Trip Planning – Part 2: Getting more bang for your buck (Air Travel)

We live in hope…for the day when some newfound Einstein would invent the teleportation machine. Until then, however, we will continue to be dutiful contributors to the airline industry as the right to sit on a plane for numerous hours engulfs the largest chunk of our travel expenses.

There are few ways to minimize these costs, but with careful planning we end up saving some. For example, I have noticed that long haul international airfare (on European and American airlines) tends to be priced most reasonably about 4 months before the actual travel dates. To some extent, this also holds true for air travel within Europe and the U.S. While I have no statistical evidence of the above, I stick with that 4 month mark and so far it had worked for me. Obviously, things are somewhat different when the target dates fall around an internationally celebrated holiday (think Christmas or New Year’s). I avoid planning anything during such times of the year, and as a general cost-cutting rule, I try to schedule our tours during the selected destination’s ‘shoulder season’.  Shoulder seasons have the advantage of not only cheaper airfare, but also more affordable accommodations, while at the same time you still get to enjoy most of the high season aspects of the place you’re visiting. A couple of years ago, we went to Iceland in mid September, when prices were drastically lower than the peak months of July and August. Yes, we did not get to see the light of day at 2am, but the days were still 12 hours long, the first snow had not come yet, and the temperatures were reasonable. Plus the (handful) trees were dressed in fall colors. Here is a photo from Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest ‘city’ boasting a population of 20,000.The reasons to see Japan and Portugal in September and New Zealand in May were similar.

Another strategy I employ is purchasing tickets with frequent flyer miles. Breaking news… not! Well, it depends. There are these lucky few that have amassed a sizeable fortune in their mileage banks, for them I have nothing but not so noble envy. And then there is another group of flyers such as myself, that have been slowly but steadily saving up for that one or two free tickets, that never materialize because either there are no seats available at times they’re needed, or because the accumulated miles feel just too precious to be spent at once. Dear fellow frequent flyer wanna-be, we share the same fate, and there are ways to get the best in return for your mileage treasure.

There are a couple of rules I have followed the few times I have redeemed miles for free tickets. First, I look for seats as further away as possible from the actual travel dates. This ensures I will get the most convenient flights for the least amount of miles. Plus many programs usually tax you more if you book close to the departure date.

Second, I do not spend miles on long-haul flights between major gateway cities with frequent connections because these tend to cost a lot of miles, while the actual tickets are affordable (comparatively speaking). I recently found a one-stop flight between London and Sydney costing about 1200USD. This would have required over 100K frequent flyer miles, which would have been the same as getting two free tickets Europe-USA, valued at $1000 each. Basically, I am trying to say that I only spend frequent flyer miles if their value is least 2 cents on the mile. My biggest achievement so far was getting on the ultra-expensive 2.5 hour KOREAN AIR flight from Tokyo, Japan to Jeju, South Korea (670USD) for a total of 15K otherwise useless Delta frequent flyer miles. Mathematically this looks like: ‘4 cents per mile’ which is twice as good as what I shoot for…

The above goes to show that the act of managing your frequent flyer account has been brought to the level of science. This topic surely deserves a separate post which I plan on writing one of these days.

Another way to trim airfare expenses is getting an airpass. Those are available from pretty much all of the major airline alliances. Theoretically, airpasses present huge savings, as the cost per segment is usually lower than the market price AND they give flexibility which you don’t get with the cheaper economy fare tickets. I say ‘theoretically’ because for some reason, I was never able to find one to suit our travel plans, except for our latest trip. We got the Japan Airpass on ANA (which is part of the StarAlliance Group with Lufthansa, Continental etc). It still came out pricey, but nevertheless cut the cost of air travel within the Land of the Rising Sun in half. I will talk about the process of purchasing that airpass in another post, where I would also share details about the other programs I came across.

And a goodbye picture: this is where my Delta frequent flyer miles took me: Jeju Island, South Korea with Mt Halla hidden behind the clouds.

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