Often the most expensive aspect of an overseas trip will be the airline tickets. However, there are deals out there where you can save significant dollars if you put in the effort to find them. With a little practice, you can significantly undercut what a travel agency could do for you and save 25% to 50% over what you might otherwise spend
Many travelers have a fondness for one airline or another. I am always amazed at the sometimes cult like following of Southwest Airlines for example. My thought is that an airline flight is a commodity service and the best price wins within reason. If prices are essentially equal (i.e. + or – 3%) and the travel times are roughly equal, I will go with the airline that I have had the best experiences with. However, reflecting back over the years, I can’t remember one adventure travel trip where I looked back and said “that airline flight sure was spectacular” or “that plane flight really soured the whole trip”.
We try to avoid really early flights and overnight flights. The going advice by the airlines for international travel is to be at the airport 3 hours prior to departure. For an international trip that departs at 6 AM, this means you would need to get out of bed at 1 AM to 2 AM to get to the airport on time. It’s almost like why even bother going to sleep. However, often you have no other choice or at least the alternatives are 20% or more in a higher fare. In that case, you bite the bullet and go with the best price.
Approach the flight with optimism and as part of the adventure. If you have an exceptionally long flight, be prepared with all the best traveler carry-ons to entertain you and keep you comfortable along the way (a future blog topic btw).
During our 20 hour flight to Vietnam, I read an entire novel for example. Make sure it is a really good one and you won’t worry about being stuck on the plane for so long.
Ok, on to the main topic. How do you set yourself up for major discounted tickets? Here is my proven method.
Find Out the Average Price for a Fare to Your Chosen Destination
When we identify a city we want to travel to, I will first go to a couple of the main stream travel agency sites that usually offer “rack rate” tickets. This is to set a baseline price of what I want to try and beat. It may also tell me to wait on this trip until the flights are more affordable so this is a good screening exercise to see what you can afford. I tend to check out Orbitz.com and Expedia.com as well as directly searching the major airlines webpages. Surprisingly, some of the lower prices can be obtained directly from the airline so I go to delta.com, united.com, etc. to check prices. Of course, pick the airlines that serves your local city.
I will look at different days of travel and try to zero in on days of travel that offer the best price but also are convenient to our schedule. Here are some general rules of thumb.
Know the Best Times to Fly for Discount Prices
1. The typical scuttlebutt in the travel industry is to depart on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday and stay over at least one Saturday. Fridays and Sundays are often the busiest and most expensive days.
2. There tends to be a drop in prices right after the holidays. So if you can adjust your vacation and travel schedule by working during the times when most people want off and then traveling later, this might be a good strategy to get cheap tickets.
3. We often travel in January or February since the ticket prices tend to be better and the number of tourists is much less.
4. From what I have read and confirmed by my personal experience, Tuesday is a good day to shop for discount fares because a lot of them come out that day. In fact, many travel professionals recommend checking all day starting early Tuesday throughout the day.
Use Travel Alerts
Many travel web sites have an alert feature that emails, tweets or sends text alerts to give you price alerts for fares that are within your price range. Airfarewatchdog.com is one of my favorites because it is an easy to navigate web site that allows you to set up multiple searches and alerts for discount travel to the cities you want to track. On the day of this article, December 23, 2013 the site advertised roundtrip airfare from Charleston, SC to Dublin, Ireland for $756! Since Charleston is not a hub for a major airline, this is a really good price and is something you normally might find out of Atlanta or New York but not little Charleston.
Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity are three among many that have some type of discount fare program where you can sign up for alerts. I recommend signing up for alerts at several of these sites and be prepared to pull the trigger if you find something at or below your target price.
If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, sign up for general alerts that depart from your home airport. These often are separated into national and international travel. It can be a heck of a lot of fun to find a great deal in your inbox and then book it for a flight the coming week. Airfarewatchdog.com 3 days ago had a low fare alert in my inbox for flights from Charleston to Boston for $150 for example.
How to Book Deep Discount Tickets on Short Notice
Like a lot of people, I believe spontaneity is half the fun in planning a trip. Therefore, a lot of our travel is booked by sitting down one evening with a bottle of good vino and planning out the trip and just going for it.
With so many travel sites and so many options, aggregator sites began appearing in the mainstream 3 or 4 years ago to meet a need. These are travel web sites that search many other web sites for the best deals. Kayak is one of the better known aggregator travel web sites and is the one I use most often.
It searches many of the larger online travel agencies and allows you to check off and search many of the so called “discount sites”. For example, while writing this article, I went to Kayak and typed in a search for Charleston, SC (our home airport) to Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg is a large city with a lot of air traffic but is on the other side of the world and south of the equator so it is a good test run to use as an example. I did this search on December 23, 2013 and asked for travel dates for a couple of weeks out on Tuesday January 7, 2014 to Friday January 17, 2014. For this example, I checked all the different travel agency options on the site. Here were the results based on a per person price.
Kayak – $1724 combined flights from American Airlines, British Airlines and American Eagle
Webjet – no flights available
FareBoom – $1668 using the same airlines as Kayak
Expedia – no flights available but suggested we adjust our flight by one day here and there
Priceline – $1495 which combined Jetblue and British Airways
If I had bought tickets on this day, and gone with the lowest fare I would have saved $458 for two travelers by going with the Priceline tickets. Priceline is a great source to find short term deals if you really want to be spontaneous. They are known to cut deals with airlines to fill seats that otherwise would not be filled.
For the fun of it, I set a travel alert on Kayak on the evening of December 23rd to notify me of tickets for the Charleston to Johannesburg route under $1500. About 12 hours later, I got an email notification that gave me two deals. One was for $1165 per ticket in March. The second was for $1195 per ticket within a day or two of my specified departure and return dates. Wow! That is starting to get my attention.
Another great tool that Kayak offers is the ability to search for flights that are + or – 3 days from the departure date and the return date. This allows you to find the best fares with a few days variable.
Other sites do this as well so keep your head up when searching. So if you have some flexibility, then by all means use this tool as there can be some significant savings. These airline search engines are truly amazing. Kayak claimed that they searched 1429 flights to find the cheapest fare from Charleston to Johannesburg.
Another widely used aggregator site is by google and is known as its ITA software. Why not, google does about everything else so why not travel. Shortly after running the search on the Kayak web site for the Charleston to Johannesburg trip, I ran a similar search on the Google ITA site to get a comparison. Unfortunately Google was having an off day. Thirty minutes after initiating the search, it was still churning away with no results.
Using Frequent Flyer Type Programs
Most of the major airlines have frequent flyer programs. Sign up for every one of them that you have even a remote chance of flying on. In the last 12 months, we have both flown virtually free to Ecuador and a free ticket each to Lisbon, Portugal on frequent flyer programs. One of the best strategies is to find a credit card program that gives you at least 1 mile for each dollar spent. Some cards have promotional programs where you will start out with a bonus of 25,000 miles for example. Keep a look out for these type programs when you are starting out.
I run every expense that I possibly can through two frequent flyer credit cards and then pay off the cards 100% each month. Just make sure the bank does not charge you a minimum fee or interest if you pay it off in full each month and keep a sharp eye on them because banks are famous for changing the rules. Miles can add up quickly.
There are plenty of restrictions on using miles so be prepared to plan ahead or travel off the beaten path. Don’t expect to use miles to book anytime you want and to the trendy tourist areas. Since, we tend to look at the less traveled areas and travel in off periods of the year, these programs work well for us.
Summary of My Discount Search Strategy
1. Review the mainstream travel agency sites and airline sites to get a feel for the rack rate for tickets to your chosen destination. This can give you an idea as to how affordable a trip will be and also give you a starting point to begin your discount travel search.
2. Sign up on a number of sights for fare alerts. For example, you could set your target price 25% to 30% or more below what you believe the average price to be. Be ready to act if a great deal comes through.
3. Use a discount travel agency site known as an aggregator that searches multiple sites to find the best deals. If you have flexibility for travel dates, specify that in your searches.
4. Use Frequent Flyer type programs to qualify for free to deeply discounted tickets.
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