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Buying airline tickets for your next adventure vacation - Part 2

Posted: Thursday, February 6, 2014

So after reading "Buying airline tickets for your next adventure vacation - Part 1" you have decided not to use a travel agent and that now is the time you should start looking. These recommendations are primarily for people who have to be somewhere on a specific date by a specific time. If you have flexibility, there are additional options that will be addressed in another blog post.

1. Do you live some place that Southwest Airlines serves and if so, do they fly to where you're going? Southwest has excluded themselves from all the search engines so the only place you can find their schedule and prices is on the Southwest website. Although they are no longer truly a discount airline, there are 3 reasons they are my airline of choice.

  • They don't charge baggage fees. If you need more than a carry on, this means you can subtract $50 - $100 from their price when you compare it to their competitors.
  • They have a great cancellation policy. They won't give you a refund, but you will have a credit for the full amount you paid to use for up to 365 days. And they make it easy to use that credit.
  • Their employees' morale is high. I've chatted with several flight sttendants and I'm convinced that it isn't just for show. I like to support companies that treat their employees well.
2. Regardless of whether Southwest is an option (and it isn't for international flights), you probably want to see what else is available. Here are our favorite websites and why.
 
Note: All the websites we recommend are actually travel-specific search engines, meaning that they search a variety of different websites including the major airlines (except Southwest). You may find different prices on them so it definitely is worth checking more than one. At the same time, there are lots of them; these are the ones we look at.
 
  • Kayak.com (http://www.kayak.com/). If I was only going to check one site, this is the one I would choose. Kayak has an intuitive interface and many ways to filter results all at the same time - by airport, duration, take off or landing times, layovers, airline etc. If you have lots of choices, Kayak can help you quickly sort through them based on your preferences. For common routes it usually has a Price Predictor, which shows you how low prices have fluctuated over the last 90 days and, based on an algorithm, their best guess whether this is a good time to buy or whether you should wait because prices might drop. You can also set up fare alerts for specific routes, which is a good way to get a feel for price fluctuations if you're not needing to buy now. However, these aren't flight-specific; knowing that the price has gone down $20 without knowing if it's on the flight you're interested in may not be helpful.

    The only cons I've found are that I've sometimes found better prices and flights on one of the other sites I'll mention.
     
  • Google flights (https://www.google.com/flights/). This is my new first stop website because it is blazingly fast and has a clean and simple interface. It also gives you tips such as being able to save X dollars if you fly a different day. In addition there is a world map on the initial page with prices for lots of destinations based on your departure city and date. Is it that useful to know I could fly to Tromso, Norway for $1,071 on February 21 from Washington, DC? Maybe not, but it's fun!! 

    The cons? It doesn't have filters other than other nearby airports. If, for example, you can't leave until 12pm, there isn't a way to limit your flights to those parameters. It also has a box at the top called Best Flights, about which it says "We chose these flights to give you the best trade-off between number of stops, duration, and price." Sometimes that seems accurate but sometimes not (like an American flight that was $10 more expensive and 30 minutes longer was listed over its Delta counterpart.) Is there an advertising consideration? If so, you can still see the other options so just be sure to look.
     
  • Hipmunk (http://www.hipmunk.com). Hipmunk has my favorite interface. It uses bar graphs that allow you to instantly see how long flights are, how many layovers and how long each one is, and what time they take off and land. Another great aspect is the default sort order, which is their "agony index": a combination of price, layovers, and length. This absolutely assures that you don't overlook a much better flight that costs $10 more but saves you 4 hours of travel time. It may or may not find you the cheapest flight.

    So why isn't this my go to site? Three reasons: 1) it's slow, sometimes mind-numbingly so - although that may be improving. 2) There have been several instances where the flight I selected "was no longer available". Really? Why waste my time then? 3) You pick your outbound flight and then you pick your return flight. So you might really like your outbound flight only to find there is no good return flight paired with it. It's still worth a look but don't spend too much time there.
There are a couple of other websites to use in specific situations.
 
Skyscanner (http://www.skyscanner.com) covers all the small discount airlines in other countries, of which there are a growing number. If you have trouble finding an acceptable fare, consider flying to another city and look for a cheap flight from there. When I was going to London and then Dublin last year, it was less expensive (and actually a better connection) to book a roundtrip ticket from Baltimore to London and a roundtrip from London to Dublin. The only caution with this strategy is that your two tickets will not be connected electronically; if you have trouble on one flight you aren't entitled to any help, even if it's the same airline.
 
If you have a multicity itinerary: For test purposes, I looked at an itinerary that went from Baltimore to Managua, Managua to Madrid, and then back home from Madrid. Using a website that only lets you search leg by leg (e.g. Google flights or Hipmunk might take forever as you go down blind alleys on your second or third leg and have to start all over again). This is another case where Kayak.com really shines as it searches for all 3 legs and presents the options as a package. The best option I found was $1932 after I filtered out flights that took more than 16 hours.

It's also worth taking a look at Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com) one of the oldest and largest online booking websites. Personally, I have never found them that useful and they are another site where I've had the "flight is no longer available" experience. But you can look at itineraries that involve more than 2 cities. Still, when I tried it just now, the only flights it showed from Madrid to Baltimore were on LOT Polish Airlines with a time of 49 hours and 41 mins. And it was more expensive than the one Kayak came up with.
 
But the winner in my test case? Google flights, which quickly found acceptable flights and was $1751 because it combined flights on American and United.
 
One other suggestion here - if you go back to a website that you have been looking at, delete your browsing history first. The websites say that they won't track your activity and show you a higher fare just because they know you are very interested. But honestly, I don't believe it. The last time I returned to a site and only found a fare that was higher than the first time, I deleted my browsing history. When I returned for the third time, I saw the same fare that I had seen the first time. While Google is probably one of the biggest collectors of personal information that exists, the Google chrome browser has easy to use privacy settings and makes it simple to delete browsing history.
 
If you have websites that you like that I haven't mentioned, please leave a comment with what and why - we're always interested in learning!
 
Incidentally, we just updated our Ebook on Getting Ready for International Travel. If you haven't downloaded the previous one or if you've misplaced it, you might want to download it again. It's clear, concise, and practical and it's free. For once, you'll get more than you paid for!
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