Prior to this week, it had been quite some time since I (seriously) looked up flights. Every now and then, I wistfully click on the occasional flight deal as it passes my Twitter timeline. However, in my personal experience, booking travel entails a much more methodical process and I’d like to share a few of my standard steps.
1. Pick a search engine (or two, or three) and run with it.
For those of you who have opened a deal or two from @airfarewatchdog, @TheFlightDeal or any of their friends, you might recall being directed to look up a very specific flight code for very specific dates and times using matrix.itasoftware.com. In my humble traveler opinion, this website is one of the holy grails of flight booking. Google Flights is certainly up there in terms of UX and overall ease of use, but some of the best flight prices I’ve encountered have come from this tool (which is actually a Google software in itself).
2. Be as flexible as possible with your travel dates.
The tool itself takes a bit of adjusting to, but my key recommendation is this: when selecting dates, check “See calendar of lowest fares.” If you have hard dates for any given trip, by all means, stick with exact dates. If you can spare a day or two on the front or back end of your trip, however, you could save a pretty penny using this tool. As an example, if I want to go to a cousin’s graduation ceremony on a Saturday and I have to fly out on Friday and return on Sunday for work, then the flexible date option isn’t entirely feasible. However, if I’m looking to fly to Paris sometime in April, I can probably afford to determine whether or not it will cost me more to fly out on the 11th than it would to fly out on the 13th before I settle on my dates.
3. Beware the plight of the inexpensive fare class.
Though tools like Matrix Airfare Search are awesome at highlighting the lowest cost flights across a given month, they are not as adept at differentiating between the pros and cons of the fare classes that you’re booking for a given price. It’s all fun and games when you find a flight from DC to Cali for $60 roundtrip (outlandish example warning)…..until you realize you’ll be paying separate fees for your carry-on luggage, your seating assignment and essentially the air that you breathe in-flight. This low-cost, high add-on fare structure is a popular tenet of the year 2017 and is usually denoted by the phrase “Basic Economy.” If the fare works for you and the additional cost of your seating assignment and carry-on luggage still amount to less than the cost of a standard Economy ticket, then Basic Economy couldn’t hurt. In my experience, it’s just high up on the list of comparison points that I consider prior to reaching the flight ticket confirmation page.
4. All airlines are not made equal.
Everything I explained in point #3 applies here - just think airline selection instead of fare class. If you're looking for a 3-hour flight for a quick trip, it may not matter as much to you whether or not your seats will be plush and your in-flight meal will be edible. However, for those longer, international flights, doing your due diligence on sites like airlineratings.com can go a long way. Saving a dollar can sometimes be the difference between a comfortable flight experience and a nightmarish one, but it's entirely up to you to decide what you can and can't tolerate in a travel experience.
5. Use multiple modes to search if you need to.
If you’re a phone app, sit-back-and-wait kind of person, I recommend using the Hopper app. In the same way that you can use Matrix Airfare Search to search exact dates or flexible dates for flights from one destination to another, you can also conduct a specific search in Hopper. The best part about Hopper is that you’ll receive alerts based on the trips that you’re “watching” and the tool will recommend whether or not you should purchase your trip now or wait for a better fare. Hopper is essentially the genie of flight purchases. Or the Fairly OddParent. Whichever you prefer. Either way, it’s saved me hundreds - though, yes, these savings have sometimes come through the guise of Basic Economy tickets.
6. Don't stop 'til you get enough (information on taxes and fees).
No matter which search engine I’m using, I like to get all the way to the finish line to compare final prices across the various apps/sites that I’m using before I make my decision. You know how angry you get when you add an item to your Seamless/Grubhub bag and go to checkout only to realize that your meal costs $7.99 but the delivery fee is somehow $1,563.24? That’s exactly how duped I typically feel when I think I’ve gotten a steal on a flight fare but the taxes and fees knock the final price of the ticket into Wonderland. To avoid this disappointment, it often helps to add the ticket to the cart, move ALL the way through the checkout process until you've reached the point at which you’re asked to submit your order and see how the final prices compare across search engines at that point. At least at that level, you’re calling a spade a true spade.
7. The source is the plug.
Finally, once I’ve found the lowest cost fare, I usually visit the website of the airline carrier of choice to book the actual flight. Sometimes the search engines will take you straight to the merchant, but Hopper in particular requires that you purchase tickets through their app. Why does that matter? Because of the two words that govern my entire existence: REWARDS POINTS. More on that at a later date, but when you can rack up your points instead of booking through a third party that doesn’t allow you to get credit for them, do!
Happy hunting! 'Tis the season for seasonal flight deals, friends.