Locating suitable feeding or oviposition sites is essential for insect survival. Understanding how insects achieve this is crucial, not only for understanding the ecology and evolution of insect–host interactions, but also for the development of sustainable pest-control strategies that exploit insects' host-seeking behaviours. Volatile chemical cues are used by foraging insects to locate and recognise potential hosts but in nature these resources usually are patchily distributed, making chance encounters with host odour plumes rare over distances greater than tens of metres. The majority of studies on insect host-seeking have focussed on short-range orientation to easily detectable cues and it is only recently that we have begun to understand how insects overcome this challenge. Recent advances show that insects from a wide range of feeding guilds make use of ‘habitat cues’, volatile chemical cues released over a relatively large area that indicate a locale where more specific host cues are most likely to be found. Habitat cues differ from host cues in that they tend to be released in larger quantities, are more easily detectable over longer distances, and may lack specificity, yet provide an effective way for insects to maximise their chances of subsequently encountering specific host cues. This review brings together recent advances in this area, discussing key examples and similarities in strategies used by haematophagous insects, soil-dwelling insects and insects that forage around plants. We also propose and provide evidence for a new theory that general and non-host plant volatiles can be used by foraging herbivores to locate patches of vegetation at a distance in the absence of more specific host cues, explaining some of the many discrepancies between laboratory and field trials that attempt to make use of plant-derived repellents for controlling insect pests.