Travel is back, in a big way. But whether you’re looking to buy business class seats or use miles, it can be a challenge finding bargains in 2022. Most people aren’t really up for selling a kidney to get a lie-flat seat, even if you do have a spare.
I have flown internationally in coach a number of times over the years, but I’m 6’3”, so sitting in a coach seat for 12 hours is akin to waterboarding, but without the hot CIA guy.
So why has it suddenly become so expensive to find reasonable tickets?
Part of it is pandemic recovery. The airlines slimmed down capacity dramatically during the pandemic. Anyone who has flown over the past two years can attest to the fact that airlines changed their minds (and schedules) more frequently than a teenage girl. These schedule changes were the result of cancelled flights due to low capacity or their inability to staff a flight.
Now, as travel rebounds, demand is up dramatically, but the airlines haven’t met that demand with an equal amount of capacity, either in terms of planes or staff. This has been due to (until recently) fears of another Covid surge curbing demand and the continuing shortage of pilots and flight attendants. And since most businesses are only now starting to allow their employees to travel again, the airlines aren’t yet making the big money on those international business class seats, so they’re trying to squeeze every last dollar out of them like a cow milker on Ritalin.
The other issue is, of course, insanely expensive gas. Airlines buy gas via futures contracts, so they’re purchasing fuel in 2022 for 2023 – and paying 2022 prices. Fuel prices are likely to drop dramatically if and when: a) the tragic war in Ukraine ends; and b) the Fed raises interest rates enough to tamp down inflation. But the airlines will already have locked in their fuel at those higher current prices.
All of this translates to more expensive business class fares, whether in dollars or miles.
- Last fall, we booked tickets to Scotland for a Brand g trip this summer. At the time, the price to purchase was about $3,400 per ticket. That fare is now $5,000.
- We are now looking for tickets to New Zealand in 2023 using miles. The best deal we’ve found so far is 175k each way. (The Milesaver rate – if it was available – would be 80k.)
The good news: the airlines’ problems should resolve themselves over the course of 2022 and things should loosen up in 2023. But for now, what are the best options for navigating this annoying environment?
IF YOU’RE LOOKING TO PAY FOR A TICKET
- Set a Price Alert on Google Flights
Google Flights is a great place to compare fares across various airlines. Input your cities and dates, compare flights, then pretend like you’re booking the set of flights you’d like to take (i.e. ones that meet your time criteria and are within striking distance of a price you’d actually pay). You will see a toggle switch that says, “Track prices”. Switch that on, and you’ll get email alerts as the price changes.
- Call Skylux
Skylux is a vetted business class consolidator. They buy blocks of seats on popular routes and can offer considerably lower rates than the airlines themselves. But be sure to compare their prices with those offered by the airlines; depending on the airline and route, sometimes the savings is only marginal (say $100 or less). At that point, it may make more sense to buy directly from the airline so that, if something goes wrong, like a cancelled flight, you have leverage.
- Exchange your Ticket for a Lower-Priced One
Since the beginning of the pandemic, virtually all major airlines have offered free changes – and they continue to. Which means that you can book and cancel flights with no penalty. So, if you book flights and then keep an eye on the price and discover it has gone down (fares are tremendously dynamic these days), you can cancel your flights and rebook at the new, lower price.
Just be aware that the airline will only hold the fare difference as a credit towards a future ticket. They won’t refund it. So, if you don’t want to lose that money (and who does), you’ll need to plan to use it for another ticket on that airline within one year.
- Discount sites – A Warning
There are an abundance of consolidators and online travel agencies with names you’ve never heard of. If you use an app or website like Momondo, Skyscanner, etc (they’re excellent for checking prices), you’ll encounter significantly lower prices from some of the “no name” sites that come up in the results. Friends of ours used one of these that had iffy ratings, and the company turned out to be fine. (When one of their flights was cancelled, the agency worked to get them on a new flight.)
But that sort of experience seems to be more the exception than the rule. Be sure to check out the reviews for that website before you book, and if there are a lot of negative ones…you’ve been warned. You may have little recourse.
FYI: We had an issue with LATAM when we were traveling to Peru, and LATAM was doing everything they could to make it impossible for us to get our money back (even though we’d booked a totally refundable fare). I filed a complaint with the FAA (it’s easy and you can do it online), and LATAM quickly refunded my money, because airlines don’t want these complaints logged against them. But the FAA doesn’t handle travel websites, only airlines.
IF YOU WANT TO USE MILES FOR AN AWARD TICKET
- Keep Checking Back
As with paid fares, mileage redemption prices are very dynamic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rebooked flights for a lower mileage amount because I’m diligent about checking back. And since the airlines are not charging fees for changes, you can redeposit those miles and book the new ticket with no penalty. This does, however, require a regular commitment to checking back.
- Expert Flyer
What if you don’t want to spend all that time checking back? There’s a fantastic website that will do it for you. It’s called Expert Flyer, and, if you’re looking for a nonstop flight – say, Chicago to London – you can input that flight and get an email or text the instant that seat drops into availability. (Just know that you have to act fast.) This is particularly for Milesaver-type seats, since Anytime seats (at outrageous redemption rates) are pretty much always available.
You can also set up alerts for connections, but this can be dicier, since both parts of the connection need to drop into availability at the same time, which frequently doesn’t happen. This service works best for a single flight.
Expert Flyer is a subscription-based platform. It costs $9.99/month or $99.99 a year, but can be worth its weight in gold if you’re able to snag Milesaver seats and cut the cost of your award in half (or less).
Example: We had coach awards going to Australia years ago (we were going to try toughing it out for 16 hours), and the day before our departure, two business class seats dropped into availability for the LA-Sydney nonstop. We snagged them.
- Try Segment-to-Segment Pricing
This Expert Flyer option also brings up another possibility: segment-to-segment pricing. Sometimes you can find a better deal by pricing out two awards. For example, we were looking for an award to Europe that flew into Inverness, Scotland and out of Edinburgh. The award rates were sky high. But we found a much cheaper option by getting a roundtrip award ticket to London and either paying for cheap economy flights (the flights are only an hour-ish, and the total cost for the two add-on flights was about $150) or using miles.
- Have Date Flexibility?
This may seem obvious, but if you have some flexibility with your dates, consider trying a day or two before, or after. Sometimes the difference in award costs can make whatever hotel cost you incur more than worth it. For example, if you want to arrive in your destination on a Saturday and are looking for a Friday flight, you may have much better luck finding a Wednesday flight. (Tuesday and Wednesday are the least-traveled days.) This has frequently worked for us.
- Try Alternate Cities
Consider flying out of a nearby city if that’s an option (particularly if it’s a bigger airport with more competition). We live in Palm Springs, so we can fly out of there, or, LA, Burbank, Ontario or Orange County. All the alternate cities are about a two-hour drive. Sure, you have to get to that city (we typically book a one-way car rental), but it can mean the difference between flying coach and flying business.
And really, who doesn’t look good holding a glass of champers in a lie-flat pod?