The Gone John Guide to Cheap(er) Airfare

Aside from accommodations, the other big-ticket thing you’ll have to pay for when going on a trip – long-term or otherwise – is your transportation.  It’s not cheap.  And, even after having booked dozens of plane tickets online in my life, clicking “confirm” on the purchase screen still leaves a lump in my throat and my fingers trembling.  Booking a flight makes a trip more real.

I don’t profess to be the most cost-savvy flyer in the sky (there are some people for whom it’s a game), but over the last few years I’ve developed some habits and have acquired some tips and tricks for chipping away the the expense of flying.  Here is what I’ve learned.

Join the mailing lists.

You won’t be privy to special, top-secret, just-for-you deals by joining an airline mailing list.  However, doing so will ensure you’ll be in the loop when seat sales happen and when new routes are announced.

I’ve added myself to the mailing lists for Air Canada, Delta, Air Asia and Jetstar just so I can keep an eye on their sales, discounts, and changes.

And while most e-mail marketing sucks, I’ve found the airline’s messages to be fairly well-designed (and they inspire my wanderlust a bit, too).

Matrix gives you a bird’s eye view.

It’s only been in the last year that I’ve discovered the wonder that is ITA Software’s Matrix system.  While you can’t book flights on it, you can plug in your location, your destination, and set a date range (specific dates or large windows of time), and see which airlines make the trip and what they’ll cost.

You might end up seeing some airlines you’ve never considered before, connections you never thought of making, and – most importantly – the codes that you could hand off to a travel agent to punch in to their booking software so that you can nab the flight at the price you see (if that’s what you want to do).

Matrix is a great engine for researching routes and prices.

Start tracking prices.

A big factor in deciding to hit the purchase button on a flight is price.  In many ways, it can feel like a game of chicken as to when you should buy the flight.  Book too early and spend too much, book too late and miss out on a deal.

For me, there are two factors which help me decide to make the purchase : knowing the history of the price for the ticket, and whether the current price today will leave me feeling good about my financial situation after I click “purchase.”

When it comes to knowing the history of the price, I start tracking it the day I make the decision I’m going to go somewhere.  To do that, I use Kayak to search the cheapest price at that moment for a flight to my destination on my chosen date.  I make a note of it, and set a daily reminder in its mobile app to let me know the new price each morning.  As time marches on, you’ll get a sharp looking graph showing the price going up and down so you can see how it fluctuates.

Ultimately, I book my flight when I see the flight at a price I know I can mentally feel comfortable with- a number that I know my budget can handle.  I don’t sweat paying a few extra dollars by purchasing too early, and I rejoice in the fact when I’ve ended up with the best possible price.

Consider other airports.

Depending where you live and where you’re going, you may have a selection of airports to choose from – and that most definitely will impact the price of your trip.

As an example, I had often flown from Saskatoon’s airport (YXE) for trips to Tokyo and other destinations, despite living right next door to Regina’s airport (YQR).  The reason was simple – the flight from Saskatoon would save me as much as $200-300 per trip. Even with the cost of gas to make the 2.5 hour trip up the highway, I still saved money.

As for destinations, be flexible on where you land. Just because you’re going to LA doesn’t mean you need to land at LAX.  There are four other airports in the region which can get you in to the greater Los Angeles area.  Is NYC your destination? There are three airports to choose from. Tokyo? Narita and Haneda are your two options.

Keep an open mind on where your plane takes off from and where it lands – it might help save some cash.

Be flexible with your schedule.

I always hated this piece of advice when I worked in radio, because flexibility wasn’t something that was a virtue in our business.  With four months a year of holiday blackouts in our work schedule, it just wasn’t possible to travel at certain low seasons, or on certain days of the week.

However, now I’m seeing the benefit of being flexible.  By shifting the date of my departure to Malaysia from Tokyo, I spent 50% less than what I would have spent had I gone during the first window I considered.

Get the right credit cards.

I’ll admit – this is not my area of expertise, and I’m not a huge credit card user.  But, Nomadic Matt swears by this when it comes to shaving the dollars off of travel – and I leave you in his capable hands as to how to get the best possible plastic for travel!  (His book is also a fave of mine when it comes to planning out my trip!)

Take the bump.

So many people grumble these days about airlines overbooking flights. But, I can tell you from experience that if you’re a solo traveler, getting bumped can be one of the greatest things for your pocketbook when it comes to taking your next trip.

Last November, I approached the Delta check-in counter to drop my bag for a trip to Minneapolis to see Garth Brooks. The young guy on the other side nervously began to tell me the flight was oversold, and was wondering (although I could tell he had no confidence in me saying “yes”) if I wanted to give up my seat and take a flight which would get me to the Twin Cities two hours later in exchange for a US$800 Delta flight credit voucher.   I was intrigued, and since the flight credit was worth more than the ticket I had bought to go to Minneapolis (and because I had no pressing plans upon arrival), I agreed to take the bump.

The airline credit turned out to be a great value for me.  It paid for a trip to Chicago earlier this year, and for a small portion of my ticket to Tokyo this September.

If you can spare the time, take the bump.  It’s worth it.  (Johnny Jet has more details on some of the best ways to get yourself bumped with US-based carriers.)

We all need to get to where we’re going, but spending as little as possible leaves more money in our budget for experiences when we arrive.  How have you managed to save money on airfare? Share your tips and tricks in the comments.

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