How to Get Cheap Flights
TWO HUNDRED YEARS ago the cost was seven years to a lifetime of servitude for average people making a one-way crossing of the Atlantic. Now it can be funded by a few days of waiting tables.
When booking through an agent, always specify you want the "lowest possible fare," as there may be specials which do not fall under "economy" or "APEX." Moreover, not every agent--even with the budget specialists listed below--will be equally competent or motivated to find the cheapest ticket. They may not know about a great deal the next cubicle has been selling all week, or the commission may not merit bothering much.
Likewise, buying a ticket on the Internet is not the same as getting the cheapest price. As with any travel agent, you may be offered the lowest price, an average price, or a test price. You still have to make comparisons and move boldly when a deal presents itself. A good strategy is to book the best-value, fully-refundable fare early, then continue looking for something better to pop up.
You may find an attractive price on the main leg, but a high one on the connect. Try reversing the search, or book one leg at a time. Allow at least three hours between flights for international departures/changeovers.
Often the best deals are offered directly by airline websites. In some cases you sign-up with the airline and they notify you via email of hugely-restricted but incredibly cheap specials a few days before the flight. These include American, United, Continental, Northwest, Southwest (the U.S. low-fare and efficiency leader), U.S. Airways, TWA, Delta, Alaska, Canadian, Carnival, and Cathay Pacific (which periodically auctions--with minimum bid--several hundred seats on New York and Los Angeles to Hong Kong runs.)
Large Internet Travel Sites
All listings are the result of experience, general budget travel knowledge, or research. The only contract is between author and reader.
The biggest, from AMR, the parent of SABRE and American Airlines.
Microsoft's successful (in the black) travel site.
A reverse-auction website where you decide how much you're willing to pay, then software searches for an airline willing to release a seat for that amount. You choose the date but not the time, if an airline agrees your credit card is billed, and you are permitted only one bid per route. While Priceline recommends bidding at the lowest published fare for the route, some success is reported at thirty percent below.
Closely linked with AOL, owned by Travelocity.
The Palo Alto engine behind many "front" travel agencies such as CNN. ITN works with local travel agents.
American Express travel agency.
From Dallas-based Pegasus Systems.
Hotwire is an airline, hotel, and rental car partnership discounting oversupply (including 500,000 daily seats) directly to consumers. Buyers do not know airline names, flight times, or hotel locations until after purchase, and refunds or changes are not permitted.
An airline alliance designed to bypass traditional reservation networks and return a few extra percent of revenue to the companies flying the airplanes. It provides comprehensive route and fare information, and has attracted a million-dollar CEO and Justice Department interest.
Student and Budget Specialists
While a few tickets require student or youth status, most do not. The following serve customers requiring cheap fares, and have access to discounted tickets. To be certain of any true low-market price you must make at least a few inquiries.
Formerly Student Travel Australia, and certainly partly responsible for the legions of Aussies carousing the world. STA has nearly 200 offices in ten countries, including twenty in the States. Main U.S. office is 10 Downing St., New York, NY 10014. tel. 212-627-3111. National service desk 800-777-0112.
Council Travel. Has several dozen offices in the U.S. specializing in student and budget travel. Operates charter flights to Europe in the summer (Council Charter tel. 800-800-8222). Main office is 205 E. 42 St., New York, NY 10017. tel. 212-661-1414 or 212-661-0311. Sells ISIC cards, Eurail passes, and the most excellent Work, Study, and Travel Abroad: The Whole World Handbook.
Canadian Universities Travel Service. Has twenty offices in Canada and one in London. Main office is at 187 College St., Toronto, Ontario M5T1P7. tel. 416-979-2406.
Belgium-based student travel organization with good connections to Africa. ACOTRA World USA, 29777 Telegraph Road, Suite 2432, Southfield, Michigan 48034 and ACOTRA World Ltd., rue de la Madeleine 51, 100 Brussels, Belgium tel. 32.2.512.70.79 fax 32.512.39.74
Domestic Bucket Shops
Air Brokers International
323 Geary, Suite 411, San Francisco, CA 94102 tel. 800-883-3273 fax: 415-397-4767. Sells around-the-world and circle-Pacific tickets. airbrokers.com
2790 Broadway, Suite 100, New York, NY 10025 tel. 212-864-2000 or 800-326-2009. Air Hitch provides one-way rides across the Atlantic for $169 from the East Coast, $269 from the West Coast, and $229 from in-between. You send the money, a five-day "window" when you would like to leave, and your top three destinations in Europe. While they don't guarantee the destination, according to AirHitch 95% fly within their date range. Several travelers have indicated a regular reserved seat for a few bucks more is less risky and a superior value.
Cheap Tickets, Inc.
1247 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10021 tel. 212-570-1179 Also has offices in L.A., San Francisco, and Honolulu. National tel. is 800-377-1000 (español: 800-991-6199) and fax 800-454-2555. Formerly a U.S. domestic specialist, Cheap Tickets now sells international tickets. cheaptickets.com
Cut Throat Travel Outlet
731 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94105 tel. 800-642-TRIP (California only) and 415-989-TRIP. A clever agent from this company saved me $150 on a one-way by having it issued from Dubai.
Global Discount Travel Services
980 Kelly Johnson Drive, Clark County, NV 89119 888-777-2222. Regularly advertises in the The New York Times. lowestfare.com
High Adventure Travel
San Francisco, 800-350-0636. Advertises around-the-world, circle-Pacific, and multi-continent fares in the New York Times. highadv.com
800-799-8888 and fax 415-288-9839. Advertises around-the-world and circle-Pacific fares in the The New York Times. ticketplanet.com
Sunco Travel International
690 Market Street, #1501, San Francisco, CA 94104 tel. 800-989-6017 or 415-291-9960. More around-the-world tickets.
989 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10018 tel. 800-TRAV-800 or 212-563-3303. Travac specializes in tickets to Europe on scheduled airlines and charters.
Up & Away Travel
347 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 212-889-2345. Claims lowest prices in town.
A list of hundreds of travel agencies.
Ethnic Bucket Shops
Foreign airlines usually sell the bulk of their discounted tickets to bucket shops in ethnic neighborhoods which mostly serve their own nationality. A travel agency in Koreatown in Los Angeles may have good deals on Korea Air to Seoul. Chinatown in San Francisco has a dozen competitive travel agencies with specials to all over Asia.
Sometimes these ethnic agencies only advertise in local ethnic-language newspapers, and they may not be able to speak clear English over the phone, but they should be considered if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
Foreign Bucket Shops
If you become a one-way flier you will probably use bucket shops in other countries. Competitive bucket shops are found in London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Delhi, Bombay, Bangkok, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Sydney, and many other cities.
Since unscrupulous dealers exist, you must be careful. Favor shops recommended by your guidebook, that are busy, or at least have an air of history.
Before dispensing funds determine terms exactly, including airline, times, and cancellation and date-change fees. Sometimes it takes a day or two to actually get the ticket, and they may want all the money up front, but try to limit this to a deposit of twenty percent, which is fair. Get a receipt, of course.
Photo: Typical international travel agency
Courier companies sell cheap airfares in exchange for using your checked luggage allotment for business items such as documents and computer parts which need to get somewhere fast. Therefore your pack should be small enough to carry on. Your job is to show up at the airport on time, meet someone with the ticket, and board the airplane. You do not usually ever handle the checked baggage.
Courier flights are best if you only have a short amount of time, as return flights are scheduled two to thirty days later. Courier companies usually require your presence for the return flight, but sometimes you can get "no return service required." It's also very unlikely that two people can fly courier on the same flight. Approximate sample fares, all round-trip: L.A. to Sydney, $400; L.A. to Hong Kong, $450; New York to Paris, $250; New York to Buenos Aries, $500.
Only when courier companies become desperate at the last minute do they offer free flights. If offered a flight that evening Chicago to London for $200, you can counter, "Okay, but I'll only do it for free." There's a chance they'll agree or come down on the price, especially if you've flown with them previously.
The big negative about flying courier is a more-limited-than-usual command of fate. Indeed the courier company has complete dominion over the ticket until it's placed in your hand, regardless of fronted fees. Your contact may be delayed by traffic or become ill on bad fondue, or your shipment may be canceled at the last minute, and you left without a ticket to anywhere.
Moreover, and most importantly, there are many thousands more people wanting to fly freely or cheaply than there are opportunities, so beware fee-based courier information providers and "clubs". Their likely products are conveniently outdated information and membership cards.
I have never given courier-flying much consideration. With so many bargain fares available from so many legitimate sources, courier-flying rhymes in my mind with ding dong. It seems far more efficient to schedule a few extra shifts and purchase a legitimate bargain fare on a guaranteed flight, than try to get something for nothing by entering a possibly endless loop of frustration.
On the other hand some travelers reportedly fly courier regularly, learn the ins-and-outs of the companies they work with, and become favored regulars.
Round-the-World and Circle-Pacific Tickets
These are a series of tickets on one or several airlines pieced together by a travel agent, offering multiple stops. Usually only the first leg must be booked in advance. Travel must be completed within one year from departure. Any route can be configured, but bucket shops advertise the especially good deals, which often include carriers such as Garuda Indonesia and Air India that allow free or cheap stopovers.
Following are low-season examples. Expect to pay $200 more for travel beginning June 1 to August 31, and various airport and departure taxes of $7 to $20 per stop. Check the Sunday travel sections of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, London Times, etc. for similar deals.
- L.A.--Honolulu--Bangkok--Singapore--Tokyo--L.A. for $1000.
- L.A.--Hong Kong--Bangkok--Bombay--Delhi--London--New York for $1200.
- New York--Hong Kong--Bangkok--Jakarta--Bali--Sydney--Auckland-- Tahiti--L.A.--New York for $1800.
- New York--London--Moscow--Nairobi--Bombay--Delhi--Katmandu-- Seoul--New York for $1900.
Charter companies lease an airplane for a certain date and route, say New York to Paris, and then try to sell the seats. Usually they charge a low price (which may go lower as flight time approaches and seats remain unsold), and do not require advance purchase. However, if they don't sell enough seats to make money, the flight may be canceled at the last minute. Other airlines have no obligation to honor your ticket, and it may take a few days to get your money back.
Reputable charter companies hold your money in escrow until the flight. Some charter companies are well-established and fly regularly. These include Council Travel, Martin Air, Lauda, and Tower.
Because airlines know a certain percentage of passengers aren't going to make their flight, they slightly overbook to maximize revenue and efficiency. Since sometimes there are more passengers at the gate than seats in the airplane, the airlines must deny boarding to some. Civilized airlines first ask for volunteers who, from the goodness of their hearts, are willing to give up their current seat for one on the next available flight. Since no one responds, they then offer a voucher for a free flight in addition to a seat on the next flight. They may also offer up to $500 cash.
Bumping is more likely during high season, busy holidays, and on Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays. If you want to be bumped, arrive early to place your name at the top of the volunteer list, and don't check your bag. While I haven't been lucky yet, I usually ask at check-in if the flight is going to be full, and if so I wait near the desk just before flight time. I fully expect a stampede, at least of one.
Ticket and Flying Glossary
Advance Purchase EXcursion. This is the standard discount ticket available from airlines and most regular travel agents. Depending on the airline, these tickets require a seven to thirty day advance purchase, a minimum stay of usually seven days, and a maximum stay of thirty or sixty days, sometimes longer. Round trip is required, and fees are usually charged for date changes or cancellation.
A ticket which allows you to fly into one city and return from another. For example, you might fly into London, travel Europe by train, and then return to the U.S. from Athens. Open-jaw tickets usually cost more than a regular return ticket from one city, but convenience makes up for that. Not every travel agent or airline sells open-jaw tickets for a reasonable price, but some budget agencies specialize in them.
A round-trip ticket which allows you to make the return flight at any time--providing there is space--during the period the ticket is valid.
This Cadillac of tickets is generally a full-fare that allows changes and cancellations without penalty for up to one-year. It should also be fully-refundable. While you usually cannot get a discounted one-year ticket directly from the airline or most mom-and-pop travel agents, they are sometimes available from bucket shops.
Usually costs more than half of a round-trip, but sometimes the same or even twice as much. The great risk with one-ways is the return may be astronomically priced or unavailable when you desperately need it. Nevertheless this is my preferred ticket (when cheap enough) since I like the feeling of being uncommitted to place and date, and because my travel is mostly limited by money, not time.
For international flights, but especially those originating outside the United States, call the airline to confirm your reservation at least 72 hours before the flight regardless of what your ticket says. Otherwise your seat may be given to someone's cousin on the waiting list.
Experience tells the airlines that a certain number of seats are going to be empty on certain flights, so they discount that space--sometimes heavily--to travel agencies variously known as bucket shops, consolidators, and discounters. These agencies mostly serve individuals who are only going to fly cheaply or not at all. This maximizes airline revenue by forcing customers of regular travel agencies to pay non-discounted prices. Some regular travel agents may be able to get discounted tickets from wholesalers.
A middle-man who handles discounted tickets between airlines and bucket shops.
One of the best ways to find discounted tickets is to check the Sunday travel sections of major newspapers, such as (for the U.S.) The New York Times, San Francisco Examiner, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, and Miami Herald. (The latter three are good for flights to Latin America.) USA Today, The L.A. Weekly, and The Village Voice also have bucket shop advertisements. Some agencies clearly label one-way and round-trip fares, while others list "half-round-trip" to make prices seem lower.
Throughout the world low market prices are easily determined from competitive advertising in major newspapers. Since the ads are costly some level of legitimacy may be assured.
Onward ticket requirement
Many countries, such as the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and Thailand, require visitors to have in their possession upon arrival a valid airline ticket out of the country. Bus or train tickets are usually not acceptable. Most airlines will check that you have an onward ticket before allowing you to board, as they are responsible should you not be admitted. See Chapter 5 Passports and Visas for more information.
International Air Transport Association. Organization of most (270) of the world's major airlines.
Miscellaneous Charges Order. Can be bought in any denomination and traded for tickets or cash with IATA airlines. MCO's look like airline tickets, so they may meet the onward ticket requirement for some countries.
Some airlines allow you to disembark when the plane stops along the way to somewhere, and then continue your journey up to one year later. On some routes on some airlines there is no charge for this valuable privilege, while others charge $50 to $100, or much more.
If you can find an airline with free or cheap stopovers you can create a great ticket for not much money. On Air India you could stopover in Bangkok on your way from Los Angeles to Delhi, and in Hong Kong or Singapore on your way back. For thirty years IcelandAir lured backpackers with free Reykjavík stopovers on a New York to Luxembourg run, but that market fizzled.
Officially this is limited to one bag with a total of three sides length of 45 inches (115 cm.) This is length + width + height, for example: 22x14x9 inches (55x35x25 cm.), or 2900 cubic inches (50 liters). You may get by with a little more.
Can be shipped on most airlines as long as they are boxed, and count as your second piece of checked luggage. This policy may vary.