Money mensch: Keeping those cheap flights cheap

By Martin Lewis, January 28, 2010

With the feel of snow still fresh, a £1 flight to the sun sounds like a dream. Yet, while you will often see promotions advertised, unless you do it the right way, it is more like a nightmare. Budget airlines have more bolt-ons than Frankenstein; they have the bare-faced cheek to describe baggage, checking-in and even paying as “added extras”.

It no exaggeration to say that, get it wrong, and your £1 flight could have over £200 of extra charges.

But this is not a tirade against budget flights. Price-wise, I am a fan. After all, know what you are doing, and it is possible to jet off to Europe for 2 pence return (more of this later).

Still, whether you are booking with Ryanair, easyJet, BMI Baby or Flybe, think of it like a hurdle race. You need to jump over every one of these extra charges to get the super-cheap flights. Here is how to do it.

Don’t pay to pay

Beat baggage charges: wear heavy clothes and stuff pockets with socks

Outrageously, budget airlines consider “paying” an optional extra, even though they charge whether you pay by credit or debit card, and don’t accept cash. Ryanair, for example, charges £5 per person each way. That is £40 return for a family of four — an amount likely to be vastly in excess of its own payment-processing costs.

They get away with this by allowing people to pay with certain niche card types for free. Yet that tactic is unravelling. Previously only certain specialist bank accounts offered these cards. Now the recent growth of pre-paid cards, which anyone can get and you load up with cash before spending, means the game has changed.

For almost all budget airlines barring Ryanair, paying on a Visa Electron card is free. The cheapest pre-paid version of this is the Travelex Cash Passport card, which is free to get and just charges a small amount for top-ups.

The undoubted winner in “add-on” charges, Ryanair recently changed its payment policy. Out went free-pay on Visa Electron, and in came free pay on pre-paid Mastercards. It would not surprise me if this was done because so many savvy people had got the pre-paid cards.

The new card you need for Ryanair is the free FairFx Anywhere card. It charges just 1.5 per cent of the transaction amount each time you use it. In other words, buy Ryanair tickets costing £200 and you will be charged £3 — far cheaper than Ryanair’s add-on charges.

For a full breakdown of each airline fees, go to

Don’t overload on baggage charges

If you want to stow luggage in the hold, expect to pay £10-£40 per case return, and possibly only get a 15kg weight limit. Take more and the excess cost is enormous: BMI Baby charges £10/kg and Ryanair £20. Worse still, the allowance is done per case, so if you took two cases — one weighing 10kg, the other 20kg — and the limit is 15kg, you would still pay the excess on the heavier case.

There are ways to beat this:

● Take only hand luggage. No airline charges for this (yet). Up to 10kg is normally fine, and should be enough for a decent weekend away, but do check out size restrictions. More and more cases are being made to specifically fit within the limits and buying one is usually cheaper than the baggage fee.

● Wear the heavy clothes. If you are near the weight limit, put on your heaviest clothes and shoes to travel, eg, T-shirt, jumper, heaviest shoes, big coat (and stuff the pockets with socks!). A big coat could easily weigh 2kg, which would cost £30 in excess baggage charges.

● Pre-plan your packing. It is usually substantially cheaper to book hold cases in advance. For example, on Ryanair, if you book in advance, the cost is £30 return for the first case and £70 for each additional case. But turn up at the airport and it rockets to £70 return for the first case and £140 for each additional case. So pre-planning and working out exactly how many cases you need is crucial. Home scales are handy for this.

● Throw stuff away. Many travel items actually cost less to buy per kilo than the excess charge. So if you are overweight at the airport, consider throwing them away and re-buying (though there is an environmental consequence). This is particularly important on the return journey, when you have bought things abroad.

Avoid Check-in fees

One of the more infuriating charges some airlines levy is a staggering £80 per person per return flight for the “luxury” of checking in at the airport. The easy way of sidestepping this is simply by checking in online first. This can be awkward on your return journey, as it may mean having to find an internet café, although some airlines allow you to check in for the return before you leave.

Sit together without paying more

Many budget airlines have unallocated seats. In that case some airlines charge for pre-booking to make sure you sit together.

There have even been stories of families being prevented from sitting together because they have not paid to do so — though that is being clamped down on.

There is a cheaper way of ensuring you can sit where you want. Rather than fork out for priority boarding for all the family, which can be very expensive, pay for one family member and who saves seats for the others once they are on board.

How to find the 1p flights

Budget airlines often take out massive adverts for their flight sales, promoting fares as low as a penny each way including taxes and charges. The problem is when you go to their website to try and book one. There are two quick steps to beat this:

● Know the sales terms. These sales are always very specific, such as only to certain destinations during a particular month. It is crucial that you are aware of those restrictions and keep them in mind whenever you do a search.

● Use a special flight-finding tool. Because I find this situation such an annoyance, a few years ago I had the free site built. Using this site, when you see a budget airline sale advertised (or even if not), you can opt to search for, say, any flight under £10 including taxes and charges to Barcelona in August. You can even say “I’ll go anywhere” and see everything available at that price. It doesn’t include the added extras, so do ensure you beat those.

Last updated: 10:14am, January 28 2010