There are a number of ways to book an airplane ticket, but almost all methods will lead you through a flight aggregating search engine, the kind that sifts through multiple airlines at once. Research from Temple University [PDF] suggests that 86% of Americans use at least one flight search engine, while 44% use 2 or 3 before booking a flight. Using more than one aggregator is a practice I highly recommend so you can learn the average fares you’re looking at plus common flight routes (to potentially save on tickets using multi-city flights).
But searching for rates from engine to engine is time consuming, so if you’re crunched for time or simply can’t be bothered, these are the best aggregators to devote your time to, whether you decide to look further for lower rates or not.
The search engine I begin my air travel plans with, Kayak‘s clean interface, quick results, and widespread search that includes other flight aggregators provides a solid airfare baseline nearly every time. Kayak is rarely the absolute cheapest option, though it’s often close, the rates it shows tend to shift up after a few searches. (You can avoid paying more throughout the day by using two web browsers to search and book airfare.) One more thing worth mentioning to all of you spontaneous flyers is Kayak Explore: it lets you enter your city, when you want to travel, and shows you all of the possibilities and prices on a map. Pick a spot and go!
The rates on Hipmunk tend to agree with Kayak, however if you’re flexible on airports, it can usually give you options Kayak won’t (since it tends to lock you into a single airport). One thing Hipmunk does better than any other flight search engine though, is provide an intuitive visual display of when you’ll be wheels up and down, including any layovers in between. On flights with multiple timezones and connections, Hipmunk can help you avoid booking that accidental 15-hour layover (low airfare dude!) Though if that does happen to you, I’ve got your ultimate guide to sleeping in airports right here, dude.
I know this isn’t necessarily a popular choice among many travelers but I often find low rates on Orbitz, especially when booking last-minute. Nothing spectacularly cheap, but they seem to allocate more special rate tickets per flight, benefiting procrastinating bookers like myself. (Whereas prices sky rocket at the very last minute on most other aggregators.) There are a few other nice elements to the booking process on Orbitz, like a allowing you to specify a meal type (e.g. vegetarian) and entering your frequent flyer account. (Just be sure you’re accumulating all of your points in one place.)
Still Feel Like Searching? Cast A Wider Net With These Aggregators
Generally speaking you’re going to have a pretty good idea of what your airfare price range is after checking out the three flight search engines above. Sometimes though your budget
can’t doesn’t agree with your schedule or wanderlust, putting you out on a quest to leave no digital stone unturned. I’m not saying you shouldn’t believe in miracles but don’t get your hopes up either.
- Farecompare and Bing Travel – Though I dislike the multiple window pop-ups when performing a search, Farecompare acts like an automated airfare blitzkrieg, combing for cheap plane tickets across a number of other aggregators you specify. Farecompare can usually shave a few dollars off the rates you might find on Hipmunk or Kayak initially but it’s best used in conjunction with another similar service. Bing Travel’s Price Predictor, through the former Farecast service, can tell you whether the ticket you’re about to book is likely to get more expensive (buy now) or drop in price soon (hold off).
- Momondo – Hit or miss but when it’s hit, you’ve usually found the lowest rate among the aggregators.
- Fly Low Cost Airlines – Includes a number of budget airlines most of the other booking sites don’t.
For The Ultimate Lowest Price Don’t Stop At Aggregation
To come up with the lowest airfare on any given ticket quest however you can’t stick to aggregators alone. They’re one part of a frugal strategy and if you’ve got the time and will, be sure to utilize all of the best ways to look for cheap flights. Finally, don’t take off without being a member of frequent flyer alliance – as accumulated miles can end up earning you a free flight from time to time. Here’s how to get set up in 8 minutes and then 7 ways to bump up your earning immediately after.
What search engines and methods do you use to look for the cheapest airfare? Any of the ones I mentioned, any I missed? Share your search engine travel tactics in the comments below!
One of the first things we tend to do when arriving home from a trip is toss our checked luggage down, unzipping zipper seams which are holding on with every last strength of their fiber. Prior to your next trip you’ll likely rip off any previous baggage tags that are hanging around your bag handles but might not notice the smaller bag bar codes stickers somewhere on the side or underneath. It’s those nondescript tags that can have your bags going to the wrong place or delayed, so they’re not with you upon arrival at your final destination.
Little Tags Can Make A Big Difference
Anyone who’s flown anywhere commercially is familiar with the large baggage tags that airline employees rapidly stick to one of your bag handles or straps at check-in. Those bags contain your destination airport code, any connecting city codes, as well as flight numbers. There’s also a bar code on the sticker which contains that information and provides real-time tracking as your bags get scanned from one place to the next. Off of that same baggage tag there’s often a smaller sticker with the bar code only, called a “bingo” tag, that’s placed somewhere else on your bag.
The bingo tag is there as a backup in case your other bag tag somehow get detached; that’s called a “tag-off” and only occurs in 3% of lost luggage cases.
Bingo Tags Help Prevent Lost Luggage Only If They’re Not From Previous Flights
Problems can occur when those bingo tags aren’t removed – easy to miss because of their small size and the tendency for them to be stuck to the bottom or side of a bag. Those tags might be scanned by baggage handlers or automated devices (depending on the airport) confusing the system. Such confusion can often lead to a delay while your bag’s information is double-checked (under good circumstances). That might not be a problem in many cases but if you’ve got a short layover, it can mean your luggage misses your connecting flight, even if you don’t.
In bad circumstances, poorly designed automated scanners or careless baggage handlers might actually send your luggage to the wrong destination. And the more connections a piece of luggage has to make, the more likely it will get lost along the way.
Turn Tag Removal Into A Travel Ritual
Airline staff at check-in counters are trained to remove all of your previous bag tags, however, when things get busy (or for self-check-in) that might not occur, so it’s best to do it yourself on a routine basis. For many people, that can be right when you get to the place you’re staying or coming back home to. Though an alternative is to remove the tags as soon as you clear customs. Your baggage tags say a lot about you – where you came from, that you’re arriving from an international location, oh you took business class, how fancy – all of which can potentially draw unwanted attention to you when you arrive in town. If you’ve got a habit of getting lost as I do or have a ways to walk from a subway station, removing baggage tags – not forgetting the bingo tags! – at the airport might be the routine to form for you.
Finally, if you’re bags happen to get lost, here’s how you can best recover lost luggage and how to track and find your stuff if it gets stolen or lost.
Whether by choice or by circumstance, if you travel enough, odds are you’ll end up sleeping in an airport at some point or another. An unintended layover or long delay though doesn’t have to be exhausting. Furthermore it can actually be a relaxing experience if you make the best of what most airports have to offer. I’ve slept in many airports, about 3 weeks total over the last 12 months alone, using them as free hotels. Sometimes by choice for inconveniently-timed flights; at other times due to flight cancellations, extreme delays, or when flying airlines with the same name as the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet.
Over many days and nights hanging out in airports around the world, I’ve taken notes on how to make each subsequent stay more comfortable, productive, and ergonomically efficient. Lessons you can use to be the happiest stranded traveler under the glow of control tower lights.
See If You’re Getting Lucky Tonight
Not all airports are created equally so prior to getting on a flight you should first check to see if you’ll be connecting through one of the best airports to sleep in:
- Singapore Changi Airport (SIN)
- Dubai International Airport (DBX)
- Hong Kong International Airport (HKG)
- Seoul Incheon (ICN)
Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL), Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport (IST), Vancouver International Airport (YVR), and Boryspil International (KBP-Kiev) all would also make my personal list. They’re generally devoid of armrests, have free wireless, plus varied
beer food options around the clock. A quick Google search or stop by the information desk can turn up the best gates to hang around, special sleeping rooms offered, massage bars, cheap airport parking and other goodies you may have otherwise missed.
Get Your Morning Crap Out Of The Way First
Exchanging money, picking up the gift shop souvenir you forgot to buy your mom, and anything you need to do prior to your flight is best dealt with 3 hours before you go to sleep. Light exercise causes the body to release the hormone cortisol whose relaxation-inducing effects kick in about 180 minutes after you trot from one terminal to the other. Completing your travel to-do list will help you get better sleep – taking care of two birds with one stone. If you happen to be sleeping overnight before Gatwick parking, the early evenings are when there tends to be shorter lines all around at most airports, just be sure to get to the counters you need before they close.
Finding The Best Places To Sleep In An Airport
Generally speaking, you’ve got three categories of slumbering locales in any given airport (in order of comfort): the gate/terminal area, airline lounges, and special sleeping quarters. Depending on how long you’re staying in an airport and your budget, here’s how to make the most of each one.
Gate/Terminal Area – Advantages: free, close to flight; Disadvantages: not always quiet, limited space, less comfortable benches
I’ve talked about scoping a place to sleep in the airport before and the first step (after getting any money exchanges, etc. out of the way) is to try and find a quiet corner, or at least stepping up ‘camp’ with one wall at your back. This gives any potential opportunistic thieves one less angle to approach you from.
- Check the departures monitor in the airport to find out where flights are not leaving from to narrow down the quietest areas of the airport.
You can also try sleeping on the fluffy couches many cafes have in the terminal after they’ve closed – you’ll be woken up as early as 4am – but will be comfortable during the middle of the night. Lastly, one other security precaution is to tie your luggage together, with a string or shoelace, attaching one end to your wrist or angle. Keep the string out of sight and you’ve now got a mini-temporary-home alarm system.
Airline Lounges – Advantages: complimentary food and drink, wireless, soft couches; Disadvantages: potential cost, often not ideal for shorter layovers
Many travelers don’t know that you can buy your way into most airline lounges, even if you’re not carrying a business or first class plane ticket. The cost is usually around $50-75 for stays of 4 hours or longer and you can enjoy all of the lounge amenities inside. Frequent flyers can also use some bonus miles to cover the cost or if you have elite status, perhaps already have access you didn’t know about. Inside the lounge you’ll have unlimited complimentary food with drinks (yes, and usually booze), outlets, Internet access, comfortable seats. Many lounges will also have other nice perks like free massages and showers. Prior to plopping yourself inside, ask the attendant to make a general announcement when your particular flight is ready for boarding so you’re covered in case of oversleeping.
- A lot of airports have multiple airline lounges so how do you pick the best one? Generally, you go with the national airline based in international airports (e.g. Malaysian Airlines in Kuala Lumpur); airlines in their hub cities (e.g. United in San Francisco); or any airline alliance members you want to earn frequent flyer miles on without getting more credit cards. Information desks can also give you clues or outright recommend the most luxurious lounge in a given airport.
Special Sleeping Quarters – Advantages: Privacy, convenience, beds; Disadvantages: Cost, availability, lack of food and drink
Some airports around the world also offer special sleeping rooms you can rent for a few hours. Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport has “sleeping boxes” while Tokyo’s Narita Airport sports sleeping rooms (about $20 for the first hour, $10 after that). Again, information desks or a quick Google search can let you in on any of these creative, personalized sleeping options.
Security, Snacks, And Streaming
Airports provide us travelers with the things evolution drives our species to seek – shelter, food, Internet access, and basic security. Yet the airport wild requires us to seek out these essentials. Snacks – if you’re not taking advantage of lounge food, pick up what you want to eat before shops close down. (I know how cranky you get when hungry,) If you become homicidal upon caffeine withdrawal, set your alarm 15 minutes before the nearest cafe’s opening time.
Sleep with one ear open, that is, not covered by headphones to hear any important announcements, don’t leave your electronics lying about, and as mentioned above – tether your bags. Speaking of (electronic) tethering, if you prefer to do some online browsing before bedtime, iPhone users can user 4sqwifi to find wireless passwords and every one else can check back here for our personal list. Don’t discount Ethernet connections so you can set up your own wireless hotspot to share with friends you may be traveling with. (Ethernet ports tend to be hiding out near airline gates, around check-in desks.)
Finally, if you know ahead of time you’ll be sleeping in an airport, stuff a pair of comfortable sweatpants, loose shirt, and slippers in your carry-on luggage so you can change into them. No matter how nice an airport is, it’s hard to get a good night’s rest in skinny jeans.
Book Frequent Flyer Flights For Family And Friends Directly Rather Than Transferring Miles To Save Money
One way to bump up your frequent flyer mile earning is to use points from friends and family members who may not have any intention of using them. You can also be generous and share you own miles, which makes for a great, inexpensive travel gift. But rather than outright transferring them to someone else’s frequent flyer account, you can save on fees by simply booking the flights directly for your friend or family member.
Transferring Miles Can Cost You $100 Or More In Fees
When the amount of miles you’ll be gifting aren’t enough for an outright upgrade or free flight, you’ve got little option other than having them transferred to another account. Such transfers carry fees ranging upwards of $100 or more per transaction, generally making bulk mile transfers more sensible (e.g. $100 for 10,000 miles instead of $100 for 1,000). You can however get around transfer fees altogether when you book for another person directly, something the airlines don’t really advertise you can do.
Call Your Friend, Get Their Flight Details, And Book
I recommend giving the airline mileage programs a call, instead of booking online, when searching for reward flights. Generally it takes less time and somehow those agents find you many more flight options than are available through their websites. In the case you’re booking for someone else, have them come over, or at least call you with their flight details. It’s just like booking for yourself, except it’s not you who’s going to be traveling. Get your friend or family member’s flight dates (spread over 3 days for departure and return as allotted reward seats may not be available), birth date, and passport number. Also, don’t forget their seat and meal preferences for good measure.
When you give the airline mileage program operator a call, let them know you’ll be booking for someone else (United Mileage Plus operators almost always ask, the others, not-so-much) and proceed with the booking. Although you’ll still be liable for the taxes (depending exactly how generous you want to be) you don’t have to pay any mileage transfer fees on top of them.
Works On The Big Airline Alliances But Funnel Your Miles To Maximize Them
Travelers looking to make the most of their frequent flyer miles (no matter how much you fly) should accumulate your miles in one place – preferably in the three most flexible major airline programs. Using United Mileage Plus or KLM Flying Blue, for example, you can use your miles on all of their partner airlines, which doesn’t always work in reverse. I’ve booked flights for friends and family using my miles on all three of the major alliances (Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam) – actually more than I’ve used for myself – avoiding additional transfer charges by using this method. You’ll end up saving $100 or more on reward flights for others, no matter who ends up paying the final booking bill.