Booking airline flights
Where to start
As you plan your trip and start booking airline flights you can certainly search each airline’s site. However, the easiest way to start is to search a travel aggregator site. What is a travel aggregator you ask?
Aggregator is another name for a travel site that searches multiple airlines, hotels, rental cars and related sites for available flights, rooms, cars and travel experiences. Sites like Orbitz, Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, and Priceline are aggregators.
Travel Tip: There are other sites that are arguably as good as those above for booking airline flights, if not better (see Frommer’s article on the best and worst). Google.com/flights, Skyscanner, and Momondo are a few travel search sites that are highly regarded.
Flight search parameters
Airports to target
First, when booking airline flights you will need to know where you want to go and the exact, or approximate, dates you want to travel. If your time is flexible, I can’t stress enough how important it is to look at not only multiple airports but also different days to travel. Shifting your itinerary by one day could mean saving a couple hundred dollars on each flight. Once you know the timeframe and location(s), it is time to search for your flights.
Travel Tip: Many cities have international flight itineraries available from multiple continents. However, major airports will normally have more direct flights from different airlines. This creates competition which is good for you as the price of flying to that city should be lower for that time of year.
Time of day to fly
If you’re not tied to a certain day you need to be somewhere, it is important to maximize your time sightseeing and minimize your travel time. When flying east to Europe or west towards Asia or Australia, I prefer to fly during the evening or night for my home time zone and arrive in the destination’s morning. This makes for a short night sleep when going to Europe, but if you can stay awake on your arrival day, it helps you adjust to the new time zone.
Travel Tip: Look at a map to help you minimize your time traveling when booking airline flights. For example, let’s say you want to travel to Italy during July. After looking at things to do throughout Italy, you decide you want to see Rome, Venice, Florence, and Cinque Terre (as noted below). Geographically, I would search for flights to book using Rome and Venice. First search flying into one and out of the other on the dates you want to travel. Then, reverse the itinerary flipping the arriving and departing airports to compare prices to find the best deals.
I think most people agree the lower the number of airport connections the better. Depending on where you live, you may have no choice but to use a connecting airport. However, one strategy is to check airport prices at airports within an 8-hour drive for lower prices. Another consideration is connection times. When traveling internationally, have at least 60-90 minutes of connection time. A tighter connection may sound great, but it can put your itinerary in jeopardy if your first flight is delayed or cancelled.
Travel Tip: You may save hundreds of dollars per ticket by driving and flying out of a major city. The trade-offs are the time it takes to get there, higher parking costs at that airport (usually), and the drive itself. If you do not live near an airport with direct connections to your destination, you’ll need to compare fares flying from nearby airports versus flying direct from a major airport with multiple direct flights to your destination. Then consider if the savings is worth the time and expense of driving there. One way to compare is count the time for each. If you arrive 90 minutes before your first flight, have a 90-minute flight, and a 90 minute layover until your final destination flight, perhaps driving within a 3 hour radius (90 + 90 minutes) is worth it if you save a significant amount of money.
Unless you fly a lot for work and have ‘status’ on a airline or have the resources to not care what you’re paying for a ticket, you’re like most of us who usually fly ‘coach’. If you’re lucky enough to score or afford ‘business’ class, it can be a very nice flight – especially when traveling internationally.
Travel Tip: Many of the higher ‘statuses’ on frequent flyer programs offer free domestic upgrades to business or first class. Some also my offer upgrades to business or first on international flights too. It is best to review the rules for each program before deciding which one(s) to join and try to gain status.
For those of us sitting in coach, there are things to consider such as whether you should pay more for a higher economy fare when booking airline flights? Why you ask? Because it may allow you to upgrade to business class for miles or money if seats are available at a cheaper cost than buying a business ticket outright. Another thing to consider is purchasing upgraded economy seating (such as United’s Economy Plus or Delta’s Comfort +). These seats are nowhere near the seats (or experience) you would have in business class. However, 4 extra inches of leg room and an extra inch of recline on your seat can mean a world of difference on a 16-hour flight to Sydney.
Travel Tip: ALWAYS read the fare rules and better yet understand what limitations (or perks) come with the fare you’re purchasing when booking airline flights. The rules can be a little cryptic but buried in there is key information like the fare type (important when trying to upgrade), flight change costs and allowability and whether it is refundable or transferable.
Start out on one of the aggregator sites mentioned above. Personally, I use Skyscanner for booking airline flights. Enter your search parameters (cities, dates etc.) and check out your results. Below, are examples of screen captures of flights to London England. As you can see, first flying from a nearby airport was used. Then I picked a couple of bigger ‘hub’ airports with several flights and airlines heading to London.
Travel Tip: It is good to use (if available) either a city-wide airport code or search multiple airports in that city. You may stumble across a better deal going to another airport nearby instead of using the code for one airport. In the below, I searched for “LON” which is will include all airports in the London metro area instead of just “LHR’ for London Heathrow.
Bonus Travel Tip: Pay attention to the length of the flights being offered. In the same screen shots above, there is a great deal from Cincinnati to London (compared with other flights). However, a closer inspection reveals the flights offered are twice as long. It may be worth doubling your travel time if it means paying ½ the price for a ticket. Or, it may be worth driving to another city and getting a non-stop flight to your destination for roughly (within $100-200 dollars) the same ticket price.
Selecting your Flight(s)
Once you’ve found flights to the right place, at the right time, it is time for booking your airline flights. There may be ‘add-ons’ available such as better seats, more frequent flyer miles, boarding first, or better check-in lines for a price. This is also the time to select your seats. There are many sites that will provide info on pros and cons of different seats on a plane. Personally, I prefer seats as close to the front as possible, while avoiding the galley and bathrooms as they have a lot of traffic. These will normally get you off the plane quickest and usually drinks and meals are served from the front of the plane to the back. The trade-off is you may have a bit of a walk to the lavatory.
Travel Tip: I would suggest if you have credit card that earns miles, points, or cash back to use it to purchase your ticket. Many cards also offer travel protection or insurance when you use them to purchase your airplane tickets.
After the airfare purchase
After booking airline flights, make sure you check your reservation periodically before your departure date. Airlines will frequently make changes to planes, times and occasionally your route. When this happens, you may lose your selected seats and you’ll have to re-select those. If they change your route and you don’t like it, you may be able to call the airline and ask them to change it. The airline will normally accommodate the request if it is reasonable (i.e. leaves around the same time and arrives near the same time) on the same day.
Travel Tip: If your flights are changed and now your travel party is spread throughout the plane and not seated together, call the airline. If there are not enough seats in regular economy to seat you together, insist they seat you together in the premium economy area if there are enough seats there. If they refuse, then ask them to re-seat passengers in regular economy in the premium area and your party together in regular economy. It is rare, but there’s a very slim chance they could seat your part in business for the inconvenience. It is more likely they will seat status travelers in business and give you their economy seats.
On your day of travel
Ensure you arrive at the airport at least 90-120 minutes before domestic flights and 120-150 minutes before international flights to allow time for check-in, dropping baggage, and making your way through security. You normally don’t need a copy of your ticket or receipt when you get to the airport, most places now you or the airline can check you in with an I.D. or credit card. You’ll still need to show your I.D. if checking luggage, and when you proceed through security.
I hope you found these tips on booking airline flights helpful. If you have any questions, or comments, please leave those below.
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