How will you get there?
If you’re flying in and out, what cities can you use? You may have choices or limits to deal with, and they may shape your vacation in surprising ways.
Limitations – or are they?
Since we live in Canada, we usually fly into Europe on Air Canada, where we have our travel points. But this means we have to fly into and out of London, Rome, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels or Barcelona (there may be a couple of others). That opens up some possible additional destinations between your airport and your final destination.
- We planned a trip to Amsterdam, and found that our best flight option was into Frankfurt. It didn’t take long to figure out that we could get to Amsterdam by taking a boat through the best part of the Rhine, then seeing Köln (Cologne) and hopping a train.
- In 2012, we would be in England for a visit ending just before the Olympics. We didn’t want to be leaving from Heathrow in the midst of the chaos, so we looked at other cities to return from. Next thing I knew, I was planning a short swing through Switzerland to Brussels.
If you want to go to the Grand Canyon, for example, you can fly into Phoenix or Las Vegas. That’s usually a no-brainer because there are so many cheap flights into Vegas. If you’re going to Interlaken, Switzerland, you can fly into Zurich or Geneva. But one may very well be cheaper or more convenient, so be creative.
You might find that A and B are both good ways to get to C, but B has a fast train to C four times a day and A makes you connect twice to get to C.
These days there’s no particular benefit to planning a round trip, so you might as well think about flying into A and out of B so you can enjoy both.
** This section was contributed by Graham at Flyermiles Canada, a frequent traveller pre-COVID and a close relative. He specializes in helping people use frequent-flyer miles effectively.
One by one, the old, arcane rules around airline tickets like “your trip costs more if you don’t stay through the weekend” are falling away, and this usually works in the traveller’s favour. Especially for trips exploring a region, you can often get great results by flying into City A, and home from City B; it’s known as a “multi-city” trip, and it’s become so common that most airlines have the option built right into their search function.
For example, you might fly Vancouver to Paris and spend a week, before taking a high-speed train to Amsterdam for Week Two, and flying directly home from there [more on this below].
You might also find that two one-way tickets come out to a better deal than a round-trip or multi-city ticket, though this will vary from one destination to the next.
One of the most powerful tools for searching airfare is Google Flights, which offers all sorts of options to customize your search, as well as letting you search multiple destinations at once, as in “for my dates, show me fares from Vancouver to London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin”. You can pick your preferred airlines (or avoid those you hate), even select departures before or after a certain time of day. I highly recommend Gilbert Ott’s article on “how to become a Google Flights deal wizard”.
** This section by Graham at Flyermiles Canada
Be realistic about plans for your big travel days.
For international travel, you need to be at the airport well ahead of your flight – at least two hours before departure – especially at busier airports.
If you’re flying to Europe from western North America, it’s probably an overnighter, and with many departures in the late afternoon or early evening, even in business class you won’t get a full night’s sleep. And you probably have some travel left after landing. Don’t plan to do much that day at your final destination (but do try to stay up till local bedtime.) Coming home from Europe to western North America is easy: plan for 24 actual hours of travel and celebrate if it takes less.
If you’re flying more than a few hours within North America to another, it’s probably going to chew up most of the day.
If you’re flying on points, you may find that you can only get flight segments that have large gaps between them. This is where it’s good to be going business/executive class, because you can pass the layover in the airline lounges. This last bit about points is less true than it used to be, and it’s worth noting that most international airports now have at least one lounge for which access can be purchased.
Time vs Money
As soon as you start browsing, you’ll see that you will face some basic choices:
- For $3x, you can get there in 7 hours with no changes, from your home airport
- For $2x, you can get there in 10 hours with one change, from your home airport
- For $1x, you can get there in 16 hours with one change, but you have to start from nearby city Y.
- For $1x, you can get there in 7 hours with no changes from home, but you have to get up at 3:30 a.m. for your flight
Sometimes you can get a flight that acceptably balances your priorities.
Comfort vs money
Business class, Premium Economy, Economy. $$$, $$, $ – right?
Well, that part’s true enough, but there are nuances. For example:
- Once we paid a lot for business class on an overnighter, and I found that at 6’0″ I was just a tad too tall for the bed layout. Grrr.
- Once we paid for Premium Economy and had a seat that was uncomfortable for several reasons.
- I can’t really do economy for more than 3-4 hours unless I can get extra legroom.
Enter www.seatguru.com, where you can look up the plane for the flight you’re considering and find out which rows, and even which specific seats, will give you the best chance at comfort.
Book direct with the airline; no, really
** This section by Graham at Flyermiles Canada
If I could only offer one piece of advice to people buying plane tickets, it would be this: Never, ever book your plane tickets through a third-party website. Buy directly from the airline’s website, or a travel agent you can talk to personally.
Avoid any form of Online Travel Agency (OTA). 9 times out of 10, the only way they’re able to offer a cheaper fare, is to sell a less-flexible, more-restrictive ticket, for example ‘basic economy’ fares that don’t include checked luggage or allow seat selection. More importantly, if we’ve learned one thing from a year of COVID-related flight disruptions, it’s the difference between good and bad customer service from airlines, and there’s nothing worse than trying to sort out a cancelled flight when you’ve got to go through three layers of customer-service hotline.
In short: if an airfare looks too good to be true, it probably is.
I’m sure it is possible to get a great deal on a flight/hotel/car bundle. But I suspect that if you’ve read this far you aren’t that kind of person. You don’t want to be limited to the hotels offered, or the car terms don’t suit you, or whatever. Maybe you have to pay in advance, and you don’t want to.
I’ve always found that if you put in the work, you can get individual rates that are not far from the package rates. You just have to learn what to look for and ask for.
This is especially true with hotels, but in most packages, if there’s a problem you’re going to be told to call the person/company that booked it. Maybe they aren’t reachable, or you’ll be on hold for an hour. If you booked directly with the hotel, you probably paid the best rate anyway (many hotels now guarantee it) and if there’s a problem you can deal with it on the spot with someone who’s right there and has the authority to help you.
Exception: my very-frequent-traveller son says that airline deals with hotel and car CAN be worthwhile. With those, at least you can call the airline if anything goes wrong (but it’s easier to get through if you are a high-status flier.)
Add a destination to break up the trip
Sometimes we have turned down a long direct flight to split it. We did this for both of our trips to Asia, stopping in Japan both times so we’d have a final leg of less than nine hours. We also got to see Taipei one one outbound leg, which shortened our first flight and also put the wonderful EVA Airlines into play.
Or turn a connection into an opportunity
** This section by Graham at Flyermiles Canada
Used to be, you’d mostly fly the airline of the place you were going to, but in recent years many airlines have found there’s big money to be made in offering lower prices to people who don’t mind connecting through their hub. Now, many of these airlines offer the option to make your layover into a longer stop – for free – with incentives like subsidized hotels to encourage you to spend a day or two and see a city that might not have made it onto your destination list on its own, like Abu Dhabi, Istanbul or Montreal.
It’s also worth noting that while the flights might be longer, many airlines that use this model have also realized they’ll win over more customers with larger, more comfortable seats, and better in-flight entertainment.
When do you need to book it?
If you have a zillion airline points, you may think nothing of burning a whole bunch of them for the “Premium Rewards” seats that are also offered. But then you probably also burn points to stay in five-star hotels, and you stopped reading this site long ago.
To get a long-distance business class seat at the normal airline-points rate, you’d better be prepared a year ahead. Recently Air Canada has been releasing seats about 355 days ahead, so you’d better know which cities you are willing to use and which days you can start and end your trip. You’ll have to commit to them and then plan your trip within them.
If you’re paying with real money, you are probably already good at choosing fares that suit your needs. You pay for flexibility, of course, and often for convenient times.
Can you adjust your travel timing?
Get acquainted with the website of whichever airline(s) you will use. Find out how they let you compare fares and availability on different days and times.
You won’t likely get a better price just by travelling on a different day, but sometimes shifting your travel by a day or even a few hours can get you a better connection, are more efficient routing, or seats that weren’t available on your planned timing.
Watch your ahead-of-time bookings
You need to find out when tickets can be booked, and when they may be discounted
- Many European train companies sell tickets only three months ahead. But some of the high-speed trains can be booked up to six months ahead and occasionally more.Again, go to seat61.com for details of this.
- Plane and train tickets also have complicated discount structures. Some cost less if you buy well in advance. One way to address this is to figure out where you need to go and then use the TripAdvisor forums to ask local experts the best time to buy tickets.
- In Switzerland (for example) they have various discount passes. You’ll need to buy your discount pass before buying any other tickets. Some passes can be bought in advance online.
- Some routes, especially in Europe, don’t require early booking. Most inter-city and regional routes have frequent service and trains are rarely full, so for second-class travel you can buy your tickets at the station, from machines or the ticket counter.
Timing to your final destination
OK, you have an idea what time you might land in Paris or Phoenix or whatever. Add some time to clear customs etc. and get your bags.
Now you need to work out how long it will take to get to your actual destination. If it’s too long, you may have to drop half the possible flights because they’ll arrive too late. Or you might decide to spend a night in A before going on to B.
The easy way is to book right through on to your destination on your big flight, and let the airline website work out how to connect to your target city. But you might see a six-hour connection time, and realize that you could just hop a train and be there much sooner.
So now, before you book your big flight, you might want to get down into local flight schedules and train schedules and driving times if you’re renting a car.
Example: One year we flew to Washington, D.C. Since we live on the west coast, we pretty much had to take a flight that was supposed to arrive at 8:20 p.m. Add time for baggage and customs, and we’d be lucky to be out of there by 9 p.m. And it was Baltimore Airport, so there would be travel time. It looks easy to take a train into Washington, but we were getting into the time of night when they stop running. Hello, $80 taxi and a late bedtime … and sure enough, we arrived a couple of hours late too. But, having my Junior Woodchuck Serious Planner badge, I had left us a light morning schedule the next day. We slept in.