As an avid reader of Nomadic Matt and The Art of Non-Conformity, I know all the strategies behind travel hacking, from quickly seizing error fares online to creatively accumulating credit card points. What I’ve recently figured out is I’ve created my own methods of travel hacking – the old-fashioned way! – finding cheap fares by taking the time and having the patience to figure it out.
Using this method, in the last year, I’ve booked roundtrip transatlantic tickets for $500, changed existing tickets to get what I wanted at a bargain price, and booked a set of three transcontinental tickets for less than $1000. Here’s how you can too.
- Dedicate Your Time
Last week I said to my friend “I can’t look at tickets now, because there isn’t enough time to book, I need at least four hours. ” He replied “Four hours?! How much is your time worth?” Well, recently four hours was worth a combined $600 in savings.
- Be flexible
Old habits die hard and I primarily I use Kayak.com, enjoying their +/- 3 days search option. Traveling on Tuesdays is usually the best value. And there’s a strategy for every route and time of year. My strategy for Christmas 2015 tickets from Belgium to Peru was to look for a variety of airport options, which basically involves opening a bunch of tabs to check each one +/- 3 days.
I’m based in Brussels, but one of the advantages of being in continental Europe is that in less than two hours I can be in Dusseldorf, Paris, Amsterdam or London, so each of those cities are conceivable departure airports. But I also consider the travel costs and general hassle to depart from the alternative cities and often set my price limit before looking; saying to myself “I’ll only leave from Paris if I save more than $200”.My main destination city, Lima, was non-negotiable but I had five possible departure cities (BRU, DUS, PAR, AMS, LDN). And since this sort of city searching is a habit of mine, I know a few tricks, such as:1) Leaving from Dusseldorf usually involves flying Lufthansa, which may mean another stop in Frankfurt or Munich, so that’s the least desirable option.2) All major airlines depart from Paris and London, though it seems that London has a higher departure tax, so it is more difficult to find deals from there.3) Amsterdam is home to KLM, which code-shares with United, which then has good connections to (South) America.
So I checked each of those 5 departure options on various dates around Christmas and found average prices were between $1000-1300.
*Quick-tip, often when booking a Christmas ticket it’s usually $100-400 cheaper to return before 31 December. So spend New Year’s at home. You’ll have more money for champagne.
- Consider an extra stop
And then I considered stopping to see my family on the East Coast as part of this trip from Europe to South America. Knowing that most flights to South America do route through the US, I also wondered if this could save money. Again, since I am flexible the stop in Philadelphia could be a stop in New York, or Washington DC, both of which are in driving distance of less than three hours.Considering that transatlantic flights are at a 5-year low, I wondered whether I could break this up into two segments, booking two roundtrip tickets instead of a set, from Brussels-New York and New York-Lima in-between. That turned out to be a dead-end. I didn’t want to take the risk of making or missing my own connection flight, because if there were any issues (remember Snowmageddon?) I’d be out of luck.
- Go through with the deal!
After about an hour of searching I found that leaving from Amsterdam, connecting in Houston, arriving in Lima, and departing for New York, spending a week there, then returning to Amsterdam, could be done for $955 on United and “partner airlines”. A tri-continental Christmas for less than $1000!
But this price was only through Kayak.com, directly on United.com meant spending $300 more. And then, booking through Kayak.com wouldn’t work. I instinctively knew there was an error somewhere and United’s website wouldn’t accept my payment, saying the flight was unavailable.Then I decided to just call and play dumb.Since I had entered my name and frequent flier number before trying to pay, when I called United and gave my information they found my flights.
- Remember to have patience, and be nice.
At this point, I knew calling was my last option and I was at a pretty big risk of losing this deal. Therefore I was extremely nice when calling United, as this was my only option.The customer service representative found the flight but also couldn’t process the deal, saying she didn’t understand the error and had to check with her supervisor.“Take your time ma’am” I said, “I’m happy to wait” (Remember: no other options. The person you’re talking to is in a factory on the phone all day, they’ll appreciate it if you’re nice.). After more than 25 minutes on hold, she returned to accept my credit card details.6. Evaluate and Learn from it – because you will book flights again
The Tri-Continental Christmas is happening! So here’s what happened: Kayak found that a code share flight on Lufthansa with United for the first leg from Amsterdam to Houston, was at a lower rate than directly on United itself. Lufthansa was showing this about $400 cheaper than United, which normally wouldn’t happen as these airlines are in the same alliance. The rules are the code share flights are supposed to be the same on both Lufthansa and United so that it fair competition between airlines.
But Kayak found the best price through an error, and United upheld the price which only happened because I entered my frequent flier number and the customer service representative was able to find the flights I wanted.
And that’s how I found tickets from Europe to South America to North America and back to Europe for less than $1000 at Christmas. Now to figure out how to deal with jetlag…