Tricks and Secrets
The single biggest cost of your trip is going to be flight tickets unless you are traveling to buy a Japanese watermelon or a cantaloupe. The research might seem daunting, but once you get into the swing of things it is less of a chore than it looks. Besides, when you eventually come away with The Mother of All Cheap Flights, you will have beaten the system and feel victorious.
My three-pronged attack
In 2010 I flew from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Bogota, Colombia for $83 one way including all taxes. I am sure it was impossible to find the flight on Orbitz, Kayak, Momondo, or whatever the booking engine du jour is, so how did I come across it? By first figuring out all the airlines that flew into anywhere in Colombia from anywhere in USA. I have a three-pronged attack to follow the budget airline action. First I check whichbudget.com, one of my favorite resources, but it isn’t always comprehensive nor up to date (and every time there is a redesign, it is less user-friendly.) It shows you what airlines fly from or to what cities. It helps if you already have a good sense of geography to know that an airport down the road might be a more convenient/cheaper alternative. This is especially true in Germany, which seems to have an international airport every 50km. In the case of Colombia, I had been there the year before and I knew they were pushing regional airports to decentralize travel to the capital, so I checked Medellin, Cali, and Cartagena–any and every international airport–as well as Bogota.
However, this flight wasn’t on whichbudget.com. I then checked the official website for my destination airport, comparing it to wikipedia.com’s entry for the same airport for the most up-to-date information on which airlines and charters are coming and going. I went to Bogota airport’s website and I noticed that Aires, a formerly all-domestic carrier, was flying to Florida as a new route and when I went to their website, lo and behold, they had a crazy-cheap introductory sale I couldn’t pass up. There are lots of flights like this under the radar. This is especially true for leisure destinations between the Mediterranean to northern Europe as airlines and new routes come and go.
An interesting resource I like referring once in a while to is anna.aero for the newest airline routes. New routes can often mean cheap introductory fares.
Just showing up at the airport is an option, too. I have done this in Malaga, Spain, and I flew the next day to Frankfurt for US$105 on a cheesy airline I had never heard of before–and I like knowing about obscure airlines—called Aero Flight. Sometimes when you discover a flight possibility you still have to do some detective work to track down these companies and then see if you can convince them to sell you a one-way ticket.
I did the same from the airport in Antalya, Turkey to Leipzig, Germany. Since I hitchhike, I rarely think of a narrow destination, but rather a region, especially if the flight doesn’t arrive too late in the day, giving me the chance to go somewhere else upon arrival. I had no reason to go to Leipzig itself, but it led to one of my all-time hitchhiking stories when a trapeze artist picked me up and—but let’s not get distracted now.
The Majesty and Glory of One-Way Tickets
In a perfect world, flights would be like most trains and buses: round trip costs double one way, no fee to change dates, and price is the same whether bought one day or one month before. The airline industry has conspired to not work this way, but more often than not, I find a deal and go with one-way tickets.
Unless your trip must end by a certain date, who wouldn’t want the freedom a one-way ticket offers? A round-trip ticket–a fixed date to return–is like a straitjacket. Go home when you want to go home, not when an airline is holding an arbitrary date-change fee over your head like a guillotine. Airlines have brought all my antipathy upon themselves with their crazy fees to change a date. It is a ten-second process and yet some airlines charge up to US$250 to do it.
What if your plans change? What if there’s an emergency at home? What if you fall in love and need to follow Helga back to Norway? What if you want to take an intensive Filipino cooking class–OK, that will never happen, but the point is that a one-way ticket is freedom. The clock isn’t ticking. You don’t have to be held to a fixed time and can move on when you want to move on. So what’s the answer? Seeking out those rare one-way deals and then using the requisite fake onward e-tickets.
Everyone assumes one-way tickets are expensive because they don’t know where to look. Often they do cost more then half round trip, but if it isn’t too much more, I’d rather have that than be stuck with a ticket that is expensive to change the date and where I have to make a loop to come back to the same place to fly out. Consider, too, that on a round-trip ticket you can rarely if ever make a routing or name change and you have to pay to make a date change every single time. There are few things worse in life than having to pay for a date change more than once.
The worst-case scenario has happened where I had to buy a one-way ticket at the last minute. Maybe I have been lucky, but it’s never cost an arm and a leg. I was in Cairo once when I had to rush home–just before Christmas, no less–but I flew from Cairo to Fresno, a podunk California cow-town, for $710. Not bad.
The Ancillary Benefit of Not Budgeting
This nicely blends in with the benefit of not worrying so much about a budget. On travel forums I see countless questions from people obsessed with how much they need for their trip. It’s an impossible question for someone to know how much another person will spend. Why not just go with the flow and before the money runs out, you buy a ticket and go home. Easy! Less stress! What do people do now? Buy a round-trip ticket and pray that you don’t need to change the date—if you are even allowed to?
Creeping website flight prices–urban legend?
If life is too short to deal with the airlines’ shenanigans, I understand if you want a simple round trip, something that will preferably accrue miles. Researching for the best flight deal is, at best, time-consuming. It can feel like a lot of work and things change. Plus, there are superstitions: Search after midnight! Fly on Tuesdays! Book early! Subscribe to all the airlines’ boring newsletters! Who has the time and desire to stay on top of this stuff?
Plus, there is “flight price creep” contend with. I’ve always felt like a half-baked conspiracy theorist about this, but I have some vindication with this CNN article. On some airline and travel booking websites, if you search for a flight, search the same flight again later, and again another time, suddenly you see the price creeping up. It is the software on the website prodding you to act and stop being a Looky Loo. To thwart this, you have to use another computer from another IP address or clear the cookies from your computer–whatever it takes for the website to think you are a new user.
What about travel agents?
In some cities abroad people gravitate towards travel agents if they are numerous on the ground, but don’t assume they sell the cheapest tickets. If at all possible, it’s worth going to the source to inquire about tickets, meaning straight from the airlines’ offices. This is especially true in Bangkok, a travel hub if there ever was one. Don’t trust the scuzzy, hostile travel agents on Khao San Road, go to the airlines’ offices scattered around the Silom Road/Patpong area (there’s your excuse as to why you are always hanging around Patpong). Another reason is that the airlines have more control over capacity; they can scrounge up a seat on a “full” flight more easily than a travel agent. Plus—and this could be important—any customer service need you will have will be more convenient and efficient to do straight from the airline, too.
On the other hand, I miss the good old days of Khao San Road where someone sitting out in a dusty alley with nothing more than a desk and a phone could sell you a plane ticket.
One city name, but two airports?
Does everyone know by now that you have to be careful with secondary airport locations such as Duesseldorf/Weeze, Frankfurt/Hahn, Paris/Beauvais and Oslo/Torp? None of the airports are even close to the cities they are attached to. Ryanair and the discount airlines like to make these associations to give the impression they are near, but I hear plenty of stories of people getting mixed up and having their trips ruined. Make sure you check that three-digit airport code first.
This confusing phenomenon is most prevalent in Europe but lots of big cities have at least two airports (Sao Paulo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Tokyo) and already people get Orlando and Orlando-Sanford mixed up, which is a real problem since the latter has no public transportation. (Can you imagine an international airport with dozens of flights from seven airlines and zero public transport options? Welcome to Orlando-Sanford! Check out their dreadful website if you don’t believe me. The rental car mafia have a stranglehold on it.)
You need to approach your discount flight as lean as possible. Almost all budget airlines nickel and dime you in cynical ways, such as using a credit card where you have no other choice, but also for checking in bags, seat selection, extra leg room, faster boarding, blankets, pillows, drinks, meals, and anything else they can think of. I always thought Ryanair was joking about charging to use the toilet, but they intend to go through with it while taking out some toilets in the aircraft and adding seats. AirAsia makes you opt out if you don’t want insurance, and it isn’t so straightforward to do. Check out Wizz Air’s list of fees as an example.
At a minimum I bring food and water on the plane. I put an empty bottle through the x-ray machine and on the other side in the terminal I fill it up again. Usually I am on the fence as to whether I need to check my bag in, but the problem is that they charge a lot more to check it in at the airport than online at the time you buy your ticket, so I have to know ahead of time.
Read the website closely so you aren’t surprised later by fees and pray you don’t have a customer service issue where you need to actually talk to someone or you might start a website like wizzairsucks.com–which does exist. In fact, so many people hate the endless fees and lack of any customer service on discount airlines that you can take just about any airline name and add “sucks.com” and you are bound to see an interesting site. Yes, for this reason I already bought TheDromomaniacSucks.com.
The lesson of Oasis Hong Kong
Avoid taking the inaugural flight of an airline. This is only based on the true story of the now-defunct, discount airline, Oasis Hong Kong. A plane full of happy people in Hong Kong who each paid about US$150 to go to London, sitting on the tarmac, and then at the last minute the Russians deny them permission to fly over their airspace, saying that no one had bothered to inform them. Oops! Everyone had to go home and try again tomorrow.
So, are you interested in the details, the nitty gritty? Go get a cold drink and a giant globe and check out the next section on how to travel cheaply all over the world on one-way tickets!