You’ve read all the magazines, thumbed through endless guide books and have spent far too much time online researching your next vacation destination. Finally, after weeks or months of hand wringing and anxiety, you are mentally and financially ready to pull that electronic trigger and book your flights. Hold on though, not so fast. The decisions you make in the next few minutes can mean the difference between a great trip and a dreadful mistake.
When You Book
Choosing the right time to book is a source of frustration for even the most experienced traveler. Most of the best practices are a mix of fact, urban legend and pure guesswork on how to save the most money on airfare. I used to consider it more fiction than fact, but the travel expert Peter Greenberg made a strong argument for waiting until midnight on Tuesdays to book airfare. According to Peter, any airfare that was on hold over the weekend but not purchased is released to the public on Tuesdays, and the best cheap flights can be found in this group of previously held tickets. Knowing how far in advance to book is also confusing, especially since the answer to this question is somewhat fluid. According to Pauline Frommer, if you’re planning to take a summer trip, the best time to book is now. The expensive summertime fares will only go up in price, so there’s no point in waiting.
Where You Book
Ok, you’ve settled on the proper day and time to book your tickets, but the next trick is figuring out where to book your airfare. It seems like a new travel site pops up every day, each one promising the cheapest fares online. While this may or may not be true, these bargain basement sites probably aren’t the best places to book your trip. Once again, Peter Greenberg suggests to instead call the airline directly. He argues that they think creatively, which a computer cannot, and many times will find cheaper, faster routes. If that doesn’t work, check out the airline website itself. Not all airlines are listed on the sale sites and of the ones present, not all flight options can be found. Booking through the airline directly will give you better options and access to sale fares found only on their main websites.
What you Book
Whether you book on Expedia or USAirways.com, pay attention to the flight details before booking. Modern commercial aviation is not always a pleasant experience, hundreds of people stuffed into a crowded metal tube that is flung unceremoniously across the globe. Small differences in the actual plane type itself can relate to a more comfortable travel experience. Do your research on the types of available aircraft and visit a site like SeatGuru.com to learn more about the planes and the best seats available. When I researched flights to New Zealand, there were two similar flights, leaving and arriving around the same time. However one flight was on a Boeing 777 and the other was a 747. From past experience, I knew that the overall flight experience would be more enjoyable on the larger 777 than on the 747, a small but important detail. Also don’t be distracted by a savings of a few dollars that also includes long layovers or additional stops. Time is money and personal comfort is important while traveling. At the end of the day, it is worth it to me to pay a few dollars more for a shorter, more convenient flight. Plus, every time you change planes, the chance of your luggage getting lost increases dramatically.
Odds and Ends
Ok, you’ve selected your dates, flights and even seats; time to finish the transaction and pay the airline. More than ever, airlines are making a lot of money from selling “extras” along with the flights. Priority boarding, extra bags, and choosing your seat in advance are all some sneaky ways in which the airlines are making huge profits. Some of these extras, like bags, may be necessary, but others are a distraction and a complete waste of time. Keep focused and bypass these impulse buys. Also bypass any offers to add tours, hotels or rental cars to your transaction. You will never, ever find a good deal buying these services from the airline, instead do your own research and book independently. Finally, the last question posed is often about insurance. Travel insurance can be important, but not when purchased through the travel provider itself. The policies they provide are too expensive and restrictive. Instead, find a reputable independent travel insurance company and purchase a plan through them, if you so choose.
Modern travel is complicated and even what may seem like a simple transaction, is actually fraught with distractions and hidden fees. Travelers who do a little research though will reap the benefits of a cheaper and more enjoyable trip.