Destinations How to Improve Your Flight Search Game

by Seth Kugel May 10, 2019

Some people go to extremes to save on airfare.

They book trips with six-hour layovers. They take off and land from obscure airports. They set alerts so that every device they have buzzes whenever a bargain flight crops up.

Super savers refuse to book tickets over the weekend when prices are slightly higher on average. And they master clothes-folding tricks so complex they can fit a week’s wardrobe into a “personal item” to avoid baggage fees.

But not everyone has the patience or organizational skills to adopt these pro tips. I don’t, and I’m a pro. And as such, it is my professional opinion that you can save just as much money (plus lots of time, and potentially your sanity) by simply improving your online booking game, mostly on the sites you already use.

Let’s imagine you’re the assistant for a globe-trotting travel writer who tasks you with booking four flights:

1. Seattle to Las Vegas (domestic, round trip)

2. New York to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (international, round trip)

3. Shanghai to Chengdu, China (overseas domestic, one way)

4. Washington, D.C., to Dakar, Senegal; to Accra, Ghana; to Nairobi, Kenya; and back to Washington, D.C. (international, multi-city)

What sites would you use? An online travel agency (OTA) like kayak.com? Flights.google.com? The airlines’ sites? A magical company no one has ever heard of but that somehow has the best prices?

Ha, trick question! Travel writers don’t have assistants.

But even if they did, it’s still a trick question. Those four trips fall into four totally different categories, each of which requires a unique but straightforward search strategy. Here they are:

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You can save just as much money...by simply improving your online booking game.
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Domestic flights


Non-stop domestic flights are the most straightforward, as long as you keep two twists and one trick in mind. Generally speaking, any of the major OTAs will deliver the same prices, give or take a few dollars. Search on the site you’re used to (or collect points or miles on) or, to be absolutely sure, use a metasearch site, such as kayak.com, momondo.com or hipmunk.com, that scours other sites.

Then, before you book, consider the two twists. First, use the airline’s site to check the same flight (if you haven’t been redirected there already) and see if there are options — upgrades, seat choices, etc. — that interest you. If there’s no difference, book on either platform. BUT WAIT, don’t book yet. Twist two: prices for Southwest Airlines flights do not appear on OTAs, so check its site as well.

Now, down to business. Taking on the role of fictional travel writer’s assistant, I searched kayak.com for Seattle to Las Vegas fares a month out for a week’s stay. (I used those same criteria for the next three categories as well, and assumed that the writer did not have any flexibility with dates.)

The best price by far was on Spirit Airlines: $157 round trip. There was a second-place tie for a few other routes at $229, which seems like quite a jump. But Spirit’s pricing system is based on fees: if you don’t need additional services, you pay less. Most fees were avoidable, but I couldn’t get around the $72 to bring a carry-on bag round trip, which brought the price right back up to $229.

Then I checked Southwest. For the same dates, there were non-stop flights for $206, including not just carry-ons but checked bags. Our experiment had a winner.

And now for our trick. If you need to buy lodging in addition to a flight, purchasing a package will land you lower rates overall than if you pay for each separately. I wouldn’t believe this were true if I hadn’t tested it so many times.

For the Seattle to Las Vegas trip, I found a package on Spirit's site including a seven-night stay at a high-end hotel and spa for $89 less than if I booked the flight and hotel separately.

That would make the baggage fees worth it — although it’s only true savings if you were already planning to stay in a ritzy hotel. There are plenty of cheaper places to stay in Vegas.

International flights


For reasons only the algorithmic gods can explain, prices for international round trips can vary widely across OTAs. Or even within the same OTA.

But international flights require tough choices on number and length of layovers. I found several ways to get to Rio, for example, the best being a $1,010 flight with a two-hour stop each way in São Paulo. Which, to me, is a better choice than saving a few more bucks on another airline that required two five-plus-hour layovers.

You might want to check if buying the legs individually can save you money, though realize that once your flights aren’t linked, you’ll lose big if your first flight is late and you have to rebook the second leg. It’s usually not worth the risk, unless you can engineer a layover you actually want.

Going to Prague? Check which European discount airlines (like Ryanair or Easyjet) fly there from, say, Paris. Then, avoid any risk of missing the second flight by staying in Paris for a night or two. (Layovers aren’t always a bad thing!)

But let’s get back to that $1,010 flight to Rio. We’re not done yet, thanks to a parallel universe of not-always-online travel agencies called consolidators, who have hashed out agreements with the airlines for routes cheaper than those you’ll see on the OTAs. They often specialize in a country or region and their typical clients are, more often than not, immigrants who return frequently to their homeland. But they’d be happy to take your money as well. A Google search will find them. I searched “Brazil airfare consolidator New York,” for the top results.

You’re less likely to find consolidators to mega-destinations like France and Italy. But in the past, I’ve used this trick to score great fares to China and Russia, and I’m still talking about that ticket I found from New York to Zagreb, Croatia, for more than 50% off the best OTA option.

Overseas domestic flights


When I searched a U.S. OTA for Shanghai to Chengdu, I found three cheap non-stop prices on three Chinese airlines. But for overseas domestic routes, there’s often significant savings if you seek out an OTA that specializes in the country or region. Searching online for “Chinese OTA” will lead you to the major players in Chinese travel. 

One more note: if you have miles saved up on a domestic carrier, you can sometimes book overseas flights with their domestic alliance partners for the miles equivalent of pennies. I was once facing down a last-minute $500 one-way flight in Brazil and managed to book a Gol Airlines flight for 7,000 miles through a domestic partner. 
 

Multi-city international flights


I punched in that complicated Washington, D.C., to Dakar to Accra to Nairobi to Washington, D.C., route using one OTA’s Multi-City option, and got a whopping $8,402 price tag for flights totaling 57 hours and 30 minutes, including layovers. Another OTA came up with a $6,774 itinerary with 55 hours total travel time, and a $2,723 option where each leg took close to 24 hours. No thanks.

Your lesson here is that OTAs cannot handle complex itineraries — their algorithms go haywire. You’d be better off painstakingly trying to piece together each leg separately.

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There’s often significant savings if you seek out an OTA that specializes in the country or region. 
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But thankfully, there’s no need! It’s time to call in Flightfox, which specializes in beating the algorithms using humans. I sent them the Africa itinerary and, about a day later, they came back with a shockingly good price: $1,830 plus a $100 fee for flights totaling 55 hours and 25 minutes. That’s almost $5,000 off the 55-hour OTA itinerary.

True, you’ll have 25 extra layover minutes to kill, but you can use your savings for a really expensive airport dinner.
 

Seth Kugel is a travel writer and the author of Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious, published in November by Norton.

 

 

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