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#10 Finding Airline tickets - A New Approach

Finding tickets is becoming a longer and longer process. It used to be so easy in the past before the Internet when you would just pull out the travel section of a newspaper, look for a company that sold discount airline tickets, called the toll free number and purchased them- at a fraction of what they cost now!

Unfortunately, those good old days of newspapers and toll free numbers are gone. They've been replaced with a billion web sites, online ordering and sometimes toll free numbers.

I'm still living in the good old days when I could by a $500 round trip open ticket from NY to Athens. After moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina(RDU airport), the combination of moving from a major international airport to a smaller one and moving 20 years into the future has giving me a sticker price shock when it comes to ticket shopping.

I have taken a new approach to shopping for my tickets. In the past it was a one or two week process, basically looking through a couple of Sunday Travel sections, looking and sales and then making a few phone calls. Now I look at it as a process that could take months of careful research(translation- searching the web).

I usually try to travel to Greece in Sept/October which works for me because:
1. Flights are usually less expensive
2. The weather in Greece is more pleasant then
3. There are less tourists
4. Accommodation rates are lower
5. My yacht charter business slows done and I can take some time off

Once I have the dates down I can start searching. I also have a ballpark figure of what want to pay($750-1000 per person including taxes). At this point I have all the information I need. Number of people, dates, starting and ending point and approximate price I want to pay.

The first step I take is to run a general search to see what the going rates are(and hope I get lucky with a really good fare in my first five minutes of searching!). Getting lucky is usually just wishful thinking and the process ends up taking a long time. I first run the straight round trip RDU-Athens on dates I want to see what the fares are. Next I play around with the dates to see if I can find anything else. When I find an acceptable fare then I look at the itinerary and make sure that there are no early morning departures(think about waking up 4 hours before a 6am flight!) and no long layovers.

If this were easy, I would be done, but usually there is something wrong with the flights(cost, itinerary, airline) and the search has to continue.

I try searching with low cost airlines in Europe to see if I can find any low fares on Discount European Airlines from another European city to Athens. If I find something then I'll work on flights from the US to that city(IMPORTANT: Never buy a discount ticket that you are going to connect another itinerary to without having the other half in place. This could be a very expensive disastrous way to do it if the connecting flight isn't also inexpensive!).

Last year I found 29 Euro flights from Milan to Athens so I combined an open jaw USAirways flight(RDU-Milan and Athens-RDU) with the Easyjet tickets and ended up paying about $750 per person with a week stay in Slovenia. Naturally, my first step this year was to try those same flights. Easyjet had some low fares, but USAirways fares were way up there! No luck!

I ran a whole series of searches trying different combinations, but to no avail. Everything I found was either a direct flight in the $1400 range or a combination of flights that were only a $100 or so less. Still too expensive and if you add the risk of combining tickets(missed flights can be a disaster since no airline guarantees WHEN they will get you to your destination, but just that they WILL get you to your destination) neither options are a bargain.

Back to the drawing board! This process continued weekly(or whenever I had spare time) from Jan(after we got back from a Christmas Trip to Athens) until early April when I finally found some flights.

I was running through the search system that I outlined above when came to a US Airways fare that was a little over $1000. I went to there site and have to say I was pleasantly surprised with their search engine which turned out to be very efficient. I started my search with the dates that I wanted and checked the box that said my dates were flexible. This gave me the option of moving either the departure or return dates in increments of 1-3 days. This means that instead of having to run a new search every time I wanted to change dates, I could just move up or back a few days a time. Along with the dates I chose were prices for other dates as well as other flights on the same date. In this way I could choose the best itinerary and see what it would cost me.

I'm not sure how I did it, but I found a low fare in the beginning of September. I kept backing up and found flights for $960 including tax from August 26-September 24. It was strange because any other dates around them were all over $1200. That was a pretty good fare for the dates so I thought, "hmm... if it's that low from RDU, what can it be from a major airport?". I ran searches from Washington, NY and Boston, but nothing was that low. In fact, I searched for flights from Boston, NY and Washington in September(middle season- August 26 is technically high season still so the fares should still be high!) and still didn't find anything that low! That was encouraging.

When I fly, I try to get a free ticket either using my credit card miles or my Frequent Flyer miles. I had enough Frequent Flyer miles on Delta but but they had these flights that were code sharing with Continental Airlines. The problem with that was I wouldn't be able to purchase the same tickets at a reasonable cost and it would have cost the same as purchasing 3 tickets if I had to purchase the 2 Delta/Continental combination tickets(they were something like $1600 per person!). I think Delta purposely does the codeshare ticketing so that people can't buy one ticket with miles and match the other two tickets and pay for them.(These are also the 75,000 mile tickets. If you want to use 100,000 miles then you can get flights that are all Delta).

As I had enough miles with my credit card the next step was to go to my Credit Card company and see if I could find the same flights.

I signed into my account, did a search and found the flights for the same price as the USAirways site(plus a $30 ticketing fee and $140 issuing charge for the "free ticket"). I booked the 3 tickets, paid for 2 and got the third one with my CC Milles. The total cost of the tickets was about $715 each, so I ended up well within my parameters(actually a little bit lower!).

Well, now I hope you have some ideas on how to go about searching for Your Great Fare! Just remember, if you are combining any tickets(either from two or more different airlines that connect or trying to buy a combination of free flights with flights you have to pay for) make sure that all pieces are in place and purchase them together. You don't want to end up with one piece of the puzzle missing as you'll either end up paying a lot more than you should(if one of the flights is very expensive) or worse sending your spouse and/or children off on their own if you ended up on different flights because you didn't book the free flights along with the paid flights!



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