Booking a Flight the Frugal Way
By Matt Gross February 16, 2010 11:00 pm February 16, 2010 11:00 pm
Joshua Lott/Reuters An airplane departs Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.
It used to be so simple. You wanted to go to Paris, so you called a travel agency, gave them your dates and budget, and with any luck, you soon had in your hands a real paper ticket with a real dollar value. Even in the early days of the Internet, it was easier. You went to one of the few booking sites — Travelocity or Expedia. most likely — searched for your route, paid with a credit card and that was it. Maybe you even got a paper ticket in the mail. Those were the days!
Today, however, booking a flight is a total mess. Travelocity and Expedia have been joined by Bing and Orbitz and Dohop and Vayama and CheapTickets and CheapOair and Kayak and SideStep and Mobissimo and and and I could go on and list every single Web site out there, but I won t. There are just too many. Instead, I ll lead you through the steps I make when I m booking a flight myself.
I ve covered this territory a bit before — here and here — but today I ll try to go into more detail. For this experiment, let s imagine a simple domestic trip: a weekend of snowboarding in Jackson Hole in Wyoming at the beginning of March.
My first stop is, as it s been for years now, Kayak.com. It s the simplest airfare search engine — minimal graphics, no discount vacation deals to confuse me, and it searches almost every other site out there — and also the most flexible. I can not only choose a window for my departure and arrival times but also decide where I want (or don t want) to spend a layover, or which frequent-flier alliance to stick with.
Kayak gives me two decent-looking options: $231 on American Airlines (Newark to Jackson via Chicago) and $241 for Delta (via Atlanta); taxes and fees included in both figures. I m lucky here — I have gold status on American, so I can avoid the checked-baggage fees for my snowboard.
Of course, I don t stop there. Next, I ll check ITASoftware.com. a somewhat complicated site that makes it feel as if you re a travel agent tapping into unusual, semisecret routes. Maybe there s a faster way to Wyoming, perhaps through Minneapolis? Not this time. For the Jackson Hole trip, ITA finds the same American Airlines itinerary, pricing it at $230 instead of $231. Frankly, it s a pretty normal trip, so there are no surprises. And anyway, ITA doesn t let you book tickets, instead directing you to other sites or travel agents.
So, I check out another site: cFares.com. which has a twist. For a $50 annual membership, you ll get small rebates if you book through them. Each rebate may be only $8 or $20, but if you fly several times a year, that can add up quickly. And last spring, cFares found me a flight from New York to Paris for $543.17, or about $200 less than any other search engine found.
For my theoretical ski trip, cFares knocks that $241 Delta flight down to $229 via the rebate (clicking the link sends you to Orbitz to book), but it doesn t bring up the American flight at all.
And so, finally, if I were going to book this trip, I d go straight to AA.com. login with my frequent-flier account and buy my ticket right there. Except I ve waited too long! In the couple of hours between when I first started searching and when I eventually decided to book, the fares have gone way up — the flight is now $298. Still, because I have status on American, it s the better deal.
Or is it? Will the price go down? For that, I check Farecast.com (which has been absorbed into Bing) and Yapta.com. which track airfares and can predict — based on historical data and knowledge of the airlines pricing systems — if a price is going to go up or down in the near future. In this case, Bing/Farecast says buy, so I guess I will, even though I m a little skeptical of their methods. In light of volatile oil prices, pandemic panics and the generally unpredictable future of travel, I don t know how much to trust these virtual prognosticators. At some point, I have to perform an important, very personal calculation: is it worth my time to keep searching — and to keep worrying that I m missing out on a better deal? Or should I just go for it and accept that I ve found a decent fare?
For an international flight, things are slightly more complicated. Let s imagine I m going to Bangkok in early April (as I very well might be). For this trip, my dates are a bit more open-ended, as is the amount of time I m willing to take to get to Thailand. So, I ll again start with Kayak, checking out its airfare matrix, a calendar-based grid that appears when I enter my origin, destination and the month I m traveling.
Each day of the calendar has a dollar figure showing the lowest possible fare with a departure for that date. Click on the day (April 1 in this case) and a long list appears, with fares ranging from “$950+” to “$1400+” and boxes that let me specify how long of a trip I want: 1-4 days, 5-9 days, 10-14 days or 15+ days. Ten to 14 sounds reasonable, a choice that lands me a one-stop flight (there s no longer a nonstop, alas) with Cathay Pacific at “$1,165+.” That plus sign is important, because now I have to click “Check now” and find out what the fare will really be Surprise! It really is $1,165.
If, however, I do the search again, specifying flexible dates, I come up with a bunch of $1,000 options on Air China. Which do I go for?
That s when I start checking other sites. First is Vayama.com. a booking site that specializes in international flights and claims to have access to private deals unavailable elsewhere. And Vayama comes through pretty well, finding a $1,048 fare on Asiana (taxes and fees included) and, intriguingly, a $1,230 fare on a Oneworld Alliance airline. Which one? I won t know until I book, but since American Airlines is a Oneworld member, my frequent-fliergold status might garner me an upgrade, or at least the chance to earn a bunch of miles and request a better seat.
Meanwhile, cFares finds that same $1,048 fare on Asiana (actually, it finds it on Vayama, and on CheapoAir.com) and offers a respectable $30 rebate. Not bad. Now I just need to decide: would I prefer to fly through Seoul (on Asiana) or Beijing (on Air China), or do I want to plump an extra $200 for several thousand frequent-flier miles on American?
Honestly, I don t know. But I should probably make up my mind soon, before the airlines get wind of my plans.
SeatExpert.com The seat plan for an Air China
Still, however, there are a few more little things I do to game the system as much as possible. I try to fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, when fares tend to be a little lower (though not always) and fewer people mob the airports (though not always). I go to SeatExpert.com to find the best spot in the plane to park myself. (Sorry, SeatGuru.com !) And I try always to buy the ticket directly through the airline, partly to maximize frequent-flier miles, partly because the airlines sometimes have special deals that don t show up on Kayak, but also so that if things go wrong at the airport (as I ve heard happens on very rare occasions) the airline won t be able to blame some third-party booker.
None of this, of course, is foolproof. Fares go up or down seemingly at random, routes change or evaporate or come into being according to no logic I can discern, and what I imagine would be an empty flight could turn out to be full of rowdy high-schoolers on a class trip. (They re worse than babies, seriously.) But traveling well (and frugally) means being ready for the unexpected — even when it happens long before you ever get on the plane.