The Ryan Guide to Frugal Air Travel, Part One

Modern commercial air travel is a miracle. Everyday, it whisks thousands of Americans across the country, connecting anywhere to anywhere within a few hours. It’s hard not to admire the mammoth international airport, processing and discharging a never-ending stream of travelers efficiently and comfortably. And it’s hard not to admire the technological marvel of the commercial airliner, soaring 30,000 feet above the ground at hundreds of miles an hour, gently and gracefully from takeoff to touchdown. Air travel, by the way, is the safest mode of transportation in existence.

Equally miraculous is the American free market, one of the few cornerstones of our democracy in which our faith has never been shaken. Unbridled competition has led to lower prices and more choices for consumers in every sector of the modern economy, and the airlines are no exception. Thanks to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, one of President Carter’s bolder initiatives, air travel today operates in an affordable and efficient free market. Since deregulation, fares have plummeted, the number of Americans flying has exploded, and dozens of airlines have taken to the skies to offer travelers more choices and innovative service.

Visiting relatives? Need a vacation? Have urgent business? Let’s explore what the miracle of modern air travel can do for you, the frugal traveler.The frugal traveler first realizes that airfares are, above all, a

free market. Leisure travelers usually make the mistake of booking flights as far out as possible under the misconception that fares will only increase. In fact, around two to three months in advance, airlines use price cuts and flash sales to fill slow-selling seats. They make use of extremely sophisticated yield management programs that constantly adjust fares to meet demand, raising them on popular routes and dropping them on lightly booked ones. Fares vary by hundreds of dollars, day to day, hour to hour, and minute to minute.

Airfares follow that classic free market adage: “want more, pay more.” Expect cheaper itineraries to depart early in the morning, arrive in the dead of night, have longer layovers, and involve red-eye legs. They’re carefully manipulated to direct air travelers to fill seats that are less desirable. Thus, the frugal traveler must strike a delicate balance between his wallet and his human endurance.

Contrary to popular belief, nonstops are not necessarily more expensive for the frugal traveler than itineraries that involve connections. It depends on the nature of the origin and destination cities. Flights between cities with limited amounts of connecting traffic, like Los Angeles to Austin, are relatively isolated from market forces on the airline’s broader network. Since little seats are taken by connecting passengers, the frugal traveler is competing mostly with passengers traveling directly from Los Angeles to Austin, and fares stay relatively affordable.

The frugal traveler can make sense of this opaque, sometimes messy market through another American miracle, the Internet. Flight search engines such as Google Flights, Airfare Watchdog, and Expedia offer the frugal traveler up-to-the-minute price comparisons between all of the major airlines. (The notable exception is Southwest, which does not allow its fares to be published anywhere except for its own website.) These engines allow the frugal traveler to narrow down the right flight at the right price, with filters for departure time, duration, and operating airline, among other useful metrics.

Some of them also offer email alerts, so that the frugal traveler can track the trends over time and pounce when the price of his flight, in his judgment, has hit rock bottom. The thrill of checking the charts every day is akin to high-frequency stock or commodity trading. The key is not to buy early, but to look early.

Airlines are equally hyper-connected, and often match each other’s price drops within days. A good price between cities on American is usually matched by the other Big Four, Delta, United, and Southwest. The relentless drive for consumers to find the cheapest flights means that overall, no airline is cheaper than any other. Even Southwest.

A recent innovation in the miracle of air travel is the so-called “low-cost carrier,” which features bargain-rate base fares with “extra” services, like checked baggage and on-board drinks, unbundled and available for purchase separately. Depending on whom one asks, the low-cast carrier is either an innovative way to save consumers money on services they don’t need, or a dastardly scheme to charge extra money for services that were formerly free. American consumers loathe the discomfort and bare-bones perks on low-cost carriers like Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit, even as they flock to them in droves.

Frontier and Spirit generally fly between larger cities, while Allegiant has carved a niche flying between small towns and vacation-friendly cities such as the Florida coast, Austin, and Las Vegas. When the schedules line up, low-cast carriers can offer a viable way for the frugal traveler to discover even lower fares. However, conventional, “legacy” carriers such as Delta, United, American, and Southwest often feel pressure to price-match them, so the savings are sometimes minimal, especially when considering services that come standard on full-service carriers.

The frugal traveler can even save money by booking his itinerary at the airport check-in counter, since all three low-cost carriers impose an online booking surcharge.

Of course, the frugal traveler can also consider alternate airports, since the airlines have cut service and inflated fares for small destinations that are less profitable to serve, from Bakersfield to St. Louis to Cincinatti. Giant hubs such as Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia have many more flights and hence inherently lower fares. The frugal traveler accesses them not with expensive ridesharing, taxi, or airport shuttle services, but with reliable and affordable public transportation.

For example, Bakersfield residents know all too well the pain of fighting three hours of LA traffic to catch a flight at LAX. There’s the Airport Valet Express coach for a hefty $44, to say nothing of the outrageously extravagant options like ridesharing, renting a car, or driving and parking. Instead, the frugal traveler takes an affordable Amtrak bus from Wasco to downtown LA for only $17, plus the $1.75 Los Angeles Metro fare to get to the airport.

These are the basics. But sometimes, the airlines just won’t cooperate, and frugal traveler needs a ticket as soon as possible.

The frugal traveler then resorts to the advanced techniques.

Hidden city ticketing is a classic airfare trick. Airlines price by origin and destination pairs, so it is sometimes cheaper to purchase an A-B-C itinerary than an A-B itinerary with an identical A-B leg because A/C fares are lower than A/B fares. The frugal traveler can purchase the A-B-C ticket and discard the connecting B-C flight, though there are risks. Irregular operations could cause the airline to change the routing, and of course, checked bags will be transported to C, not B.

Skiplagged was a website that specialized in finding such itineraries; it was involved in a high-profile lawsuit launched by United. Though Skiplagged can still identify some hidden city tickets, manual searching is usually more effective. The trick is to look for flights to cheap destinations that connect through major hubs. For example, a Texas to Los Angeles to Las Vegas itinerary can yield an affordable Texas to Los Angeles flight.

The frugal traveler can sometimes use an airline’s multi-city booking option to build hidden city itineraries. For example, it is sometimes possible to book a Los Angeles to Austin and Austin to Dallas multi-city ticket for the price of a Los Angeles to Dallas direct.

A final strategy is combining legs from multiple airlines with separate tickets. Sometimes this is cheaper than buying a single ticket from one airline. This trick is especially useful for Allegiant, which provides the only significant air service to many small towns and does not officially book connections. For the frugal traveler, this is the riskiest low airfare strategy. A missed connection, for any reason, leaves no recourse for rebooking or compensation. And changing airlines often means changing terminals. In many airports, this means reclearing security or navigating a maze of terminal connectors. At Las Vegas, for example, a secure terminal change can mean long walks and up to three interterminal tram rides.

Now armed with the tools of the trade, the frugal traveler is ready to search for the best trip at the lowest price. For he or she, it’s a thrill to crawl the airfare search engines to discover the latest price drops and new routings and booking strategies. And the airfare market never rests, fluctuating, like stocks, between every moment. The challenge for the frugal traveler is to buy low when the price is just right. Then, after settling into a cramped, narrow, and non-reclining seat, with no food and a tiny carry-on item on a flight that is no doubt delayed, he or she can be satisfied that no expense was wasted.

This is the state of modern American air travel, courtesy of the deregulated, unbridled free market. For the thousands of passengers who take to the skies every day, air travel is still miraculous–but not because of the grand airports that greet them, or the sleek jetliners that transport them. Rather, air travel is miraculous in that it has become a cruel, never-ending chase for an ever-lower number; it has become a sick joke. And the punchline is that we condone our misery.