Booking a Flight the Frugal Way
Booking a Flight the Frugal Way
By MATT GROSS - New York Times, 2/16/2010
It used to be so simple. You wanted to go to Paris, so you called a travel agency, gave them your dates and budget, and with any luck, you soon had in your hands a real paper ticket with a real dollar value. Even in the early days of the Internet, it was easier. You went to one of the few booking sites ó Travelocity or Expedia, most likely ó searched for your route, paid with a credit card and that was it. Maybe you even got a paper ticket in the mail. Those were the days!

Today, however, booking a flight is a total mess. Travelocity and Expedia have been joined by Bing and Orbitz and Dohop and Vayama and CheapTickets and CheapOair and Kayak and SideStep and Mobissimo and and and Ö I could go on and list every single Web site out there, but I wonít. There are just too many. Instead, Iíll lead you through the steps I make when Iím booking a flight myself.

Iíve covered this territory a bit before ó here and here ó but today Iíll try to go into more detail. For this experiment, letís imagine a simple domestic trip: a weekend of snowboarding in Jackson Hole in Wyoming at the beginning of March.

My first stop is, as itís been for years now, Kayak.com. Itís the simplest airfare search engine ó minimal graphics, no discount vacation deals to confuse me, and it searches almost every other site out there ó and also the most flexible. I can not only choose a window for my departure and arrival times but also decide where I want (or donít want) to spend a layover, or which frequent-flier alliance to stick with.

Kayak gives me two decent-looking options: $231 on American Airlines (Newark to Jackson via Chicago) and $241 for Delta (via Atlanta); taxes and fees included in both figures. Iím lucky here ó I have gold status on American, so I can avoid the checked-baggage fees for my snowboard.

Of course, I donít stop there. Next, Iíll check ITASoftware.com, a somewhat complicated site that makes it feel as if youíre a travel agent tapping into unusual, semisecret routes. Maybe thereís a faster way to Wyoming, perhaps through Minneapolis? Not this time. For the Jackson Hole trip, ITA finds the same American Airlines itinerary, pricing it at $230 instead of $231. Frankly, itís a pretty normal trip, so there are no surprises. And anyway, ITA doesnít let you book tickets, instead directing you to other sites or travel agents.

So, I check out another site: cFares.com, which has a twist. For a $50 annual membership, youíll get small rebates if you book through them. Each rebate may be only $8 or $20, but if you fly several times a year, that can add up quickly. And last spring, cFares found me a flight from New York to Paris for $543.17, or about $200 less than any other search engine found.

For my theoretical ski trip, cFares knocks that $241 Delta flight down to $229 via the rebate (clicking the link sends you to Orbitz to book), but it doesnít bring up the American flight at all.

And so, finally, if I were going to book this trip, Iíd go straight to AA.com, login with my frequent-flier account and buy my ticket right there. Except Ö Iíve waited too long! In the couple of hours between when I first started searching and when I eventually decided to book, the fares have gone way up ó the flight is now $298. Still, because I have status on American, itís the better deal.

Or is it? Will the price go down? For that, I check Farecast.com (which has been absorbed into Bing) and Yapta.com, which track airfares and can predict ó based on historical data and knowledge of the airlinesí pricing systems ó if a price is going to go up or down in the near future. In this case, Bing/Farecast says buy, so I guess I will, even though Iím a little skeptical of their methods. In light of volatile oil prices, pandemic panics and the generally unpredictable future of travel, I donít know how much to trust these virtual prognosticators. At some point, I have to perform an important, very personal calculation: is it worth my time to keep searching ó and to keep worrying that Iím missing out on a better deal? Or should I just go for it and accept that Iíve found a decent fare?

For an international flight, things are slightly more complicated. Letís imagine Iím going to Bangkok in early April (as I very well might be). For this trip, my dates are a bit more open-ended, as is the amount of time Iím willing to take to get to Thailand. So, Iíll again start with Kayak, checking out its airfare matrix, a calendar-based grid that appears when I enter my origin, destination and the month Iím traveling. Kayak.com

Each day of the calendar has a dollar figure showing the lowest possible fare with a departure for that date. Click on the day (April 1 in this case) and a long list appears, with fares ranging from ď$950+Ē to ď$1400+Ē and boxes that let me specify how long of a trip I want: 1-4 days, 5-9 days, 10-14 days or 15+ days. Ten to 14 sounds reasonable, a choice that lands me a one-stop flight (thereís no longer a nonstop, alas) with Cathay Pacific at ď$1,165+.Ē That plus sign is important, because now I have to click ďCheck nowĒ and find out what the fare will really be Ö Surprise! It really is $1,165.

If, however, I do the search again, specifying flexible dates, I come up with a bunch of $1,000 options on Air China. Which do I go for?

Thatís when I start checking other sites. First is Vayama.com, a booking site that specializes in international flights and claims to have access to private deals unavailable elsewhere. And Vayama comes through pretty well, finding a $1,048 fare on Asiana (taxes and fees included) and, intriguingly, a $1,230 fare on a Oneworld Alliance airline. Which one? I wonít know until I book, but since American Airlines is a Oneworld member, my frequent-fliergold status might garner me an upgrade, or at least the chance to earn a bunch of miles and request a better seat.

Meanwhile, cFares finds that same $1,048 fare on Asiana (actually, it finds it on Vayama, and on CheapoAir.com) and offers a respectable $30 rebate. Not bad. Now I just need to decide: would I prefer to fly through Seoul (on Asiana) or Beijing (on Air China), or do I want to plump an extra $200 for several thousand frequent-flier miles on American?

Honestly, I donít know. But I should probably make up my mind soon, before the airlines get wind of my plans.

Still, however, there are a few more little things I do to game the system as much as possible. I try to fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, when fares tend to be a little lower (though not always) and fewer people mob the airports (though not always). I go to SeatExpert.com to find the best spot in the plane to park myself. (Sorry, SeatGuru.com!) And I try always to buy the ticket directly through the airline, partly to maximize frequent-flier miles, partly because the airlines sometimes have special deals that donít show up on Kayak, but also so that if things go wrong at the airport (as Iíve heard happens on very rare occasions) the airline wonít be able to blame some third-party booker.

None of this, of course, is foolproof. Fares go up or down seemingly at random, routes change or evaporate or come into being according to no logic I can discern, and what I imagine would be an empty flight could turn out to be full of rowdy high-schoolers on a class trip. (Theyíre worse than babies, seriously.) But traveling well (and frugally) means being ready for the unexpected ó even when it happens long before you ever get on the plane.