Farewell Brain Dump: Flight booking for (relative) beginners

As I said in my last post, I’m about to shut this blog down for good. But before I go, I’m posting all the nitty-gritty logistical stuff I currently know about travel. This post is about airfares. Next week’s is about renting cars.

There are a million blogs that drill down deep into the world of booking flights. But unless you’re flying every month, I doubt you’re reading them–and they’re so full of jargon and codes, you can’t understand them anyway.

So here’s my starter set of tips for people who buy airplane tickets only once or twice a year.

1. Check a few websites.

But not all of them! It’s easy to make yourself crazy.

For domestic flights, you likely won’t find a lot of variance. But for international trips, some sites are better than others at digging up weird routings.

My starting points are:

  • flights.google.com: Very easy to change dates, and it will suggest cheaper dates or nearby airports.
  • kayak.com: Searches a lot of stuff. Handy filters. Nice +/-3 days search feature.*
  • southwest.com, for domestic flights: Southwest doesn’t show up on aggregate-search sites (such as Google and Kayak), and if you’re not in the habit of flying them, it’s easy to forget about them.
  • priceline.com, for weirder international routes (open-jaw, for instance, flying into one city and out of another). Sometimes it does some squirrelly things to make tickets very cheap. (This is a whole crazy can of worms for advanced flight nerds; search “fuel dumping” if you’re curious.)

*Annoyingly, sometimes the various big US airlines (American, Delta, United) also decide not to participate in aggregate-search sites. As I’m writing this, I think that might be happening with American and Delta. So if you notice a conspicuous absence of results from one airline, I guess bite the bullet and go check directly at their websites. Argh.

2. Look at one-ways.

If round-trips are looking higher than you want, try breaking your trip into two one-ways. On almost all domestic routes, this works fine and often better, because you can cherry-pick flight times and prices. I fly JetBlue to Albuquerque, for example, because I like that nonstop flight–but flying back, I go with American or United, because I can’t hack JetBlue’s red-eye.

On international routes, it’s not quite so foolproof, but it’s worth a shot.

3. Pick the right dates.

Flying mid-week (Tues, Wed, Thurs) is usually cheaper than other days.

On the other hand, that old rule about staying over a Saturday night is rarely true anymore.

4. Look beyond your destination.

If you’re flying to a city that’s a hub for an airline, it may very well be cheaper to buy a ticket to somewhere else, routing through the city you want, and then just toss the second leg.

For example, this past summer I wanted to go to Salt Lake City. But it was cheaper to buy a ticket to Park City, via Salt Lake, and just skip out on the last leg.

NOTE: You must travel with only carry-on luggage, as the airlines don’t like this practice (it’s called “hidden-city ticketing” if you want to read more about it) and will not check your bags only halfway.

To find these kinds of deals, start at skiplagged.com.

5. You can cancel in the first 24 hours.

This is a biggie! All US-based airlines will cancel your ticket and refund all of your money, no fee and no questions asked, within 24 hours of purchase.

The exception is American, though it’s not really an exception, just a different way of offering the same thing. On the American website, you can place your reservation on hold for 24 hours before purchasing. (Look for the “hold” button at the bottom right, as an alternative to credit cards, PayPal, etc.)

A lot of international airlines do this too, provided the ticket starts in the US. Google “[airline] 24 hour cancellation” and see what pops up.

6. Book directly with the airline when you can.

Orbitz et al. (aka online travel agents, or OTAs) add almost zero value, and if you need to make changes, they actually make your life a lot harder (“Sorry, we can’t help you—contact the airline”; “sorry, we can’t help—call your travel agent”).

So if you find a deal on one of the OTAs, try searching on the main carrier (or, if it’s a foreign airline, its US-based partner) to see if you can replicate it.

Sometimes, though, you can’t find the same price at an airline’s site, and you’ll have to go with the OTA. That’s not the end of the world. Just be prepared for serious phone time if you need to make changes.

7. Set up a frequent-flier account, even if you’re not playing the miles game.

Having login info at the airline website just makes it easier to check your flight details, change seats, etc.

8. You might be able to afford business class.

Biz-class fares to Europe drop very low in summer and over holidays like Thanksgiving, while coach class spikes.

On some routes in summer 2015, the difference was only $300 or so. Summer biz-class sales usually start in the spring, but can pop up any time after that.

9. Let luck rule.

If you’re not sure where you want to go, keep an eye on theflightdeal.com. It’s probably the current best site for random deals (airfarewatchdog.com is also good).

The instructions on how and where to find the particular flights are very detailed, and this can at first can look overwhelming. Don’t get stressed—just take it step by step.

In the process, you’ll learn some of the trickier ways to search for flights (and you won’t need my help anymore!).

10. There might be a better way than flying.

Check rome2rio.com. Especially good if you want to fly in to one city and out of another, and need to know how to get between the two.