I’ve often been a bit sceptical of flight aggregator websites. Sure, they promise to offer you the cheapest flights. But in the past I’ve found that they often omit budget airlines (the cheapest option by far), charge extra booking fees and sometimes offer up dubious options. (When travelling to Europe over Christmas, I once found one far cheaper option via an unusual connection, that could only be booked via a UK website that had endless negative reviews online. I decided to go with a more expensive booking that wouldn’t be “cancelled” at the last minute.)
But most travel bloggers swear by one or other of these websites, so I thought it’s time to revisit them, by seeing what are the options I get offered for three popular holiday flights from Sydney.
The Travel Search Engines I Used
Cheapflights (http://cheapflights.com.au): The original travel search engine that was launched in the UK in 1996, the group of companies is now known as the Momondo Group after acquiring momondo.com in 2011. Also searches for hotel deals and has a highly subscribed newsletter.
Kayak (http://kayak.com.au): Founded in 2004 and acquired by the Priceline group in 2013, Kayak is a travel search engine that also covers hotels and car hire, plus has an innovative Explore function, to explore possible holiday destinations for your next trip by price.
Skyscanner (http://skyscanner.com.au): Similar to Kayak but founded in the UK in 2001, initially Skyscanner just focused on budget European airlines, but has for many years covered flights, hotels and car hire worldwide.
Google Flights (http://google.com/flights): Launched by Google after the acquisition of ITA Software in 2011, Google Flights differentiates itself by offering open-ended searches without a destination, similar to Kayak’s Explore function.
A Weekend in Melbourne
Normally, I’d expect that Jetstar or Tiger, the budget alternatives to Qantas and Virgin Australia, would have the cheapest flights on this very busy route (third busiest in the world). Although if you’re heading for a weekend away it’s a trade-off between the cheapest flights and the most convenient times. Last time flying to Melbourne I actually flew with Virgin; the flights when combined with a hotel for the weekend via Virgin Holidays worked out to be cheaper.
Flight Search Criteria: Departing Sydney Friday 29th April 2016 in the afternoon, returning to Sydney on Sunday 1st May 2016 in the afternoon (Note: Outside of school holidays)
Cheapflights: $186.50 with Tiger
The cheapest flight is $161 via BYOJet, although it ignored my search option of afternoon return flights. All the options available at this price are either 9am or earlier, or 8pm or later. Clicking through to the 3rd page (I didn’t notice the flight filters at the bottom of the page at first) turned up a decent option of $187 return, with the first flight at 3:15pm and the return flight at 3:30pm, both flying with Tiger Airways and purchased via FlightNetwork. Upon clicking through, the flight genuinely is $186.50, with no extra booking fees or similar (although it tries to add-on Best Purchase Guarantee).
Kayak: $181 with Tiger
The cheapest initial option is $135. But who wants to fly to Melbourne at 7am or 10pm for a weekend away, then return at 6am on a Sunday morning? And oops, that’s to and from Avalon Airport! The handy filters on the left made it easy to narrow down options. The same flight as through Cheapflights was available for $181, including a $4 booking fee for credit cards, via BYOJet. Plus there were a few other afternoon options. Heading through to BYOJet, it was easy to add luggage options, although the flight was now displayed at $177. (I assume the credit card fee was listed on the next page.)
Skyscanner: $177 with Tiger + likely credit card fee of $4
The initial flight options looked similar to the ones on Cheapflights, with the early or late departures on Sunday. Narrowing down through the flight criteria on the left, I came up with the same option offered through Cheapflights, but at $177 via BYOJet. However, when clicking through to BYOJet, I was presented with a list of every flight option available that day, and would need to reselect what I had decided on! Especially annoying is that the individual ticketing fee for each flight was listed separately. Plus no details on credit card fees are displayed. I guess it would have been easy to re-select what I had chosen on Skyscanner and it’s informative if you want to see that information. But it’s still very un-user-friendly.
Google Flights: $159 with Qantas if you fly late-morning
This search experience was very different. Firstly, when selecting the dates it showed me the cheapest return option for those dates – handy! Secondly, the flights for the same price with a single airline were grouped into one result, with circles along a line indicating the different times at that price, which made it a lot easier to navigate the results.
Surprisingly, the cheapest option was for $113 return with full-serivce carrier Qantas (presumably including check-in luggage, this wasn’t made clear), if I was happy to fly to Melbourne at 11am and return at 10am. Once this option was selected, I was given the option to book via the Qantas website for $113, or via Priceline or Orbitz for $104.
It was only at this point that I realised the prices were in USD, as the price for the Qantas website was also displayed as A$159! Kind of surprising given that I’m in Australia, have a Google account with an Australian address and was flying between Australian destinations, plus there wasn’t an option to change currency. Google Flights also didn’t show search results for Tiger, plus didn’t seem to combine flights from two different airlines, meaning that if I really wanted to stick to afternoon flights, it would have cost me around $250 with Virgin.
A Week in Bali
Bali shows no signs of letting up in popularity, and with consistently cheap flights on offer through airlines like Jetstar and AirAsia Extra, it’s more of a bargain than ever to head here for a fun, tropical week, even cheaper than heading to the west coast of Australia.
Flight Search Criteria: Departing Sydney anytime on Saturday 30th April, with the return flight leaving Denpasar Airport in Bali on Saturday 7th May (Note: Outside of school holidays)
Cheapflights: $465 with AirAsia Extra + processing fee of 99c to $20
Cheapflights’ first and cheapest result was for $465 flying with AirAsia, departing Sydney at 10:45am for a convenient 3:55pm arrival, with an overnight return leaving Denpasar at 1:00am and arriving in Sydney at 9:30am. Surprisingly the second option is also with AirAsia rather than Jetstar. Hopefully, “1 stop” written in yellow alerts you to the first leg being nearly 24 hours long. Clicking on “Select” takes you to the AirAsia website for the booking, which is a minefield. The option to have 20kg of baggage is automatically added, and you need to later uncheck it, plus an insurance option. If you pay by credit card a $20 charge is added, or 99c if you use Paypal (which I’ve previously done, via my credit card).
Note: As the 1am Saturday flight from Bali gets back to Sydney on Saturday morning (hope you also realised that!), I modified the search criteria to search for a Sunday flight instead. The new cheapest direct flight option was now $636 with a return flight with Jetstar, leaving at 10:35pm, and unfortunately not arriving in Sydney until Monday morning. It seems AirAsia don’t fly back to Sydney on the Saturday night.
Kayak: $485 with AirAsia Extra (but got an error message at Expedia)
Curiously, Kayak didn’t automatically display the airport option of Denpasar when I typed in Bali. This also came up with the same AirAsia flight combo as with Cheapflights, but purchasable via Expedia with the $20 credit card processing fee already included. This is clearer, but it means that you can’t save money by using Paypal. When clicking to book the ticket through Expedia, I got an error message, even after I refreshed my search results.
Skyscanner: $485 with AirAsia Extra (but got an error message at Expedia)
Skyscanner initially displayed the same flight as for Cheapflights, with the same cost of $465 when booking directly with AirAsia. However, after clicking to select (and I had left it sitting for awhile in my browser), it said the new cheapest ticket is now $485 via Expedia, and updated the search results as well. I got the same error message again with Expedia.
Google Flights: $465 with AirAsia Extra + processing fee of 99c to $20
Google Flights again proved to be different. Like Kayak, it also didn’t automatically display the airport option of Denpasar when I typed Bali. It instead displayed a map where I selected the airport, before needing to work out how to get back to the regular view from the map view. It then advised me I could save $85 by booking both flights 2 days earlier, on the Thursday – handy to know! Continuing with the Saturday flights, I end up choosing the same flight option as with Cheapflights, flying with AirAsia. At first it seems far cheaper at $332, but I’d forgotten already that it’s in USD. The flight is listed at A$465, once you have the option to click through to the AirAsia website and battle the same minefields and pay the same processing fees.
(And that cheaper option on the Thursday? An excellent bargain at A$347!)
Three Summer Weeks in Europe, Flying into Paris and out of Rome
I’ve often flown Emirates to and from Europe, because I like how easy they make it to fly into and out of two different cities (from an every growing list of European destinations). Plus in your seat it offers comprehensive entertainment options. Most of the cheapest flights heading to Europe from Australia these days involve one of the Chinese airlines and a transit in somewhere in China (where you could take advantage of the easy to organise transit visas for a quick Chinese adventure).
Flight Search Criteria: Departing Sydney anytime on Saturday 2nd July 2016 to Paris Charles De Gaulle, returning on Saturday 23rd July from Rome Fiumicino. Yes, this is peak season both in Europe and departing Sydney (during the Australian school holidays).
Cheapflights: No multi-city flights
There’s no option for multi-city flights. If I choose to simply fly to-and-from Paris, the flight is $1695 return via BestJet. The flight is with Air China, departing Sydney 7:40pm, arriving Paris 6:40pm (via an 8 hour stopover in Beijing). It then leaves Paris 2:10pm and arriving in Sydney at 2:25pm on the Monday (with a mammoth 18 hour stopover in Beijing).
Kayak: $1912 with China Eastern
The cheapest multi-city option is $1912, flying with China Eastern, and purchased via the FlightNetwork. Both legs have a far shorter stopover in Shanghai, of around 5 hours, with the flight to Paris leaving at 11am and arriving at 5:30am. The return flight leaves Rome at 9:10pm and arrives in Sydney at 9:00am on the Monday. Clicking through to FlightNetwork takes you to an easy, one-page booking form, showing there’s no extra compulsory charges. Plus it includes Price Drop Protection for free.
Skyscanner: $1893 with China Eastern + $0 to $42 payment fee
The same China Eastern flight is returned, but for only $1893 via Direct Flights. However, once you head to Direct Flights and enter details including contact details (and it tries to sign you up to newsletters), it displays the various payment fees. If paying by credit card, it’s an extra 2.2%, adding on a hefty $41.63. Even Paypal has a 1.5% surcharge, although there are cheaper offline booking methods, including EFT, BPay, AusPOST and paying in person at their booking office (of which there is just one, in Sydney), all of which are free, except for $1 for BPay.
Google Flights: $1926 with China Eastern
Google Flights also returns the China Eastern option as the cheapest. But with a slightly more expensive price of A$1926 listed for booking direct with the airline (or more through third parties). It also conveniently informs you that all but the last leg is often delayed by 30+ minutes, and clearly lists which ones are overnight flights.
Firstly, forget the old days when many budget airlines weren’t displayed in search results; these days they usually are. Secondly, most of the websites return very similar results, with most of the cheapest options returned above being for the exact same flight option. Most of the price difference is due to payment processing fees. Some booking sites don’t charge extra (but have them built in), while other sites add them on (and sometimes give you options to avoid them). It’s probably best to stick with your favourite third-party booking sites, where you’re familiar with the steps and have an account so you can easily populate personal details for bookings.
The Google Flights option looks promising, for offering extra, convenient information and sometimes coming up with different results. However, I wouldn’t use this until it offers a localised version for your country (there isn’t yet one for Australia). It’s confusing looking at flights in a different currency, especially when you’re comparing to other websites in your own currency.
For now, it’s pretty much your personal preference, whether you use Cheapflights, Kayak, Skyscanner or one of the other options. The only caveat is that Cheapflights doesn’t offer a multi-city search option, if you often do such searches.
For longer flights and where you can be flexible with time (and may be wanting to have a stopover), it can be worthwhile searching for your overall flight as two separate flights. For instance, rather than searching for flights from Sydney to Paris, search for Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, then Kuala Lumpur to Paris. With Cheapflights, the cheapest option for the former was $1695 return with Air China, while for the latter you can combine a $595 return flight with AirAsia X on Kayak with a $919 return flight with Qatar Airways on Kayak, for a total of $1514. Just be aware your overall flight will be longer (often with two instead of one stop each way). Plus make sure you leave enough time for connecting flights, including picking up baggage.