BOOK YOUR OWN FLIGHT
GETTING THERE—Booking air
Living in the US we are blessed with some of the most spectacular scenery and some of the most exciting cities in the world. If your dream destination is just a drive away, hitch the horses or stop by the local AAA or have Google maps plan your route, although you might want some backup information.
Google maps once gave instructions to a local student who wanted to know how far it was to his home town in Japan. The instructions were very detailed, including where to put the kayak into the water and how far to paddle.
In any case, if you are staying on the ground you do not need to read further. However, if you are like the majority of travelers, your itinerary will involve at least one airplane ride. Arranging this part of your trip is akin to arming oneself to do battle. It's never easy, takes logistical planning, and can get downright bloody.
It used to be simple.
All air was arranged by agents answering phones and writing weird codes on forms. They used a bible called the OAG, Official Airline Guide. Its size rivaled the Manhattan phone book.
Then came computers and green screens and a lot of new codes to memorize. You still called your corner travel agency and the magic was done. Then came 1979 and deregulation and suddenly there were lots of choices on flights.
Then came the internet. And eventually online booking engines and mega conglomerates like Orbitz and Expedia. Now everyone can book a great fare with a few entries on their computer. Easy, right? Wrong. Prepare for battle. You are David, they (the airlines) are Goliath.
First of all, it is impossible to go to just one website and see all the options available for your desired itinerary with convenient times and at an affordable price.
There are multiple reasons for this. Expedia or Orbitz or your other favorite site is not going to tell you about saving money by transferring through a city with lower airport taxes, or saving money by slightly changing your travel dates, or looking at alternative airports for a less stressful experience.
They are not going to tell you they preferentially list certain carriers. They are not going to tell some airline website list special fares not available on the conglomerates.
They are not going to tell you it might be less expensive to book two one-way tickets instead of a roundtrip. Can you save money booking online? Yes, but you need to know some ground rules.
The basics are straightforward:
Do not wait until the last minute. Fares increase substantially less than two weeks before departure date. You can play “wait and see” but the airlines use a yield management system and the cheapest seats are usually those booked far in advance.
Weekends are prime time for leisure travel. Flights on Friday and Saturday run at least $20 higher than other days of the week. Tuesday through Thursday usually have the cheapest flights.
Book your holiday travel as far in advance as possible or expect to pay a premium—if a seat is available at all.
The online booking giants are travel agencies, just like a smaller neighborhood agency, only bigger, and as such have contracts with the different airlines. These contracts may dictate relative ranking, availability of flight pairs, and fares offered. Avoid hidden biases by checking more than one site.
Get a seat assignment, even if it is a middle seat. You can always try to change it later, but without a confirmed seat you could be the first one bumped.
Sign up for text alerts and download the airlines app. You will stay informed about changes or delays, and the app will help track your bag. On the subject of bags, it is a good idea to have more than one ID luggage tag and include your contact information inside your suitcase. Just in case your bag decides it would rather go to London than Paris.
To add a further complication, you now need to know about ancillary fees to calculate your bottom line. The obvious ancillary fees are the ones for upgraded seating and priority boarding. But beware hidden charges. That “basic fare” rate looks great, but remember you will have to pay extra for a seat assignment, a carryon bag, a checked bag, a glass of water, and possibly even your printed boarding pass.
There might be as many fares as seats on the plane. The challenge is to find the one best for you.