This weekend, it took me 12 hours to get from Washington D.C. to New York City. That’s typically a 35 minutes flight. Another friend spent his own 12 hours trying to get from Philadelphia to Denver. What is going on in the world of airlines? I honestly have no idea. But as it becomes more expensive (and in some cases, more time-intensive – to fly, what should we do to make the best of it? For those of us living, working and volunteer abroad, a little travel time in the air is essential. Here are some tips for making it worth your while.
- Get cheap tickets
This is easier said than done in today’s market, but there are still ways to get great deals on airfare, even internationally. The crazy thing about buying plane tickets is that there are two sets of people who benefit most: planners and procrastinators. Seems counter-intuitive, right? Just think about it this way: The cheapest tickets are released about 6 months before the date of departure. So if right now you’re planning say, a volunteer vacation to Argentina in the winter, book your ticket! You probably won’t get a better price than what you are currently seeing.
There’s one exception to this rule, and that’s last minute airfare. This cheap airfare tip is best left to the risk-takers among us, since there is never any guarantee that you will find a cheap fare to your destination on your preferred date. If you are flexible, easygoing, and don’t mind layovers and roundabout routes, you could save a bundle of cash on a last minute flight. My advice for last-minute books goes against the grain a bit: If you’re booking the night before a trip, go straight to airlines, and do it by phone. Airfare search engines like Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz are great for many things, but I’ve always found that purchasing a last minute ticket directly from an airline have me more flexibility. In some cases I was able to save money by offering to fly stand-by, which is not an option if you get your tickets online.
In my estimation, these are the best resources for cheap international flights:
Kayak.com – This is one of the mostly comprehensive meta-websites for air travel I have seen (although I’m not a huge fan of their car rental feature). I also highly recommend Kayak if you are looking for a multi-city ticket.
STA Travel – I’ve extolled their virtues before. They were invaluable when I studied abroad in Europe.
CheapTickets.com – This is actually an airline consolidator, not a search engine like some of the more prominent airfare websites. I’ve gotten the most amazing deals using this site. Just beware of fees and be sure about dates, because these tickets are VERY difficult to change.
Also: Did you know that if you airfare goes down after you have purchased your ticket, you can get a refund? Neither did I! So it may pay off to keep checking those prices even after your ticket is booked.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare
The worst part of a flight delay is not really having any control over the situation. You are at the mercy of their airlines in terms of information, and for the most part there is little that you can do about it. So what do you do to stay calm and get to where you’re going? You plan ahead.
- Pack the perfect carry-on: If your plane is delayed for 24 hours, do you have everything that you need in your carry-on bag? A change of clothes, reading material, toiletries, contact numbers, and laptop/other communication device – to me these are all essential to have in hand when traveling. I actually pack my carry on for my whole trip whenever possible (see some great tips for packing a carry-on bag here), but at the very least you should think to yourself: What would I need if my luggage got lost, my flight was cancelled and I had to stay in a hotel or the airport overnight? If you have things to entertain you, you’ll be less likely to freak out if the worst happens.
- Stay connected: So maybe the airline isn’t telling you why your flight is grounded. But you have a cell phone, right? Check the weather, or call the airline and find out what’s going on. They might have a more complete picture of the situation from which you can make your plans. In many cases, the airline just wants to keep trying to get you on the next flight – their priority is to get passengers on their way. But in some cases it might be best to wait it out. Using my Dc to NYC flight as an example, if I’d known that the weather wasn’t going to clear up for 12 hours, I would have just booked a ticket for the next morning and stayed with a friend in DC. That’s not an option for every situation, but it’s much easier to stay calm knowing that you have a plan, as opposed to being at the whim of the airline.
If you’re looking for even more great travel tips, check out the Independent Traveler. The website cover everything from travel deals to getting the best airline seat, and you can learn a lot about being the happiest traveler possible!