Grounded by Fare Comparisons?
Five Tips to Help Your Travel Dreams Take Flight
It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.’”
A friend of mine recently reminded me that the word travel originated with the Middle English word, travail. Nowhere is this idea of travel as labor more obvious than in the frustration of searching for and booking flights. In the travel office where I now work a few days a week, we probably get asked to book air more often than anything else. Although this was one of a travel agent’s jobs back in the days of paper tickets, airplane reservations are the one key piece of the vacation puzzle that agents make little or no commission on, and why my office charges $100 to book air unless it is part of a larger travel package. For example, if you book three hotel nights and/or a rental car with your flight, I won’t charge a service fee for finding and booking you on the best flight I can find. You’ll also get a hotel and rental car discount for booking what’s called a travel package.
Travel insiders do have some advantages over the average consumer when it comes to researching airfares. Like them, we also search what’s known as “published fares.” But we can also view unpublished, consolidator and student fares. While checking those other sources makes a travel agent’s flight-comparison research more involved, it also means that a thorough, web-savvy agent can save you money and assure you you’re getting the best deal available.
Here are my thoughts on making the take-off less taxing:
- Start with a rough idea: Where, when, how and why do you want to travel? Rough is the operative word here. Part of finding a good flight deal is being flexible enough to work your arrival and departure around your ideal itinerary. Find a search engine (like Kayak) that lets you see variable pricing for your proposed destination by month.
- Consider the variables in searches by asking yourself questions. Would flying into and out of two different cities (open jawed) save you time and money? What if you arrived and departed one or two days earlier or later? What if you took the same trip before or after peak tourist season? What if you flew out of a different airport? What if you arrived at a different airport? What if you flipped your whole trip around so that you land in the place you thought you’d fly home from? What if you flew into and out of a bigger airport with more frequent flights from your departure point?
- Research your destination to learn about events that might affect flight prices and the quality of your trip. For example, if you’re trying to visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Jazz Festival, you will pay inflated flight and hotel costs. When trying to book a hotel room for one client, for example, I learned that Albuquerque, New Mexico’s annual balloon festival makes it almost impossible to find a room there for that weekend in October. But they’d already bought their non-refundable plane tickets, so they ended up staying in a Holiday Inn Express near the airport instead of a historic bed and breakfast. Flying during the holidays? The longer you wait to book the more you pay. Found an unbelievable deal? Research the weather and timing of your trip to find out if there’s an underlying reason for the discount. Unless you’re a “heat tourist” or a storm chaser, don’t visit Death Valley in the summer or a Caribbean island in the middle of hurricane season.
- With all your options and background research in mind, search fares on the platform of your choice. I like Kayak because it allows you to specify up to three days before and after your chosen travel dates. You can also use it for multi-city searches. After I’ve determined which days are best to fly, I’ll repeat my search on a site like Fareboom or Hipmunk, which allow you to sort flights by duration of trip, number of stops and value. The value of the trip is determined not by the lowest price, but by the duration plus the number of stops. The lowest priced, shortest and quickest flight gets rated best value. In the value equation, one airline usually stands out. (As, for example, Delta did when I searched for my daughter’s flight from LAX to Dakar, Senegal.) You’ll also need to consider your own preferences for particular airlines, business and first class travel or refundable and changeable fares.
- If you’re only buying plane tickets, you’ll get the widest number of choices for each leg of your flight if you book them with the “best value” airline for your destination. This is also important if you might change your itinerary, because other websites will usually add a change fee in addition to the one imposed by the airline. Note that unless you’re flying Southwest, changes can be expensive. Read the fine print in the airline’s contract of carriage.
If it’s any consolation to anyone else who’s lost hours searching for the best flight schedules and prices, the whole process makes me want to jump out of a plane with no parachute. You’re not the only one who, after finally deciding to book a flight with what you think is the best price and schedule, has gotten a message saying, “We’re sorry, the price of your trip has changed.” The bargain you found (after hours slaving over search engines that opened too many windows and crashed your computer) has gone up hundreds of dollars, and you’re back to search one. Like waiting in the security line, searching for flights is one of the unpleasant requirements of air travel, and why it’s worth considering alternative transportation, or calling a travel agent, whenever you have the option.
Got stars in your eyes? E-mail me today for best prices on city breaks, surfin’ safaris and much more. I specialize in small group and independent travel; group travel for fundraising; and creative budgeting to help you picture where you want to go and set sail.