Buying International Airline Tickets

by Elizabeth on March 4, 2013 · 4 comments

Although I’ve traveled pretty extensively within the United States, international flights are a major mystery to me. Full disclosure: I don’t even like to fly, so I’ve been putting the task of buying airline tickets for my upcoming European vacation on the back burner while I focus on more entertaining aspects of the trip (like where I’ll eat, shop, and visit while in London).

My Wake Up Call

I knew that when it came to buying plane tickets on domestic flights, the “sweet spot” was about four to six weeks before your trip. I assumed the timeline was similar for international flights, so I was happy to sit on my laurels… that is, until I started doing some research on the best time to buy plane tickets. I quickly learned:

  • The Wall Street Journal spoke to an international travel consultant, who suggested buying airline tickets two to three months in advance.
  • USA Today interviewed the CEO of Farecompare.com, who said the best time to buy international airline tickets is four months before your trip.
  • The New York Times talked to the Airlines Reporting Corporation, who said the “sweet spot” was a whopping 24 weeks in advance for some international flights.

I looked at my calendar and did some quick math. The 24-week mark had come and gone months ago, and Farecompare’s suggested timeline of four months’ advance purchase was in the rearview mirror as well. If I moved quickly, I might – might – be able to get in under the two to three month mark.

I’d already budgeted $950 for my flight to London, but knew that was going to be a stretch based on my previous research. Knowing that the clock was ticking on my ability to find the best fares, I jumped online to get down to business.

Online Travel Sites

As an inexperienced traveler, I know next to nothing about international airlines. KLM, Aer Lingus, Iberia – not only have I never flown on any of these airlines, I’m not even sure where they’re based. So, I decided to start my search using online travel sites like Travelocity, Hotwire, and Expedia.

Why start here? Largely because I knew my credit card offered me additional cash back – up to 5% – for purchasing a ticket from these travel sites as long as I logged on through the credit card’s portal. This seemed like free money to me, and I was eager to take advantage of the savings. Even though 5% might not seem like a lot, on a $950 flight, it would put nearly $50 back into my pocket to spend overseas.

However, the flights I saw on those travel sites didn’t go very far to help me stay under budget. I lamented as much on my Facebook page, when a friend suggested I try Kayak instead.

I’m very glad he did. While the other travel sites tack on a surcharge for finding you the lowest rates, Kayak simply searches the airlines on your behalf. You don’t book through Kayak; instead, you click through to the airline’s website directly to purchase your flight. As a result, you eliminate the middle man and reduce your costs, as illustrated by my search results:

Charlotte Douglas International Airport to London Heathrow

  • On Hotwire: Cheapest ticket was $1018 (all taxes and fees included) for a non-stop flight.
  • On Travelocity & Expedia: Cheapest ticket was $988 (all taxes and fees included) for a one-stop flight; however, that stop required me to change planes in Barcelona during a 45-minute layover… seemed a little risky to me.
  • On Kayak: Rerouted me to an airline’s website, where the cheapest flight was $908 (all taxes and fees included) for a non-stop red eye.

Of the above options, the one I found through Kayak was the only one that got me in under budget. Even if I had saved 5% through my credit card on the tickets through the traditional online travel sites, it still would have come out more expensive than the final flight.

The Bottom Line

I bought my flight two and a half months prior to my trip – just within the “sweet spot” described in the WSJ article, but well passed that point according to USA Today and the Times’ experts. Since booking my flight, I’ve been regularly logging on to the the airline’s website, as well as Kayak, to see whether the price for my flight has dropped; so far, it hasn’t, and as we get closer to my dates of travel, I know it becomes less and less likely.

Ultimately, I’m happy with my flight. If I’d been a little bit savvier about international airlines and bookings at the outset, I might have been able to save myself time and a little more money, but the bottom line is this: I got my flight for $42 under my budget and I don’t have to worry about switching planes at any point in my journey. Sure, I may be stuck flying overnight, but that’s a small price to pay for an extra day in London.

Which travel websites do you use to book airline flights?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank March 4, 2013 at 6:53 am

I always consult with online travel sites before I select a flight. It is just so easy to find the best deals and it only takes a couple of minutes.

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2 krantcents March 4, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Although I usually use frequent flier miles, I do check a number of websites for pricing and hotels. I like Kayak because it checks other websites as well. I did actually buy tickets when I traveled to Vancouver, BC. I used Kayak for that trip.

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3 Vanessa March 4, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Have you heard of Sky Scanner? I used to use Kayak a lot but I prefer the interface of Sky Scanner *and* you’re able to search multiple airports (ie, Montreal to Britain, instead of specific cities) and multiple dates

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4 Brian March 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Part of the problem is flying into London. The taxes to fly into that airport make tickets there almost always expensive. I’m glad you were able to find tickets for underbudget!

I usually just go to expedia and the like to check prices or use the ITA matrix software. Then I usually book directly through the airline that way I KNOW I am ticketed correctly and if something is wrong I don’t get the run-a-round that it is expedia/hotwire/travelocity/airlines fault

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