I needed to get from central Mexico to a middling town in South Carolina, USA to go see my father. I pulled up the flight and it was nearly $800, even after moving around the dates.
Did I just sigh and figure that’s the way it’s gotta be? No, I went to work finding alternatives.
If you are fortunate enough to make $200 an hour for your time, it may make sense for you to spend as little time on flight and hotel searches as possible and just hit the buy button.
For most of us though, a reduction of several hundred dollars in the price of a flight or $40 less a night on a hotel is easily worth an hour of our time to uncover. The key is going in with a flexible, open mind and making sure all the possibilities are exhausted.
Exploring Flight Booking Options
The longer the flight, the more the alternative research matters—and the more variables can be involved. If you’re flying from Australia to London, for example, there are a whole slew of places you could be stopping on the way, either as a plane change or a place to visit for a while. If you search on one booking site or directly on Qantas for this combination, it may be $1,500 to get there quickly, with a one-hour plane change somewhere. But it’s only $685 in mid-June for a rock bottom fare on Philippine Airlines with a long layover. You’ll often only find that out by using some lesser-known booking sites like Vayama or Google Flights.
Is that the end of it though? Maybe not. There may be airlines flying between those destinations that don’t participate in those online travel agency sites. In North America that could be Southwest, Volaris, or Allegiant. In Asia it could be a dozen airlines you have never heard of. Do some searching around. One tip I’ve found helpful is to check the actual airport site of where you’re leaving from or arriving in. They often list all the airlines that use that airport, sometimes with links to their site.
Or what if you took a rock-bottom fare to Bangkok, or Delhi, or Dubai first and then purchased a second ticket separately (on a different airline) for the rest of the trip?
Don’t forget about alternative airports! You often have to do some creative thinking and pull out a calculator to figure out how you’ll get from that alternative airport to where you’re going, but the savings can be substantial. It’s not unusual, for example, for an international flight from Orlando to be 25% less than one from Tampa. (And cheapo Allegiant has a hub in St. Pete/Clearwater.) The same can be true of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, Long Beach and Los Angeles, Gatwick and Heathrow, Eindhoven and Amsterdam. Many of the budget European airlines operate from a different city near the capital one and in Bangkok the budget carriers are just in a different (older) airport.
Hotel Booking and Alternatives
I’ve talked before about how sometimes the best accommodation plan is no hotel at all, but there are plenty of times where you’ll just be somewhere for a night or two or when you want the full-blown resort experience in a tropical location. So then you want to find the best possible hotel deal.
The oldies but goodies Priceline and Hotwire still work well for unsold inventory, as does the newer HotelTonight app. The online travel agency sites all run their own last-minute deals now too.
Keep in mind that though Expedia keeps gobbling up every booking site not already owned by Priceline, there are still certain specialty sites withing the duopoly that are better for certain geographies. Agoda.com for Asia, for instance, or CheapCaribbean for islands and Caribbean coast of Mexico.
For apartment rentals, it’s worth checking HouseTrip.com for Europe. Wimdu, FlipKey, and the HomeAway brands are also worth checking if you’re coming up short elsewhere.
As I always point out, also, only a fraction of the independent hotels in the world are listed on any online travel agency site. Agoda and the hostel sites get more of them than others, but sometimes you need to search sites run by locals, use a guidebook, or pound the pavement after arrival to really get a local bargain. Then again, when you see the hotel prices in a place like Bangkok, you don’t even want to bother.
P.S. On that $800 flight I was facing at the beginning of this post, I found a deal from a different Mexico airport to Atlanta instead for $499. I was going to rent a car anyway upon arrival, so I rented one in Atlanta instead and drove an extra two hours. On the Mexico end I took an $18 bus ride each way to the alternate airport. Total savings after factoring in the bus rides and rental car gas: $243.