Updated on 08.24.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Airline Tickets

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Stefan said, the whole “fly cheap” thing is another topic one might argue. of course, bargains are bargains. but here you really have to compare money with time (holiday time, kind of more valuable to me). for my next holidays on phuket thailand i paid about 40% more than the cheapest flight (350 dollars return more). but it is non-stop, two times 5 hours or so not hanging around in dubai, singapore or whereever.one chance less to have your luggage lost. i save the taxi fare into bangkok (times two) plus at least one night expensive hotel (the place in my final destination is much cheaper) and i arrive in the evening at my final destination, so after a good night of sleep i am good to go (no checking-out early, running to airport, …). makes a whole lot of sense to me.

This is clearly one of those situations where you have to clearly define, before you buy a ticket, how much an hour of your time is really worth. More specifically, how much is an hour of your time at your destination worth versus an hour sitting in an airport reading or eating (relatively) expensive airport food.

So, first of all, what value will you get out of arriving at your destination an hour or two (or five) earlier? Will you be doing something compelling upon arrival? Or are you just going to your hotel, checking in, and kicking back on the bed to watch ESPN?

If you’re just going to kick back in your hotel room, you might as well go for the cheapest possible ticket. You can just as easily relax in an airport sports bar or curled up in a chair with a book during a layover as you can relax in your hotel room during that same period.

On the other hand, if you’re going to do something of value upon arrival, that should certainly weigh into the equation. The question you have to decide for yourself is how much value that earlier arrival has versus spending a similar amount of time in an airport, and that depends on what you value and what your situation is.

The best thing I can do for running the numbers on this is to describe my own family’s trip to Seattle and some of the considerations we used when buying tickets.

First of all, the Des Moines airport was far more convenient for us to fly out of than virtually any other airport of any size. The next closest major airport is the one in Minneapolis, though there is one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that has a significant number of flights.

The Minneapolis airport would require us to drive roughly three hours both at the start and at the end of the trip. However, it did also have nonstop flights to Seattle at a slightly lower rate than those in Des Moines. After calculating the cost of four tickets, the parking options, and the gas and wear-and-tear cost of driving to Minneapolis, we calculated we would save about $14 per hour of driving if we flew out of Minneapolis instead of Des Moines.

Now, is $14 per hour a fair fee for time spent in a car with three young children? After some discussion, we decided it wasn’t worth it.

But what about the nonstop flight versus the flight with a layover? This entered into our thoughts as well. We decided that the flight with a layover was actually better for us for two reasons.

One, the individual flights were significantly shorter, comparing a roughly 3.5 hour flight to two roughly 2 hour flights. Given the attention span of our young children, we thought the two shorter flights would work better.

Two, the stop in the middle would allow us to keep the children roughly on their same meal schedule and allow for bathroom breaks and diaper changes without using a tiny airplane bathroom.

Add on top of that the fact that we wouldn’t have done anything extra in Seattle by arriving early and it made sense for us to choose the flight with the layover.

How much would we have had to save to make the Minneapolis nonstop flight worth it? Sarah and I decided that our cutoff would have been about $20 per hour for the drive up and the drive back. Remember, this time compares directly with an hour spent doing something enjoyable at home or an additional hour at our destination or, depending on the other flight, possibly layover time (which, as mentioned above, isn’t necessarily a bad thing in our case).

We used this as our criteria for shopping for tickets and wound up flying out of Des Moines as a result.

The cheapest ticket possible isn’t always the best deal. The cheapest ticket almost always adds time to your flights. If you don’t have any other significant use for your time, then go for the cheapest ticket. However, if you have a genuine use for your time, don’t be afraid to pay a bit more to get the ticket that works well for you.

The key is to think about how you’ll use your time and how much you value those various uses. Give that some thought before you ever start shopping and you’ll be sure to find the best value for your dollar and for your time.

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  1. krantcents says:

    I try to stick to just a few airlines since I earn frequent flier miles. Most, if not ll my flights are wither coast to coast or overseas. Non-stop is the only way to go. Certain airports can be cheaper, but far less convenient. All this must be weighed when deciding which flight to take.

  2. Johanna says:

    Almost by definition, vacation spending is all about the value of a particular experience *for you*, in a way that the “my time is worth $x per hour” doesn’t quite capture. I mean, you’d save both money *and* travel time if you just stayed home. But then you lose out on the whole experience.

    There are so many little (and big) decisions like that involved in vacation planning. Is it worth paying more for a travel schedule that doesn’t require you to leave for the airport at 3:00 in the morning? Is it worth paying extra for a more comfortable hotel? For that matter, is it worth paying more to go to London instead of New York, or Phuket instead of Florida? I don’t think “running the numbers” can easily answer any of those questions.

    The one thing I’d caution against, though, is falling into the psychological trap where you figure that if you’re already spending $1000 on plane tickets, an extra $100 isn’t that much more. $100 is $100 regardless of how much else you’re spending. All other things being equal (although they rarely are), if it’s worth getting up at 3:00 in the morning to save $100 on a $200 fare, it should be worth getting up at 3:00 in the morning to save $100 on a $1000 fare.

  3. Mike C says:

    I think there are other issues that need to be considered in the layover vs nonstop flights decission.

    First, a layover increases the chances of something going wrong: lost luggage; missing the connection and getting stranded in the middle airport; one of the legs being canceled; bad weather in the connecting airport may affect you even if the weather is good at the origin and the destination…

    In other words, I think that flying with a layover implies a certain risk that you should account for (is it worth risking the possiblity of not spending Christmas with my family for $100 savings?).

    Also, in my opinion, waiting on an airport during a layover does not compare to sitting in a hotel relaxing watching TV: to me a layover is a source of stress: you may need to rush if the connection is tight, you have to wait in line to board, you may have to go through security again, you may have to change terminals, you may even have trouble finding a spot to sit down…

    In any case I agree with the overall message of the post: it is a matter of what you value. I prefer avoiding layovers, but there is a limit to how much extra I will pay for a nonstop flight.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    For me, it boils down to researching the various options and making a conscious decision about what the best deal is that meets my needs. I don’t do a cost per hour calculation so much as determining my overall budget & how the costs break down, in addition to scheduling, convenience, etc.

    For example, we recently did a road trip & stayed in 2 different cities for several nights each. In the first, we opted for a less expensive hotel room, for various reasons. In the second, we opted for more expensive than we’d normally pay, as our needs & plans were different there. And both met our needs exactly & the total cost averaged out to what we’d estimated we wanted to spend.

    When planning trips I check travel aggregator sites and then individual airline/hotel/car rental sites & the few programs I qualify for that supposedly offer discount rates – so far, I get at least the same prices & options by dealing directly with the individual companies.

    I have had a couple of instances where I’ve booked a specific flight itinerary online well in advance, only to have the airline notify me later that they have re-routed me, sometimes in ways that I had specifically wanted to avoid (& the original flights are still on the board).

  5. Charlotte says:

    Hipmunk.com is a good site to use to find flights when price isn’t the only factor.

    The default sort order is by “Agony” which they describe as “primarily a combination of price, flight duration, and number of stopovers.”

  6. Johanna says:

    @valleycat1: I’ve never tried this, but I’ve read that when the airline reroutes you (or even changes the scheduled time of one of your flights), you have the right to say “that change is not acceptable to me” and get a full refund. That’s not always helpful if you have to make the trip anyway, but if you still have the option of booking a different flight, it might be.

  7. jackie says:

    Wow, Hipmunk is awesome. Thanks Charlotte!

  8. moom says:

    Going from Iowa to Seattle is a completely different prospect than going from Europe to Thailand or especially Australia to Europe. Getting to your destination and relaxing there is much better than being in some airport you don’t want to be in with another big flight ahead of you.

  9. rebecca says:

    I have many friends who fly frequently with children under age 10 including babies, and they all say that flying non stop, unless there is no other option is the way to go.

  10. Des says:

    @moom – I think you’re right that the considerations change when you’re talking about a domestic flight vs. overseas. We booked the cheapest flight we could, and it took us about 24 hours of traveling to get from Oregon to London. We tried to time it to where we could sleep on the plane (since we would be arriving at 10 am local time) but couldn’t get to sleep in the crowded economy class. DH could function on no sleep – but I was batty. I spent most of the first day sleeping, which of course worsened the jetlag. A non-stop flight would have gotten us there at the proper hour to get a good night’s rest before starting our vaca. I’m not sure how to appraise the value of that lost day (or of the hell that is 24 hours of airplanes/airports) but I will definitely try to account for it if we ever get to do a trip like that again.

  11. Brianne says:

    There are just so many considerations that go into airplane travel, even without children. My husband can’t stand red eye flights so we typically end up having to lose a day to travel to the East Coast from the West Coast. Also, after spending 36 hours in O’Hare and barely making it home in time for Christmas two years ago, we will never have a layover in Chicago again. Luckily, Kayak allows you to filter by layover city.

  12. Nate says:

    For me if I am taking a short vacation of less than 20 days I get the quickest flight. If I’ve got time to spare on a long vacation, 20-30+ days, I’ll go ahead and get the cheapest ticket and hang out in an airport for 5 hours or more.

  13. Michele says:

    My husband and I live in a rural area with a National Guard airport about 5 minutes from our house. The local airport has 30 days of free parking, free wi-fi, and all the planes are 35 passenger. That means we show up ready to go about 45 minutes before the flight and check-in and security and boarding are FAST. Many of our friends drive either 4 hours each way to Reno to save $100 on flights, or 6 hours to Portland to save $100 on flights, or 1.5 hours to Medford to save $100 on flights. The downside is the extra time spent, the drive, the gas, the parking, the bigger airport delay and hassle and you are exhausted after arriving late and usually have to either spend an extra night there before you leave or when you return. It works out to about the extra amount we spend on the flight out of our local airport, 5 minutes away.

  14. bogart says:

    Taking a child along has definitely shifted my preferences in favor of non-stop and, if I have to have a stop and am looking at jet-lag, getting the stop over before the jet-lag sets in (generally meaning fly to Europe via JFK and back to the US via Heathrow).

    Packed baggage fees have shifted my preferences in favor of Southwest, for domestic US travel.

    The climate surrounding air travel in general has shifted my preferences in favor of travelling by car whenever possible.

  15. Ajana says:

    This is a problem I’m dealing with now. I have set a firm budget; however, a one-stop long haul flight is cheap enough to give me an extra two days stay (7 instead of 5). The times are pretty good; I’ll have to leave earlier (stopover is two hours in early evening so I’ll still get a night’s sleep) and arrive a couple of hours later in the morning than the non-stop, which is quite good as the non-stop flight arrives very, very early. All three cities and the international airline offer very good service. The kicker is the return flight, which involves a stopover in the earlier hours. But I would be able to get home and sleep for a weekend before starting work. Having read the post, I’m thinking in my case that the pros (cheaper flight = longer holiday) outweigh the cons (longer overall flights, killer return times).
    Can anyone think of what I’m missing?

  16. deRuiter says:

    If you’re a real frequent flyer mile junkie (I’m not quite this bad yet!) you look for the longest, most circuitous route, for extra miles on every flight. I’d do this only if I was on the cusp of the next elite status class and the year was almost over because the value of the higher elite status (or even silver elite status, the lowest rung) often makes a difference in your flying experience in free bag / bags, shorter lines, quicker service, the occasional blessed free upgrade, free use of the executive lounge on overseas flights with the complimentary snacks, soft drinks and if you’re into that, free alcoholic drinks, larger upholstered seats, quiet in lounge, computer access, showers, and the accumulation of more miles with the miles bonus. I agree with #3 Mike’s post completely, he’s put it the way I see it exactly.

  17. Tom says:

    I’m not sure I understand the per hour calculation here. You would’ve driven 3 hours each way to Minneapolis if you could’ve saved $120 total (after gas, parking, tolls, etc)? I think I agree with the other commenters that this example doesn’t fit neatly with the theme of these posts.

    To me, $120 total doesn’t seem worth the trip, especially with 3 young children. I live about 40 minutes from PHL and about an hour and a half from BWI, and I’ve never found a good enough deal to drive the extra 45 minutes to BWI (at least since Southwest, Airtran and Jetblue began flying out of Philly). Plus I’m familiar with that airport, and if I want to be dropped off by friends or family, PHL is much less of a hassle for them as well. Personally, I’d like to save hundreds per ticket with a reasonably comparable flight schedule to use an alternate airport.
    (PS, Google Maps says its about 4 hours from Des Moines to Minny, you lead foot :)

  18. Jonathan says:

    @Nate (#12) – I’m intrigued by your idea that a short vacation is anything less than 20 days. I imagine that to most people a 20 days vacation would seem like a really long vacation. In fact, I’ve never had a vacation last that long. I have to imagine that for someone in your situation who apparently takes very long vacations the decision making process regarding flights, etc would be very different than someone taking a more “normal” vacation, such as one lasting a week.

  19. tentaculistic says:

    I just found out the hard way that the cheapest option can really cost you if you have to make any changes to you tickets. I bought two tickets for an upcoming vacation, then due to a new schedule conflict we had to adjust the dates. The change fee was $150/person (2), and then they said that the difference in flights between the dates I had and the new dates was another $250 * 2(which is funny since I checked, and the price was *exactly* the same on the website). So we paid the same amount to shift days as we already had for the tickets in the first place – basically we paid for two brand-new tickets, on top of the two old tickets. I had looked at trip insurance, but it was only in case of dire emergency, rather than just “need to reschedule” so I didn’t buy trip insurance.

    I’m not enough of a frequent traveler – I really hate dealing with TSA so I avoid flying whenever possible – so I guess I’m chalking this up to a lesson learned.

    Actually, I’m going to harness the power of The Comments. Does anyone fly often enough to know of an airline that doesn’t try to gouge out a pound of flesh if you have to reschedule a trip? Are there tricks to maek this less painful? Thanks in advance, folks!

  20. MattJ says:

    #12 Nate:

    I agree with Jonathan. 19 days is a short vacation? Like him, I’ve never had one that long. Are you working in Europe, perhaps? Retired? Are you a schoolteacher or student?

    How often do you get to take a ‘long’ vacation of 30+ days?

  21. bogart says:

    @tentaculistic Southwest is definitely the one to fly to avoid change fees … basically if you have a ticket you find you can’t use, they credit your account and let you buy another ticket (apply the funds toward your next purchase(s)) with no penalties. Nutty, huh? Unless they’ve changed that, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got that right — you could check the airline’s website. Of course, they don’t fly everywhere.

  22. Johanna says:

    @tentaculistic: If an airline like that exists, I’d like to know about it too. But if taking the train is an option for you, Amtrak is really good about letting you reschedule your trip. All but their very cheapest tickets are fully refundable, even after the scheduled time of your trip. (So you can take the ticket down to the station and say “I decided not to use this ticket yesterday, can I have a refund?”) And even for the nonrefundable tickets, you can apply the full purchase price of the ticket toward another trip within either six or twelve months (I forget which).

  23. ChrisD says:

    Not flying at 7 in the morning is worth quite a bit to me now. The only time I enjoy getting up at 4am is when I’d had two flights cancelled already, it was Christmas Eve and I needed to be ready for the 7am flight so that if it was also cancelled I still had other options (the 7am flight was fine).

  24. Nate says:

    @18 Jonathan & 26 Matt
    Ok I realize not everyone gets that much vacation time. Especially not people who slave away in the US. Yes, I work in education and no I don’t live in the states (or Europe). I get 30+ days in summer and winter. Added to that my husband and I are DINKs, so we aren’t tied down by children. Although I get alot of vacation time, I have the option of teaching vacation courses and just recently starting my own business has certainly shortened the time I can spend travelling.

  25. Dale says:

    some of the best $50 I ever spent was on a direct flight that meant I no longer had to lay over in Denver. I think this article underestimates the royal PITA that is a layover of any size.

  26. Jonathan says:

    Personally I much prefer flights that include a layover of a couple of hours. It breaks a long flight up into shorter, more pleasant, flights. I usually try to make sure I have around 2 hours between flights so I can get to the other gate, grab something to eat if needed, and then relax and read a book while waiting for my flight.

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