I should finally write this down, as I suspect a lot of people can benefit from it, both for their individual travels and for organizing meetups (hackfests, conferences, whatever).
This is my experience on getting cheap flights to where I want to go when I want to go. So given a rough date, a departure and an arrival airport, find the cheapest and most comfortable way to get there. It also assumes that I’m not a frequent flyer, so those programs – like miles and more – don’t get me enough mileage to make it worthwhile to stick with one airline. I would suspect it’s beneficial once you reach at least 50.000 miles per year. For that you need to travel to different continents and back at least twice a year though.
Knowing this helps a lot in deciding on which available options to pursue further and which ones are pretty much no-gos from the start.
- Know your airlines
This is pretty much an experience thing and very much dependent on personal preferences, but it’s useful to know which airlines you’d never fly with, not even for free, and for which airlines you’d pay extra to fly with. If you have no idea about a particular airline, I’ve found the Skytrax ranking to be a good first guess. Also, assuming an airline behaves like people of the country it’s based in is a good guess more often than not.
I for one care about enough legroom (I’m tall), punctuality, ground staff competent and able to solve problems and free catering on longer flights. I don’t particularly care about on-board entertainment or an attentive crew. So I’m very happy with Lufthansa and Swiss (what I think of as typical German/Swiss punctuality, problem-solving skills and attentiveness) and I dislike all the no-frills airlines. (No, I’m not gonna pay 10€ for a can of Coke. I paid those for my luggage already.)
- Know your airports
While your departure and arrival airport are probably fixed – though in some cases, like London, New York or La Coruna, there’s multiple airports to chose from – Your stopover airports are not. Again, experience is probably the best guide, but there’s also a bunch of easy first guesses. For a start, the security, customs and entry procedures depend on the country the airport is located in and the rules of those countries can be googled. In general, it’s best to stop over in your departure or arrival country – usually you can count the Schengen area as one country – as that avoids VISA messiness into more countries and you can use the same currency to pay for stuff on the airport. I do like to avoid Copenhagen or London for that reason. I also avoid the US and Australia, as they make you pick up your luggage on arrival and even though you can immediately check it back in again after going through Customs, the luggage tends to not make it to your connecting flight way too often.
A second thing that is important is the airport itself. There are airports you can get lost in, because they are done so complicated or their guidance is so poor, there are airports where it takes very long to get from one gate to the next, there are airports that routinely lose your luggage and there are airports that are huge construction sites. And then there are airports with a nice atmosphere, free wireless and relaxing cafes. Googling is the best thing to figure out how long a stopover should take for making the connection (both for the person and the luggage) and if the airport is nice if you have to spend 5+ hours there waiting for your connection flight.
For my personal list of big airports I visited, I do like Lisbon, Dallas, Singapore and Frankfurt and dislike Heathrow, New York Newark, Madrid and Atlanta, particularly Atlanta.
- Know your alternatives
This is not as important on intercontinental flights, but it’s especially useful when going to smaller airports. I’ve found times when there was a direct flight to my destination with a holiday airline from an airport very close or to an airport very close to where I wanted to go. These connections will not be listed anywhere unless you specifically ask about them. So it doesn’t hurt to know which airlines depart from your home and destination airports and where they go to from there. (Hint for hackfests/GUADEC 2012: Vueling often flies to La Coruna from Amsterdam and London.) Heck, even knowing that there’s a direct flight from Hamburg to New York has saved me quite a bit of searching. And that’s a flight that every scheduling system knows about.
This is the act of finding all the possible trips, but not necessarily deciding on the exact trip to pick. Usually for me, there are multiple options still available, often a few 100€ apart, when I’m done with this step. But when I’m done with this step, I do have a short list of which airlines to look at closer.
- Figuring out the date
Flights can easily be 2x, sometimes even 5x cheaper if you fly one or a few days later or earlier – even with the same airline and using the exact same route. For intercontinental travel, weekend flights are most expensive, flights on Tuesday to Thursday are cheapest. There can also be big events or holidays in some weeks that make the whole week excessively expensive. While most airline booking mechanisms offer a +/- 3 day view, the only good way I’ve found to figure out all of these things is the Lufthansa Trip Finder, but that of course only works for routes that Lufthansa services. Still, for hackfest planning inside Europe, it might be worthwhile to look at trips from a random German airport to $HACKFEST_LOCATION, if you want to save money.
- Figuring out the airline(s)
Once you’re reasonably sure about your trip, you want to go to Amadeus and enter dates and location. Amadeus will then crawl all the offers on the web and give you a list of the cheapest ones. On the results list, you want to work with the options on the left. You can use these to ignore unwanted airlines or too many stopovers. You can even ignore trips that are way too long. This way you will figure out the reasonably cheap airlines.
- Scratch “multiple airlines”
One thing you absolutely do want to avoid is “multiple airlines”. You can only book those on cheap flight websites, but not from the airlines themselves. These things usually mean a bunch of separately booked flights. On such trips, if your first flight is late, nobody feels (or is) responsible when you miss your connecting flight. Also, you usually have to pick up your luggage on change of airline. For added fun: Ryanair is happy to screw you over, every flight is a separate trip for them. If you miss a Ryanair flight because your Ryanair flight was late, it’s your fault, not theirs.
Important: Do not confuse this with airline alliances. Those cooperating airlines work together and take care of luggage, missed flights etc.
This is the act of deciding between multiple similar options and figuring out which trip will get you to your destination best. Of course, the easiest solution is taking the cheapest flight, but sometimes the difference is just 3€ or there’s some really bad thing about that cheap flight…
- Avoid stopovers
Usually trips with less stops are cheaper, but not always. If I can avoid it, I do not add extra stops. Extra stops cost time, lead to security and Customs hassles, lose luggage and make you miss connection flights. All in all, there’s almost only bad things about it.
- Try to find the shortest trip
Emirates could be a great airline for having only one stopover in Dubai if you go from Europe to southern Asia or Australia, but they usually involve a 8-10 hour stop in Dubai. And long stops in airports make me annoyed, because I can’t do anything but wait. And I’m tired and bored already from the first part of the trip. And food and drinks are suddenly as expensive as on “cheap” flights. Ugh, I hate those times. Even when I have wifi.
- Check the operating airline
Almost all airlines have code-sharing flights with partner airlines, and while your flight may be listed as LH123, it might in fact be operated by Spanair and leave you with no legroom, no free drinks, but a friendly crew. Or the other way. You’ll often also not be able to do online check-in on those and then you can’t pick your seat in advance. So unless you want to end up in the middle seat, always look at the operating airline. That’s the only one that counts.
- Pick for airline and stopover airport
If you didn’t discard bad airlines and airports earlier, you can do so now. Avoid the bad airports and airlines to save yourself some hassle. Oftentimes, in particular in the US, airlines have multiple “hub” airports that they make you stop over, so this isn’t even a rare occurrence (I hear you want to avoid Chicago and Atlanta here). Lufthansa also often lets you chose between Frankfurt and Munich (I don’t much care), and in Spain there’s Madrid vs Barcelona (pick Barcelona).
- Check for a nice departure and arrival time
If you still have multiple options left, check the final departure and arrival times. On conferences I want to arrive during the day so I can meet up with people but depart early to not have a boring day when everyone’s gone. I also like to arrive home so that I can still go shopping for some groceries. And I’d like to avoid flights during the night. There’s usually no public transport to get you to or from the airport and taxis are expensive.
- Book with the airline
I prefer to not book my ticket with a travel agency – online or not – but rather book directly on the airline’s website. They usually match the cheapest price. And it usually gets me some niceties, such as reminder emails – not just “your flight is tomorrow”, but also about required extra information, such as visa details, which often makes things a lot easier. Last but not least, picking the right airline to book with – even if all the airlines are in the same alliance and roughly match the price – can make the difference between an easy solution and a complicated one, once you hit a problem that requires a staff member to solve and you booked with the airline with competent staff.
- Make sure you picked the right flight
Airline websites’ web forms often list a bunch of flights for vastly different prices on the same site when picking. Make sure you picked the right ones. Usually, the cheapest ones are marked, but if you found one that was better and cost only a bit more, be careful if you reload that page to not accidentally hit a wrong one that is vastly more expensive. And no, that definitely never happened to me.
These are a bunch of things that are nice to know for when things get a little more complicated than just booking a return trip.
- Different airports for outbound and inbound trip are no problem
I’ve done it 3 times with different airlines so far, and it’s never been a problem, in fact I’m convinced the trips even got slightly cheaper that way. If you want to have a different inbound route from outbound route, do it like this:
Pretend you want to book two return trips and do everything as you’d normally do. But instead of finalizing those booking, leave the pages open, start a new complex booking, and enter the complex route there. Then, when presented with the trip options, pick the cheap ones you figured out in your first two booking attempts. This should give you a price that is almost the average of the two trips.
- Different itineraries for you and a friend is no problem
Another thing I often do is arrive in advance/leave later than my girlfriend because we couple our vacations with Free Software conferences. What I do is book two separate trips for each of us, and then talk to the airline in advance so that they can make sure we will be seated together on the part of the trip we share. So far, that has always worked out. (I’m also paranoid of finalizing both bookings at the same time in two different tabs because I know how the booking machinery of airlines works and don’t want the prices to change because of the first of our bookings. More on that in the next point.)
- If you know way in advance about your flight you can save
If you know in advance that you want to go somewhere, it’s usually a good idea to check the flights regularly. Airlines adjust the price according to a prediction algorithm run by their computers. If people book flights, prices go up, if people don’t book flights but the prediction predicted they would, prices can go down. Most airlines adjust prices downwards 3 months/90 days before the flight and some 1 month/30 days, so these are the magic dates to watch.
- There’s no magic time when flights are cheapest
Or at least I haven’t found such a time. I’m often looking at flights for LCA or Plumbers so I can get a cheap one, but from my experience the lowest prices for flights stay roughly the same from the day the flight opens for booking to a few days before departure. The only thing that screws you is when too many people book, and you can of course avoid that by booking earlier.
TL;DR: Plan hackfests from mid-week to mid-week if people are ok with it, you can save real money that way.