Beat the System, Sort Of

How to Get the Best Deal on Flights


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T
he way airlines price flights can be unfair. In fact, they constantly fluctuate their prices in order to confuse travelers and force them into booking more expensive flights, according to Wojciech Borkowski, co-founder and Chief Flight Hacker at Flightfox, an online booking and travel-planning company. So finding a good deal can be difficult, especially when you consider that there are over 30 million flights scheduled per year — about one flight per second. A simple trip from San Francisco to Boston can be flown in more than 10,000 ways, meaning direct or through several different hubs, according to Borkowski, and every way can have different and ever-changing price tag attached to it.

Flight search engines like Kayak and Skiplagged can help. They use unique algorithms to find the best combination of flights and the best way to price them. That said, the quality of these booking sites can vary greatly, and checking all of them can be time consuming — time better spent packing and getting organized for your trip. At Flightfox, Borkowski said they “use human expertise and deep technical analysis to score travelers the best deals.” To streamline the booking process, and still get the best deal on flights, we asked Borkowski for some insider secrets.

The more flights (and more overall miles), the less money spent. It sounds counterintuitive, but airlines know that passengers tend to choose direct flights over connecting flights (obviously), so they price non-stop tickets at a premium. For instance, a New York-to-Los Angeles non-stop flight probably will cost more than Washington-to-NYC-to-Los Angeles flight. Also, with international flights, he suggests that one-way flights are often more expensive than round trips.

Find out what a good price for your particular flight is. Otherwise, how will you know what a good deal is? Borkowski recommends checking the flight’s price on random nearby dates, and then compare those to what you’ve previously found. This way you can ballpark the flight’s average price and see if you’re about to book below or above it. Obviously, prices are inflated during high seasons, like around holidays, so also take that into account.

Check in early to score the best seat. All economy seats are not created equal. Seats in the exit row have much more legroom. They can be booked for a moderate fee, and sometimes they can come free at check-in. “Always make sure to check in online as soon as possible (usually exactly 24 hours before the flight) to score the best seat. Often, the best seats cannot be selected before check in, and once they are available, they’re often free to choose.” Pro tip: If there are two rows of exit row seats, always book the second row. The first exit row, more times than not, offers limited reclining.

Make your own business class. “As much as flying international business class with flat beds and unlimited flow of champagne is an amazing experience, such tickets usually run at two-to-five times the cost of economy,” Borkowski warned. As it turns out, upgrading within economy can be more cost effective. Few people know that, for between $30 and $50, most travelers can pay to enter an airline’s airport business lounge. It’s a less-crowded area with armchairs and sofas, for one, with free food and drinks; many even have showers and spa treatments. It’s worth noting that access to these lounges can come free with certain credit cards.

Bags aren’t what they used to be. (They’re expensive.) Many airlines now charge separately for carry-on and checked bags, advised Borkowski. They’ve also unbundled many of their previously free offerings, like ability to change seats (if vacant), meals and in-flight movies. “Before booking, always click through to the last page and add all the extras to get the full picture a make a smarter choice,” said Borkowski. If you aren’t careful, the cheap option could turn into an expensive one. To help you out, some booking companies, like Flightfox, give an upfront final price that includes all these potential hidden fees.

Apply for an airline co-branded credit card. These cards are sponsored by both an airline and a card network, like MasterCard, Visa or American Express. They help travelers earn miles for each dollar spent, but they also often award the cardholder a generous sign-up bonus. “You can use the miles for (almost) free travel,” said Borkowski. “Most credit cards will earn you enough miles (through the sign-up bonus) to pay for a round-trip to Europe.”

Be ready to sacrifice your frequent flyer miles. When choosing flights, many travelers often opt for the more expensive option — that way they can amass more miles. While Borkowski suggested that this is a great strategy for those flying over 50,000 miles a year (with a single airline or alliance), it actually costs the average traveler more than the miles earned are actually worth. “In the past years airlines drastically cut down the number of miles earned in economy,” Borkowski said, “from 100 percent of distance flown down to 25 percent or even no miles at all.”

The best way to use frequent flyer miles is to redeem them for business or first-class flights. Some high-end credit cards will let travelers book international flights with the miles earned for getting the card, said Borkowski. (The retail value of such flights can be between $5,000 and $10,000.)

For domestic flights, check the price of first class. Upgrading to first class on a domestic flight has never been cheaper. On short flights, it can cost as low as $69. On longer flights, an upgrade will probably cost between $150 and $200. “Even if you booked economy, look out for upgrade offers in emails from the airline,” suggested Borkowski. “While it will always cost more than economy, the difference can be small and often worth it, as you will get free bags, food and drinks and a better seat.”

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