June 12th, 2006 tprophet
2600 staff has heard from an inordinate number of past HOPE attendees who have expressed financial concerns about the high cost of airfare this year. Well, move over, Rick Steves! Europe is lovely, but HOPE is in North America. While Edmonds is nice, they don’t make 737’s there! It’s time for a little domestic travel advice coming to you from scenic Renton, on the south side of Lake Washington.
Granted, if you’re coming from Adak, airfare might be a reasonable concern (after all, it’s cheaper to get to Turkmenistan from Seattle than it is to get to Adak). However, if you’re coming from just about anywhere else in the world, thinking like a hacker can save you a lot of money!
First, let me establish my credentials as a budget traveler. I occasionally smoke pot like Rick Steves, so that’s a start. It’s my life’s goal to see every continent on the planet, and I’ve made pretty good progress so far, too. The stamps in my passport include the following countries:
- Czech Republic (I’m banned from returning until 2008)
- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea)
- Hong Kong
- New Zealand
I’m probably missing a couple, but this is just off of the top of my head.
At this point, you might be asking “OK, TProphet, all this is great, and I’m also jealous of your high quality Pacific Northwest marijuana, but what does all of this have to do with HOPE?” Good question. Keep in mind, I live in the Seattle area, not exactly close to most of these places, and I’ve never spent more than $600 on a plane ticket to anywhere. If I can find plane tickets from Seattle to Tokyo for under $500, you should certainly be able to get from anywhere in the United States to New York for considerably less than this.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey operates three major airports in New York: LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy, and Newark. The airport codes are LGA, JFK, and EWR respectively.
The most convenient of the three airports is Newark. There is a fast, efficient, and regular commuter train (called the AirTrain) that runs directly from the Newark airport to Penn Station. It takes less than 30 minutes and Penn Station is directly across the street from the Hotel Pennsylvania. The Newark airport is remarkably clean and efficient (for New York), the airport concessions and shops aren’t priced above what you’d normally pay on Manhattan, and most of the people using it are business travelers. There is even free Internet access available. Unfortunately, Newark is also a hub for Continental Airlines, which means that fares there tend to be more expensive than to JFK or LaGuardia. If I can’t find a reasonable fare into Newark, I next check JFK (the subway goes there, although it’s about a 1 hour ride from the Hotel Pennsylvania), and finally LaGuardia (there is no train or subway, and New York City buses are not for the uninitiated; you’ll likely be stuck with an expensive private shuttle bus or taxi). Both JFK and LaGuardia are older than the Newark airport. They are dingy, run-down, and eternally under construction, so plan extra time when using them.
Most airlines treat the three main New York airports as “co-terminals,” meaning that you can fly into one of them and out of another one without paying any extra. Most airline computer systems will search all three airports if you use the “NYC” airport designator, which is sort of a virtual airport code. I encourage doing this if you have a little flexibility, since being willing to use multiple airports can often yield a much lower fare. I put my money where my mouth is, and I used this strategy myself. I’m flying into LaGuardia and leaving from JFK, because this netted me the cheapest fare ($288, which is incidentally the most I’ve ever paid to New York—fares are very high this year). I would have paid over $100 more if I wasn’t willing to be flexible and use multiple airports (nonstop flights to Newark on Continental and Alaska Airlines cost a whopping $162 more than the one-stop flights I’m taking on American—and they yield fewer frequent flier miles!).
I usually search for low fares using a combination of methods. I’ll usually start by using the “flexible dates” search option on Travelocity to find the lowest published fare between two points. Keep in mind, this is a tool to be taken with a grain of salt. Travelocity doesn’t necessarily list the lowest available fare, only the lowest published fare. They also don’t list any fares from United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, or JetBlue (the latter two airlines don’t list fares anywhere but their own Web sites, and United and Travelocity apparently just hate each other). However, it is a useful way to find a good fare to beat.
The “flexible dates” search option will help you zero in on the dates and times where the lowest fares are available. For example, you might be able to save money by taking a red-eye flight that leaves at 11:50PM on Thursday versus 12:10AM on Friday (since it generally costs more to fly on Friday). Again, I put my money where my mouth is, and I am leaving Seattle at 11:59PM on Thursday night, since this was cheaper than leaving a few minutes later via a different route on Friday morning. Of course, it’s tempting to make dramatic adjustments to your schedule to save money once you get the hang of this, so don’t forget your expenses on the ground when adjusting your travel dates! New York is an absurdly expensive city and you will very easily burn through $100 a day paying for food and a place to sleep. If you won’t save more than this by arriving earlier or staying later, pay a little extra and save a lot more.
OK. You found a great deal on a ticket. It’s much less than your friends are paying, too. Jump on it! Go through the purchase process and get to the point where if you click one more time you’re spending your money. Then minimize the browser window and sanity check the fare.
First of all, if they serve your city, check JetBlue to see whether they offer a lower fare. Usually, this is not the case, but if the fare is substantially lower, consider booking with them instead (don’t forget that you’ll lose the value of the frequent flier miles you would otherwise earn with a more traditional airline, so it may be worth paying a little more to fly a different carrier).
Next, check Orbitz. Their search engine is good at piecing together bizarre one-way itineraries with multiple airlines. These types of trips are guaranteed to get you an SSSS on your boarding pass, but can occasionally save you a lot of money. Orbitz also searches United fares, which Travelocity doesn’t do; if United has a lower fare you’ll find it on Orbitz (incidentally, United is a part owner of Orbitz).
Finally, check the Web site for the airline offering the low fare you originally found. Airlines sometimes (although not always) offer lower fares on their own Web sites. If you find the same fare on the airline’s Web site, it’s to your benefit to book directly with them because you’ll avoid Travelocity’s booking fee. You may also earn extra frequent flier miles.
Didn’t find a fare you can afford? Fares change every day, often several times a day. Keep looking, and you should eventually find one that you like. Alternatively, you can employ the other strategies detailed below.
Willing to look a little further afield? In addition to the three “official” New York airports, there are two alternate destinations you might want to try in order to benefit from the presence of Southwest Airlines, and a third airport with service from other low fare carriers.
As you may or may not know, Southwest keeps fares low by only selling tickets on their own Web site, maintaining no code share or even baggage agreements with other airlines, and by using second-tier low-rent airports wherever possible (such as Oakland instead of San Francisco, Hobby instead of Intercontinental in Houston, and Midway instead of O’Hare in Chicago).
Islip (ISP): As in other cities, Southwest uses the low-rent backwater airport, which is located in Islip near 2600 world headquarters. The airport code for Islip is ISP. Don’t check just Southwest Airlines! Other airlines often match their low fares. From Islip, it’s easily possible to take the LIRR train to Penn Station.
White Plains (HPN) is a smaller airport located about 25 miles from New York. It used to be primarily a commuter airport but like Islip, it’s a low-rent airport that is attracting an increasing number of low-fare airlines (such as AirTran, who recently began service to there). I have never flown into HPN so don’t know what the transit connections are like; however, if you’re up for a public transit adventure it might be worth a look.
Philadelphia (PHL) is another possibility, but not recommended unless you have lots of extra time. You can take the SEPTA R1 and R7 light rail lines from the airport to Trenton, and then a NJ Transit commuter train from Trenton to Penn Station (this isn’t quick; it takes about 2 hours to New York from Trenton plus up to 2 hours on SEPTA from the airport to Trenton). Despite the hassle, you may find an exceptional deal to PHL (I have recently seen fares from Seattle to there for under $200). This is because US Airways is the largest airline in Philadelphia, and ever since Southwest moved in, they have discounted their fares heavily in an effort to drive Southwest out. Thus far, Southwest isn’t budging, and has continually expanded their service. It’s good news for Philadelphia-area travelers, who have definitely benefited from the competition!
Finally, could you originate from another airport? While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some ideas for alternates in regions with multiple airport choices:
Pacific Northwest: Seattle (SEA), Vancouver BC (YVR), Portland (PDX)
Inland Northwest: Spokane (GEG), Boise (BOI)
Northern California: San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), San Jose (SJC), Sacramento (SMF)
Southern California: Burbank (BUR), Ontario (ONT), Long Beach (LGB), Anaheim (SNA), Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN).
Chicago: O’Hare (ORD), Midway (MDW), Milwaukee (MKE), and Rockford (RFD).
Dallas: Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW), Love Field (DAL)
Houston: George HW Bush Intercontinental (IAH), Hobby (HOU)
Austin/San Antonio: Austin (AUS), San Antonio (SAT), Laredo (LRD)
Little Rock/Memphis: Little Rock (LIT), Memphis (MEM)
Boston: Boston (BOS), Providence (PVD), Manchester (MHT)
Baltimore/Washington: Baltimore (BWI), Washington-Reagan (DCA), Washington-Dulles (IAD)
Orlando/Tampa: Orlando (MCO), Tampa (TPA)
Miami/Fort Lauderdale: Miami (MIA), Ft. Lauderdale (FLL)
Note that in the above list, there may be other perfectly good airports I’ve omitted (such as BLI and LWS). This is because for the most part, I have listed major airports with jet service only.
Hacking Non-Published Fares
You might have read about consolidator fares, student fares, courier fares, and travel industry fares. Here are my thoughts on these types of fares.
Consolidator fares: Some travel agencies known as “bucket shops” buy large blocks of seats from the airlines. They mark these up and resell them. However, domestic fares have dropped so much in recent years that these are virtually unheard of anymore for domestic itineraries. You can still get excellent consolidator fares for international travel, particularly for Asia travel. Of course, speaking Cantonese also goes a long way in finding travel agencies that sell these!
Student fares: These fares are available to full-time college (sorry, not high school) students through STA Travel (US) and TravelCUTS (Canada). Student ID is required, and you generally can’t be older than 24 regardless of your college enrollment status. These fares are certainly worth investigating, but you may often find a lower “regular” fare than the supposedly “discounted” student fare! Note that student fares often do not allow changes of any sort and you may not be able to collect frequent flier miles either.
Courier fares: The deal sounds almost too good to be true. In exchange for dramatically reduced airfare and the ability to travel on short notice, you give up only your checked baggage allowance and escort up to 100 pounds of urgent air cargo to a faraway destination. You can bring anything with you that you want, as long as it will fit in your carry-on bag. Well, it really is a great deal… until you consider the types of places you can go where no other reliable way of transporting urgent cargo is available. Air couriers can get great deals to exotic Third World destinations, many of which are in an active state of civil unrest or even civil war. While I’m sure the beaches of Somalia are lovely when you’re not dodging bullets, New York is, unfortunately, an unlikely (and altogether too safe) destination for air couriers. See you in Mogadishu!
Travel industry: In general, if you don’t work in the travel industry or have a close friend or relative working in the travel industry that personally assists you, these fares aren’t available to you. Any person or Web site offering these fares is almost certainly trying to rip you off. If you do work in the travel industry, you should be well familiar with the pitfalls of non-revenue travel. I wish you good luck getting to your favorite hub, and the best seniority placement on the standby list. You’ll need both!
Other Travel Hacks
Standby: Are you really flexible… almost so flexible that you’re a veritable travel gymnast? If so, you might try flying standby with Airhitch. As long as you don’t mind flying from some airport in the vicinity of your origin to some other airport kind of close to where you might have wanted to arrive, and you can go anytime within a couple of days, they might be able to help. The trade-off for all this flexibility on your part is some ridiculously low fares! And hey, you might even see some interesting places along the way.
Using Miles: You have frequent flier miles, but you can’t really use them. Everybody knows that! There’s even a TV commercial about it!
Wrong! Using frequent flier miles, I flew for free (well, close to free—I paid taxes and booking fees only) to Beijing in October. I visited Maui in early March (yes, the absolute super peak of the Hawaii tourist season), and I’ll be flying free to Adak, Alaska this summer (just 20,000 miles redeemed for tickets that normally cost $1,700 plus tax). Last summer, I even used frequent flier miles to visit remote Newfoundland in Canada. Yes, it’s closer to Portugal than Seattle, and tickets are normally about $1,000, but the trip only cost me 25,000 United Mileage Plus miles. Best of all, my recent “free” trips were all taken on “saver” awards, not the inflated “use double miles so you can actually get a flight” award rates.
The key to using frequent flier miles is persistence and flexibility. Most people only call (or worse, check the airline’s Web site) one time. If they don’t find what they want, they quickly conclude that frequent flier miles are useless for the trip, and buy a ticket elsewhere. It costs an extra $10 to $15 to book a frequent flier ticket over the phone versus using the Internet, but the fee is well worth it in many cases. Research the different ways of getting there in advance, and ask the agent politely to check them all. Once you start asking them to research alternatives, many agents will get into the game and may even suggest options you hadn’t considered.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you have American Airlines AAdvantage miles and you want to travel from Los Angeles to New York. Many agents will just check the nonstop flights, and tell you that they’re full. That may be the case, but American has hubs in Dallas, Chicago, and St. Louis—maybe you can get there by changing planes in Dallas. Or here’s another example. Suppose the agent can find tickets to New York, but not back home. Make sure they checked all three New York area airports—not just the one you arrived at (you’d be amazed how often they forget to do this and suddenly discover that seats are available from LaGuardia even though they weren’t from JFK). If you still come up blank, ask them to check partner flights, too. For example, Alaska Airlines flies from every Los Angeles area airport to Newark via Seattle. Most agents wouldn’t even consider this possibility (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a surprised “Oh, they DO fly there!” when I suggest oddball partners and itineraries), and there very well may be available seats.
Finally, even if you don’t have your own frequent flier miles, you might know someone who does. Since so many people think that frequent flier miles are unusable, you might easily be able to convince a parent, friend or relative to let you cash in their miles for a free trip. On almost every airline, someone else can redeem their miles for a ticket in your name, as long as the account password is confirmed, the taxes are paid on the account holder’s credit card, and the itinerary is mailed to the account holder’s address. In fact, I’ve even done this myself to get to HOPE! In 2002, after being rebuffed by Continental Airlines multiple times and faced with the expiration of his OnePass account, my father told me that I could cash in his 25,000 miles for any trip I liked if I could somehow manage to use them. Two months later, to my father’s utter astonishment, his account was empty and I was on my way to H2K2. How did I do it? When Continental told me that no flights were available, I asked the agent to check availability on their partner, Northwest Airlines. Northwest operates considerably more service to Seattle than Continental, so I was easily able to book flights to Newark (“Oh, they DO fly there through Memphis!”) at exactly the times I wanted.
Entry Filed under: Travel