Travel Planning

Some people have asked me about how I find travel deals and keep my traveling costs low, so I figured that I would write a little bit about resources that I use and things to watch out for.

FlyerTalk and Travel Tools

My main resource for travel-related stuff is FlyerTalk, which has excellent forums and helpful users. There are subforums for every airline’s frequent flyer program, plus general “mileage run deals” and “hotel deals” subforums, which is where a lot of the interesting action happens. Even if you are not technically doing a mileage run, it’s worth keeping an eye on the forum because you may find an itinerary that fits your needs (either for business or leisure). There are also excellent general FAQs there about booking mileage runs, and lists of useful tools for planning them.

One of those tools happens to be ITA Software’s web site. ITA creates back-end reservation software for the industry, and has graciously opened up their system for public use (registration required, but otherwise free). Their query engine is very useful, allowing for month-long fare searches as well as more standard one-way and round-trip searches with fixed dates. The real magic occurs, though, when you begin using the more advanced aspects of their query language. This allows you to search for itineraries that are restricted to certain airlines, have connections in particular cities, or have a minimum number of connections. These search capabilities are very useful for taking full advantage of fare rules and maximizing connections and miles traveled for a mileage run. An example search query might be from: LAX :: ua,us+ ua,us+ ua,us+ to: PVD :: ua,us+ ua,us+ ua,us+. This would search for itineraries from LAX to Providence that had a minimum of three segments each way, on either United Airlines or US Airways (who happen to be partners in Star Alliance).

Note that ITA is not actually a travel agent, and so you cannot book through them — you can either call a travel agent to book (using the very specific information that you can get from ITA’s itinerary details page), go through the airline directly, or book on a third-party site (like Expedia) that has sufficiently flexible “multi-city” booking functionality.

There are other sites like TravelGlitch and the Best Rate Guarantee blog which spread the word about mistake fares and pricing. These can be useful if you can plan mini-vacations on short notice, or if a mistake fare just happens to coincide with your travel plans.

Airfare Searches

One interesting trick that I discovered relates to how you do your airfare searches, and it seems to relate to the general intractability of the airfare search space. Namely, when you perform an airfare query on a travel website, your query is only going to be allotted a certain amount of CPU (or search to a certain tree depth) before returning. The reason for this is responsiveness — for both your query as well as the thousands of others that may be going on at the same time. If you add restrictions to your query (such as limiting it to a certain airline), you may end up with better results for that airline than for the same airline in an unrestricted query. Because you are searching deeper in a particular portion of a tree, you may get better (i.e. cheaper) results — it’s as simple as that. I’ve seen this in action, so it’s definitely worth an extra search or two to make sure that you’re getting the best fare possible.

Rebates and Cashback

As far as actually spending the money to book travel, there are ways to shave a few more percentage points off of the cost.

  • You can start by using a credit card that gives a percentage cashback or other rewards (like airline miles).
  • Next, you can take advantage of promotional deals from credit cards. For example, Discover is currently running a promotion where travel-related expenses earn 5% cashback (up to $800). This can add up to a significant amount of money, so take full advantage of it.

    Other promotions can be “gamed” a bit. MasterCard has run several promotions with Travelocity where booking a flight + hotel package gets you a refund. Astute shoppers will notice that Travelocity conveniently allows you to book a hotel in a city unrelated to the one to which you’re flying. Therefore, astute shoppers who just want a flight (and not a hotel) will take advantage of that by booking an extremely cheap hotel internationally, pocketing the difference between the cheap hotel’s rate and the MasterCard refund.

  • Finally, you can use a shopping portal like FatWallet to get additional cashback from travel purchases. On FatWallet, for example, Hotels.com pays 4% cashback, and Priceline pays 3% cashback.

Granted, most of the above methods are rebates and do not change your up-front cost for travel. But they can make a significant dent in travel expenses — from 5-10%, which is essentially free money!

I’ll write more on the subject of travel planning later, but I figured that this would be a good time to write about this kind of stuff since we just got back yesterday from a vacation that was booked using many of these techniques. 🙂

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