Category: travel

A New Approach to Airfare

I’ve been searching for plane tickets for a good long while, I’d say. I can’t remember when exactly I started searching for my own tickets. Back in mid-2000s, I’d guess. And in those years, my approach to searching has changed over time. For the first long while, Travelocity was my go to website for searches. Then after a while, Kayak came in to take its place. I’ve branched out as far as how wide a net I cast when I do my searches as well. These days I include Portland, Boston, Bangor, Quebec, or Montreal. (Ottawa is dead to me. Sorry, Ottawa.)

It seems like each trip, I learn a bit more about the search process and come up with new approaches to get the most bang for my buck. I can’t just search Kayak anymore, for instance. I need to search Southwest’s site on its own, since their prices don’t show up in aggregators. And I search for days around when I want to go–not just the date in question.

Of course, the airlines have made things even more difficult. Charging for bags has made things really tricky, as you can’t just compare the base fares. You need to take into account if you’ll have any luggage, and how much it’ll cost on each carrier to have that luggage. Some carriers even charge for carryons now, which is an even bigger pain. But as I’ve been searching for my next trip (heading to Utah this summer), I came across an idea to make one of the new tweaks an advantage to me, instead of what I thought at first was a disadvantage.

It used to be, you’d search for a flight, and the results would always be cheaper if you bundled flights together. A roundtrip ticket was cheaper than two one ways. That sort of went without saying. But now I realized that airlines have pretty much ditched that concept completely. They charge per leg of the flight. I’m heading to ALA in Chicago, and a ticket from Boston to Chicago to Salt Lake to Boston was less than Boston to Salt Lake to Boston. Why? Because you could switch between carriers, and each carrier was having different sales. You could use those sales and combine them to hopscotch your way across the country.

Naturally, I couldn’t buy that cheaper ticket right then. I needed to square things away with work and make sure I had the time off, and then talk to Denisa to see if she and the kids wanted to come to Chicago with me. Once I had it all set, then the fare was gone. Curses!

But the approach stayed with me. What if instead of insisting I buy all my tickets at once, I just broke the trip up into smaller legs and search for each one individually? I figured it couldn’t hurt, so I’m giving that a shot this time. I’m basically doing three searches. One for Boston to Chicago. One for Chicago to Salt Lake. One for Salt Lake to Boston.

Already I think it’s paying off. I just bought my return tickets from Salt Lake to Boston, direct, for $127/person. A roundtrip direct flight was costing around $450. I think that’s a really good price for that flight. Let’s hope the other legs end up coming down some, as well.

One additional advantage I already see about this approach is that it opens up even more avenues for searches. I can fly into one airport and out from another. Leave from Portland, if it’s cheaper, and fly into Boston. (I’ll be parking in Augusta, where it’s free, thanks very much.) Breaking apart a trip into legs gives a lot more flexibility in the search, and flexibility is power.

I’m not sure if I’d do this for a shorter trip. But this is going to be a couple of weeks, which can prove to make a real difference. I’ll let you know how it goes. If I could do the whole trip for around $350, I’ll consider it a success.

Tickets Bought

After no small amount of internet surfing and thinking and pondering and weighing the various options, I’ve finally come up with my latest Great Travel Scheme to Save Money.

For a while, that looked like it really was going to be renting a minivan and driving 22.5 hours (assuming no traffic. Yeah right.) to Orlando. I just couldn’t find anything that was reasonably priced at Thanksgiving, and no amount of creative airlining was getting me any closer. There were some fares that seemed okay at first, but nothing that really caught my eye. Paying $2000 for flights compared to paying $350 for a rental car and $300 for gas just seemed like the better deal.

But I’ll be honest. The thought of driving 24 hours with three kids down to Orlando, then turning around a week later and driving twenty four hours back was . . . less than ideal. I talked to multiple friends who have done it, and they all assured me how it wasn’t as awful as you’d imagine, but let’s face it: when the slogan of your planned trip is “Not as Awful as You’d Imagine,” maybe it’s time to rethink it all again.

What if we made it less awful? What if instead of driving straight through the night, we broke it up into two legs each way? We could take the kids out of school a day early, and then it would be 4 days of driving, 12 hours each day . . .

Still not exactly heavenly.

Audio books! And surprises! And maybe stay with family on the way back! Things to look forward to could make it more palatable, right? Right. And that’s what I convinced myself. I came up with some creative ways to make the trip fun, even though “4 days of 12 hour drives” just refused to really settle into the “fun” category for me or Denisa.

This past weekend, I took a long harsh look at the details. How much money was I really going to save by driving?

  • Rental car (because I didn’t want to drive all that way in a Honda Civic): $350
  • Extra driver fee (because there was no way I’d drive it all myself): $100
  • Gas: $350
  • Hotel on the way down: $150
  • Food and snacks for the trip: $200
  • Tolls: $100
  • Surprises: $100 (or so)
  • TOTAL: $1,350

Yes. I know I could make that cheaper. But I didn’t want to. Bare minimum, if I drove all night in my own car and ate bread and water, it would still be $450, but I’d arrive to Disney completely exhausted, and I know myself well enough to see a recipe for an awful vacation when it’s staring me in the face.

How much would plane tickets be again? Around $2,000. So I’d be driving to save $650, and that no longer seemed like such a grand idea.

So I continued searching for plane tickets that might cut things down even more, and I came up with a solution today. The answer? Canada. Not Montreal this time. I’d been looking at that airport all along, and the tickets were around $1,800 for a direct flight to Orlando. (They’d been cheaper earlier. Only $1550. But I waited, and I wasn’t sure those cheap tickets would return.) I’d checked Quebec and Toronto (for kicks), but today I decided to see if there were any other airports in Canada. Montreal had saved my bacon for our European vacation, and Canada doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, eh? So tickets might be cheaper than the $2400 out of Boston for terrible flights that I was currently contemplating.

Ottawa has an airport. I checked the flights. $1,315 for direct Ottawa to Orlando tickets at Thanksgiving. $1,315 total.

How long does it take to drive to Ottawa? 6 hours.

I talked it over with Denisa, and we hatched the plan. Leave the evening before. Drive part of the way and stay in a hotel. Have a leisurely morning, then head to the airport. Fly down (only a three hour flight!). Enjoy Disney. Fly back and stay in a hotel, and then drive home in the morning. Even with the costs of hotels, it’ll still come in around $1,600, and maybe we see a bit of Ottawa in the process.

Yes, folks. I realize it’s a fairly outlandish approach to flying. Drive 6 hours to fly 3 hours. But that’s still just 9 hours of travel time vs 24 hours of driving. And it’s only a bit more expensive. Sue me. I bought the tickets.

Anyone ever been to Ottawa before?

VRBO: A Great Place to Find a Cheap Place to Vacation

I was talking to a friend the other day and I mentioned I was using VRBO to book a vacation in October (heading down to the coast with the fam), and he had never heard of it. So I feel like it’s my civic duty to make sure I’ve at least mentioned this site on my blog. I’ve used it for four or five vacations now, and it’s always been a great experience.

What is it? It stands for Vacation Rental By Owner: a site where you can rent a house for a weekend or a week. It’s like AirBnB (which has gotten more publicity), but just for renting apartments or houses. No “rent a part of a house and have to share it with the owner.” Granted, AirBnB does has this feature as well, but I’ve been a happy VRBO customer, and I’ve really appreciated how easy it is to search a wide variety of of houses, and I haven’t seen a need to switch. (Though of course you could always search both sites and find the best deal. Never a bad idea.)

We first used VRBO for our trip to Quebec City, getting a condo right downtown for a week for really cheap. It was a great experience, so I turned to VRBO again for our family reunion, renting a house for 30 people for the Fourth of July weekend. This was a bit pricier, since it was for that many people and at a holiday, but it was still super easy and we got a fantastic house. Just what I was looking for.

I used VRBO to get an apartment 100 yards from Notre Dame, for three nights, for $600 during summer vacation last year. Hotel rooms were going for more than that, and this was much nicer, and much closer to all the action. And now we just reserved a house on an island on the coast of Maine for October: three nights for $450 total.

What I’m trying to say is that if you’re looking to stay someplace for a few nights, and you want more than just a cookie cutter hotel room, then you should really be looking at places other than hotels.com. You’ll save money and have a much bigger place to stay in. You help individual property owners instead of a faceless corporation.

When I’m just staying by myself, a hotel room is just fine. But if I want to enjoy a vacation with my family, it’s been so much nicer to have room to breathe. Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful when using the site:

  • There are a ton of different search parameters. Use them to your advantage. Put in the minimum number of bedrooms you want, and the max you’re willing to pay. Want to stay on the beach? Want internet? Bringing pets? You can get very specific.
  • Pay attention to the reviews. I have yet to stay someplace with no reviews. I realize that’s cutting out a good number of properties, but I’d like to have at least some assurance that the place I’m staying will work out. I’m not willing to bet my vacation on a good deal and a prayer that it actually turns out to be a good experience.
  • Be flexible on the exact location you’re looking for if you can. Narrowing things down too much can eliminate some really great properties.
  • You’ll be dealing with the individual property manager in the end, not VRBO. Be prepared for some back and forth emails and negotiations. You’ll probably have to pay for a deposit, and then pay the rest of what you owe at a later date. Typically they arrange a time for you to check in, or give you information on how to get into the house.
  • Pay attention to details like cleaning fees and deposits when you’re booking. That can affect the bottom line of what you pay.

Anyway. I’ve now plugged the site for free, but I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been a happy customer. Give it a shot for your next vacation.

Where Do You Draw the Line to Save Money?

We’re planning another trip to Disney this year, and that means Bryce gets to obsess over small details (and start talking about himself in the third person.) At the moment, I’m looking at plane ticket prices (mainly because it’s too soon to start really looking at Disney prices, and I’ve got my fingers crossed they’ll be offering free dining again . . .)

Each time I look at these tickets, my knee-jerk approach is to find the cheapest tickets available and book those. But maybe I’m getting older or wiser (or just not as frugal), but I’ve been burned by that approach a few too many times in the past. It’s one thing to find the CHEAPEST FLIGHT YOU CAN, but then you still have to actually use those tickets.

In other words, it might seem awesome to save $150 a ticket by flying on an off day out of an airport that’s far away, with a 2 hour layover, on the red eye. But when it comes time to make that flight, and you’re stuck traveling or 12 hours for a trip that really should have just taken 6, you begin to wonder if it was really worth all the savings.

So it’s a balancing act. A few years ago, I think I would have gone with the savings, every time. It was the difference between being able to go on the trip or not, period. These days, when we’ve got a bit more extra money in the budget?

Let’s talk specifics.

For me to fly to Orlando, I can leave from multiple airports. The closest one is Portland, 1.75 hours away. Bangor is about the same, but it’s a regional airport. (Though it does do direct flights to Sanford, which is close to Orlando . . .) Then there’s Boston or Manchester, both about 3.5 hours away, though you can take a bus to Boston easily. (But if you take the bus, that adds on $150 of bus tickets for our family, which cuts into savings from flying out of Boston.)

There are no direct flights from Portland. There are some in Boston, but they cost more, so you eat up the savings you could have had if you go that route. (You’ve also left from Boston, which added a bus ride to your journey . . .)

But wait! There’s more!

We’re looking at Thanksgiving. And as everybody knows, Thanksgiving is a time when airlines like to hike their prices. So we can either fly at strange times for less, or pay more to fly when we actually want to.

Then again, there’s also Montreal. Canada doesn’t do that whole Thanksgiving thing, so we could fly at normal times for normal fares (non stop, even) . . . if we’re willing to drive 4.5 hours and make it into an international flight.

Add these all up, and there are so many moving parts, it makes my head spin. And how much money am I saving if I’m putting in 20-30 hours of my time just to save $150?

Which leads me to my question of the day: where do you draw the line, personally? Are you the sort of person who will go for the absolute cheapest, no matter what? Do you just ignore the ticket price and go when it’s convenient? There’s a lot of middle ground between those extremes, and I’m curious how other people decide where they fall in there.

Do tell.

Some Paris Travel Advice

Okay. I realize a lot of you readers out there might not be planning a trip to Paris anytime soon. But maybe you are. Or maybe you will be at some point, and you’ll remember this post. (Or maybe *I’ll* be planning a trip there again sometime, and I’d like to read this post.) In that case, I thought I’d give you a few pointers on what I learned traveling through Paris with a family this time around. Ready? Here we go.

  • Getting from the airport with public transportation isn’t difficult, but it will seem that way the first time you do it. You need to walk over to the train station (literally part of the airport), and buy tickets, either from automatic machines or from the ticket counter. (At the ticket counter, you can buy Metro tickets and train tickets. I’d go to the ticket counter and get all your tickets for your trip in one fell swoop.) Once you have the tickets, you have to get to the train. This is where it stops being fun. Paris has these automatic gates (similar to most big public transportation), where you put your ticket into a small slot, it scans it, and it spits it out a different slot. You then take it back, then gates open, and you go through. (You do the same thing to get out when you’ve arrived.) When you have no luggage, that’s fine and easy. When you have kids and luggage? Much more difficult. If you get lucky, there’ll be an attendant there who can open a gate for you to all walk through and avoid the whole thing. If you get unlucky, you’ve got to figure it out on your own. (Guess which one I got first?)
  • My plan to stay downtown worked like a charm. We were in a small apartment 100 yards from Notre Dame, right in the thick of things. The place had to be a few hundred years old at least. (Speaking as someone whose house is almost 175 years old, I should know.) There was no elevator, and the lights were sketchy at times (the light switches looked the same as the door bells. I didn’t really want to ring someone at 10 at night.) But we were close to mass transit to take us anywhere, and it was just a bit more expensive than a hotel room. Plus, it had a fridge and kitchen, and an extra bedroom. Go VRBO!
  • Buying food in the middle of Paris is a bit befuddling, mainly because the grocery store looks like a CVS. Seriously. Monoprix. You go in, and all you see are shampoo bottles and ibuprofen, plus a little nook that sells pre-made sandwiches. But you keep going in, and you find a magical escalator that leads downstairs to what I’m convinced is a primitive TARDIS. There’s a whole grocery store down there! Craziness. It saved us a bundle.
  • We bought metro day passes individually. It worked out cheaper than buying their fancy pants tourist travel pass.
  • We bought the Paris Museum Pass, and that was totally worth it. $42 euros for two days each, but kids are free. We got to see a whole bunch of museums, and got to cut in line everywhere we went. It probably saved us about 30 euros total, plus a bunch of headache and time. Very pleased with the buy. (For the record? We adored the Musee d’Orsay. So much awesome there, from Van Gogh to Monet. The Louvre? I could have skipped it and still felt fine. Much bigger crowds, and I’m just a bigger fan of Impressionist paintings. Plus, seeing the Mona Lisa from 10 feet away with a crowd of people pressed all over you? Not my idea of a fun time. That museum is massive. Not good for kids, for the most part. But maybe I was just in a rush by then, and tired out of museums.
  • Versailles is also very much like other palaces I’ve been to. It was like Vienna all over again. The gardens, on the other hand, were gorgeous. (They also weren’t included in the price of the Museum Pass, we found out.) Still worth the entrance. TRC was less than enthused about seeing gardens, until I came up with a game. Someone would challenge someone else in the family to mimic a statue in the gardens. Once that challenge was fulfilled, the person who’d been challenged got to challenge someone else. With the addition of that game, everyone had a great time.
  • If you’re going to go up the Eiffel Tower, reserve your spot online well in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute.
  • This is a general tourist tip: don’t stay in the same places where all the other tourists are. Take the road less traveled. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, head off to an out of the way spot. Not only will this show you cool things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, but it’ll save you a bundle. For example, when we got out of Versailles, it was hot, and the kids all wanted ice cream. But ice cream at Versailles and the places between Versailles and the train station was all inordinately expensive. 4 euros a pop at least, for small sizes. So I headed with the family the opposite direction–away from Versailles and the train station. Within five minutes, we got to a small store that had the same ice cream for 1 euro each. And we saw a bit of downtown Versailles. That’s a win in my book.
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