Where's the beef? - Airfare Entry Part 1

London Travel Blog

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Thought this journal was going to be about hints and tricks and all that good stuff, what gives?  Well, patience, my friends, patience.  First not all of this is collected in the brain and second, well, while I have a fair amount of time on my hands, it doesn't necessarily mean that I will use this time in this manner of speaking.   I mean there is a whole world out there to explore and some of it not far from my door.  That having been said, lets get to the business at hand.  My friends often ask me about flying, in particular airfare so I figure I'd lay down my tips here.

How do I find good airfare?

This is a simple question with a very complicated solution at times.  Good airfare depends on a number of factors and sometimes a good understanding of the arcane system that airlines use to place a value on their seats.  Do I have this?  Yes and No.  I can give you rough guidelines like, don't book too early and certainly try not too book too late and reasons why you should or shouldn't but I cannot tell you why the wind blows and I can certainly not tell you why a $1500 flight to new zealand that you bought six months ago has now gone on sale 3 weeks before your flight at half that price.  Well, I might be able to tell you the why but I couldn't predict it happening and ... well, if I could, I would spend more of my time shorting stocks and becoming ridiculously rich.  Blah blah blah.

So general rules of thumb.. most people know these but I'll repeat them anyway.

- airfare on weekdays, outbound Monday - Thursday, returning on Monday - Thursday tend to be less expensive than either the quick return or weekend in, weekend out. 

The simple explanation: quick returns are assumed by the airline to be people who obviously have to be somewhere for a short period of time (i.e. you're a business person).  A business person has a purpose, one they'll pay through the nose to fulfill because who else would go some place on short notice?  Well, besides people who have had unfortunate events happen to them and in this unfortunate case, often times you get screwed as well.  The weekend to weekend traveller is your normal holiday maker.  They want to maximize their vacation so they'll fly out on Friday or Saturday and return on a Sunday.  Short termers get screwed, holiday makers get pinched a bit because of the law of supply and demand and the flexible person or the unorthodox traveller reaps the benefit of being able to fly mid-week due to lower demand.

- booking too far out is, generally, a bad idea.  How long should I wait to book?

Good question.  You're on the ball, you've just decided on your holiday and now all you need to do is book your flights and you can spend the next six months staring into your computer screen and imagining that you're drinking margaritas instead of working in some office park.   I've been here before and I've screwed myself before.  Basically, I get all excited, start watching airfares to get a general idea of how much I should pay and when I see a good price drop or what I feel is a good price drop, pounce on it.  Worry be gone, I've got my flight.  I bust out the virtual margaritas and slap myself on the back for a job well done.  Unfortunately, a month later, I see a lower fare and could have saved myself $50.  Then you get buyers remorse.  General rule of thumb, don't grab airfare until about 2-3 months in advance of your trip.  Gratefully, airfare websites are now doing this work for most people you just have to set up an email airfare alert, etc.

- smaller airports, niche destinations, etc, tend to be more expensive. 

I'd say this is a general rule of thumb but not always the case.  It sometimes happens that you might want to fly to Philadelphia but that Harrisburg is a cheaper option, then when you look at your itinerary find that you're flying through Philadelphia.   Sometimes the route you want to take is cheaper because its serviced by cheaper airlines, so even though it is small, the airfare is fairly reasonable.  So like most of these guidelines, it isn't a hard and fast rule.  The first case is what is commonly referred to as "hidden city" and back in the good ole days people might look for this when making their holiday.  For example, a person might want to fly to chicago but find that the fare was too expensive.  Because a lot of airlines use a hub and spoke system (regional airlines send passengers to the hub who are then redistributed to their destinations or further along the system) and that some of these hubs are destinations in their own right (like chicago, san francisco, minneapolis, jfk, philly, charlotte, etc) people would often look for flights that might go through that hub (chicago, like peroia) which would be invariably cheaper because the destination wasn't nearly as popular and just hop off the plane before taking the last flight.  I wouldn't suggest that you do this.  Airlines look for this sort of thing and if they feel like you've deliberately done a hidden city kind of thing, and come after you in some fashion. 

The second case, well, you're flying into a city that has limited flight capacity and limited competition.  This doesn't always have to be a small airport, it could be a hub.  For example (and this is only an example), Seattle is the hub of Alaska Airlines.  The airport is about 50% alaska air traffic and because of its dominant position, it could determine flight prices for certain destinations (like say, alaska).  Although this is a contrived example, for a real world problem all you need do is look at Philadelphia (or Dallas with AA).  Its the main hub for US Airways and for the most the airport is is "owned" by them and because of the lack of competition in the market most people in Philly see a price premium for their flights.  When I lived there, it was so bad, that I'd sometimes drive to Baltimore two hours south for a reasonable flight price, esp. for overseas adventures.

Basically, my point here, be aware of the local airports for your destination (or starting point).  Most modern day web airfare search tools will do this for you, if you ask, but it can, seriously save you some $$.  My most recent trip, I flew out of Toronto instead of Buffalo to London.  It was a last minute trip and I saved myself $500+ for driving 2 hours north. 

Hmm.. seems like a good place to stop.  I'll discuss tools in my next entry (websites and places to look, etc).
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