Earlier this week, the flying community was in a bit of a tizzy about some cheap(ish) cash fares from the US to Europe. I actually booked a RT flight for the three of us to Ireland at 2 AM the night it broke, but ended up cancelling under the 24 hour policy. I recognize that paying cash for coach might not interest many people, but I wanted to go through my thought process and offer some tips on to how to stay abreast of such things.
Getting News of Low Fares
These days, Twitter is where the party is at. If you are looking for low cash fares, I’d recommend following sites like The Flight Deal (@TheFlightDeal) and airfarewatchdog (@airfarewatchdog) on Twitter. I RSS The Flight Deal as well, but the reality is RSS isn’t always fast enough, especially when you have less than an hour to make your decision. These sites and others are posting deals all the time – but go into overdrive when something is particularly hot. They’ll even post screenshots of sample itineraries for those who enjoy being spoonfed.
Deciding whether a cash fare is “worth” it
I recognize people get into the miles and points game for a lot of reasons. Personally, I love visiting new places. I earn miles and points for two reasons: 1) to save money and 2) to get there in more comfort whenever possible. The reality is, a lot of times 1&2 align.
For me, a cash fare is worth it when I feel like I can get a good deal to get to a place that I want to visit during a time that I would be vacationing anyway. I’m not sitting on a huge surplus of miles so if the deal is good enough, cash makes sense. My general criteria for a “good” deal are < $225 domestically (coast to coast type flights), < $600 to Europe, and < $850 to Asia. If I see fares at those prices, I would consider buying them for times I was planning on going on vacation anyway.
I figure I can leverage my points to save on hotels and other miscellaneous expenses and still stay within a budget I’m comfortable with. I have the luxury to do this because we’re not cash strapped – we have a vacation budget. Since I’ve started using more miles and points, the surplus in that budget has just been invested or saved, but I’m not going to lose sleep if we use that up in a given year. I’m not a huge retire early/financial independence guy (not right now at least) so I’m willing to give up some of those savings for the travel experience.
There are times when fares drop so low that I would consider booking a trip even when I wasn’t going to vacation anyway. This generally puts me at risk of spending more than planned on travel – so it has to be an amazing deal for me to go for it. The rough criteria for me for these “book it anyway” flights are < $150 domestically, < $400 to Europe, and < $600 to Asia. An example of this is the time US Airways had a $325 RT cash ticket to Europe – we booked that within thirty minutes and went to Madrid for a long weekend.
The best way to search for and recreate the low fares
For this particular deal, I found roundtrip flights to Dublin for $550 per person. Since Little M is about to be over two, I had to buy her ticket as well. I thought this was a good enough deal to pull the trigger without asking my wife – I just had to find flights.
What’s the best way to find flights at times like these? Personally, I use Kayak when I’m in a rush. I actually prefer ITA Matrix as a search engine, but it’s major drawback is that you can’t get redirected from ITA Matrix directly to a place where you can book. Kayak does offer that, and nine times out of ten finds the same flights, so I prefer Kayak during “book before the deal dies!” situations. It also processes a little faster on my computer which is useful when you are trying to do like ten searches a minute.
So I threw in some of the city pairs that I had seen on Twitter and found a $550 fare I like. At that point, I just bought it! My plan was to utilize United’s 24 hour cancellation policy (I booked directly from united.com) in the event Jess didn’t want to go.
Book first, cancel later
All the major airlines have 24 hour cancellation policies which are very useful at times like these. Driving to work the next morning, I brought the idea up to Jess about going back to Ireland. By mid afternoon, we had nixed it – we wanted to explore elsewhere. Cancelling the flight was simple; I just loaded up the reservation on united.com and cancelled it, choosing to have the purchase refunded to the original form of payment.
I did run into something interesting for a similar AA fare. I actually found a fare on aa.com for about $450. However, American is a little different – they allow 24 hour holds but don’t have 24 hour cancellations (as far as I can tell, I looked but couldn’t find anything in writing). The problem is, American wouldn’t allow 24 hour holds on the itineraries I found – I think because some flights were coded as US Airways metal (and not codeshares). I couldn’t figure out whether I’d get a 24 hour cancellation or not so decided not to risk it.
Final Thoughts – Summing it All Up
To sum it all up, here are the steps I take to take advantage of low cash fares. If saving money is your only goal, this is probably not the best use of it. But for people like me who just want to travel for less, it can be a valuable part of your arsenal.
1 – Determine your thresholds for “good” fares
2 – Follow websites like The Flight Deal and airfarewatchdog to stay abreast of what’s out there
3 – If a deal strikes, make a quick decision – book first, and cancel later if you have to
4 – MAKE SURE you have an “out” – if an itinerary you want doesn’t have a 24 hour cancellation policy or equivalent – be 110% sure you want to fly that flight.
Hope this helps some of the beginners out there – remember points aren’t the only way to get places. Happy travels!