Post 10 – Searching for deals. Mistake fares. Mileage runs.
I think of all the posts that we’ll be doing in this series, this is probably one of the most important ones. For us, finding cheap airfare or a mistake fare is a victory. Sometimes when we book travel we don’t even have a destination in mind. We just look for the cheap tickets and then end up planning the destination around that. In this post, we’ll show you how to search for cheap fares, how to take advantage of mistake fares, and even the basics of mileage runs.
1. How to choose your best program.
2. Understanding the ins and outs of your program.
3. Earning with program partners and redemption.
4. How to earn apart from flying on planes.
5. The hidden DNA of credit cards.
6. Not all points and miles are the same.
7. Aspirational rewards and good mileage values.
8. Importance of status and elite benefits.
9. Manufactured spend basics
10. Searching for deals. Mistake fares. Mileage runs.
What is a “cheap” airfare?
Cheap is a pretty relative term, and everyone’s finances are different, but the idea of paying $800 for a round trip between Seattle and Miami just isn’t cheap. If you’re looking at it from a strictly miles earned vs dollars spend ratio, I like to look at somewhere between 3-5 cents a mile. For example, if the flight from Seattle to New York round trip is about 5,000 miles, then anywhere under $250 (5 cents a mile) is considered cheap. It gets even better when you have elite status and you earn a bonus on all miles flown. If you’re a top tier elite with most airlines, you’ll earn a 100% bonus on flown miles. Now those miles earned go up to 10,000, and you’re at 2.5 cents a mile. That’s a cheap airfare!
At the time of writing, sale fares are running between Seattle and the East coast for $218 to NYC, Raleigh, Baltimore, Charleston, and Boston. All of those are an amazing deal and if you’ve got the flexibility you should jump on those.
Point of reference
To give you an idea of what a normal fare looks like, here’s some usual fare prices that we’ve seen over the past months/years:
US Transcontinental, $250-350.
US to Europe, $600-800, and even once a $410 fare to Germany in March of last year.
US to Asia, $650-750 from the west and coast, and often $600 fares to SE Asia from the east coast.
US to South America, Brazil is cheap often, as tickets are regularly on sale for $550+, and Argentina is even on sale often for under $850.
If you’re finding anything under these amounts, jump on them, as they’re great deals. Of course, prices will vary with times of flights, high vs low season, last minute booking, etc, but it shouldn’t be hard to come across cheap fares with some advance planning.
Sites and tools
There are lots of sites to help you search for air fare discounts apart from the ones that you may be used to. I’m sure that you’ve been on Hotwire, Priceline, or even Expedia before looking for deals, but I’m going to encourage you to expand out a bit and try some new sites that you might never have heard of. While I’ve used those sites before as a point of reference or a starting point, seldom have I ever used those to actually book anything. The customer service is usually abysmal and since you’re dealing with an OTA (Online Travel Agency) and not directly with the airlines, you’re often put pretty low on the priority list. Here’s three sites we use regularly to find deals:
I came across google flights a few months back and have been in love. It’s actually pretty amazing in the results that it brings back to you and lets you adjust all sorts of options to find the best deals.
As you can see it looks just like any normal search where you can enter the to/from and the dates, but what makes google flights unique is that it doesn’t require you to fill in all the information. Don’t know where you want to go on a given weekend? You can leave the “TO” city blank and a map populates with all the locations in the world where you can get a flight to, and their prices for those dates!
Free the weekend of the 30th? Check out Orlando (only $244) or maybe you want to go skiing in Colorado? Only $98!
You can do the same for Europe, Asia, or any other continent out there. It’s truly powerful to use to find new places to go on the cheap. In October of last year, we went to Rio de Janiero but we actually flew into Sao Paulo. The cost of the flight was $700 cheaper flying into GRU and then we just hopped on a local low cost carrier shuttle flight between the two cities. It was an amazing deal, and we would never have known to check it we didn’t have this tool.
For the longest time, we used ITA Matrix to do much of what google maps did, but on a much less graphical interface. The concept is the same, put where youre going, when etc, but this one allows you a lot more flexibility in choosing specific routing, specific airlines, dates, etc. There are entire websites dedicated to ITA Matrix codes and how to do an advanced booking. I’m not shy in saying that I know about 10% of what ITA can do, but even with that basic knowledge it’s returned some pretty awesome search results.
I like ITA because it allows you to search multiple cities at once, and will give you a breakdown as to which dates are cheaper to travel. If you know that you absolutely want to get to a destination and just want to know which dates are cheaper than others, ITA is the way to go. It doesn’t allow you to book through their website however, so you’ll need to call the airline directly or go to their websites to make the final booking.
Recently Aeromexico was offering a fare sale on their business class inventory to South America, and Argentina in particular, but only in a specific “J” class inventory. Because of ITA Matrix, we can search all of AeroMexico’s routes to Buenos Aires in that J class inventory and found the best cities to leave out of. There were plenty of flights out of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and even Boston and Chicago, but the options out of Miami, Las Vegas, and Houston were much more limited. We used this knowledge to get ourselves flights into and out of San Francisco, and then just simply purchased a connecting flight on Alaska Airlines to get us to San Fran. The savings over booking directly out of Seattle were in the thousands.
Yea, I know this one is suuuuuper basic, but I love kayak and I still use it every day. Why? Because for me it’s the best website to give me an overview of what’s available in the market. A lot of times I just simply don’t know what airlines service which routes, especially in other countries.
We recently used this when in Europe over Christmas and new years. We needed flights out of Vienna and back to Paris and also from Barcelona into England. Because of this we found out there were airlines I would know have thought to check (Fly Niki and Vueling) that offered inexpensive and non stop service for where we needed to get to.
Many times I use Kayak for hotels and rental cars specifically, because those options are so incredibly varied that it makes sense to have a consolidator where you can see all options on one screen.
What’s a mistake fare?
Just as the name suggests, a mistake fare is a fare that the airlines didn’t mean to post, and the results can be quite advantageous. There are also known as fat finger mistakes, when someone loading the fares into the system either forgot a zero or perhaps hit the submit key too fast. Last year, there was a business class fare from the DC area to Beijing for ~$400. People were buying these like crazy and a few hours into the mistake the airlines pulled the fare from the system. American honored their mistake fare, even though there was a bit of a worry that perhaps they would cancel everyone’s tickets.
In more recent memory there was also an extremely discounted fare if you said that you were based in Denmark and booked through a danish website. The currency conversion wasn’t working properly and booked through at a fraction of what the cost of the ticket should have been.
The MOST important rule to remember in booking mistake fares is to NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES CALL THE AIRLINE. Let me make sure that is perfeclty clear. These fares are MISTAKES and if you are to let the airline in on what is going on, its quite possible that they will pull the fare and not only will you not get to take advantage of the deal, no one will. So please, in these circumstances, stick to booking only online, and once you have a ticketed and confirmed email, THEN you can call the airline to make any arrangements you need. Even then, I’d still wait a few days to call then and let the original wave of calls go through.
Sometimes what may seem like a mistake fare is actually just a really good deal. Last year we picked up some discounted business class fares from the west coast to Europe for $1100, and even a coach (I know I know… nomascoach…) ticket from Boston to Paris for $99. Even though the title of the blog would lead you to believe that we are flying NO MAS coach, for $99 to Paris, you really can’t say no. These aren’t mistakes or errors, rather the airline just placing tickets on sale when they have lots of inventory or looking to introduce a new route or new product.
Ben and I have already come to an agreement on mistake fares. If we see the ticket, book the ticket, and ask questions later. Most if not all airlines will let you cancel within 24 hours so it’s best to go ahead and grab the ticket while the getting’s good. On a handful of occasions, in the time it took for me to call Ben, ask his opinion, decide on a location and book the ticket, by the time we got to the final booking and payment screen, error messages popped up because the airline had already fixed the problem.
Remember. Book first. Ask questions later. And NEVER EVER call the airline.
Mileage Running, Why and How?
Craving a Boston creme donut but you’re stuck in rainy cloudy seattle? Hop a flight to Boston and go get one! Mileage running used to be one of my favorite things to do on a day off from work (more on why is USED to be later). Sometimes if I had to work a Saturday I would have a Tuesday or Wednesday off, so I’d find a cheap fare, get on an airplane, get off the airplane, turn right back around on the same airplane and fly back! All to keep my elite status and earn miles for the trip. Why in the world would anyone do that? Simple… the miles 🙂 Lets go over the basics.
Cost vs Reward
Remember in the previous post where we talked about elite status and the importance of earning it and keeping it? Well, it’s hard work! And it takes a lot of flying around to maintain it. So, when a great deal comes along that allows us to snag a bunch of miles on the cheap, we jump on it.
Everyone has a different cost metric on what they want to spend for a mileage run. Some people say anything under 10 cents a mile is good, some people say 8 cents a mile is good. Our sweet spot is 2 cents a mile. And while those are hard to come by, they’re much more frequent that you may think. Lets take those cross country flights we just talked about.
Just before writing this post I looked at a flight from San Diego to JFK for the weekend of Jan 30. Turns out there is a nonstop option on American Airlines available for only $237. At a distance of almost 5000 miles RT, this is a fantastic value. Not only can you get across the country and spend some time in New York, you’re getting your miles (as a non elite) for only 4.8 cents each. That’s at the top end of our spectrum, but fly enough of these and you’ll earn elite status and enjoy those mileage bonuses. Earn a 100% mileage bonus and you’ve just got your cost down to 2.4 cents each. FANTASTIC deal!
Have you booked any mistake fares or got any amazing deals? If so let us know about them below!