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Why Sometimes Choosing the Cheapest Airfare is a Mistake

This blog was written before the COVID Pandemic. The COVID epidemics played havoc on the travel business. In 2022, Fifty Plus Nomad decided to focus on traveling and living in Mexico and language learning posts. We will only update these long-term travel-related posts on a time-permitting basis. We would appreciate your comments and updates on these posts.

The airline pricing system may serve airlines well. But it does not serve customers, so customers increasingly must trade inconvenience for the cheapest airfare. 

Until eight years ago, I was always willing to do almost anything to get the cheapest airfare. However, I have decided that sometimes the sacrifices required to get the most economical tickets are not worth the cost savings. 

The following list summarizes factors other than the cheapest airfare I consider when selecting the right flight.

Every Fifty Plus Nomad will have somewhat different definitions of the right flight. However, I have included my list to give my readers some food for thought:

Some Cheap Flights That Are Not Worth the Trouble

  • In the winter, keep the weather in mind when booking a flight. Limiting the number of flights you take reduces the number of weather systems affecting your route. Generally, non-stop flights are preferable to connecting flights. Also, it can be worthwhile to avoid some airports like San Francisco, infamous for flight delays (and use San Jose or Oakland instead) to avoid weather-related issues. (Remember that when the weather is to blame for delays and cancellations, airlines don’t pay for hotels or meals for stranded travelers).
  • Flights that involve multiple connections are not usually worth it—the more connections, the more chances that something will go wrong. Besides, the longer the flight time, the more stressful the trip becomes.
  • I would recommend paying more to avoid trips that involve backtracking. About ten years ago, I flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Mexico City because the flight was $100 less expensive than a non-stop flight between Los Angeles and Mexico City. I also flew eight years ago from Miami to Newark to Washington DC to Buenos Aires to save $150 and get more frequent flyer miles. (Frequent flyer miles earned on flights were worth much more eight years ago than today). Both itineraries made the total trip time twice as long as the non-stop flight. Nowadays, I consider my time and sanity to be worth a bit more than these relatively small differences in fees. (That said, I may subject myself to these backtracking flights if the price difference is higher than $200 one-way.)

Why You Should Consider Flying From A Major Airport Rather Than A Small Nearby Airport

If you do not live in a city with a large airport, it may be better to travel to the major airport via land transport (a car, bus, etc.) than fly out of the nearby airport.

I used to live near and frequently fly from San Luis Obispo, California. I thought flying from San Luis Obispo was better than driving or taking a shuttle to Los Angeles or San Francisco (both four hours away). However, after a while, I discovered that flying out of Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) was better. Why?

  • Since the number of non-stop flights from San Luis Obispo is minimal, I almost always had to take a connecting flight to my destination. Often, I waited more than four hours for the connecting flight. (Particularly if I was connecting to an International destination). 
  • I was trying to get from San Luis Obispo, California, to Peoria, Illinois. The flight from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco was delayed, and I missed my connecting flight. If I had taken land-based transit to San Francisco, I would not have missed these flights. The flight from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco was delayed, and I had no way to get to Peoria. Instead, I had to fly to Chicago and find a way to get to Peoria. (Thankfully, I could share a rental car with someone else going to Peoria. That said, it took twenty hours to get to Peoria. The trip should have taken eight hours).
  • The trips from San Luis Obispo often cost me the same or more than if I flew from LAX or SFO. (Even after accounting for land transport costs to SFO or LAX).

Take the Bus or a Car If You Are Six Hours or Less From Your Destination

It is also often worth considering driving (or even taking the bus or train) if you can reach your destination in less than five to six hours. (Cars, buses, and trains are handy if your destination is in or near downtown). Usually, it takes almost five to six hours to travel between two destinations by plane, by the time you account for the following.

  1. A 30-minute or so trip to the airport.
  2. An hour to an hour and a half at the airport to go through security and check-in and then wait for and board the flight.
  3. An hour to two-hour flight.
  4. A 30-minute or an hour trip from the airport to your destination.

If You Have to Make An Airline Connection Tips

  • If I choose a flight with connections, I prefer a connection with at least one and a half hours or more layover. Most plane delays last an hour or less. By booking a longer connection window, you have a better chance of making the connection. Besides, many of the airports that have a lot of connecting flights are immense. It is not unusual to walk for thirty minutes to an hour to get to the connecting gate.
  • Even though I have no mobility issues, I sometimes wish I had a wheelchair when faced with some of the long distances in airports necessary to make a connecting flight. (In London-Heathrow and Miami International airports, I have walked more than an hour to make a connecting flight). If you have even slightly limited mobility, ask the airline for a wheelchair, especially if you have a flight with less than an hour for a connection.

Other Tips for Reducing the Hassle of Flying

  • Nowadays, I’d also suggest you give a slight nudge to international over US-based carriers. In the post-9/11 period, US-based carriers have cut back on customer service. Fortunately, foreign airlines haven’t had to adapt as many cuts as their US-based equivalents.
  • Take international non-stop flights as often as possible to avoid the hassle of going through customs, immigration, and security multiple times.

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Want More Information About When Choosing the Cheapest Airfare is a Mistake?

Check out this post from NBC News.

Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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