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Think Outside the Airplane Cylinder

With flying getting more unpleasant every year—especially for domestic flights—it makes a lot of sense to exhaust all your alternatives. When you’re trying to connect to get from where you live to where you are going, the obvious choice isn’t always the best one.

Amtrak train legroom

This is clearly not an airplane seat….

I figured this out quickly when I first became a world traveler in the mid-90s. When we booked our very first round-the-world trip, we put together flights from a consolidator, someone who was just patching one-way tickets together to make it work. One leg was going to take us from India to Turkey, then we were going to fly from there into Greece. “If you fly into Greece first and then go overland into Turkey,” the agent told us, “it’ll be a good bit cheaper.”

“How much cheaper?” I asked.

“Ummm, looks like about $350 each,” he replied. We declined and decided we would figure it out later. The overnight bus from Athens to Istanbul took 24 hours, but it was $50 each instead, for a $700 savings.

Look At All the Travel Options for Your Itinerary

If you are trying to maximize your travel budget, sometimes you need to get creative. I sometimes get roped into helping a friend or relative save a few bucks on their itinerary. I spent a half hour on the phone with a friend a few years back, trying to get her family from Florida to Prague around Christmas without her spending her life savings in the process. In the end, we figured out that if they all flew into Munich instead and took a bus or train direct to their final Czech destination, they would save about $200 each, or $800 total. That’s not chump change. If she weren’t carting a bunch of kids and their stuff along, she could have saved even more by just taking the cheapest flight into Europe and then hopping on a budget airline or train from there.

long-term travel

Did you really leave home to do this every day or two?

I made similar moves when I used to have a beach vacation home near Merida, Mexico. There was one trip where if we flew into our destination city, it would have cost us $750 each, which is nuts. If we flew into Cancun and took a first-class $28 bus over instead, it would drop to $580. Still nuts, but better. Once I rented a car in Cancun and did it for less than the bus since there were four of us. Last time I took my family to our house in Guanajuato, we flew to Mexico City, where the flight was $300 instead of $560. We hopped on a $40 each executive bus with three seats across for the rest of the way. Longer trip, but that’s a lot of cash I would rather spend on tacos and Negra Modelas.

This isn’t just an international discussion though. I’ve got four ways to get to the Miami airport from Tampa and the flight option is seldom the best. I’ve taken Megabus for less than $20 and if you book really far ahead, it’s a dollar. Yes, really! You can “upgrade” to a front window seat with more legroom for all of $5.

cheap megabus

I’ve done the same route on Amtrak for $29. Yesterday I rented a car one-way and got down there for $43 plus $15 in gas. I recently took Amtrak from Richmond to Raleigh for a shade over 40 bucks and got work done on my plugged-in laptop the whole way—except a few breaks to walk around and visit the lounge car.

Sometimes you have to suck it up and take a crappy flight, especially if you’re traveling internationally or going a really long way within the USA. But make sure you check out all the other options first for avoiding being stuffed into a cramped cylinder.

What wins have you experienced by finding alternatives to the big flight carriers?


Tuesday 23rd of May 2017

Whoops, that's a 320 difference instead of 430 ... and I'm a numbers guy!



Monday 22nd of May 2017

Hi Tim, As one who flies annually to Mérida, I can say that it's MUCH BETTER to fly directly into Mérida vs. Cancún. I'll gladly spend the extra 100-200USD RT to avoid the morass that is the airport there. Add in the overnight(s) in town and bus both ways, and the time/money factor becomes almost insignificant.

On the other side, my wife is headed to Key West. Cheapest flight from Upstate NY is 750USD RT. Flying to Miami, 250 + shuttle into Key West 180 RT. She'll take the 430 and put that to good use (I hope).