Air Travel Tricks I’ve Recently Learned

Derek Transportation, Travel Tips & Advice 99 Comments

As travelers trying to stretch every dollar we have, it only becomes natural that we should try and find the absolute cheapest airfare we possibly can when it comes time for us to fly somewhere. As a result, I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves at some point staring at the computer screen after an hour of flight research, trying to decide whether or not to fly to Cairo on British Airways or to save $150 bucks and fly with Bob’s Flying Bathtubs instead.

And the fact that saving $150 happens to require us to fly to four different continents, spend two nights on airport floors and finally arrive in Cairo at a most inconvenient 2:30am, doesn’t seem to matter. Saving that money is much more important.

Let me share two examples of my ‘low cost’ flying experiences…

Example 1:

When I needed to travel from Bangkok to Dhaka, Bangladesh, no other airline could beat the $90 fare being offered by Bhiman Bangladesh, the country’s official airline. However, as soon as I arrived at Bangkok’s airport, the fun began. Not only was the flight ultimately delayed 11 hours, but when we finally did board the plane, all of the passengers were told to go directly to the rear of the aircraft because of a technical issue that affected the balance. People honestly sat on the floor, stood against walls and even let their children run up and down the aisles…during takeoff! Throw in windows that were duct-taped together, an unscheduled stop in Yangon, Myanmar and an eventual arrival time of 2:00am (which is what led to my kidnapping as soon as I stepped out of Dhaka’s airport) and I’m not quite sure this experience was worth the $50 I saved.

Example 2:

After spending a week looking for flights from NYC to Melbourne, Australia, I couldn’t find a single one-way fare for under $1000 USD. And so, I eventually decided to book a ticket with Qantas that involved only one stop along the way. However, before I hit the “Confirm Reservation” button, I did one last search on Kayak.com, where I suddenly found a flight on Malaysia Airlines for only $850. Without hesitation I booked it! Only after I received the confirmation email did I discover what this flight actually involved. I ended up with a 9 hour flight to Abu Dhabi, a 3 hour layover, a 6.5 hour flight to Bangkok, a 5 hour layover, a 1.5 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, a 27 hour layover (the airline did provide a free hotel room, although it was 1 hour outside of the city), an 8 hour flight to Sydney, a 4 hour layover and a 2 hour flight to Melbourne. I arrived at my final destination some 66 hours after I had left NYC!

So, is saving money on flights worth all of that?

MY THOUGHTS

Saving money on flights is just groovy, especially considering the long, long list of other things that we’d rather spend that money on once we actually arrive at our destination (street food, I’m thinking about you). As a result, it’s no wonder that airlines such as AirAsia, AirArabia, Jetstar and EasyJet are quite often the airlines of choice for budget travelers.

However, I’ve now learned that what appears to be attractively low airfares offered by these budget airlines are often not really that much of a bargain. Once you add up all of the fees, I found that it’s not uncommon for the prices offered by budget airlines to be just a few dollars less than what a major airline is offering.

A good example of this is in Thailand. You can fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on AirAsia for around $40 USD, but once the fees and taxes are all added in, that fare jumps to around $65 USD. And a flight on Thai Airways or, even better, Bangkok Airways (which provides an airport lounge with free wi-fi, quite decent food, drinks and comfortable seating for ALL of its passengers) can often be found for around the same price.

Therefore, it always pays to check the fares available on other airlines before booking any flight with an ultra-budget airline. If the price difference is minimal, I’ll go with the major airline every time, not only because the service is generally better and the entire process simpler but because I’m able to earn frequent flyer miles with the frequent flyer programs of which I am a member.

Of course, I’m not denying that sometimes budget airlines are the way to go. When I recently flew from Bali to Singapore, AirAsia offered a fare that was $150 less than every other airline. It was a no-brainer, especially since it was only a 2 hour flight. I’m a fan of budget airlines in these instances, but unless I can save a great deal of money, I usually opt for other airlines.

COMFORT MAXIMIZATION STRATEGIES

Whichever way you go, here are a couple of tricks I’ve learned that have helped maximize my comfort during a flight without paying a premium for it, no matter which airline I happen to be flying.

First, I never pay for extra options, especially those pertaining to seating assignments. I won’t pay to choose my seat, I won’t pay to board before other people and I won’t pay for the right to push elderly passengers out of the way if they’re headed for a seat I have my eye on.

What I do instead is take a quick glance at the online seating map before confirming my reservation. It is this simple map that holds the key to my comfort.

Airline Seating Map

If the seating map is full, with almost no regular (fee-free) coach seats to choose from, I celebrate. And then I show up at the airport check-in counter as late as possible. Knowing that it’s a full flight, there’s a high chance that all of the regular economy seats will have been assigned to other passengers by this point, leaving the airline with no choice but to give me a premium economy seat instead. And since I didn’t ‘choose’ this seat myself, I am not forced to pay the extra fee for all of that extra legroom.

On the other hand, if the seating map is almost empty when I make my booking, allowing me to choose almost any seat I want, I also celebrate (but I still don’t choose a seat). And then I show up at the airport and kindly ask the agent if I can please have a row all to myself knowing that there is plenty of space available.

Of course, I generally book my flights within one or two weeks of flying, which is also what makes these methods effective. If you book a flight months in advance, you’ll need to log-in to your reservation and have a glance at the seat map a few days before your departure date in order to determine the seating situation. And then you’ll be able to use the above tactics.

ONE SEAT LEFT, TWO PEOPLE TRAVELING

Speaking of tactics…

Last year, when I needed to fly from NYC to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it was JetBlue Airlines that offered the best fare (as they often do). However, there was one minor problem.

There were two of us traveling together but every time I entered “2 Passengers” into the flight search engine, the low $89 fare didn’t appear and instead, I was given a fare of $229 per person. Every time I entered “1 Passenger”, the $89 fare appeared on the screen but with a notation that there was only 1 seat left at this price.

1 Seat Left

So, I decided to do a little experiment. Using two separate computers, Liz and I each booked the ‘last remaining seat’ at the $89 fare, being sure to press the “Confirm Reservation” buttons at the exact same time on each of our computers. And sure enough, we both ended up paying $89.

I’ve now used this trick a couple of more times, once while booking tickets on Virgin Blue in Australia, once with Jetstar Airlines and most recently with Continental. And each time, that ‘1 remaining seat’ magically became 2 seats!

As a result, I’ve saved over $500, money which I was then able to spend on street food instead 🙂


Do you have any other air travel advice or tricks to share? Please do share!

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Comments 99

  1. CJ

    I know this was originally from years ago, but I will put in my 2¢ worth —or maybe $2.00

    About booking 2 individual seats at the same time: I think on some online sites, you can cancel within 24 hours, so if you are booking far enough ahead, if it doesn’t work, then you might be able to cancel and try booking elsewhere.

    If you are friends, before you hit the enter key, you could agree to split the cost. So if one of you gets a ticket for $89 and the other for $229, you could agree to split the cost at $159 —not as good as $89 each but better than $229.

    As for the cost versus air time and layovers: I don’t want to spend any more time on flights and especially just hanging out at airports than I have to. I weigh the time I will spend getting there against the cost. I am looking for flights to Brazil for next year (2017) and I’ve seen flights from my home city to Rio that range from 15 hours to 33 hours. I’m OK with up to about 19 hours, if I can get an excellent deal, but beyond that, I’ll pay a little more. On long flights, I plan to get up occasionally to walk up and down the aisles to prevent blood clots and stretch —and as a senior, I need to use the rest room more often than I used to.

    The only exception is that if there is a flight to a city not on my itinerary, but that I wouldn’t mind seeing, and if the layover is long enough (and not in the middle of the night) I might opt for that flight. For example, a couple of the flights I am considering are from the U.S. but are on Canadian airlines. Some have a lengthy layover in Toronto and others have a long layover in São Paulo. We’ve never been to Toronto, so if we could walk around the city and have a meal there, that would be OK. I’ve been to S.P. but my husband has not, so he wouldn’t mind being there for a few hours although that isn’t one of our destinations. We would not want to cram both of those into a 24 hour period, but if one was on the flight going and one coming home, we might accept that as a little bonus of a side trip for a reduced cost and a longer trip. You just have to make sure you can leave the airport and be back in time and that your layover isn’t in a third country that may require an expensive visa. (There are flights to Brazil that go through Panama City, Bogota, or Lima and none of those need visas, but Brazil requires one.)

    As to ground transportation, I was in Brazil in 2011 and purchased a Brazil air pass for 4 flights around the country, but I wanted to go to one more city and two of my destinations were about 4 hours apart by bus. When you consider you have to be at the airport about 2 hours early, and that most airports are outside of town, while bus stations are in town and therefore it takes less time to get there, it’s not that much different. The regular bus was full, so for a little more, I booked the “gold service” bus. It was a double decker with seats on the second tier which gave nice scenic views. The seats had more leg room than the regular bus and an attendant served cafezinho (little cups of coffee) during the trip. (Unfortunately Brazilians often serve coffee already sweetened with about 1/2 cup of sugar per serving.)

    South America (and other places) have air passes. When I traveled in 2011, the Brazil air pass was definitely a bargain, but when I checked individual flights this time, it would be cheaper to book one-way flights around the country. I might be able to fit in 5 or 6 flights for the same cost as an air pass for 4 flights. Airfares usually include all fees in the price, but the air pass doesn’t, so it will be more than stated —you might have to call for the final cost to check the price. The air pass also has some restrictions. You can’t fly the same route in the same direction twice. If connecting flights have more than a 4 hour layover, they count as 2 flights. On some flights, there are additional fees above the cost of the air pass. You have to book and pay for all air pass flights before you leave home. (You can change flights for a fee.) And only a certain number of flights are available for the air pass. If the cost is the same or less, you don’t need to deal with those restrictions by booking individual flights.

    I also discovered that in a few cases, it is cheaper to go from point B to point A than from A to B. We rarely care in what order we travel, so we can arrange flights accordingly.

    It’s also good to look at city maps to see where airports are. The last time I was in Rio, I was going to stay with a friend who was much closer to the domestic rather than the international airport. She said the taxi fare from the international airport would have been about 3X as much.

    We are senior citizens so we plan a few rest days into our itinerary if we will be traveling more than 2 weeks. The first time I was in Brazil, I was 22. I spent a month traveling by bus, always catching late buses so I could sleep on the bus (& not pay for a hotel room that night.) I was running from venue to venue for about 16 to 18 hours a day, offing walking as much as 10 miles per day in a large city, and had tons of energy, even without a lot of sleep. But now, we plan a few days when we will sleep a little later, perhaps take a city bus tour or find a quiet park or botanical garden to take an easy stroll, or maybe attend a classical concert in the afternoon rather than running from place to place every day.

    The late trick might not work those days. Airlines seem to pack in the passengers like sardines. I was on a flight from AZ to the east coast in 2005 with a friend. There were rows and rows of empty seats, so we lowered the arm rests and each stretched out on 3 seats. The next time I traveled to AZ (2013) there wasn’t an empty seat anywhere coming or going.

    But if there is an empty seat, I wonder if they would give me one with more leg room to stretch out an arthritic knee. (Sometimes being old has advantages.)

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