Do you always book the cheapest flight you find? That might not be the right move. Flights are cheaper now than ever; and with too many flight search websites to choose from, cheap flights are no longer too hard to find. But have you ever found a flight and thought, “wait, is this TOO cheap??” Me neither!
However, I have learned my lessons about TOTAL cost the hard way by making my flight decisions based on price alone – the cheapest flight isn’t always the cheapest, and certainly isn’t always the best option. But sometimes it is!
So next time you’re considering booking the $3, $20 or $200 flight you found (whether domestic or international), here are five things you should think about before pulling the trigger.
Keep an eye on departure and arrival times.
Apart from the fact that it is just brutal to get up at 3:30 am to catch the first flight out, there are hidden costs. If you are flying out before or after public transportation is running, suddenly the $1 metro trip to the airport becomes a $30 taxi ride. So if the fare difference is less than the cost difference for transportation to/from the airport, sleep in and take the later flight, even if it is a few dollars more.
Nearby airports – are they so “nearby?”
While opting for a “nearby” airport to save some cash may sound like a great idea, make sure you know how much it will cost to get there. I recently was in Rome and found a €13 (!!) flight departing Pescara, which was 3 hours away. I jumped on it, thinking that the €10 bus ride across Italy would be a treat, and it was. BUT. When I arrived to the Pescara bus station, the only way to get to the airport was a taxi, and all taxis in Pescara charge a minimum €25 fare – so I paid double the airfare and more than the airfare and 3 hour bus ride to go 7 km. After everything, my €13 flight cost me over €60 and 4 extra hours of travel, when the flight out of Rome was €60 and I could have used that time for exploring (or sleeping).
Hidden fees and baggage.
Well, maybe they aren’t “hidden” per se, but the fees add up. Whether it’s a fee to select your seat, or bring a carry-on, or even to print your boarding pass at the airport (seriously RyanAir, what’s up with that?), this is more than just your run of the mill baggage fees. On most you can bring your own snacks, but Air Asia for example won’t allow outside food on board and Virgin Airlines strangely is only against hot beverages, plus many are wising up to the fact that small liquor bottles can clear through security and are not allowing them on board. Here’s a detailed example of how they can add up on one airline – going from €50 to €170!
We’ve all got baggage. Well, most of us anyway. And almost every airline in the world now charges for it. But there’s some evil scientist creating the schemes by which you’re charged the fees. In almost every case, it is best to book your baggage ONLINE ahead of time, rather than at the airport. Some airlines charge double to triple the online rate when you’re at the counter, and many charge a per-kilo overage, so book ahead and book the right amount.
Need help keeping it carry-on only? Check out these 5 tips.
Ok, so budget travelers love to get the best prices, but sometimes the cost to your sanity is just too high. I am not saying fare price always correlates to service level (I am a huge, huge fan of Southwest Airlines and am continually wowed by their service; and I’ve had really nice experiences on Turkish Airlines and find their prices very reasonable), but we all know some of the biggest offenders. In the US, you will get no sympathy complaining about the horrendous service from Frontier Airlines, and try getting anything more than commiseration for AirAsia’s utter lack of care, compassion and service.*
These airlines are clearly not interested in a good reputation for making you feel warm and squishy inside. They are trying to move the most people possible from point A to B, C and Z. This is what allows them to offer flights cheaper than coffee.
If there is any ounce of your body that thinks you might need to change a flight (like perhaps you have a penchant for checking in as late as possible and so you miss flights more often than most, or you want to be able to change your plans like your shirt – oh hey, self, I see you), skip the cheap fight. Or look at it as an investment that might be sunk. You’re paying $10 for the probability of taking the flight, but if you need to change it, sayanora $10.
This goes for the booking websites too. Kiwi is a great site if you want to come up with a clever way to get from A to Z if you don’t care if you’re going through B or Q, or if X gets you just close enough. However, the one time I had to deal with their customer service, I was stranded at an airport at 4:00 am and my new flight on Emirates (the only option at that point) set me back $650 (on top of the original $300 fare I had already paid via Kiwi – of which I have seen $0 refunded, despite their 100% guarantee).
*To be fair, in my experience, AirAsia’s service is fantastic once you’re actually IN the plane – if only ground crew got the same training that flight crew get! I cannot say the same for Frontier where, as an example, while sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate for 3 hours (after landing), I couldn’t even get the flight attendants to look up from Facebook and slots on their phones to listen to a question.
And don’t forget, your time is valuable!
Usually the biggest tradeoff for low fares is time – either in the booking or travel process. When booking, don’t overthink it! It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of booking sites and currency conversion and travel hacking. But if you spend 10 hours scouring the web and creating spreadsheets and algorithms to analyze the route, all to save 10 dollars, was it worth it? Probably not. I’d be willing to bet you could use those skills to make more than $10 in that amount of time.
Or if saving €25 adds six or 16 hours to your journey, could you better use that time? If not, have at it and let the savings pay your accommodation! If so, spend the extra on the fare and find another place in your budget to make it up.
So…don’t book the cheapest flight?
Listen, in no way am I advocating to pay more for no reason. Sometimes a $3 flight is a $3 flight and you just have to take it and not ask any questions about what you’ve done to deserve such grace from the travel goddesses.
The cheapest flight is not always the wrong flight. While I would love to always fly Emirates (the silver lining to the Kiwi situation forcing my hand on that flight is that I had the glorious experience of flying Emirates), it just isn’t realistic with my goal of visiting every country. Unless, Emirates, you’re reading this and want to work something out. Call me.
So, I’m always looking for cheap flights to make my money travel literally further.
How do I find the “right” cheap flight?
Finding the right flight can be a bit of a process, but I try not to overcomplicate it. There are hundreds of sites out there that claim to find you the best fares, but I only use three: momondo, SkyScanner and Kiwi. From there, I think about the five points above to choose the best flight for me.
momondo – Last year I played travel roulette using momondo and made a 6 week, 6 country European itinerary for under $250(!!!); they consistently have great results and I just like their values, so they’re my first choice. The con is the accuracy of their results seems to come from having the fewest number of variables you can enter.
SkyScanner – Like momondo, SkyScanner lets you search for flights with a fair amount of flexibility; I use SkyScanner over momondo when I want to look for multiple dates at a time, or when I want to open my search to leaving from an entire country to an entire country. The drawback with SkyScanner is that I have often found that it will list one price in the results, but when you go to book, it is more expensive. Just don’t get too excited by the first results.
Kiwi – Kiwi’s search allows you to use the most variables during your search; so if you are really flexible on when you are going, where you are going and where you’re leaving from, Kiwi is awesome. Because of the aforementioned horrendous service, though, I personally will not book flights with them – I use the site to find the flights and book them directly with the airline.
Now go plan the trip!
Wait, all of that was to just book the flight?! Yes! But now that’s out of the way and you have a trip to plan! Just think of all the ways you can reinvest the savings on your flight – I mean, margaritas…mai tais…tacos? The choices are endless!