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Where to find the cheapest flights

Is it cheaper to buy airfares through a comparison site or directly from the airlines?

hands holding cheap flights sign flight comparator
Last updated: 29 August 2018

What's better – buying flights through a comparison site or directly through the airline's website? We shopped around to find out.

What we found

Who had the cheapest flights?

  • Kayak and Cheap Flights had equivalent or cheaper fares than the airlines.
  • Skyscanner managed to beat the airlines' prices in three out of four scenarios.
  • Flight Centre was consistently more expensive than the airlines.
  • Webjet was more expensive in two out of three scenarios and couldn't offer matching flights on the fourth.
  • Google Flights and Expedia gave us the same price as the airlines.
  • Hopper was a mixed bag with one bargain flight and two overpriced flights.
  • The biggest savings we found were nine per cent cheaper than the airline's price (Skyscanner and Cheap Flights).
  • The biggest mark-up we found was 17% more expensive than the airline's price (Hopper).

Not all airlines

Booking sites don't always search all flights and airlines. For example, our Virgin flight didn't show up in Hopper's search results at all.

Watch where you end up

After quoting us a fare, some sites directed us elsewhere to book our flight, and some seemed to be aggregating other aggregator sites – which can get confusing.

  • Kayak sent us to BYOjet, Skiddoo, iFly and the Qantas website in our four scenarios.
  • Skyscanner and Cheap Flights referred us to other aggregators such as Bestjet, iFly or through to the airline's own site.
  • Google Flights always referred us to the airline's site, as well as giving us a few other options to book elsewhere.

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Hidden fees

The last time we ran a similar airfare comparison in 2015, some sites gave us quotes too good to be true in their search results, then bumped up the bill with surprise 'service charges' or 'booking fees' once we clicked through.

The good news is that none of the sites we looked at this time are still doing that. This is largely thanks to CHOICE's anti 'drip-pricing' campaign which resulted in all four of Australia's domestic airlines agreeing to end the practice (after copping some hefty fines!).

Under Australian Consumer Law, businesses must disclose any unavoidable fees as part of the total headline price rather than 'dripping' them in throughout the online booking process.

That's not to say that the quoted price will be exactly the same as your final price, which may include additional fees for seat selection, check-in luggage, payment fees and more, but it should be pretty close.

Credit card fees

We didn't include payment fees in our comparison because they can vary depending on how you pay – debit card, credit card, PayPal or other online payment methods.

Again, the good news is that payment fees are no longer excessively high. And again, that's largely thanks to CHOICE and other organisations campaigning to bring payment card surcharges down to reasonable levels.

Gone are the days when booking sites could surprise you at the checkout with credit card surcharges as high as 17%. New laws introduced in 2016 limit credit and debit card surcharges to the realistic cost of processing the payment – generally less than one per cent, or around two per cent for American Express or Diners Club.

It's better to book with the airline

Although third-party sites are a good place to compare your options, and they may sometimes have great fares, generally we recommend booking directly through the airline.

That's because you'll want to deal directly with the airline if something goes wrong – otherwise you'll be navigating two sets of terms and conditions, and they may not necessarily match up.

Avoid double fees

Airlines usually charge fees for cancellations and changes, but booking sites will often hit you with an extra set of fees of their own.

For example, Flight Centre's terms and conditions state that they charge change fees of $30 to $75, and cancellation fees of $50 to $300 "in addition to supplier fees".

Know about schedule changes

If your flight gets delayed, cancelled or moved to a different time, the booking site might not take responsibility for notifying you.

Choose your own seat

Airline sites will present you with all the optional extras, such as seat selection, meal selection, check-in luggage and special assistance, but you might not always find these options when booking through a third party.

Fluctuating fares

Prices on some sites can change even while you fill in your name and address to secure your booking. For example, our Brisbane to Sydney fare with Flight Centre went up by $2 between us selecting it and getting to the checkout.

Some sites essentially offer a quote, which may change if they can no longer buy the seat at that price – even after you've booked (you'll find this disclaimer deep down in their terms and conditions).

In a worst case scenario, you could find yourself missing the funds and missing a ticket. Provided the company is legit, you should get your money back, but it may take time.

Getting the best out of booking sites

There are some benefits to using third-party sites:

Shop around

You can use comparison sites to research which airlines fly particular routes and when. Once you've got an idea of what you want, check whether prices are cheaper directly with the airline.

Price matching

If you've found the cheapest price around but you'd rather not book through that site, take your quote directly to the airline and ask them to match or beat it.

Airlines that will match or beat prices:

  • Jetstar – they'll beat a booking site's price by 10%.
  • Virgin Australia – they'll match the price and give you a bonus 500 Velocity points.
  • Qantas – they'll match the price and give you 1000 Frequent Flyers points.
  • Emirates – if you find a flight at least $US20 cheaper, they'll refund the difference.
  • British Airways – they'll give you a voucher for the difference.

Travel agents that will match or beat prices:

  • STA – if they can't beat it, they'll give you $1000 credit.
  • Student Flights – they'll beat your quoted price by $1 (which is probably not worth the effort!).
  • Skiddoo – they'll match your quote (again, not really worth the effort).
  • eDreams – if you find a cheaper flight within 48 hours of booking, they'll refund the difference.

Prices change fast so you'll usually have to show your quote and secure your price match all on the same day. Price matching only applies to like-for-like tickets, so make sure your quote includes all the necessary info.

Mix and match

One of the ways booking sites find you the best deal is by searching multiple airlines, so you could end up flying with one airline there and a different airline back. This can work out cheaper, but remember these bookings aren't connected, so if you miss one flight, the connecting or return flights still stand.

Package deals

Some booking sites offer package deals, bundling your flights with accommodation, car hire or other transport. With all these under the one booking, making changes, queries or complaints is potentially easier.

Who's responsible if there's a problem?

It depends on the circumstances. Generally the booking sites will wash their hands of any problems you encounter with the flight itself, and the airlines will do the same if you have trouble with the booking and payment process. So you might find both parties giving you the cold shoulder or each palming you off onto the other.

All parties are bound by Australian Consumer Law, which means they can't engage in misleading or deceptive conduct or make false representations. You'll also be covered by consumer guarantees.

How do booking sites get cheap flights?

Travel agents and booking site operators have access to a Global Distribution System which displays the availability and prices of flights, generally at a lower rate than what's available to the public. Agents can also negotiate exclusive discounted fares with the airline.

Access to these lower 'wholesale' prices allows for the agent to make a profit when they sell the tickets on. Prices might fluctuate according to demand, just as the airline's prices will – that's how you end up with differing prices between different sites.

Scam sites

There have been cases of fraudulent booking sites issuing fake tickets. Follow these tips to avoid being fleeced:

  • Check the URL matches the site you were intending to visit.
  • If you've never heard of the site, check online reviews from other travellers.
  • Check if it's an Australian business, as it will be much easier to exercise your rights if something goes wrong. An Australian web address isn't sufficient proof – for example, is based in the UK, and is run out of Spain.
  • Check the ABN or business name on ASIC's register to ensure it's registered in Australia. This will make it easier to assert your rights if you need to.
  • Pay with a credit card. Although you'll probably cop a small surcharge, you'll be able to ask your bank for a chargeback if something goes wrong.

Price alerts

Some booking sites and airline sites offer price alerts – they'll email you if the price on a flight or route you're interested in goes up or down.

We signed up to a few different price alerts and kept an eye on our emails for a month to see where the prices went.

What we found

  • Some sites sent us a lot of notifications (Skyscanner emailed us more than a dozen times over 30 days, sometimes more than once a day) while other sites were less eager and some stopped emailing us after a few days or weeks. 
  • Prices fluctuated more than we expected: most went up, but some actually dropped before generally rising to a higher rate than we began with.
  • Google Flights sent us updates on the price of the exact flight we were initially looking at, as well as some alternative and cheaper flight options.
  • Skyscanner and Kayak sent us more general price alerts with the best deals for the date and time range we were interested in.
  • Jetstar also sent us the best deals for our dates of travel rather than for a specific flight.
    • For one route (Townsville to Melbourne on 16 November 2018) we received four price alerts over three weeks but the price didn't budge at all.
    • For another route (Darwin to Brisbane on 10 December 2018 – shown in chart), Jetstar alerted us when the price went on sale and dropped to less than half price.
  • Hopper's alerts weren't very helpful. They simply sent us a price with no details about the airline or flight times. When we tried to search for this price on their app we couldn't find it.

Flight forecasting

Flight forecasts, also known as price predictions, tell you whether to buy now or wait for the fare to drop. This relatively new service uses algorithms to track airfare trends and the number of searches for certain flight times and routes.

Kayak, Google Flights, Hopper and Cheap Flights all offer this kind of advice, but during our research they mostly just told us to 'Buy now' so we didn't exactly feel we were tapping into any hot tips. Occasionally they told us to 'watch' our fare, which prompted us to set up price alerts. But we didn't find their predictions particularly useful in helping us find cheaper fares.

Still, watch this space because flight forecasters are likely to get smarter as AI (artificial intelligence) develops.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.