Planning the expedition – Part 1 – Air Travel

People are always asking me about how I plan a trip and manage all of these complex details at once.

It really isn’t that hard once you break it down into its core components.

First we start with the plane tickets.

I wish I could tell you I had some magic formula about when to travel and when to purchase.  In the past I have tried to plan the trips a little bit ‘off-season’ to reduce costs.  But while traveling ‘off-season’ to Europe can indeed make the flights and the hotel cheaper – you may also find that many places have reduced hours.  Regardless, my schedule for this trip (and the past few) has been dictated by the schedule of my life.  My teaching responsibilities ground me through mid-May (which can be a lovely time to go to Europe both weather and price wise) and my big academic conference and other class take place in June which pushes me into early July.  Since I have to be back in August to get ready for the next semester I am pretty much stuck with traveling in July (and the first week in August).  This is the worst time to travel to Europe from a price perspective.

With my dates pretty much set I start looking at the usual websites (Travelocity & Expedia) to see what is possible.  I know there are tons of websites out there for purchasing flights but the reality is that there are very few ‘deals’ when you are trying to plan precisely.  For this trip I found that the best prices (and flights) were via US Air and United.  Don’t be afraid to go directly to the carrier you think you will be flying – often the prices are the same or even a little better and from a customer service standpoint there are fewer things to go wrong if you purchase direct.

For this trip I found the flights from Cleveland to Paris were around $1,560 per person.  I started looking about 4-5 months out and used $1,600 as a budget item which is my worst case scenario.  Watching flight prices can be maddening – it goes up and down and then up again and you could easily  miss the sweet spot.  I never look for the lowest price – I look for the lowest price with enough lead time to make me feel comfortable about the rest of the trip.  You shouldn’t make your hotel and car reservations if your flights aren’t booked!

This year it was even trickier because I found some flights as low as $1,350 per person but with a 23 hour layover in Philadelphia!  That’s crazy!  I don’t even want a 4 hour layover in Chicago.  I know I can’t fly direct – but ideally I want a quick commuter flight, a quick layover, and then a long flight that I can sleep on.

I also avoid the multi-carrier tricks you see on Travelocity – its a great way to lose your luggage or get hit with extra baggage fees.

Baggage fees are something else to look into.  Most carriers will give you carry-on luggage plus one bag for international – but I know I might need that extra bag or two and $100 each-bag each-way could add $400 to the price of the flights.  One carrier charges $70 per bag which would be a worst case scenario of $280.

Friends often suggest I look into alternate airports.  I know one person who drove from Cleveland to Toronto and left her car in Toronto.  I don’t care how much money she saved – I don’t see any savings.  I’m also driving not to Akron and leaving my car there for 30 days.  I’m gonna fly out of Cleveland and figure out which friend is going to take me (and maybe pick me up) – remembering a taxi ride could add another $100 round trip.

What about frequent flyer miles? After all these years of travel I have a ton of miles – but July/August travel isn’t the time to try and use them – I always look but am rarely surprised when the dates just don’t work out.

For my purposes I want to fly out on a Saturday and fly home on a Sunday.  This year however I was able to squeeze an extra day out of the office and will return on a Monday.  I like to leave on a Saturday so I can finish work on Friday, enjoy the chaos of packing, and then arrive early on Sunday morning ready to start the adventure (yes we start the moment we land).

So – I check the prices every day, see the shifts in schedule and try to purchase right around 2 months out.  Some people will tell you that 6 weeks is better and while they might be right I have to get all of the other details arranged and you can’t risk waiting for last minute on everything.

Last week I noticed the prices dipping from $1,560 to $1,525 – then $1,512.  I almost bought at 1,512 but my patience paid off and I got each ticket for $1,463.50.  I feel good about that price.

Once you get your tickets – you have to STOP LOOKING!  If the price goes up you won’t feel anywhere near as good as how bad you will feel if the price goes down.  It’s like a slot machine – its not your business what happens when the next person spins the reels.

Tickets in hand it’s time to get a car.

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