Even travel writers can sometimes find it a little tough when searching through the Internet black hole for the right airfare on the right date.
I was armed with the following tools:
- A credit card
- 120,000 American Express points
- Close to 400,000 Qantas (One World Alliance) frequent flyer miles
- A pretty decent knowledge of the travel landscape
- Three months up my sleeve before travel date
- Frequent flyer membership with six different airlines
- A few hours to kill
Yes I know, travel experts always say that to get the best deals, especially online, you have to be flexible with your dates. To be honest this isn't always possible. I wanted to maximize the number of days I could spend on the ground in France so it had to be an overnight (red eye) flight. My husband had requested particular vacation days off from work and we had to plan around attending a wedding in the South of France a few days after arrival, so we had to travel on a set day.
We also wanted to fly non-stop, which out of New York seems quite reasonable, after all it is seven hours and why should you have to stop somewhere else on such a well populated, straight forward route? The more stops on a flight, the greater the chance for delays, problems, luggage loss and general headaches, and fewer hours of sleep -- I just wanted to keep it simple with no room for error. It turns out that the Internet gods were conspiring against me when it came to minimizing my time in the air (or more appropriately, waiting in transitory airport lounges).
At first I felt reassured by the fact that mid May wasn't peak season, so airfares couldn't be sky high right? Wrong. I started my search with Kayak (www.kayak.com) -- always a great place to survey the lay of the land (or air). The site itself is user-friendly, if you know how to manipulate the results properly. If you just do a simple search, not only will the cheapest fare not appear first, but sometimes it is hidden in the jumble of results listed on the left hand side of the screen. I ticked the non-stop tab and received back some rather frightful results in excess of $1,200 -- and that was each (albeit, including tax). There was one stand-out cheap fare on Air India that was actually several hundred dollars less than anything else, but to be honest, my husband wasn't sold on the Air India concept -- I however was indifferent, having flown with them before quite happily.
I momentarily toyed with the notion of splurging and traveling business class on L'Avion (www.lavion.com), the all business class New York to Paris airline. They were offering special fares for only $1,319 round-trip plus taxes of $135, which I thought was an absolute bargain considering that other airlines were charging only $200 less for an economy ticket. Unfortunately this "special" did not extend to May, when I needed to fly and the price I would have had to pay was $1,710 including taxes, which really isn't bad at all, but I was on a relatively tight budget (keeping in mind the dwindling U.S. dollar and the fact that I would be spending two weeks and thousands of Euros in France). Business-class luxury was a short-lived dream.
I returned to Kayak to do a bit more snooping around. Strangely enough, although an American Airlines fare of $1,200 plus appeared first, further investigation (i.e. clicking on American Airlines on the left hand side of the page) brought up a somewhat hidden $939 fare on AA through Vayama (www.vayama.com). So what was the catch? Apparently there wasn't one. Vayama had access to seats on exactly the same flights as I wanted for $300 less than the American Airlines website. I had some trouble with visiting the Vayama website. Firstly, I couldn't get there using a Mac (a problem I have with many travel websites that aren't particularly Mac-friendly), but even when I switched to my other computer, my searches didn't go through. The only way I got to see the actual flights I wanted was to go through the link on the Kayak site (which is a good thing for Kayak, since they get paid when users link through and book).
Now that I had my base price upon which to compare other airfares, I proceeded to one of my favorite discount sites -- 1800 Fly Europe (www.1800flyeurope.com). Had I been prepared to travel via Iceland or Germany, this may well have been my best and cheapest option, but I was sticking to my guns -- no stopovers and no connecting flights.
Next step was a random search of airline websites that I knew flew non-stop -- U.S. legacy carriers like Delta, Continental, American Airlines and international airlines like Air France and Air India. It wasn't looking pretty. Some U.S. airlines were charging up to $1,500 per ticket for the arduous task of taking a transatlantic flight with them. The non-stop Air India airfare of around $700 that I found on Kayak was actually sold out on the Air India website (although weeks later it was still showing up as available on Kayak).
So I decided to go down the frequent flyer points and mileage route. I had a ton of Qantas miles so I thought, no problem; Qantas is part of the One World Alliance and so in American Airlines. Trying to actually redeem Qantas points, to almost any destination, at almost any time of the year is like extracting teeth -- painful, uncomfortable and frankly, it just isn't going to happen. Yes, the One World Alliance is a wonderful concept in theory, but the reality is that it is an alliance of convenience, when it suits certain airlines to participate. On the New York to Paris route, Qantas could only book me on a British Airways flight to London, with a three hour connection to Paris -- turning my seven hour flight into roughly an 11-hour ordeal each way and ensuring that I would lose my first day in Paris. This, despite the fact that when I went on to the American Airlines (AA Advantage) frequent flyer website, I found that there were seats actually available on the exact flights I wanted -- at a premium of 100,000 points each - but I had the points so why not use them. Alas, no amount of begging or explaining could make it happen.
So I ventured on to the Air France Flying Blue program website -- but they didn't have frequent flyer redeemable seats available on the days I wanted to fly nor on days that were remotely close to them. I tried just looking at buying regular airfares on Air France. At first I was overjoyed -- Air France has a function on their website that allows you to make a reservation and then hold it for 24-hours before paying (which I interpreted as almost like booking it through a travel agent really). This was the perfect scenario. I could hold my reservation, do a last minute check around the see if I could get a better deal elsewhere and then pay for it. Well it was the perfect option until I found out that yes, Air France holds the reservation for you, meaning that they hold your seat, but they do not hold or guarantee the price -- which really defeats the purpose of calling it a reservation in the first place. You may be asking, how much can an airfare really change in 24 hours? Consider this. I was looking at a one-way domestic fare from Toulouse to Paris and it was $86 plus taxes per person -- very reasonable. I just needed to confirm that I had a hotel reservation near Toulouse the night before so that I could book this non-refundable fare. When I went back to purchase it the next day, it had jumped to a massive $484 one-way. So although the Air France 24-hour "reservation hold" appears on the surface to be a good thing, don't, I repeat do not, hold off when you see a well priced fare -- buy it immediately.
The next stop on my path to saving some dollars while trying to book this airfare was to redeem my American Express points for at least one of the two tickets. I thought I could transfer my Amex points to my American Airlines membership and I would be set. I was rather shocked to learn that American Airlines was not part of the American Express Members' Reward program.
Ultimately I went back to where I started - Kayak and its referral to Vayama. I felt a sense of relief when I finally pressed the purchase confirmation button, but the bargain hunter in me couldn't help but still do a mini search a few days later to ensure that I really did get a great deal. I did and felt pretty good about the fact that I saved $600 just by being a bit web savvy and refusing to give up. Even Farecast (www.farecaster.com) confirmed my belief that airfares to Paris were steadily going up rather than down, so I was pleased I got in early.
So ultimately the lessons learned were these....
- Be patient.
- Set yourself a budget both dollar-wise and time-wise. There is no use spending six hours searching for an airfare just to save yourself $10.
- Never rely on mileage programs and credit cards points unless you have an open schedule to travel. Redeeming them can be extremely difficult, if not impossible due to blackout periods, lack of released seats and the airlines' pseudo-alliances.
- If you can stay loyal to one global airline, do so, and concentrate your points earnings on routes that you will actually get to use.
- Try a variety of travel websites, from aggregators (Farecompare, Sidestep, Kayak, Farecast etc.) to online travel agencies (the big three are a good start: Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz). Subscribe to travel e-newsletters (Cheapflights.com, Travel Zoo etc.) with regular airfare specials.
- If you see a sensational fare, especially from a low cost carrier, buy it straight away as the fare can disappear pretty quickly.
- Compare apples with apples. Make sure that when you compare prices from different websites that all taxes and booking fees are included -- look for the fine print.
- After researching, feel confident about your purchase and happy with the price you paid -- don't go back and search again.
- Did I already mention "Be patient."
- Traveling to France in May, especially with the U.S. dollar at an all time low, is expensive -- no matter what.
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