Searching for the ideal flight isn't always about finding the cheapest airfare. Although it certainly matters, a couple other important factors need your attention.
The Three C's of Flight-Searching
Cheap, Comfortable, and Convenient. Your mission when searching for your flight to Anywhere is to find the perfect balance between these three things. Maximizing your travel experience starts by getting this right. A bad flight can ruin your trip before it has even started, whereas a smooth airline experience can have you feeling like your vacation has already begun. So, unless you're a rich narcoleptic with all the time in the world, you probably care about all three C's.
The key word in the paragraph above is balance. Too much focus on one of these categories will likely lead to a sacrifice in another. After many years of the trial and error method, I discovered this truth- sometimes the hard way. My goal used to be to find the cheapest flight possible. While I got really good at finding affordable flights, I often decided in the end that it wasn't worth the discomfort and inconveniences that made it so cheap. It's important to pay attention to a few key details regarding the flight, and to place a value on them.
10 Ways to Lower Your Airfare
Keeping it cheap is important, so it makes sense to begin your search with this in mind. There are a few search techniques and resources you can use that will always help you bring down the price, but the amount of a discount you receive is proportional to how flexible you are. If you need specific dates, to and from specific airports, at a specific time of day, bear in mind that the cheapest flight out there probably won't satisfy all of these requirements unless you get lucky.
If you are a little more flexible, I can offer these 10 Tips that are likely to decrease your airfare:
- The cheapest days to fly are Tuesday and Thursday. If you only have a 5-day window to travel, then lucky you- this works out perfectly. Search for flights leaving Thursday and returning on Tuesday, and that will most likely be cheaper than any other combination of days. Additionally, if you have a 9-to-5, it will be easier to coordinate a "long weekend" than it would be to take the whole week off. It's also probably going to be more fun if your trip eclipses the weekend- that's when most things are happening.
- If you have a week (or two or three) to travel, search Tuesday to Tuesday. It's almost always the cheapest day to fly, and I usually begin my searches like this.
- Use the filters offered by search engines like Kayak, SkyScanner, and Fly.com to your advantage. I don't even use search engines that don't allow me search with "flexible dates." Kayak, for example, allows you to search +/- 3 days on either end of your flight, and you can instantly discover which days will be cheaper for you to fly. You can also check for nearby airports in some areas if they are still convenient.
- Try to buy your ticket three weeks from the date you plan to fly. Typically, this is when you will find the best deal on airfare. It's crunch time for the airlines, and in their efforts to fill a target number of seats, prices will be temporarily lowered. Once they approach this number, prices rise again. If you miss this window though, you could get lucky- sometimes they make another push in the final days before the flights depart if they didn't quite hit their numbers.
- Keep an eye out for promotional flight deals. If there is a particular airliner you fly more than others, it makes sense for you to sign up for their newsletters- sometimes they slash fares for the holidays or other promotional events like Cyber Monday. You can also place yourself on the email list of certain companies like TravelZoo, who dedicate their time to scouring the web for said deals.
- If you have decent credit, it helps to have a Travel Rewards credit card. You can really use this to your advantage to rack up "miles" that can earn you free flights based on purchase incentives. Many credit cards will give you enough miles to earn a free flight quickly if you spend a lot of money in the first 30-90 days of having the card. Just make sure that you have the money to pay it off right away, or in the end you will have probably spent much more than your ticket would have cost you!
- Register online with airlines that you fly with more often. I frequently fly JetBlue, for example, and just by being a TrueBlue member (which is free), I earn miles every time I fly with them. Eventually the miles land me a free flight!
- Make friends in the airline industry. Much of this world operates on a "who you know" dynamic. Accept it and use it to your advantage! That doesn't mean to take advantage of others' generosity, but remember that what goes around comes around. I used to work for Verizon a while back, and I made one woman so happy and comfortable with her new phone that she rewarded me with a "Buddy Pass" to fly home during the Holidays. I wouldn't have known she was a flight attendant if I didn't get to know her a bit and bring my passion of traveling into the conversation.
- Find a talented travel agent. This is especially handy if you're arranging a multi-destination journey that requires more than a simple round-trip ticket. They have access to more resources than you do, and they're likely to find a better deal than you can.
- Pack light! This tip requires an article on its own, but suffice to say that there are countless reasons you should try to limit your luggage to one carry-on bag plus a backpack. If you don't, you could wind up paying more to check your luggage at the airport, or even more if you're really unfortunate and they lose your bags! I've seen it happen more than once.
10 Tips on Comfort & Convenience
Using the above techniques is a great way to narrow down your search for the ideal flight. But don't start jumping up and down at the first sighting of low airfare. Every cheap flight you find requires further scrutiny. As I suggested in the first paragraph, you'll be cursing your cheap ticket if you don't pay attention to the rest of your flight details.
Comfort is an important detail to consider. Although turbulence and screaming babies are sometimes impossible to avoid, there are other ways to ensure a comfortable travel experience. Convenience is equally important. If you don't pay attention to what you're paying for, you might have to learn the hard way!
- Give yourself plenty of time! Nothing sucks worse than having to race through traffic because you're running late to the airport, then having to impatiently wait in a line behind on-time passengers who are in no hurry. It sucks worse when it comes down to having to run through the airport toward your gate with heavy luggage. It sucks worst of all when you get to the airport and they tell you that you're too late, and that it's going to cost you. All of these things have happened to me. Take it from me- you don't want to be that guy.
- Bring headphones. Obviously, you can listen to music with these. But you can also plug into the headphone jack when you're on the plane, preventing you from having to buy the cheap ear pieces the flight attendants are trying to sell you these days. They also have the added benefit of shielding you from the annoyance of unruly children, as well as potentially unwanted conversation with strangers.
- Bring earplugs and a sleep mask. As I mentioned in a previous post entitled 5 Travel Essentials You'll Wish You Packed, you're likely going to want these at some point. It could be a life-saver on the plane. Forget about what you look like.
- Purchase a Club/Lounge Access Pass. If you really want to chill out for a bit, and get the vacation started before you even take off, I know people who swear that shelling out the $25 or so to hang out in the VIP lounge pre-flight is worth every penny. Here you'll be away from the hustle and bustle of the airport madness. You'll find some peace and quiet, comfortable places to sit or lay down on, nicer bars, and even spa services. If you're someone who gets anxiety about flying, this is a good place to squash it. Also, you never know who you'll meet!
- When you have the option to choose your seat on an airplane, determine whether you would rather: get off the plane quickly, sit in the quietest part of the plane, or sit in the least-crowded area. It takes a bit of luck to achieve all three, but if you're smart you can usually accomplish two out of three by choosing to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible. Let people stand in line for 30 minutes to board the plane- I prefer to relax and be one of the last to board. You also get to exit first, and by that time you've probably had enough of the flight and you'll be excited to get to where you're going (which is another reason why you should only pack what you can carry-on). Although the back of the cabin tends to be the least crowded, your sacrifice is a bumpier ride and louder engine noise. Check out SeatGuru.com to help you find the most comfortable options for your preferences.
- Pack any helpful/necessary medications in your carry-on. Whether you suffer from anxiety, insomnia, or motion-sickness, you might find yourself thanking the stars that you came prepared.
- Beware of flight times. It's not really worth saving a few bucks if you have a red-eye flight and cannot fall asleep on airplanes. Now the first day of your trip is shot. On the flip side, don't schedule your flight for 6:00 a.m. if you aren't prepared to get to the airport a couple of hours before that and with plenty of rest. Regardless of what you do to convince yourself, you're going to need it. You also run the risk of missing your alarm. Been there.
- Opt for airlines known for their customer service and customer satisfaction. This is another factor that can make or break your in-flight experience, and it's another reason I fly JetBlue and Southwest whenever possible. They are always a step ahead of the game in these departments, and they make me feel good about flying with them. Read up a bit on who you're planning to fly with. For North American rankings click here, for international rankings click here.
- Fly direct whenever possible. It's worth the extra 10, 20, 30 dollars in almost every instance. It saves you hours in travel time and allows you to get to your destination uninterrupted. It also decreases the chances that some unfortunate thing will happen to you- such as your bags getting lost or your flight getting delayed.
- Beware of checked baggage and cancellation fees. This is another category that can leave you loving or hating an airline. In the event that you need to make a change (it happens sometimes, whether you see it coming or not), you don't want to get slammed in fees. You might have saved $20 by booking cheap, but now, because of an unforeseen event, you're $200 in the hole. It's wise to pay attention to the airline's policies in this regard before booking.
Remember, your flight is the beginning and end to your fun-filled adventure; it's important to kick it off the right way! What are some tips and tricks you've learned over the years? Share your findings, comments, and questions below.