Thursday, August 15, 2013

Flight hacking for the rest of us

"Travel hackers" are the ninjas of the indie travel world, especially when you look at some of the airfares they manage to dig up. Without industry discounts or professional affiliations, these folks manage to find some ridiculously low fares, sometimes sacrificing themselves to bonkers routing or even "points runs" - doing a cross-country round trip in a day, for instance, to bump themselves up into the next points tier on their frequent flyer program.

I'm not one of these people. But I've happily collected their knowledge here for you, to make hacking just a little bit easier - for the rest of us.

Comparison-shopping for Plane Tickets

It is always worth checking international airfare comparison websites - they often check airlines that US-based sites (like Priceline, Orbitz, etc.) don't check.  Then, once you've found a price you like - of course noting taxes and fees - try finding the ticket on the airline's home site.  If possible, get someone on the phone or on Twitter - they can often come up with configurations for your travel that can save you money.

Just keep in mind that transatlantic fuel surcharges are in the $300 range (if you originate in the US), and for Asia, it can be $400-500.  So there will be times that frequent flier miles or other travel hacks might be necessary to cut down ticket costs!

It can be worthwhile to look at flight-comparison sites that are hosted internationally (as opposed to in the US).  Sometimes they can offer unique deals! Some of my favorites are:

My favorite flight comparison site is definitely Kayak, they search a wide array of airlines, and allow you to see up to a month of travel dates to pick the cheapest.  They also allow you to search +/-3 days of your travel dates, so if you've got some flexibility they can often find you deals!

Flightfox is a newcomer to the comparison-shopping scene, but I think it has real potential. Putting the power of true travel hackers at your fingertips, you put a reward up (in the neighborhood of $30), and hackers from all over the place try to find you the cheapest fare/best routing/anything else you ask for. The winner (who would have to save you over $30 to make it worth your while) gets to keep your reward money, and you get to sleep easy knowing you probably found the best fare out there. Win-win!

And here are some tips on using flexible-date searching when looking for tickets - definitely a money-saver!

Once you've found the ticket you want...

Once you find a ticket, use this little site to help you learn about all the fees charged by that airline - you can compare fees across multiple airlines if you find comparably priced ticket, to make sure you get the best deal. In similar news, Airfare Watchdog, which is a great resource for receiving airfare alerts when prices go down on a particular route, has also just come out with this airline fee comparison guide.

The Airlines Reporting Corporation (the middle man between travel agencies and airlines, keeps a record of every travel agent transaction) did a study: the lowest prices on airfare were found by people who buy 6 weeks in advance.  You really shouldn't book 330 days in advance (the earliest you can) – airlines don’t release their lowest prices then.  But if you book 4 months in advance, airlines begin to release lowest prices.

Also, consider booking on Tuesday or Wednesday - airline sales are announced on Mondays, then the next day (usually at 8am, 1pm, 3pm) competitors will be trying to match the announced sales.  Do not book on the weekend, because airlines don’t update with lower prices - they know people tend to book on weekends!

A lot of deals are now being announced on Twitter, and they often only last 3 or 4 hours so that booking engines (Expedia, etc.) can’t keep up to announce them on third-party sites - so follow airlines you like!

Don't forget to look at non-direct flights, and remember that 2 one way tickets might be cheaper than a round-trip.

Lastly, be wary of "premium seats" on planes-- they are not always premium, and do not always have more legroom.  Seat Guru will tell you whether the premium seat is worth paying extra for.

Frequent-Flyer Programs

I've written about frequent flyer programs here.  If you even THINK it might be useful to you, sign up for a program now - you don't want to do what I did, which is wait until you find the right program, and then realize all the trips you COULD have collected miles on (ahem, six flights back and forth from Boston to London...)!

This is one of the best sites to check out as you research programs or try to find the best ways to earn/redeem your miles.

Here is a brief description of some of the major frequent-flier rewards credit cards out there (applicable in the US).  Also includes links to the fine print on each card!

This is a great article, broken down by major US carriers, on how to get a more comfortable flying experience (often if you're willing to spend a little extra, but worth a look anyway!) 

(image via, under Creative Common attribution license)

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