Beginners' guide to buying flights

Take the mystery out of booking a flight with our beginners' guide, including information on types of ticket and airlines, booking, paying and compensation.

Checklist before you buy

  • Does the price includes all taxes and charges? What about luggage?
  • Check the destination airport
  • Is your passport up to date?
  • Do you need a visa for your destination?

Types of flight

There are a number of different flight types available and it's important to take into account your budget, departure airport and preferred travel times before you book.

Direct flights

With a direct flight you won't be required to change planes or airlines en route, although you may make one or more intermediate stops before reaching your final destination. Long-haul flights can often be direct flights.

Non-stop flights

With a non-stop flight you'll fly directly to the destination from your choice of departure airport with no scheduled stops, meaning it’s typically the quickest and most convenient option.

Connecting flights

A connecting flight is one where you’ll be required to change aircraft and/or airlines at a scheduled, intermediate stop. This option is common where you have restricted travel dates or times, or you want to fly from a regional, rather than major, airport.Aeroplane

Round-the-world flights

Round-the-world (RTW) flights are so called because they allow you to travel around the world with stops in multiple destinations along the way. The tickets are typically based on mileage, minimum or maximum number of stops, or a combination of both.

Multi-leg flights

Multi-leg flights are worth thinking about if you want to visit two or more locations on one trip and make a stopover in each. They are well suited for travel to large geographical areas, such as Australia and the United States, and may offer significant savings over booking each leg of the journey separately.

Types of airline

Depending on your destination and route you'll have a choice of airlines or carriers, including:

Did you know...?

  • An airline will typically charge between five and 15 different prices for the same seat over the course of its shelf life

Low-cost / budget / no-frills airlines

These airlines offer low fares but eliminate benefits such as complimentary drinks and food. Their cabins may have minimum comforts and it's likely that they'll charge for standard conveniences, such as luggage. Examples of no-frills airlines include EasyJet and Ryanair.

Charter airlines

Charter airlines operate flights outside normal schedules, normally on behalf of travel companies and tour operators who either sell their allocation of seats as part of their package holidays, or offer them on a seat-only basis.

They frequently operate on routes or to airports where there's no scheduled service. Examples include Monarch Airways, Thomson Fly, First Choice Airways and Thomas Cook.

Scheduled airlines

Scheduled airlines operate to published schedules. They tend to have a greater frequency than charter flights and to fly routes that charter flights do not operate on.Package holiday gear

Examples of scheduled airlines include British Airways, Virgin and Emirates. Some scheduled airlines may also offer charter flights.

Classes of ticket

Costs can vary significantly depending on the class of ticket you choose. Note that only select airlines will offer all of the following ticket classes and have business or first-class seats - some may only offer economy or premium economy options. This is particularly true of traditional package holiday routes.

Standard economy

This is the lowest class of seating on an airline and is likely to be the cheapest option.

Premium economy

This seating is mostly found on international flights and offers around five-to-seven inches of extra leg room. Access to other benefits may be included, such as extra seat width or seat recline, adjustable head rests, leg rests or lumbar support, larger personal TV screens and premium food.

Arrange a suitable travel insurance policy as soon as you book your trip so that you're covered for cancellation and curtailment

Business class

This seating is mostly found on international and long-haul flights and should offer significantly more benefits than either economy or premium economy class.

Look out for features such as double the leg room of economy seating, extra seat width, electric seat controls to adjust seat position, larger personal TV screens with extra viewing options, a premium food and drink service, a greater ratio of cabin staff to passengers, and/or amenity kits that include eye masks and toiletries.

First class

This seating is only likely to be found on long-haul routes and should be the premier option. Look out for features such as an extra 10-30 inches of leg room and one-to-two extra inches of seat width compared to business-class seating.

You may also enjoy things like electric seat controls to adjust seat position, larger personal TV screens with extra viewing options, a premium food and drink service, more privacy due to the smaller cabin size, a greater ratio of cabin staff to passengers and/or amenity kits that include pyjamas, eye masks and toiletries.Wallet

Tips for finding a cheap flight

You could find some real deals by being flexible about the dates and times of travel.

When you compare flights online it's possible on some sites to specify whether you want the dates to be fixed or flexible for around one-to-five days either side. The more flexible you are, the better your chances of finding a cheaper flight.

Finding the right time to book can be a surprisingly complicated decision. An airline will typically charge between five and 15 different prices for the same seat over the course of its shelf life.

Advance prices tend to be lower, and as the flight fills up prices will increase. However, as the departure date looms airlines are likely to drop their prices dramatically in order to fill space.

Generally, lower fares will be found on international routes between Monday and Thursday. If you're looking for cheap domestic UK flights try to avoid peak business travel times, for example Monday mornings and Friday afternoons or evenings.

Flights usually cost more at peak holiday times such as Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays.

Booking checklist

Before booking, check that the price includes all taxes and charges. By law, flight prices in printed adverts (such as in newspapers) must include these, but some websites will only include them in the final stages of the booking process.

Did you know...?

  • If your flight is delayed you may be entitled to compensation under EU rules
  • Certain airlines will not charge for children under the age of two

You should also double-check your destination airport as some destinations - such as New York, Paris and Rome - have more than one.

Often, no-frills airlines will land at minor airports that are further out of town and so your transfer may take longer or cost more.

It may sound obvious, but check the expiry date on your passport - many countries require your passport to be valid beyond the length of your stay. In some cases this can be a minimum of six months beyond your return to the UK.

You’ll need to check whether you need a visa and/or transit visa for your destination - if you require a visa you may have to arrange it before you travel.

Check your luggage and carry-on allowances and ensure that your baggage is within the set number and weight limits. If not, when you check in you could be left to choose between paying a hefty charge or leaving your luggage behind.

Finally, think about what happens after you've landed - make sure you have all the documents that you need with you for when you reach your destination.

Flights for children

Certain airlines will not charge for children under the age of two, but always check with the flight provider before booking.Credit cards

Paying for flights

If you book your flight using a credit card then you'll be protected by the Consumer Credit Act 1974 in the event of the airline going bust, providing the purchase was for an amount between £100 and £30,000.

If you use your debit card then you may not be covered, unless you can prove that the purchase was made using your overdraft facility.

It's possible that you'll be asked to pay a surcharge if you want to pay by credit or debit card, but in April 2013 a new law came into force to ensure that payment surcharges are not excessive and that they reflect the actual cost of processing the payment.

If you pay by cash or by cheque then you won’t be protected by the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and are unlikely to receive a refund if the airline goes bust.

Tickets and check-in

Instead of issuing paper tickets, many leading airlines provide customers with a booking reference when they book online, which should be printed off and taken to the airport when travelling.

Many major airlines offer online check-in so you can avoid queuing at the airport. Always confirm when online check-in closes as it can vary between airlines, and remember that it may be limited to hand luggage only.

If you do use online check-in you'll need to print your boarding card and take it with you to the airport.Suitcases

Travel insurance and compensation

Arrange a suitable travel insurance policy as soon as you book your trip so that you're covered for cancellation and curtailment.

A good travel insurance policy should include cover for medical expenses, personal accident, personal liability, cancellation and curtailment, money/documents and baggage.

Additional cover options may include delayed departure, missed departure, legal expenses, winter sports cover and hazardous sports cover.

If your flight is delayed you may be entitled to compensation under EU rules. Find out more and whether you may qualify for back-dated compensation in our article on flight delay compensation.

By Abbie Laughton-Coles