Some of the things people think they know about airline travel are not really true. Widely followed strategies for finding affordable airfares turn out not to save money…while widely held beliefs about avoiding airport delays turn out not to save time. The truth about six air travel myths…
Myth: The economy is doing well again, so airfares are going to remain high for the foreseeable future. Don’t bet on it—there’s reason to believe airfares might decline significantly this autumn. Fuel prices seem likely to remain relatively low…demand for air travel tends to drop off dramatically after Labor Day…and, perhaps most important, the US Department of Justice is currently investigating whether the airlines have been illegally colluding to limit the number of flights offered, thereby driving up prices. The folks who set fares for the airlines might decide that this autumn is an excellent time to offer some attractive prices, if only to show the government that they are not colluding.
What to do: Plan a trip for between Labor Day and early November. There’s a good chance you will find some good deals.
Myth: Stopovers save travelers money. Conventional wisdom holds that travelers pay significantly less for connecting flights than for nonstop flights. This might be true on certain routes, but in general, stopovers save air travelers far less than they likely expect. A recent study of more than 57 million tickets sold in 2014 found that nonstop flights, when available, cost only $1.03 more, on average, than connecting flights between the same airports.
What to do: When you use an airfare website to search for flights, do a search specifically for nonstop flights in addition to a search for lowest-priced flights—almost any fare-finder website will let you do this. Even if nonstop flights do cost more, you often will discover that the price difference is small enough that it’s worth paying this premium to avoid the delays, inconveniences and potential complications involved in making a stopover.
Myth: Booking tickets early usually will save you money. Actually, history suggests that ticket prices are as likely to fall as they are to climb during the months leading up to the flight—and if you buy a ticket many months before a flight, you essentially are giving the airline an interest-free loan. Besides, the earlier you book your ticket, the greater the odds your travel plans will change, which might mean that you must pay a hefty fee to change your flight.
What to do: It is reasonable to book a ticket months in advance if your travel plans are very unlikely to change and you spot a fare that is well below normal for the route—websites including Google Flights let you compare the fare you’ve found to other fares being offered for the route over the coming months. (On Google.com/flights, enter your departure and destination cities, then click the tiny calendar icon located beneath the departure city to see a chart of daily low fares.) It is possible that you might find inexpensive fares now for the fall, for the reasons described above. But in any other situation, there is no great savings to be had by booking months early. Do try to buy tickets at least seven and preferably 14 days before the travel date—fares tend to trend upward in the week or two before departure, sometimes significantly.
Exception: It occasionally is possible to obtain great last-minute deals by buying tickets a week or less before flight time, but you cannot depend on this, so it is advisable only if your travel plans are very flexible.
Myth: Flying into or out of major hubs costs more than using smaller airports. In reality, major hubs generally offer lower fares than you would find flying into or out of smaller airports in the area. Massive airports such as JFK in New York, LAX in Los Angeles and O’Hare in Chicago have huge numbers of flights, and that added competition tends to hold fares down.
What to do: Include smaller airports in your search when you look for a flight to or from a metro area that has multiple airports—on occasion, these secondary airports offer attractive fares—but never search exclusively for flights to or from these smaller airports.
Myth: Summer air travel is more reliable than winter air travel because bad weather is less likely to interfere. Surprisingly, flight delays and cancellations due to weather are more common in summer than winter. Winter blizzards get lots of media attention, but summer thunderstorms and tropical storms are much more common and just as capable of wreaking havoc on airline schedules. Airlines are not required to compensate travelers whose flights are delayed or canceled because of bad weather.
What to do: Monitor weather reports and watch for flight status updates if you have an upcoming flight—or are picking someone up from the airport—even if it’s summer. Websites and apps such as FlightAware make it easy to monitor flight status (FlightAware.com, the app is free for Android or iOS).
Myth: Every flight is packed these days, and the lines are almost always endless in the airport. Yes, airports and planes generally have been crowded—but there still are flights with plenty of open seats and times when the lines are not very long.
What to do: If you want to avoid the crowds, choose flights that depart before 8 am or after 11 pm. Even the largest, busiest airports and most heavily traveled routes tend to be fairly quiet during these hours.
Joining the TSA Pre-Check program can help you speed through airport security checkpoints. This lets you skip the normal airport security line in favor of a special line that tends to move much faster. The Pre-Check program generally makes sense only for fairly frequent fliers, however—there is an $85 application fee, and the application process itself takes time.
Christopher Elliott, author of the Washington Post travel section’s “Navigator” column and cofounder of Travelers United, which advocates for travelers’ rights. He is author of How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler and answers questions that travelers e-mail to him at Chris@Elliott.org. Elliott.orgDate: September 1, 2015 Publication: Bottom Line Personal