If there’s one question I’ve heard more than any others over the past year, it’s some variation of, “How is your family able to travel like this?”
Unfortunately there’s no easy answer.
In short, it takes work and help from a mind much smarter than ours.
Nathan’s cousin is a bit of a self-proclaimed travel geek. I say that with the highest level of praise. In college, he figured out a hack to get to and from his university to his hometown on school breaks with only buying the first ticket.
You know the story of button soup? The fairy tale where the girl makes the soup “with only one button”?
That’s sort of how his college travel went. He bought one ticket and figured out a system where the airlines would always bump him and he would use his voucher for the next ticket, so on and so forth.
Over the years, he’s learned so much about the airlines and he has been the key to helping us plan our trips without going broke.
Nathan and I have been curious, asking as many questions as we can without annoying him (okay, so we’ve annoyed him a time or twenty). He’s super generous with his wisdom and we’ll always be grateful.
For some of you, this will be so fascinating. For others, you’ll fall asleep two paragraphs into this post. I don’t know if this will be helpful or overwhelming, but I hope if nothing else, it’s a peek into the work that goes into traveling.
Things I’ve come to understand, in no particular order:
Don’t Ask To Go To Cancun For Spring Break and Expect Get a Deal.
That’s certainly a generalized statement, but if you have very specific parameters and a very specific time frame, it’s harder (dare I say impossible?) to find a low price on a fare. To state even more specifically, if you have a certain airport you want to fly in to, on inflexible dates, you will most likely pay accordingly. Traveling when everyone else wants to travel, to where everyone wants to go will not be helpful for you getting a bargain. Of course, there are always chances that you’ll find a bargain no matter where you are going, but the more flexible you can be, the better your chances of hitting the jackpot.
When You Find a Deal, Don’t Wait.
Our travel whiz tells us that finding a sale or reduced fare happens regularly. Literal “mistake fares” happen once or twice a month. Some of the destinations may not be desirable or the dates do not work for you. But when you find a deal that does work, don’t tarry. Book right away. If it’s a deal or truly a mistake fare, it’ll be gone in a puff of smoke.
We have benefited from deals our travel guru has found on his own, or sometimes he has found bargains published in blogs (one of his favorite blogs is One Mile At A Time). Nathan follows several blogs (and twitter accounts) that share deals in real time (The Points Guy, God Save The Points). Finding bargains takes a lot of attention and time!
Finding flight deals to me is like house hunting. You don’t know what a good deal is until you’ve done a lot of house hunting. The same goes for ticket deals: the more you watch ticket prices and sales, the more you’ll be comfortable snagging a good deal when it pops up on your Twitter feed.
When Searching, Don’t Search Economy Only
When you are a budget-conscious traveler, it’s natural to go through the search engine, choose your dates and destination, and click, “find the cheapest fare”. I have found that the search engine will automatically search economy flights only. Sometimes (certainly not always), it pays to do an advanced search and choose Business Class or First Class as your seat choice. It may happen that one cabin will be overcrowded and another will be empty, and due to supply and demand, the business class will be more affordable than usual. Occasionally you’ll find deals (probably mistakes) where the business class fare will be cheaper than the economy! Grab that ticket immediately!
To quote our cousin, “not considering business class could be a classic case of penny wise/ pound foolish: add up the cost of your base-fare ticket plus any ancillaries you require [checked bags; seat assignments; etc]. If the Business/First Class fare is within striking distance of the sum of all those things, go for the upgrade!”
There are a lot of perks and benefits when flying business or first class internationally:
- Lounge access
- Priority check-in
- Priority Security
- Priority boarding
- On-board food and drink (and lots of it) included
- First off the aircraft
- First bags off the plane
…not to mention the “extras” of international business class: amenity bags, lie-flat seats, and comfortable bedding. Of course, many of these benefits are strictly creature comforts. Creature comforts aside, I’m convinced that a traveler will miss less close connections when flying priority (first off the plane, first bags, priority security, etc) and can make paying for business class worth the extra money.
It’s never a guarantee that business class is going to be affordable, but it also never hurts to check. This website is a go-to for booking plane tickets. It requires a bit of self-tutoring… but once you figure out the basic syntax, it is quite easy to use. So for a bit of effort, this will often save a good chunk of change (or at least find the best routing). But with more effort, this site can work miracles! There are a hundred “advance controls” which will can return amazing results. Once you find the tickets you want to purchase, you’ll go to the airline’s ticketing website or online travel agent (like Expedia) to actually purchase the tickets.
Business Class Or First Class Miles Earn More Points
Finding deals on business class creates a positive snowball effect. For example: we flew a leg of of our last trip on business class that was worth 7,346 miles. The same flight credited in coach for 1,200 miles. The higher class you fly, the more miles you earn. The more you earn, the more you have to spend. So, finding even a few “mistake fares” in business or first class can mean a ton of miles earned and a fun time spending those miles in the future. Consider it like a rebate towards future purchases (Menards 11% rebate shoppers will understand this analogy).
It’s Much Cheaper to Fly From Europe To The States Than Vice-Versa
For my American friends, this is a little bit of a switch for our brains. It is much more affordable to fly from Europe to the USA, than USA to Europe. I just did a quick search and it cost over $1500 more to fly round trip from Chicago to Prague in business class, as compared to round trip from Prague to Chicago on the same flights (just in reverse order).
What that means for my family is that we originate our tickets from the other side of the pond. It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around this, but right now I’m at home at my kitchen table, and I’m visiting the USA on a round trip ticket. The other half of my ticket will take me back to Europe at a later date, where I will originate a new ticket home, and on goes the cycle.
This means we are always putting out money ahead on the next trip, and we always have another trip planned and booked. But it’s part of the formula that keeps us in the sky, so I’ll take it without complaint.
We Save Our Miles On the Airline Loyalty Program That Makes the Most Sense
Here’s another statement that is a little unusual. We are not loyal to an airline. Whether it’s Qatar, Oman, American, Austrian, Swiss, United, Ethiopian, Lufthansa, British Airways, and on goes the list, we fly the carrier that works the best for the price and ticketing (and we shoot for carriers with a good reputation). The trick is that is we pool our miles on one airline loyalty program per alliance, even if that’s not the airline we flew. This website can help you narrow down your best options. There are a few major alliances (Star Alliance, Oneworld Alliance and SkyTeam Alliance) and often times you can put the miles in any airline within that alliance. You want to credit the miles to the airline that will give you the most flexibility to spend those miles and give you the biggest bang for your buck.
Also, you can purchase miles and use them through the alliances. Sometimes an airline will sell miles at a sale price, so you can look at buying miles as an option as well.
Use Credit Card Points to Your Benefit
There are some great credit cards out there that can help you get started on accruing miles with huge sign-on incentives. If you want to start a ticket home from Europe but need to get yourself over to Europe, miles from a credit card may be one way to accomplish that goal! Some cards to look at are American Airlines cards, United Airlines Card, and Chase Sapphire Card, just to list a few. Many have an annual fee (some waived for year #1), so keep that in mind.
Sidenote: within the last year, Chase Bank has become more strict on how many cards they will approve you for before they decline your application. If you have an interest in attaining new cards, I’d always start with the Chase Cards first and move on to other bank’s cards, like Bank of America & Barclay, after you’ve reached what is called Chase’s 5/24 rule (no more than 5 card applications within 24 months).
Super deluxe cards, like American Express, have huge annual fees, but if you are doing regular traveling you’ll earn that back in spades by all of the bonus points and incentives for travelers, not to mention travel concierge services.
Shameless plug: we use a Chase Sapphire Preferred card for our everyday purchases, and if you are considering applying for one, I’d love for you to use my referral link for me to get a little kickback :-). There’s no annual fee the first year and a 50,000 point sign on bonus for you! I’m only limited to a few of these referral bonuses per year, but every little bit helps! I’d be super thankful! Here’s the link for your consideration.
I feel I’d be remiss to not mention that you need to have good self control with credit cards, and if you know you don’t, then don’t get a card. There’s no amount of credit card points that are worth a load of credit card debt.
Our Flight Paths Are Rarely Perfect
Sometimes to get the air deals we fly wonky paths. On the way home from Thailand we didn’t take a nice and neat flight from Bangkok to Chicago. Nope…eight flights and a few days later we got home, and it was a long trip. Our six-year-old fell asleep on the floor of an airport, in the middle of a passport control line, from exhaustion. In exchange for extra time and hassle, we flew business class the whole way and are set up for our trip back to Europe this summer.
This Takes Time And Effort
I cannot stress how much time and effort this takes. It may take hours upon hours to find a deal, more hours to perfect the booking, then more time inputting frequent flyer information, seat assignments, and on and on goes the list. We wouldn’t be traveling and able to write this article if it wasn’t for our cousin, Mike. We are grateful for his passionate hobby and his willingness to share his time and knowledge with his loved ones.
I wish I could say that there was one magic website or a genie in a bottle that could create bargain ticket prices to wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go. Instead, it takes a lot of work and attention. But, as they say, “Nothing worth doing is easy”. This certainly isn’t easy, but with practice makes perfect. Traveling internationally with 3 kids in tow can be done if you want to take the time and effort to do it! Happy Trails.
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