March 28, 2017

Travel Tips: Booking a Flight



Someone recently suggested that I write a blog post with tips for booking flights. It’s a topic I’ve talked myself out of covering more than once because unfortunately, there's not much you can do to save money on flights. There are dozens of tips out there about when to book for the best deal (six weeks out on a Tuesday, using the Hopper app, etc.), but truthfully I haven't found any that are consistently accurate. So I can’t tell you the best time to book or where to find discounts, but I can share a little insight into how I book and a few things that I have found useful.

1. Don’t limit yourself to one airport.
If you have your own transportation and are able to drive yourself to the airport, don’t be afraid to look into flying out of an airport a little further from home. My home airport is small and usually significantly more expensive than surrounding airports. Because of this, I have a triangle of airports that I use: my home airport when I’m lucky, another airport two hours away that is usually cheaper, and one 3.5 hours away for the most affordable cross-country or international flights. Just don’t forget to factor in airport parking if you decide to try this option.

2. Sign up for rewards programs.
Most airlines offer rewards programs free of charge, and some are even partnered with hotels and other companies to offer ways to earn points on everyday purchases by linking with any credit or debit card. You earn miles every time you book a flight directly through the airline, and if you fly frequently enough, these points can be redeemed for free flights or upgrades. If you have several airlines in a similar price range, try to choose one and stick with it to maximize points. There is literally no reason not to do this every single time you fly to make sure you earn the most points possible.

Here are a few that offer opportunities to earn extra miles outside of flight purchases without signing up for a credit card:
American Airlines Advantage eShopping
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

3. Consider getting an airline credit card.
Most offer generous bonus miles just for signing up, and you continue to earn miles every time you use the card. Many have a long list of added travel benefits that can go unnoticed by cardholders but are definitely worth researching. For example, my card covers rental car insurance and has reimbursed me for unplanned parking and hotel expenses due to delayed and canceled flights. Deciding which card is best for you is another topic entirely and one that I’m not equipped to tackle, but I found https://thepointsguy.com/ to be a great resource when making this decision for myself. Start by looking at what airlines fly out of your local airport and then consider which ones you have flown the most in the past. Those are likely the ones that offer the best prices to suit your specific travel needs. (in other words, it's not worth signing up for a card with amazing mileage and benefits if their flights aren't affordable from where you live)

4. See if your airline offers flight holding services.
If you see a great price but need a little time to shop around or make travel plans, check and see if the airline has a way to hold the flight. American offers free 24-hour flight holds for Advantage members (free rewards program), and United offers a Fare Lock feature for a small fee. I hold flights on American almost every time I travel, and I've only used Fare Lock once, but it was worth it.



5. Be aware that most airlines flying in/to the U.S. offer free flight cancellation within 24 hours of booking.
The U.S. Department of Transportation "requires carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty" as long as you book your flight more than seven days in advance. There's wiggle room for airlines to implement this in a couple of different ways, but the bottom line is if you change your mind within 24 hours of booking, start looking for a way to cancel, because it exists in some form. This is great if you happen to stumble onto a cheaper price shortly after booking, or if you're me and you forget to factor in an extra day for sightseeing in a new place.

6. Don’t be afraid of Spirit Airlines…IF you can pack virtually nothing.
Spirit doesn’t exist in every major city, but if it’s in your local airport, don’t let the horror stories scare you away (I assume the same is true of other discount carriers like Allegiant, but I only have experience with Spirit). It has a bad reputation mostly due to the fact that they charge for every little thing from a carry-on bag to simply printing your boarding pass or choosing a seat. It’s not worth it to save on your ticket if you’re going to have to pay just as much to bring all of your luggage, but for an overnight trip, it can be a steal. In the past I’ve flown roundtrip from South Carolina to Chicago for under $100, and from SC to Washington DC and back for $40. I have a flight booked in the fall for just over $200 that would have been $500+ on a regular carrier. (And you better believe I’ll be squishing some packing cubes into a tote bag and skipping all the fees.)

via GIPHY

7. Don’t follow flight prices until you’re ready to book.
This seems counter-intuitive, right? How do you know if you’re saving money or throwing it away if you don’t know what the flight cost last week? I say this for two reasons. First, it has been debated for years whether or not some airline websites use cookies to track search history and adjust pricing accordingly. I.E., searching the same flight multiple times from the same device can theoretically lead to price gouging—but if you were to search the same flight from a different device or while logged out, the price may be lower. I’ve only noticed this happening once, and it could have been a coincidence, but it’s enough to make me lay off the search bar a bit. The second reason is simply that prices fluctuate so frequently and unpredictably that it’s honestly not worth the regret you’re going to have when you log back in and see that your flight went up $50. Realizing that you should have booked yesterday doesn’t actually save you any money, and stubbornly waiting until tomorrow to see if it goes back down again might mean it just goes up another $100.

I suppose my biggest takeaway from flying often is that saving money up front on flights is rare and unlikely, and your best bet is to try to build up a loyalty to a specific airline to maximize rewards and hopefully save more in the long run.

What are some of your successful or failed flight tips? Feel free to share in the comments!

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