The Skeptic’s Guide to Finding Cheap Airline Tickets: How Much Are You Willing To Suffer, And At What Price?

Flickr Photo credit: Kai-Ming

I fly often, and I usually book––and pay for––my own tickets. So after years of scouring the internets for cheap airline tickets, I’ve made countless rookie mistakes*––and also scored some amazing deals.**

My new story, An Insider’s Guide: Finding Cheap Airline Tickets, could plausibly have an alternate title:

How Much are You Willing to Suffer, and At What Price?

Sometimes buying plane tickets comes down to this essential equation: how much you’re willing to suffer in order to save money, or how much you’re willing to pay to avoid suffering.

If you ended up suffering in a middle seat for which you paid an exorbitant price, it used to be your travel agent’s fault. No longer: thanks to the glories of digital technology, all of the self-recrimination and buyer’s remorse can be yours alone.

But First, A Little History on Online Tickets

Back in 1978, when the government deregulated the commercial airline industry, fares became subject to market forces and put travel agents in serious competition. In 1995, Alaska Airlines became the first North American airline to begin selling tickets online, and the explosion of online travel sites quickly followed suit. Expedia, among the first of online booking engines, launched in 1996. But times have changed since the birth of Priceline and Expedia: the online travel marketplace has more competing players than ever, and it pays to explore search engines and online tools beyond your go-to travel website.

Essentially, don’t look for the cheapest ticket. Really. Look for the cheapest ticket that’s a good value: in other words, for which you will suffer the least.

A cheap flight might no longer be good value after factoring a long layover plus the need to take a taxi during rush hour between New York’s JFK and LGA airports (about $40, with tip) or between London Heathrow and London Gatwick to make a connection. If this kind of minor disaster sounds farfetched, it’s a not-uncommon scenario to which many bargain hunters have fallen prey. Adjust your expectations––the cheapest flight isn’t always the best flight for you––and know the difference between cost and value. Know much you are willing to endure to save 20 bucks–-or 200.

*Rookie Mistake #1:

Showing up at the Madrid airport after booking on Air Europa, which is a basically decent budget European airline, but has a weird policy: if you book last minute (say, the day or two before) you might receive an email telling you that a customer service agent will call you to confirm your flight. This was the case last November, when I was heading back from Spain to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner in Amsterdam. When I still hadn’t received confirmation the morning of the flight, I became a bit concerned, so I called the customer service number. I couldn’t get anyone at customer service that was willing to deal with my extremely mediocre Spanish, and nobody would speak English, French or Italian to me at the number.

So I hung up and took the Cercanias train to Barajas airport, feeling confident I could resolve the situation at the Air Europa counter. After all, I had a bonafide reservation—I just lacked the confirmation, right?

Not so. When I arrived at the counter, the agent looked at me blankly and told me that my reservation was not confirmed and I could not fly. I tried to buy another ticket on the spot, but the price they quoted was ridiculous. She suggested, with an impressively straight face, that I fly Easyjet. Since I can’t bring myself to spend more than 100 Euros on an Easyjet ticket—it seemed as ludicrous as spending thirty bucks on a Subway sandwich––I declined, booked the nicest airport hotel that I could find, and decided to enjoy the pool and spa instead of waiting in the airport for hours to be crammed onto a crowded Easyjet flight that cost more than a last minute first class TGV seat from Amsterdam to Paris (including lunch with wine). And it turned out that watching the Real Madrid game with a bunch of Madrileños at the Irish pub near the hotel proved much more fun than waiting around the airport.

Rookie mistake, I thought—except what would I have done differently, other than simply not booking on Air Europa? I learned from this that until you have a confirmation, it’s probably not worth heading to the airport.

There are plenty of other colossal booking mistakes I’ve made, but I don’t want to scare you. Remember to read the fine print, and if you’re booking with an airline or third-party site you’re not familiar with, read consumer reviews online. If there are legions of customers complaining about unconfirmed reservations (Air Europa, I’m talking to you!) you might want to think twice.

** Amazing Deal #1

My sister and I scored some open jaw tickets on Air Canada from Chicago to Madrid and London back to Chicago. They were 400 bucks, which seemed insane, even ten years ago. Then we arrived at the Toronto airport on our layover and suspected why. The airport was nearly deserted––more post-apocalyptic zombie film set than international terminal––and the passengers who milled around were all wearing face masks. Except us. Because we were so psyched to land our $400 tickets to Madrid that catching a pandemic flu was hardly on our minds. Pandemic or no pandemic, I know I probably won’t ever find a ticket like that again.