Successfully Hunting Down Flights Part 1

Airline travel in the 21st century- Successfully Hunting Down Flights: finding the right flight at the right price (part 1) and What in the Air Is going on Here?!: surviving the flight  (part 2). 

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Recently, I posted about all the steps I take after I've booked a flight, but before I get on a plane, You Have to Take Steps To Fly  That should be called part 1 and 1/2, because its's actually the middle piece of three.  Today I plan to share Part 1- the process I use to find flights for trips I plan to take, and later Part 2- how to make flying as comfortable, or more comfortable, or just tolerable??

There are lots of ads for "cheap flights" and plenty of travel websites that will sell you airfare, but it's also important for pleasure or vacation travel to make sure that the flights fit in with the rest of your itinerary.  It's no fun to arrive in the morning, sleepless after a red eye if you are only spending a short weekend someplace like Vegas, where you want to enjoy the great nightlife!  It's also of no use to arrive on a cheap flight, if it arrives 2 hours after your cruise has left!

Having all the official paperwork in front of you (or windows open on the computer) when booking ensures you are booking flights on the right dates!

Having all the official paperwork in front of you (or windows open on the computer) when booking ensures you are booking flights on the right dates!

Here is the process I use to find affordable flights that meet my needs. 

  1. I assemble my itinerary of land arrangements or onward travel and decide which airports are closest to those components and when I need to be where.  I like to have the official documents of my arrangements out while I am booking airfare; having the "official" cruise invoice or a copy of the hotel confirmations insures I am actually using the correct dates.  Based on this data, I determine a "window" of travel for my itinerary.  Do I need to arrive in the morning to catch an afternoon train?  Am I flying into one place and out of another?  Rome2Rio is an app I downloaded and have used to see a variety of travel options to get from 2 places.  It will show you not only flights, but also other transportation options. 
  2. I like to use a flight consolidator website to look at all the options at one time (although there are still some airlines that don't use the aggregators- like Southwest, which I have to check on their own website.)  I use the sites to set parameters to match my needs, such as flying out early, or only searching only for direct flights.  I like to use Kayak, because they don't sell the flights, but it aggregates all the options and then directs me to either the airline or one of the many other travel sites that sell airfare.  I can enter the potential combinations of flight days and airports I might like to use, and get daily email alerts of the itineraries I am watching. Then I can see if the price drops on the flights I am interested in.
  3. The next thing I do is use the search engine (Kayak) to explore which airlines are offering what itineraries and the relative costs.  There are filters that allow me to eliminate connections if I want a direct flight.  I can also eliminate certain connecting airports I won't consider.  For instance, selecting flights to the south during the winter, I avoid connecting through other northern airports. This prevents weather from stranding me in a a connecting city.  Lastly, I can filter the times I need to make my flights work.  If I am taking a cruise, I often need to be in the port city early enough to embark the ship.  Once I've set those filters, I am sorry to report that the lowest prices usually disappear!  It just makes sense that the cheapest flights will be those with multiple connections, to places that no one else wants to go, at times that are inconvenient!
  4. When actually searching,  If my party is more than one person, I search for the whole party first and note the per person price and ensure there are enough seats for my whole party. Then I refresh the search for just one or two people.  Airlines often only offer a few seats at the lowest price points.  If I am flying with 4 people and enter 4 during my first search, if there are only 2 "cheap" seats are available, I will be charged the higher price for all 4.  Once when booking flights 4 of us into RSW in Ft Myers, I was able to book two of us at the lowest price, and the other 2 at a higher price.  I saved about $140 dollars by booking separately, versus booking 4 flights together as the same reservation.  There are 2  downsides to this plan; one is that I had 2 different reservations, so there is no guarantee they would keep all 4 of us together if the itinerary changed later. (although when airlines make a change you can call and try to request being put back on the same itinerary) Secondly, sometimes you have to book 2 at a time because you don't want the airlines changing the flight of the adults and stranding a child or frail elder on a flight by themselves.  I do make sure that my minor children are each booked with an adult, (unless she is being particularly onerous that week, and then I might consider it!)    
  5. When to buy?  That's the million dollar question! There are dozens of websites and airline gurus with advice about how to score the cheapest tickets.  But sometimes "cheapest" doesn't meet my needs.  What I usually find is that if I am particular about my itinerary with lots of tricky connections and timing, I prefer to shop early when flights become available and  plenty of choices exist, especially if I am booking during popular vacation periods or in high season.  Booking later can  turn up some deals, but only if the airlines aren't selling that route well.  Unless you are planning a trip during a shoulder season or off season (think Caribbean in summer, or Europe in Winter) chances are good you are looking when everyone else is, and so the airlines can charge higher prices and popular times and routes may go fast.  If you have flexibility in your itinerary, then booking last minute can be a way to save some money.  My own opinion is that I like to look for an airfare and route that meets my needs first and then I buy it when I can find it at a price I can live with!  By watching the prices on Kayak for a while before buying I can be satisfied that I got a  price I can live with.  Unfortunately, it's a lot like the trying to predict the stock market...people have lots of opinions and yet, no one has actually done it! 
  6. Lastly, sometimes it's worth paying an expert to book particularly complicated itineraries.  My own Travel Agent, Travel Beyond  works with an airline specialist which can help me book my itinerary for a fee, most full service travel agencies will have a similar specialist.  It's best to make sure that all that person does is airline reservations, so you get an expert.  Usually that fee is a tiny fraction of the total cost of the trip and worth the expense because they can use professional software that allows them to more easily filter and scan flight segments than the consumer can.  Another place that requires a specialist is when trying to use miles to book complicated trips.  Most travel agents won't assist booking air with miles because its so complicated, but a whole group of other experts have cropped up to do this work now.  There are so many rules, fees and restrictions, and partner airlines. Oftentimes, trips booked on miles are treated differently in the case of cancelled flights, which can strand you at an airport being told by a tense ticket agent "you can't get there from here" without significant additional investment! it's probably not a bad idea to pay an expert to be your advocate, they will know the rules for all the various programs and be able to advise and advocate if something goes wrong.  I use Google and user generated reviews (Such as Trip Advisor, Wendy Perrin's excellent blog) to find the best experts.  It's getting harder to hide if you aren't delivering what you've promised in the wired world! 

Next: What in the Air is Going On Here! Some ideas about how to survive a flight.