Flying on a budget
Every budget traveler knows that flying is by far the most expensive way of transportation - which personally I find a good thing because flying is also the only way of transportation for which they haven’t found an environmentally friendly fuel yet, but that’s not what this post is about - but from time to time there is no way to get around it.
You need to cross the pacific, you need to visit your girlfriend in Zimbabwe for her birthday, you need to get in time to Koh Phangan for the full moon party or you want to get to London for William and Kate’s wedding.
We all know what this means, the next month or two, there will be no parties, no eating out and a lot of working to buy that expensive ticket.
Well not necessarily. In this post I will show you how to pay the most for a plane ticket, but also how to pay the least.
Every time as I walk by a travel agency, I keep wondering who the hell is still going there. In these times of cheap Internet shouldn’t everybody be booking their travels online? Apparently not. There are still lots of people afraid of the Internet, afraid to be scammed, afraid to get their credit card copied or to arrive at a destination that doesn’t look at the picture on the website, if it exists at all. This results in an abundance of travel agencies. I live in a town of about 25 thousand people, and I can think of at least three agencies.
A big misunderstanding is that travel agencies will find the best price for your flight and hotel because they look in a database. Unfortunately, this database does not contain all information on every flight or hotel, but only on the ones in their alliance. Which are often not more than three. If a car rental company would say that their cheapest car is an Austin Martin, people probably wouldn’t take it. So why are they taking a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Barcelona?
The friendly face on the other side of the desk also does not help you for free, so next to your expensive flight, you also get an administration cost to pay. And believe me, typing a couple of numbers and scanning your ID can be damn expensive.
Do the Internet
What the pretty girl at the travel agency does is something you can do yourself too, and even better. There are a lot of websites that allow you to search databases of airlines for the cheapest solution to fly from place x to place y on date z.
A couple of good examples are:
It’s very important to check a couple of those websites to find the cheapest flights as they don’t work with the same information.
Let’s give it a try, suppose I want to fly from Brussels (Belgium) to Managua (Nicaragua) within three months. Skyscanner tells me that I can do this with Condor Airlines for 499 €. Supposing that most travel agencies work with national airlines, the closest to a national airline is KLM, which will charge me for the same trip - …wait for it … - 1471 €. Now you do the math.
Just like travel agencies, these websites do not offer their services for free. When you book the flight through their website, an additional service fee will be added. And you didn’t even get to see the pretty girl processing your request.
So only use them as a guideline, find the cheapest airline company and book through their website.
Low cost airlines
The problem with online flight search engines is that they can’t cover every possible connection from every place to every other place. They are good, sometimes even great, but still not excellent.
For example low cost airlines are often left out. Skyscanner - of which I think it’s the best - has low cost airlines in its database, but no connecting flights. The simple reason for this is because the airline companies don’t support them. This means that if you have two flights of a low cost company after each other and you miss the second one, you lose it. The company is not responsible, so the search engines don’t want to take responsibility either.
It’s possible to take two low cost flights after each other, but it’s at your own risk and you have to know where to find them.
A good place to start is here: http://www.flylowcostairlines.org
This website provides an overview of low cost airlines and the airports they fly from and it has a great search engine.
Once you know which low cost airlines are available in the airports of your departure and arrival, the next step is to visit the websites of those airlines to check if there are alternate, cheaper routes. What if you take a stop more? What if you fly with different companies? What if you sleep over on a stop? What if you fly from or to a different airport?
To find the ideal route this way, you need to have some knowledge about what’s flying around. Most airline companies have a map on their website where you can easily see their routes and stops. Lay them next to each other and try to figure out which route will be the easiest, fastest or cheapest.
Low cost airlines come with a lot of disadvantages too, first of all they often don’t work with the connecting flights principle, so if your first flight is late the airline company does not take care of getting you to your final destination. They also tend to put more seats in the plane and they generally don’t serve any free food. At certain places they fly to alternative airports, which may be located a lot further from the city centre.
And then there are the extra costs. There’s a huge fee for luggage, an even larger one for not checking in online, there’s an additional fee for credit card payments and more often than not the taxes still need to be added at the end.
Ryanair - the most famous low cost company in Europe - is even planning to let their passengers pay for toilet use and to give a discount when they stand in the plane. Especially toilet use might be a variable factor in your calculations.
But if you eat at home, don’t take any checked in luggage and don’t have to pee very often, there are now possibilities to fly for a little more than nothing. People just have to give in on comfort.
To wait or not to wait
A general rule is that the earlier you book the cheaper your seat will be. This is because most of the airlines increase their prices when the plane is getting full. The first twenty seats cost the least, the next fifty are a little more expensive, the next fifty are more expensive and so on. So whenever you know for sure you’re going to take a certain flight, book it. Of course this leads to the question whether or not to take an insurance, because you never know what will happen within the four months before your flight. I almost never take insurance because I also almost never get seriously ill and no one of my family or friends is about to die soon. But this is completely up to you. My advice is to compare the price of an insurance with what it would cost you if you missed the flight, add a factor of certainty and decide if it’s worth the risk or not.
“What about last minutes?” one might ask. I almost never wait for last minute flights to appear for two important reasons. First of all, most of the time last minutes come in a flight-hotel package deal and secondly it oddly happens that there is a last minute flight on the right date to the right place like I want it to be.
There are exceptions. For long haul flights to popular destinations, a last minute package deal might be cheaper than a single flight. If you’re planning to visit Thailand during high season, you may find a deal to Pataya which cost less than a flight to Bangkok. And nobody says you actually have to sleep in the hotel.
If you decide only one or two weeks before to go somewhere, it’s also interesting to look at the last minutes. The flights will be expensive anyway, so why not give it a try?
But in general, last minutes will not be what you’re looking after.
One last tip is when you’re traveling to a third world region - with which I mean almost everywhere that is not Europe, USA or Canada - NEVER EVER book domestic flights upfront. Unless you’re on a very tight schedule.
Experience taught me that there are always small local airline companies that will charge you a lot less than the companies in your home country will do. If you’re lucky you might fly from a small airport and skip airline taxes. If you’re unlucky, you fly with an old plane of Air Rwanda and you disappear somewhere above the jungle...
It’s all about risk calculation.
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