Ultimate Guide to Choosing Flights
Whenever someone tells me that they found "cheap" flights to a destination, especially abroad, I immediately question the value.
It blows my mind in our culture how we get so focused on price when making a buying decision that we become blind to everything else. Cars, consumer electronics, vacations, clothes - you name it. When we put on our purchasing blinders, we let companies manipulate us to their advantage
The same goes for airplane tickets. There are so many variables when it comes to flights - price should only be a piece of the pie, and far from the most important slice.
For me, flying sets the tone for a trip and enhances the travel experience. Instead of thinking of it as a burden, I try and optimize my in-flight journey so that I enjoy myself and arrive as rested as possible. Balancing this experience with cost is the key to buying airfare.
Guide to Choosing Flights
Here are the things I consider when booking flights in order to maximize the value for my money:
1. Number of stops and duration of travel
This one's easy. Avoid long and multiple layovers when booking. You're time is the most important and valuable asset when traveling.
One stopover alone introduces risk into your schedules when flying, however it is generally necessary in order to reach specific destinations, and/or to make a trip financially feasible (Remember, cost isn't everything, but it certainly is part of the equation.)
However, two stops is only worth it in a small percentage of bookings (i.e. HUGE savings, or remote locations). Is spending an extra $100 worth it to you to lower your risk of missing a third flight and sacrificing a day of your vacation? For me, it's totally worth it.
The same goes for length of layover and length of flights. I am careful when choosing because I want to avoid 3+ hour layovers and flights that take me WAY out of my way for my destination.
For example, if I was traveling to London, it wouldn't make sense for me to save a couple hundred bucks to travel through Istanbul with a long layover. I'll fork over the extra money in a heartbeat in order to get my vacation started sooner.
When you see negative airline reviews, service is usually the cause. There are a few drivers behind this - I'll touch on two in this section and then the third will be mentioned in #4 (the legroom section).
Food/beverages and overall customer service. The first seems obvious, but my wife and I have actually flown on a ten hour flight where all they served were snacks (Google Air Canada Rouge reviews).
When we went to order our dinners (commonly complimentary on long haul flights) we found out that not only did they not provide the free meals, we couldn't even order them if we paid. This was a major bummer, especially for my pregnant wife!
Needless to say, I now do a little research about what is offered on flights BEFORE I book them. Meals? Complimentary beverages? Snacks?
If the meal offerings are sparse but the price is still too good to pass up, we simply plan ahead by bringing plenty of food with us.
Something to note here - when we flew Emirates to Thailand, we were served all complimentary meals, snacks and drinks in economy. Not only did we receive free meals, we were presented with a menu prior to serving, so that we could choose what we wanted to eat. Now THAT is service in the sky!
To take it a step further, imagine if the staff also welcomed you with a smile and treated you like the loyal customer base that you are. Now THAT is service, and it does make a difference!
On that same Emirates flight from Dubai to Bangkok, we sat in the front exit row seat in economy (see #4 for tips on getting exit row seats) and our stewardess went above and beyond to ensure we had the best experience possible.
Want water? Here's a 32 oz bottle and two cups to drink at your leisure. Hungry? Let me see if we have any more of those mini pizzas to snack on (she gave us 4).
Oh, it's the little things...
Entertainment is becoming less and less relevant now that most people have constant access to laptops, tablets and phones - but, it's still worth a mention.
Most long haul flights currently have seat back entertainment, including live TV, movies, music and games. I usually research and factor this in when making an airfare purchasing decision. I like to be able to pass the time when I can't sleep, and there really isn't any better way to do so than watching a few movies.
With that being said, I think most airlines will transition out of seat back entertainment and exclusively into "stream from your own device" in the near future. In which case, the important factors will be to make sure you have your own device (obviously) as well as the quality + price of the wifi and entertainment streaming services.
For all the "tall drinks of water" like myself out there, legroom is EVERYTHING.
When I book a flight, I always search for flights on a third party site such as Kayak, Orbitz, Skyscanner etc. Once I decide on my flight, I then go directly to the airlines website and run the same parameter search. Generally, the price is exactly the same.
So what is the advantage you might ask? With most companies (no, not Southwest), you can then choose your seat on the aircraft. You generally aren't able to do this on the third party site.
In addition to seat selection, you can pay a fee to sit in an exit row. When my wife and I flew to Greece through Montreal, we paid $100 a seat for exit rows.
Sounds expensive? Trust me my tall friends, on a ten hour flight, you will be kicking yourself if you don't cough up the extra cash.
If this strategy falls flat (usually because of a specific airline's seating operations), I arrive at the airport 3 hours before the flight - this is when the ticket counter opens. At this point, no one else has been assigned the exit rows because I am first in line. I then ask the gate agent for an exit row seat and secure my legroom.
Ticket in hand, it's time for a beer!
5. Plane size
This one actually holds little weight, but I figured it was worth bringing up. I check the size of the plane before I book long haul flights (6-7+ hours). As a timid flyer, I like to know that I'm flying on a larger plane for a couple reasons.
First, I've read that you feel less turbulence on large planes, so why not?
Second, I like the freedom to be able to get up and move about comfortably. It's nice to be able to have the extra space to stand and stretch at your leisure and not be in the way of food/drink carts, or other passengers.
In fact, on some of the 777s and A380s we've flown on, there are large open areas that several passengers at once can stand when they are sick of sitting.
Alright, alright. Price holds its weight as well.
We all have budgets when we travel and depending on the length of your stay, flights can be a large portion of the expense. Since time is more important than money for me, I balance all of the other factors above against dollars.
What am I willing to pay for the flights that meet my criteria? Am I willing to sacrifice any of these variables for my hard earned money?
These are the questions I ask myself before booking airfare. Every. Single. Trip.
As you can see, we put significant thought into our flights because they bookend our itineraries and set the foundation for our adventures.
At the end of the day, a flight strategy is defined by the traveler. What balance is right for you and your budget?
If you need help deciding, we would be more than happy to talk through your plans with you. Simply shoot us an email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.