Virtual private network (VPN) software can do a lot for your digital life when traveling – like protecting your online accounts to helping you avoid regional censorship. But one of the lesser known benefits of using a VPN is finding cheaper airfare when searching for tickets online.
As Paul asked me recently on Facebook – how exactly do you use a VPN to find lower prices on airline tickets? Here’s the best way to turn your web browser into a digital travel agent with insider deals.
First, Choose A Good VPN
Most VPNs worth their 0s and 1s let you select a location where you’ll appear to physically be. So, for example, you might be traveling in Iceland but setting your VPN location in New York will make it appear to websites like Netflix, that you’re in the United States.
Using your everyday browser, starting looking for tickets and routes as you normally would (with VPN off). If you’re not sure where to look, one of the best flight search engines should turn up a good set of routes plus average rates.
Next, it’s time to turn on your VPN – setting its location to the home country of the airline you’re most interested in. So, if Paris is the destination and there’s a decent Air France flight, change your VPN location to somewhere in France.
Before doing anything else, you’ll want to open up a ‘private browsing’ mode window. Here’s how to do that in Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer. What this does is ensures you’re IP address is stored in cache so the website you’re looking at can’t remember your real location.
Remember The Basics
For every new flight search, use a new private mode browser window. Don’t forget to use some low-airfare best practices, such as checking not only online travel agents like Kayak but also airline websites directly. Hopefully by now you’ve found a few discounts, even if small; however, in case your VPN searches aren’t turning up anything there’s one more option: use the U.S.
No matter where you’re flying, consumers in the United States are often offered lower rates on airfare, no matter the origin and destination cities. It’s worth a shot to set your VPN to any American city when all else isn’t working. For even more savings, look for multi-city flights, see if you’ve got enough frequent flyer miles for a free flight, and spread your searches out over a few days.
There are two types of flyers in the world – those that leave for the airport at a reasonable time before a flight and everyone else who thinks those kind of people are risk-taking-maniacs who want nothing more than the thrill of almost missing a flight. For many, the notion of arriving at the airport 3 hours before an international flight is one airline commandment that can’t be broken – except that even most airlines don’t recommend you get to the airport that early.
Where Does The 3 Hour Rule Come From Anyway?
There are two factors the airlines use to determine their recommendations on how early you should show up at the airport before any flight: the time it takes for a checked bag to get to the plane from the counter and how long it takes a passenger to get to the gate from the counter. (The airlines see a lot of passengers giving them a huge data set with which to base these times.) It turns out the total time between the two have varied over time, they have remained equal to one another over time.
- So, the time it takes for you to get from the counter to your gate – passing through security, walking, etc. – is roughly equal to the time it takes your checked bag to get on the airplane.
Despite what it feels like to us, getting through security now is a lot quicker than it was 20 years ago and our bags also get to the planes faster too. (As most experienced ramp agents will tell you.) The 3 hour rule may have been practical for most flights in a time when all bags were routinely opened for searches, passports couldn’t be scanned electronically, ticket records weren’t computerized; but not so much now.
Save Yourself An Hour
The sweet spot for getting to the airport before an international flight is actually two hours before scheduled take off. Two hours isn’t an arbitrary time I’m just making up, it’s based on how the airlines calculate the time you’re recommended to show up. (For some, it’s even as little as 90 minutes.) Again, the airlines base their recommendations according to the amount of time it takes for a checked bag to get from the check-in counter to the gate – which is roughly equal to the amount of time it takes the passenger to get to the gate.
For most airports this time is calculated as 45 minutes – the minimum amount of time it takes for your checked bag to get to the gate. For those of you who traveling with checked bags, this is the absolute latest you can get to the check-in counter. Otherwise, you won’t be allowed to check bags which might be a deal breaker for your flight depending on your backpack or suitcase.
Add in 30 minutes in line to get to the counter (as the airlines do), totaling 120 minutes. Remember, this time varies by airline, airport, and destination so be sure to check on the airline’s site for last check-in times.
More Time If You Don’t Have Checked Luggage
Traveling without checked bags not only saves you a lot of time upon arrival since you can skip baggage claim, it also generally means you can get to the airline 30 minutes later (around 90 minutes) before an international flight. Again, this isn’t an arbitrary time – it’s what the majority of airlines recommend. Not having checked luggage often means you don’t need to see an agent at the check-in counter and pick up your tickets directly from a kiosk.
Also, some destinations with strict visa or security controls (e.g. Israel) often mean you need to get to the airport earlier than 2 hours before your flight.
Cut It Efficiently Close
Some airports are small enough where you can show up even an hour before a scheduled flight but unless you know it well enough it’s best not to get carried away with procrastination. Inside the United States you can check security wait times with the TSA, use What’s Busy for future flights, plus see how long a walk to your gate will take with Gate Guru.
Despite all of your best efforts, in case you do show up too late you can try missing your flight for free without paying for re-booking.
Whether they’re scattered across airlines or you have your frequent flyer miles accumulated in one place, finding out how many can get you where isn’t always clear. Most of us sign up for mileage programs to get free flights (although there’s a lot miles can be used for) but often get sidetracked since it’s difficult to work toward vague goals.
Milez.biz is a simple site lacking a lot in design that lets you enter in two cities, an airline or mileage alliance, and then tells you the number of bonus miles needed to make a round trip. The site also breaks down the miles into economy, business, and first class in case you’ve got extra bonuses with or without credit cards.
Target Your Spending By Comparing Multiple Carriers
One of the best features of Milez is that it can show you a single, multiple, or how many miles needed for a free flight on over 75 airlines at once. This means you might be able to find an especially attainable program and fly for $5 like this travel hacker did or use one of these 7 ways to earn more miles fast. So, if you want to fly from New York to Istanbul, Milez can tell you the number of frequent flyer miles it takes to go for free on Turkish and American Airlines for example.
- Charge It? – Many credit cards come with mileage sign up bonuses but Milez can show whether 30,000 on say, American AAdvantage makes that rewards card worth the miles.
Although you probably should be using one of these 3 American mileage programs not matter where you live to collect more miles, you might be able to spot a carrier-specific deal that’s right for you.
Milez works the other way around too – got the miles but don’t know where they can take you? The suggestions page makes for fun browsing, admittedly, it’s easy to get lost there a bit longer than you should. (Antananarivo anyone!?) There are a few drawbacks to Milez, mostly to do with aesthetics. I wish it could calculate one-way tickets for those of us who like to see more with multi-city flights. And although it’s not very apparent on the site how often or when it was updated last, in 10 scenarios I ran using 10 different airlines, all of the Milez results came back accurate.
Milez is a nice tool to use if you’re gifting miles, want to see how many more miles you need to fly free, and ultimately be more informed about the programs you’re using. Tracking your miles effectively is something the airlines don’t really want you doing since the better you are at it, the more advantage you’ll make of any mileage program.
I first read about Dr. Yannis Pitsiladis MMEDSci., PhD, FACSM in The Sports Gene, a book by David Epstein about what makes super athletes different than the majority of us. Dr. Pitsiladis is a Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton who has done research on obesity and the detection of doping in athletes but his passion is running. He travels around the world studying the genes and environments of the world’s top runners (often on his own dime) and created the largest known DNA bio-bank from world-class athletes.
Additionally, Dr. Pitsiladis must deal with a severe fear of flying before boarding planes to places like Jamaica and Kenya. Dr. Pitsiladis was kind enough to answer a few questions about facing his anxiety to research the fastest people on Earth.
What is the extent of your fear of flying?
I typically have to ingest alcohol to board the flight. I cannot work, especially when there is turbulence. I also have to sit at the window and spend most of the time looking outside even in the dark. I only fly with certain airlines and often choose to drive long distances especially in Africa so as not to take local airlines. As a scientist this makes no sense as I am aware of the data.
How often do you travel and what is an average year like for you?
I travel typically every week of the year.
[Above: Dr. Pitsiladis with 4-time Olympic medalist Herb McKenley of Jamaica.]
Has all of this flying changed your anxiety, for better or worse?
I go through ups and downs depending on how bad/good the previous experience is but mainly depending on the airline and weather. On a British Airways flight on good weather my anxiety is low. On a Russian airliner in bad weather my anxiety is sky high! My anxiety is also very high when my family travel with me although I do my best to hide it so as not to pass on my fear to them – often without success.
There’s a saying that there is no greater enemy than one’s own fears, what about your research motivates you to overcome yours regularly?
Yes totally. I never let it stop me flying with a few African examples where i will drive 7 hours to avoid a 30 min flight across the Great Rift Valley.
[Above: Dr. Pitsiladis sampling blood in Africa.]
I’m fascinated by descriptions of the Champs [Jamaica’s annual high school sprinting competition] and would like to hear your impressions or favorite memories from the events you’ve attended.
The atmosphere, especially when the victorious school is clear, which is more exciting than an Olympics – even the 100m final day at the Olympics.
Which runner(s) have been the most difficult for you to reach due to travel constraints?
For data protection i cannot answer.
Finally, where are you headed next?
To break the 2 hour marathon barrier…
Thank you again Dr. Pitsiladis for taking the time to share some of your experiences in the air and catching the fleet-footed on the ground. You can read more about Dr. Pitsiladis’ research on why people of east African descent seem to always win marathons, Jamaicans excel at sprinting, plus studies done by others in a fascinating book I highly recommend, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.