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Buying an Airline Ticket

Here are some things I’ve learned over the years about buying airline tickets.

Familiarize Yourself with Airfares – Get into a regular habit of searching the internet for airline fares to possible destinations you would like to visit. You will learn what a reasonable airfare is and what isn’t. You’ll also learn how the airfare to each destination changes throughout the year.

Familiarize Yourself with the Airlines – Each airline has its domestic and international hubs that it uses to connect to end destinations. Where the hubs are can be an important factor in how many segments the flight will be and how long the total travel time will be. Some airlines have better connections than other airlines.

Build a Relationship with a Preferred Airline – Of course with any airline, you’re just a name and number in their database, but developing a preference with a preferred airline will allow you to build up the frequent flyer miles and a history of being a regular customer. When an issue arises, having a history (a relationship) with the airline will increase your chances that any ticket issues can be worked out.

Example - With my preferred airline, I’ve had several instances when they’ve rescheduled a flight to a more preferable one without charging a change fee.

Use Online Travel Agents for Information Only – Sites like Travelocity and Expedia are a wealth of information for comparing the fares and routes of many airlines in one simple screen. It’s great for comparison shopping. But don’t buy your airline ticket from them. Do you really need a middleman between you and the airline in your travel plans? For the few dollars commission they earn from each purchase, they don’t have much of a margin to provide customer service.

Example - Several years ago I bought a ticket to Mexico on Expedia. The Mexican airline cancelled my flight. I called Expedia and was told to call the airline. When I called the airline, they told me that I needed to talk to the agent who sold me the ticket as I didn’t buy it directly from the airline. Eventually, Expedia told me they rebooked me on another flight, but when I arrived in Mexico City, I learned otherwise. I had a ticket, but no specified flight. I was stuck in the Mexico City airport until the airline could fly me to my destination as a “standby” passenger.

Buy Your Ticket Directly from the Airline – 99% of the time, it’s best to buy your plane ticket directly from the airline. From the airline, you’ll get the lowest fare. The travel websites often charge $5 or $10 more as their commission on the sale. And buy the ticket from the airline’s website. Some airlines charge a service fee or a higher fare when booking over the phone.

Pay Attention to Layover Times – When you buy an airline ticket, you’re buying a ticket to get you to your final destination with no guarantee at what time you arrive at your final destination. If you miss your connecting flight, the airline will just book you on the next flight. Therefore, pay attention to the layover times when making your reservation. Be proactive and provide yourself a comfortable amount of time to make your next flight, even with a short delay. With some international destinations, there is only one flight a day, meaning either a very long layover or hoping the airline will route you on another airline. Either way, you’re inconvenienced. I believe it’s better to have the peace of mind of a 5 hour layover before a long international flight, rather than the stress of knowing I’ll have a 45 minute rushed layover. My general rule is that I try to avoid a layover under 2 hours before a long international flight.

Select Your Seats – Although it’s not a complete guarantee, getting a seat assignment confirms your spot on the flight. Airlines often overbook flights knowing that a certain percentage of passengers will miss the flight. They’d rather rebook an extra passenger or two then fly the plane with empty seats. Empty seats don’t buy tickets. When a flight is overbooked and no passengers volunteer their seats (for compensation), the airline must select who to bump to a later flight. The person who’s bumped is the person without a seat assignment.

Also, it seems like on every flight, I see passengers traveling together who are asking the gate agent to be seated together. These are generally passengers who didn’t request a seat assignment when they purchased their ticket and are stuck with whatever remains.

Caveat - Selecting a seat is not a guarantee that you’ll have that seat when you arrive at the airport. Selecting a seat is an airline courtesy and not an airline commitment. Although rare, if the airline changes the type of plane, it’ll shuffle up the seat assignments and you’ll likely find you’re sitting somewhere else. I’ve had this happen once.

Understand the Plane’s Layout – You can look at your online reservation to see the type of plane for each segment. Go to Seat Guru to see a map of the plane’s layout and which are the more desirable seats. Use this information and be pro-active in selecting a seat on your plane reservation. Some seats have more legroom. Some seats don’t have reclining seats. Some seats are more narrow. Some seats have electrical outlets.

Periodically Check Your Airline Reservation – Sometimes airlines will adjust their schedules. Suddenly your layover can become longer or shorter. If the airline changes their flight schedules significantly and it adversely affects your travel plans or creates an inconvenience, call up the airline. Often they’ll try to accommodate you if you are inconvenience because of their schedule change. Your chances become improved if you have a frequent flyer history with them.