Getting There: Tips & Tricks for Booking Flights
My husband and I are right in the middle of booking our trip for India and that got me thinking about all the tips and tricks we’ve picked up over the years about booking flights. We’ve taken quite a few flights over the years (between the two of us, at least a couple of hundred) and my husband is a frequent reader of FlyerTalk, a discussion board for all those frequent fliers, so he’s always in “the know” when it comes to flying.
In this post, I’ll walk you through some of the decisions we’ve had to make in booking our flight and along the way give you some insights into making decisions about booking your next trip.
Priorities: Time v. Cost
In booking our trip to India, we’ve had to really think about what we value in a flight. Many websites emphasize deals – the cost of the flight. I’m all for saving money, but we really had to think about whether this was our Number 1 priority – as it turns out, it wasn’t.
Let’s take our flight to India as an example. Searching for some random dates on GoogleFlights (our go-to search engine – it’s fast and has many features that allow us to look quickly at various options), we’ll find many options and seemingly really good deals from $1100!!
But looking closer at the time, we’d be in transit for 36 or 52 hours – that’s a long time to be in an airport or airplane. The flight we’re actually booking is more expensive, but it’s closer to 17 hours. That’s a lot of hours we could be touring instead. We’re willing to pay more to get there quicker – and not be quite so tired from the journey.
Also, there are warnings attached to the $1100 options (red triangle) – even the airlines see that there’s a problem with this option. In the case of the 1st option, there’s nearly an 8-hour layover and a transfer required between JFK & LaGuardia airports. That means getting our luggage, finding the shuttle to take us to the other airport, getting through NY traffic (at least we have a lot of time), and re-checking our bags. Whew- I’m tired just thinking about it!
Really think through what booking this low-cost flight really means.
Is time or cost the biggest priority? The answer may be personal or depend on the trip. There are times we have prioritized the cost over the time. We were in no hurry to arrive and can save a bob or two on the flight. For instance, on some of our trips to London, we choose to go through Dublin which has cost benefits.
Some people will always prioritize cost – sometimes because they have to – other people always prioritize time – because they can. We fall somewhere in the middle and we make the decision on a trip-by-trip basis.
An additional issue is one of comfort. We don’t need business class (though if we could afford it…!), but airlines are squeezing more and more seats into a plane. That means I’m basically eating dinner in someone’s lap. The issue is more of a problem for my 6’3” husband. As a matter of self-preservation, he knows how every plane is configured.
I asked my hubby for more details and this is what I got:
It’s how many rows across compared to what the aircraft manufacturer originally designed. The two principal culprits are the 787, which was designed to be 8 across, but which almost every airline flies as 9 across – Japan Air Lines is one of the few that don’t – and the 777, which was always 9 across, but where 10 across has been creeping in, to the point where most of the major airlines now employ it. (Air India, Delta, and BA are among the few that have stuck to 9.) Not only are the seats narrower on these planes, but so are the aisles, which means that you get bumped into more frequently by the passing traffic. On the subject of width, exit rows can be a tiny bit narrower at the seat, because of the need to put the tray in the armrest. Won’t affect shoulder room, but will slightly impinge on bum room.
For long haul, the 330/350/380, the 767, and the venerable 747 – not many of those around these days – have been pretty much immune from the “extra seat” shenanigans.
My brain starts turning to pudding at this point, but you get the idea. Planes can be configured differently and that affects comfort.
Seat Guru allows you to search by airline to find the exact layout of your plane. I know this seems nerdy, but if you’re going to be on a flight for 12 hours with no escape, it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into.
If you really get into this, go to the FlyerTalk. Every airline forum has a Wiki for each class of service on each aircraft that that particular airline flies, and the people who contribute are generally the most experienced fliers. So, there will be a “What’s the best economy class seat on American Airlines 787-8” thread? And another one for economy class on American’s 787-9, etc. Takes a bit of searching, so it’s not as convenient as Seat Guru.
While you’re on Seat Guru, check out the exit row situation. My long-legged hubby knows where the exit rows are and how to get them. A couple of years ago, airlines figured out how to monetize the better seats and the extra fees for priority seating are generally worth it for a better flight experience.
In our search for a flight to India, we knocked out a couple of airlines because they didn’t allow the exit rows to be booked in advance. There was a chance my tall husband would be crushed into a regular seat in “cattle class”.
Bonus Tip: When possible, my husband and I book aisle and window seats leaving the center empty. If the flight’s not full than there’s a chance that we’ll have that extra space between us. If the flight is full, we’ll have to give up our space and one of us will move to the middle seat. Believe me, no one will refuse to trade their middle seat for an aisle or a window!
When booking flights, we also pay attention to the number and duration of layovers. If they’re really long, than we may be able to get out of the airport and take advantage of an extra day of touring, but remember there is transit time and going through security again, so that really eats into our time on the ground. Mostly we’re stuck in the airport for a layover.
On the flip side, if the layover is too short, a delay can mean missing the connecting flight. This is especially important to watch when traveling internationally where the flights aren’t that frequent. Know when the next flight is if something goes awry with your connection. If you miss your connection, airlines need to get you to your destination – they just don’t say when.
We sometimes pay special attention to where the layover is. In the U.S. we have cold-weather airports and warm-weather airports. A layover in Chicago or New York in the winter may be a bit more of a risk than if we flew through Dallas. This doesn’t mean that we avoid cold-weather airports in the winter, it’s just something to think about.
For every layover, there is a chance of something going wrong with the plane or having a delay that creates a domino effect in your travel plans so we try to have as few layovers as possible.
If you have some flexibility in your travel dates, this can really help when you’re booking a flight. Let me go back to GoogleFlights and search for a flight to India, but I’m going to leave the return date open. Google shows me lowest costs on each of the days that we could return. Some dates are more expensive than others.
Notice there is a little bit of a pattern. Flights are more expensive on Sundays and Fridays (big days for corporate fliers) and less expensive mid-week. Also, if you want to do a quick turn around it will cost you, but if you spend more time at the destination, it’s cheaper. This doesn’t happen with all flights, but these patterns show up a lot.
We’ve booked our India flight to leave on a Thursday and we’re returning on a Tuesday. We also had to schedule around a holiday.
Airline prices are influenced by holidays. Many people fly to visit family around the various holidays so there will be less availability and higher prices on the popular flying days. Sometimes flying actually on a holiday is your best bet. Last year, we flew to Europe on the 4th of July. The flights were empty and cheaper.
Bonus Tip: U.S. travelers can sometimes get great deals to fly internationally around Thanksgiving. The airports are packed with domestic travelers, but this is only a U.S. holiday and not so many people are flying to Europe.
If travelling to multiple destinations within one trip, consider searching for a multi-city ticket (also called an “open-jaw” ticket). Our travels will take us to the south of India and we really want to fly back from there – not from where we started. Sometimes it’s better to fly to and from our destination and book all of the internal flights separately. Other times, it’s worth booking the ticket to arrive at one destination and return from another. Only a search will tell.
We’re coming back from Kochi, India and the cost of the ticket is about the same as if we were flying back from New Delhi, where we’ll start. In essence, we’re getting at least one leg of an internal flight free (the return trip from Kochi to New Delhi).
On the flip side, we also try searching for our destination from an airline hub. Chicago is our nearest hub airport. The fares will generally be less expensive from the hubs. If the deals are really good, we might be able to get a separate ticket to get us to Chicago cheaper than it would cost to build that flight into the ticket. We might check flying on a low-cost airline like Southwest or use frequent flier miles to pay for the fight to the hub city. This is called a “self-connection”.
One warning: Separating your reservations is a bit of a risk. If we book to Chicago and back as a separate trip either on another airline or with frequent flier miles, the airlines do not necessarily book our luggage through onto our next flight and if anything goes wrong with the connection, the airlines don’t have to help us. Some travel insurance may help with this, but check carefully. Travel insurance doesn’t always cover problems with self-connections.
If we’re booked on one reservation, than the airlines need to get us to our destination – somehow – but if we’re booked on two reservations then anything can happen.
Low Cost Flight Options
We were excited when WOW! Started flying in our area – and they fly to India starting in December, 2018. It’s always worth checking out the low-cost options.
We considered this low-cost option, but in the end dismissed it. Remember on these low-cost carriers, everything is charged separately. After figuring in the seat fees, luggage fees, food, etc. the cost wasn’t quite so low. Be really sure about the luggage requirements. Your carry-on needs to be the size they specify. They will charge you massive amounts if your carry-on is just an inch too large. This is how the low-cost airlines keep in business.
Also, the low cost airlines often take advantage of down times at airports, which means arriving at an awkward time (too early to check into hotels) or having long layovers.
Sometimes it works to book the low-cost airline option at least for part of the journey.
There’s a lot more to say on the topic of booking flights so it looks like I’ll be writing a future post on the issue. Those of you who have lots of experience with flying, drop us a comment and let us know your top tips for booking a flight and maybe even a success story!