling the flight at lowest price.
Step 2: Look for further deals, offers on selected OTAs
Don’t book yet!!!. Most of the online travel agents (OTAs) offer better deals on their mobile apps. Also, there are discounts that run which Skiplagged and Skyscanner do not capture. Hence, it is always a good idea to check for any deals or offers on the OTA platform. One way to check this is in mobile apps of these OTAs. See below screenshots of MakeMyTrip, which unveil the offers on international flights.
Launch the MakeMyTrip app, and scroll down on the main screen till you reach Hot Deals. Tap View All Offers here.
Tap on INTL Flights to see flight offers.
On the last page what you see are the current running offers. The first offer, in this case, is essentially for HDFC credit card owners. If you have an HDFC credit card then you get upto Rs. 5000 instant discount depending on booking value. Similarly, you should either look in mobile apps of different OTAs or search on Google for search terms like “offers on <OTA name>” or “deals on <OTA name> etc.
Pro tips before you book
Pro-tip 1: The first OTA to appear on Skiplagged or Skyscanner might not end up being the cheapest for you. So, it is always a good idea to check top 2-3 OTAs for further deals or offers.
Pro-tip 2: Be very careful about the terms of the deals. Sometimes, it is cash back, sometimes it is discount. Also, the discount depends upon the ticket value. Hence, it might be a good idea to use two accounts and book tickets separately using separate cards to get a better discount overall.
Pro-tip 3: Most of the OTAs charge something called a convenience fee. Hence, don’t just look at the initial price on an OTA. Go all the way till the end, just before they ask you to pay to find out the final amount.
Pro-tip 4: After all the offers and discounts, the cheapest option might not be the best option. If you haven’t heard of the OTA, it is always a good idea to check for their reviews online. Some of the OTAs have a bad reputation. For example, suppose the payment is deducted from your credit card, but payment gateway of your OTA fails then you would have a hard time recovering that payment. Or if there is an issue with your booking, some OTAs have pathetic customer service. Hence, unless the price difference is more than 10% or Rs. 4-5K, I usually don’t book from unknown OTAs. Remember the priority order in terms of safety of transactions: Directly from Airlines > Well known OTAs (Expedia, MakeMyTrip, GoIbibo) > Lesser known OTAs.
Book cheap and cancellable hotels
When it comes to booking hotels, people have three main requirements. 1) Of course, cheap price tops the list. 2) Get what they see – Imagine looking at photos of Presidential suite but walking in to a dark and dingy room. 3) Ability to cancel without any charges.
For me, Booking.com tops the list on all three. Following are the key advantages of Booking.com:
- Booking.com lists not just hotels but also apartments. And personally, I like to book apartments as it offers a host of other benefits. For one, I have a kitchen that I can use for mid-night snacking.
- The interface is super clean. The key aspects one looks for while booking like distance from city center, free parking, review rating etc. are clearly displayed.
- Free cancellation on most properties. Most of the properties ( I would say >85%) have free cancellation available. More often than not, I end up re-booking because either my plan has changed or there is a better or cheaper property available. It is also great to book under free cancellation if you think, your plan can change or worse get cancelled. You would not have to pay a penny in that case if you have booked a free cancellation option. But do remember that there is a specific date before your travel until which if you cancel you are not charged anything. After that date, cancellation is chargeable.
Another avenue I like to check is Airbnb. It offers some of the most amazing properties to stay. The only issue I have with Airbnb is that they have a lot of charges like cleaning fee, service fee etc. that sometime bloat up the price by more than 50%. Hence, do check and compare the final price.
Pro tips before you book cheap hotels
Pro-tip 1: Use Booking.com to block properties with free cancellation. Travel planning takes a lot of time and doing everything in one go is difficult. Hence, when I am making the initial bookings, I pay a lot of attention to book cheap flights. After that, I filter for hotels with free cancellation on booking.com and block them (just in case I end up with nothing). In the next round, I look at other properties which I had left out earlier to decide if I need to cancel and book something else.
Pro-tip 2: If I think that my plan is not final, I just book options which have free cancellation and pay at property. This way not only I get benefit of free cancellation but also my credit card is not charged initially. Hence, I don’t have to pay a massive credit card bill initially.
Pro-tip 3: After my plan has solidified, I do a final round of hotel booking. This is the time I look at both Booking.com and Airbnb options. Since now, I am almost 99% sure that unless there is an unforeseen circumstance, my trip is on.
Pro-tip 4: As a thumb rule, flights get expensive near to travel dates, hotels do not. There are lots of ifs and buts to this rule, so be careful while applying them. If you are travelling in off season, then this rule is much more valid. Hence, I try to postpone committing to a hotel till 1-2 weeks before I travel. What it means is, most of my hotel bookings will have free cancellation till 4-5 days before check-in. What happens is, in off-season when traffic is low and hotel is not occupied then hotels generally reduce their room tariffs near to the check-in date.
And those are all the tips to book cheap flights and hotels for your next travel. Remember, always plan in advance to get the best rates but keep looking for deals till the last minute especially for hotels.