A friend recently texted me to complain about how expensive flights are right now. This is probably due for a variety of reasons, most notably the increase in the price of oil in the past few months:
Indeed, oil and jet fuel are becoming so expensive that some carriers are becoming completely priced out, as reported by Nigeria’s The Guardian:
Local airlines yesterday notified the Federal Government and the general public of the plan to shut down all scheduled services indefinitely effective next Monday, May 9, over unbearable cost of aviation fuel that currently sells at N700 per litre.
In response, I sent my friend my bullet-point summary of Scott Keyes’s book, Take More Vacations. I thought it might be interesting and useful to other folks as well, so I’ll write a more in-depth summary here.
Keyes makes a great argument for booking cheap flights (beyond just saving money!). He argues that booking cheap flights actually enhances a vacation, because there’s not as much pressure. If you spend $2,000 round trip on a flight, then while you’re supposed to be enjoying your stay, you can instead be constantly thinking “I better make sure this is all worth it!” Instead, if you find a much cheaper ticket, you can relax because this wasn’t such a huge expenditure. I’ve heard this same point applied to other domains, notably in the context of museums. The reason that free museums are so great is because they remove all the pressure to “see everything” or “soak it all in.” Instead, you can just spend an hour in the museum and leave, not feeling like you had to get your money’s worth.
Similarly, Keyes argues that booking cheap flights lets you take more, shorter vacations. This means you get to see more of the world, find out what you like, and not get trapped in a bad vacation. Instead of booking one three week vacation to maximize your value on a single expensive flight, you should hunt for cheap fares and make 3 cheaper one-week trips throughout the year. This will again lower the pressure on each of these trips, in addition to seeing more variety. Then, if one trip is a disaster, it doesn’t ruin your travel plans each year.
Flight prices (particularly in economy class) are strange: they’re not like most markets because there’s a fixed supply, and airlines barely make any of their money from non-business travel. Keyes cites some data indicating that business flights make up 12% of travelers but 75% of revenue for most airlines. This means that prices for economy tickets can vary wildly, seemingly without any distinguishable pattern. The upshot of this is that if you’re patient, and you can be flexible, you can buy tickets that are massively cheaper than others.
This means that you need to change the framing of how you think about vacations. Rather than saying “we’re going to fly to London in July 2023,” you should be thinking “we’d like to go to Europe in summer 2023.” This flexibility will let you find great deals, rather than being shoehorned in to any one specific place and time. The logic here is that each route and each time has a low probability of going on sale, but if you open up your possibilities to consider many different routes and times, you’re able to nearly guarantee that one of the itineraries will go on sale at some point.
How to find these deals? Of course, Keyes says that the best way to do this is simply signing up for his service, Scott’s Cheap Flights (SCF) (that link is a referral to my account.) SCF will email you whenever there’s cheap flights available from your selected airports, making it quite easy to passively be looking out for cheap flights around the world. I’ve been a subscriber for a year and have booked two cheap trips from it; I estimate I’ve saved at least $500 from the service. It’s really an excellent product. There is a free version, with less deals, as well.
If you don’t want to sign up for Scott’s flights, or you have a specific location in mind, then Google Flights is your friend. With Google Flights, you can set up specific price tracking alerts, so that you get notifications whenever a specific itinerary is on sale. The only downside with this (instead of SCF), is that you’d have to set up your target destinations one at a time, whereas SCF will email you about flights all over the world, including places you might not have pre-selected ahead of time.
If you’re not flexible with your trip, and you have to be a specific location at a specific time, there’s a few things you can do.
The first is to be flexible with your departure airports. There’s lots of airports in the U.S., and if you’re near a big city you’re probably a few hours' drive from 3-4 airports. Including these in your Google Flights searches can lead to some great deals, albeit with a drive tacked on. Still, saving $500 is probably worth a one- or two-hour drive. Or, you could even find a deal where flying to a city close by can be cheaper than flying directly from your home airport.
Next is to be flexible with your flight days and times: in general, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are the cheapest days for flights. Fortunately, Google Flights has a really nice flight grid that lets you compare all combinations of departure days for your trip, letting you potentially spot hundreds of dollars in savings for a one-day difference.
Finally, it can make sense to be patient. If you have a wedding to attend in 6 months, you should set up a Google Flight alert for that itinerary, then wait and see if any great deals pop up in the interim. Keyes writes that the cheapest domestic flights will be available 1-3 months ahead of the departure date, and international flights about 2-8 months ahead of time. But, you definitely don’t want to wait too long: Keyes says that you should book at least 3 weeks out to avoid last-minute hikes.
Finally, here’s some other miscellaneous tips that can help find cheaper fares and enjoy your vacations:
The cheapest parts of the year to travel are generally Fall and Winter (for example, I recently looked into flying into London from D.C., and found that flights in the summer were 3x more expensive as those in the fall).
Book your trips early when you can, as much of the positive value from a vacation comes from the expectation. Indeed, planning and anticipating a vacation is probably at least half of the fun of it. Having something to look forward to is immensely valuable.
The U.S. has a law that airlines must offer you a 24-hour refund period (as long as you book directly with them). This means that if you see a great deal, you should simply jump on it immediately, even if you’re not sure it will work out. Then, you have 24 hours to think about it and consult with your travel companions.
Southwest has no cancellation fees whatsoever. This means if you have to be somewhere on a specific date, you can simply book a Southwest flight to that destination immediately, then spend a few months hunting for a better fare. This lets you lock in a price and potentially improve on it, kind of like buying a free call option.