In a recent Skift podcast we turned to two travel experts to debunk bad travel advice that tends to appear in the media on a regular basis.
George Hobica, Airfarewatchdog founder, and Scott Mayerowitz, the Associated Press airline, business, and travel reporter, shared their insights for a in a more rollicking than usual 30-minute episode [embedded below].
Here are five key takeaways from that conversation:
There is no “best time” to book a plane ticket.
Hobica said this is the question he gets asked most often: When is the best time to book a flight?
“My crystal ball is in the shop, it’s been there for years and I don’t even know what shop it’s in anymore,” he said.
While Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the best days to fly for domestic trips — and Monday through Thursday for international — fares can go on sale at any time of any day.
Our experts say good deals don’t have to be left to chance, however.
“A lot of travelers can’t just book on a moment’s notice that dream vacation and go to some random place because there’s a great sale,” Mayerowitz said. “You have to do your research and you have to start well in advance.”
Once that baseline is established, Hobica suggests the best way to snag deals is to sign up for airfare alerts on routes of interest or follow the hashtag #airfare on Twitter. When a good price pops up, he says grab it and then set the timer for 24 hours. Since airlines are required to hold a flight without payment or refund the total within 24 hours of booking — as long as the reservation is made a week or more before travel — travelers have a little time to work out plans or cancel.
Doing homework can pay off.
It sounds dry, but Hobica says an airline’s contract of carriage should be required reading for travelers. Those include information about what compensation a passenger should get if a flight’s schedule changes or if they’re bumped from a flight.
“Most passengers don’t know there’s a difference between volunteering to get off a plane and getting forced off a plane,” Mayerowitz said. “When you’re forced off a plane, there’s a law in place offering you a lot of cash if you’re not in your destination quickly. Airlines don’t tell you that. Passengers have to be smart enough to ask for it.”
Another way to be smart: Check on-time data when searching for a flight to make sure you’re not booking a route that has chronic delay or cancellation issues. Airlines post that information in searches, though consumers have to know to look for it. Travelers can also check on-time data on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics for airports and airlines.
Gaming the system can have unintended consequences.
Some travelers try to get cheaper fare by booking “hidden-city tickets,” or buying tickets beyond their intended destination. A company, Skiplagged, even popped up to help facilitate those bookings.
But both experts cautioned against that strategy.
Hobica said some travelers have been kicked out of frequent flyer programs, while others have lost status.
“There are all kinds of things that can go wrong,” he said.
Mayerowitz warned that bad weather or some other unforeseen event could force the plane to reroute through a different hub, leaving the traveler stuck heading to the final (unwanted) destination.
Cheapest doesn’t always equal best.
Sometimes fares are low because they have a tight connection that often gets missed. Or because there’s an overnight stay required between connections.
And thanks to pressure from low-cost carriers, the cheapest fares even on old-school airlines often come with zero choice or wiggle room.
“You have to fly that flight that you bought or you can just eat the ticket,” Hobica said. “They’re not really worth it. They are sometimes just $10 or $20 less than a fare with a few more rights to them, so I would not buy them personally.”
Lack of seat choice is likely to get worse — but you can always pay to avoid the middle.
“Airlines are holding more and more of their seats back for the elite frequent flyers, or those who are willing to pay more for either a seat with extra leg room, or one with just the same, miserable, cramped space but a little closer to the front of the plane,” Mayerowitz said. And he warns that the problem will get worse as more legacy carriers introduce basic fares stripped of choices like seat selection.
As a result, families are finding it harder to sit together and passengers are often shuffled into the least-desired middle seat.
Hobica said travelers can call the airline 24 hours before a flight to try to get a new seat assignment once some upgrades are made and seats open up.
Or, they agree: There’s always the option of paying for the preferred seat.