Purchasing Airline Tickets

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Part 1

American Airlines IFS Tokyo

The questions that revolve around a ticket

I am going to purchase a first class plane ticket.

Yes. Purchasing an airline ticket is freak’n overwhelming. There is so much to look at that after a while of searching for tickets you get frustrated and have to walk away before you throw your computer across the room.

I’m going to go through the whole purchasing experience with you, complete with finding that deal, searching for that best day to buy a plane ticket, and if there really is a price difference depending on the time of travel and how many connections I’ll need to make. I also help you see the real cost and difference between a non-refundable or refundable ticket. Then we are going to look at how secure those Travelocity and Expedia tickets when a flight is delayed, cancelled, or oversold, and why in the long run I caution against those sites.

Isn’t it amazing how many different fees and fares, rebooking and accommodations there are when searching for plane tickets? Whew! I’m getting overwhelmed too! Whoosah! Whoosah!

Once you go first class, you never go back to steerage

I was able to fly on American Airlines in Business class to Tokyo, Japan. I tell yah, you have to do a Business or First class international trip flight at least once. It was an amazing experience and that 11 hour flight seemed like nothing compared to when we had to fly back to the US in main cabin. Two totally different experiences. But once I flew first class I was hooked. I can’t imagine flying in coach anymore. So this is where I begin. I know I want to get first class. I know my budget, I know what I can afford. I know where to start. 

I decide that I’m going to fly a carrier I haven’t traveled on before. I really want to compare amenities, service and options. I always hear from passengers, “Delta is a way better airline,” or “I am never flying American Airlines again,” or how about this favorite, “you just lost my business.” The “grass is always greener on the other side” as that cute little adage keeps saying. I am actually going to go see if it truly is.

Which Airline: Delta Airlines or United Airlines?

I search for flights that fly in and out of Miami to and from Los Angeles. Miami International Airport is a huge American Airline’s base with quite a few non-stop flights between LAX and MIA. Although Delta and United also fly out of Miami I would need to make a connection somewhere. There is nothing bad with connection it’s just that I need to be mentally prepared for a long travel day rife with unpredictability. Plus, I want to set myself up for success with decent terminal food, decent alcoholic drinks, and a decent lounge.

United or Delta Flight Connections

This is where I begin looking at United and Delta airlines connecting cities. United has a connection in Houston, Texas. Delta has a connection through Atlanta, Georgia. Now that I start thinking about connections, I want to know how much time I’ll have between connecting flights.

Short or long connection time?

With the experience I gained as a flight attendant and witnessing too much travel horror stories, its shown me that a short connection time will sometimes, if not most of the time, NOT work out in your favor. There is no such thing as saving time at the airport and getting to your destination faster if you have a super short connection time. The only way you’re going to get to your destination faster is by taking a non-stop flight to your destination. There is too much unpredictability when it comes to flight travel. A lot of the time they are things that you can not plan for like weather delays, mechanicals, or flight crew disruptions. Plus there are tons of other factors that will affect that connection time. Delays will most assuredly tighten that connection time. The size of the airport will definitely shorten that connection time. The choice to get food between flights will shorten that connection time. 

I always try to give myself more than a 2hour connection between flights. Even then, that is not enough time. I have seen creeping delays melt away into hours. That simple half hour delay—a half hour, then an hour, then an hour and a half, two hours—can encroach upon my next flight with the possibility of making me late. That in itself gives me anxiety just thinking about it. Yeah I can’t foresee every inconvenience, yet I can at least have the wherewithal to try to anticipate one.

What kind of Plane?

I now look at the details of the trip. Delta and United Airlines have detailed websites that show what kind of plane you’ll be traveling on each route. The kind of plane definitely makes a difference in ticket prices, and more importantly, comfort. Not every plane has the same seats in first class or business class. Some seats are like your generic lounge chairs without the footrest. While other seats are fully lie flat. For the United Flights I will be on a 737-Boeing or Airbus 320 to Houston, then on a 787 from Houston to LAX. For Delta I will be on an A320 on the Miami/Atlanta route then a 757-Boeing on the ATL/LAX flight. 

Boeings and Airbuses are as different as from night and day. When you board a plane, can you spot the differences? Since I’m on a plane almost every single day I know that Airbuses and Boeings are different subtlety. Differences include the kind of plastic interior, the kind of galleys and lavatorys; and different in the way they fly and how they push through turbulence; different WIFI systems. 

If you haven’t heard it before, most flight attendants will tell you, “if it’s not Boeing I’m not going.” Or the cute nickname for the airbus is the “scarebus.” 

But that isn’t the only reason why I look at the planes on the route. I like higher categorized planes, as in a Boeing 777 versus a 737 or Airbus 330 versus a 319. The higher categorized planes have more room to move around. They’re like you’re flying cities, if you will. Typically the higher categorized planes have larger lavatories, more places to stand, and better premium seats. Delta and United utilize a 757 and 787, which are larger aircraft, especially that 787. It not only has tons of space, but the plane also has humidifiers to keep moisture in the cabin which helps with hydration and jet lag. The 757 is a large aircraft, albeit an older one, but it is the last category of boeings to have a single aisle. This plane typically has more people, a single aisle, but a longer fuselage to walk up and down. Let’s move on, I’ll come back to planes in a few paragraphs.

Where should I purchase my ticket? The Airline website, or a popular Travel site?

Now I start searching ticket prices. Throughout most of the Flight of the Nomads website we have advertisements promoting cheap airfare. I decide to try out a seat purchase on Travelocity and Expedia. I can only go so far, though, without having to put in credit card information. I look up my Delta itinerary on Travelocity and Expedia. These websites do not have a choice for first class or premium seats. They only deal with main cabin and economy tickets. I look up a main cabin seat on my flight itinerary, one way for one passenger. Travelocity gives me about a $249 ticket. However, if I want to “choose” my seat, it is about $30 more. I click on “choose my seat.” You see, the website gives you two options: a seat that will be assigned to you at the airport (there is a disclaimer that says groups will not sit together), or for $30 extra you can “choose” your own seat. I can’t stress this enough: I am NOT given a choice of seats. I am not handpicking my seat from a seat map. I am only given the option to choose a “window or aisle seat,” not the seat letter or number itself. There is also a disclaimer that says, “seat choice is not guaranteed.” This is the caveat of these cheap websites. Your seat is assigned at the airport. Now if you miss the 24hour check in time, or whatever check in time is required by the airline, you start losing some privileges.

If you read Zach’s article on finding cheap tickets, you will learn that these “Third-Party Websites” only offer you Space, not Seats. There is a gigantic difference here. The difference being that those who have paid a little extra for a seat assignment on an airline’s official website  actually have an assigned seat and they get to choose where they want to sit, aisle, middle or window. This means you can sit with your group. On Travelocity or Expedia or any third-party website you “might” sit together, you “might” get that aisle or window seat, you “might” not be accommodated at the airport to get your seat of choice.

I’m going to offload on you, dear reader. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when passengers on a plane with a Basic Economy ticket or an assigned-at-the-airport seat who want to sit together, but can’t sit together because the flight has been OverSold and is full and this family is spread all over the aircraft. One, I’m not going to accommodate you. Two, it is completely unfair to the flight attendants and the passenger who paid the extra money for a seat assignment. Imagine that you purchase this full fare ticket for the seat that YOU got to choose, yet someone wants YOU to move because they don’t get to sit with their family and bought a cheaper ticket? No, that is NOT fair. I know that I would be highly upset in that situation. I would tell the family and flight attendant no if I were asked to move. 

Definitely keep an eye out for a future post about how your ticket purchasing habits affect your priority to get a seat during Cancellations, Delays, Aircraft Swaps, or Oversold flights.

Non-refundable versus Refundable tickets?

There are two kinds of fares: refundable and non-refundable. A refundable ticket is a ticket that is refundable, duh. On Delta’s website, these are the differences. With a refundable ticket you can apply for a refund and it will be provided to you, as long as your ticket is a refundable ticket using a credit card, cash, or check. The refund will be in the form of original payment method. 

A refund for a non-refundable ticket gets tricky and pricey. The cancellation fee is deducted from the original ticket price. This cancellation fee in itself is super expensive. The last I checked on the Delta website has this fee at $200. The remaining value is then returned to you as an eCredit that can be used towards another ticket. So the refund isn’t getting your money back, it is credit for another flight on Delta and must be used within a year. Some tickets, like the Basic Economy ticket, cannot be changed or cancelled. 

Working for an airline I am often the brunt of irate passengers who have no idea how much a non-refundable or refundable ticket can ruin a vacation. Now that I am purchasing a full-fare ticket I am face with the same question: do I want to spend the extra money for this more expensive refundable ticket? I have to face reality that summer travel (with erratic summer storms in many parts of the country and sometimes effecting operations at many hubs) is a highly volatile time, especially with millions of travelers flying to and from vacations. A refundable ticket for that Just-In-Case situation seems like a viable option. However, these tickets jump in price. Currently I am looking at the Delta website for a Mia to Lax first class ticket, around $800 for a non-refundable ticket. When I click on refundable fares this $800 ticket sky rockets to $1200. 

Is it worth it? I’ll come back to this question in regards to travel insurance.

Which day to purchase?

I’m sure we have heard that its better to purchase plane tickets on a Tuesday versus a Friday. Or if it’s better to purchase a ticket after the weekend when airlines dump unsold flights? Is this true?

Now for the pass few days I’ve been checking the Delta website to see if the price changes on the flight itinerary I am planning to buy. Is there a difference in price from this week versus last week? No.

Sunday: MIA to ATL to LAX: $1814

Monday: MIA to ATL to LAX: 1814

Friday: MIA to ATL to LAX: $1814

However! I am on the Delta website and did a word search for Discounts. Delta has a list of 7 ways to get a deal on airfare tickets. One of their suggestions states that you it is typically better to purchase low airfare on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, while Friday and Sundays have the highest. They also offer suggestions for more ways to score discounted tickets. I will discuss them in the next section.

Well, maybe there is something to these urban legends about fluxuating ticket prices. I don’t know. To me there doesn’t seem to be any difference when I look at tickets on the official airline website. Maybe the urban legend of buying tickets on a Tuesday is for those Third Party websites? I’m not too sure. Do you have any comments on that?

Ticket discounts and deals

The airlines want your loyalty. They want you to come back and back. They want you to utilize their airline so they make a profit on you. One way airlines do this is by promoting their loyalty program. United has the Mileage Plus rewards program. Delta has the Skymiles. And American Airlines has the Advantage Miles. When you buy your plane ticket it is worth a certain amount of miles. These miles add up to “free” airfare for future flights. 

Another way to promote loyalty is through Credit Cards. Most airlines have a partnership with some credit card company—Barclay, Citi Bank, American Express, Visa. When you apply for an airline’s credit card, as in Delta’s American Express Delta SkyMile’s card or United’s Explorer Rewards Visa card, you earn a credit card statement credit towards a ticket purchase after you fulfill certain restrictions (like spending a certain amount or paying an annual fee). Along with a statement credit towards your purchase, you earn promotional points to use towards your next trip as a sign on bonus.

I have an American Airlines Citi Advantage card. After being approved for this Citi card and following the prerequisites, I earned my 60,000 bonus miles to use as reward travel. I use these points for a “free” seat on a plane. But, let’s get on thing straight: miles doesn’t mean really mean free tickets. I still had to pay taxes and fees. Which, compared to a full fare seat, comes up a few hundred dollars cheaper. 

Delta’s website offers 7 tips to for airfare discounts. They suggest to buy a ticket in as far advance as possible, on a certain day of the week, search multiple airports in a city to fly in and out of (like southern california has LAX, SNA (Santa Ana), ONT (Ontario), Long Beach, and SAN (San Diego)). 

Each airline also offers a Deals page where you can find some pretty good deals on certain routes. United and American have deals for a combination of airfare and hotels or car rentals. These combination packages also come with reward miles to add to that bank of mileage loyalty. It may seem like a lot of money, and it undoubtedly is, but building that mileage foundation will help you in the future when you want to plan another vacation. Its much like setting money aside for retirement. 

Another good discount is the military discount. I am not a military member, but my brothers are in the military. As I was researching the Delta website for other discounts, I learned that they do offer Military discounts for active military. Which is pretty damn cool. There is criteria to follow. Make sure to visit Delta’s website and search military.

Delta even offers Bereavement travel, Senior discounts, and International adoption rates.

I searched “discounts” on American Airline’s website. I had to laugh. If you spend $30,000 or more in purchases on an ELIGIBLE Advantage credit card within a 12month period according to your anniversary date, you’ll get $100! Wow. Buy a car using your eligible credit card and you get a bonus $100! Um…this definitely isn’t the kind of discounts I’m looking for.

To find some good deals, Zach has websites throughout our website that flight attendants use when they don’t want to use their flight benefits and want to purchase a full fare ticket. We use Skyscanner and Airfarewatchdog. Check out his blog, How to Get the Best Seat on the Plane and most of our website for more links to some pretty good travel sites.

Now I know we all want to fly for cheap. I get it. These airline tickets are super expensive to the point of being intolerable. Sometimes they are freaking unaffordable if you add on hotel cost, rental car fees, or everything else you have to pay for when on vacation. Plane tickets are sometimes the very reason why we don’t travel. There isn’t an easy find for cheap tickets without sacrificing something.

Maybe some of you have flight attendant friends and use their travel benefits as Non-Revenue passengers. While these tickets are not free for the flight attendant on who’s benefits you’re utilizing, you are definitely giving up security that normally comes with a revenue ticket, like a confirmed seat or space on a plane. My mom uses my travel benefits quite often. But she doesn’t get a confirmed seat assignment until the aircraft door is 15minutes from closing. Now that is some anxiety-stressful travel. She has often had to spend the night at airports or in connecting cities because she didn’t get a seat. My mom has missed work because she got stuck in El Paso, Texas and then in Dallas, Texas due to storms. The airline company is going to make it a priority to accommodate passengers who paid for tickets before they consider boarding a passenger traveling Non-rev. 

My travel benefits only uses empty seats on a plane. If there is an empty seat, a non-revenue passenger will get on. However, there is a HUGE hierarchy of people traveling on non-rev tickets. There are working flight attendants, flight attendants going on vacation, flight attendants who are retired, not to mention pilots, gate agents, and other airport personnel who also use these same hierarchy of non-rev tickets. There is usually a huge group of people waiting to use their non-rev travel benefits to get on a plane. 

So if you’re planning on using a flight attendant Non-Rev priviledge, make sure you truly have a lot of time on your hands in case planes fill up and you can’t fly. 

Now for Amenities at the Airport

I have a general idea of what itinerary I’m going to purchase. I take into consideration how much connection time I have at the airport. It is going to be about 2 1/2hours between flights. I start thinking about my airport experience. I check out the airport website to see what kind of restaurants are in that terminal. More specifically, I look for an airline lounge. The real reason I want to have a few hours between flights is to access an airline Lounge. Most major airlines have exclusive lounges or clubs. 

These clubs and lounges offer great amenities like a full bar, snacks and sometimes food, comfy chairs, a personal airline concierge to help with gate information, free WiFi, sometimes showers and spas, and it is a great place for the quiet and peace. 

American has the Admirals lounge.

United has the United Club.

Delta has the Skyclub.

To be able to access these clubs you will need to either purchase a single day ticket, a membership, or use a credit card perk. Make sure to view the airlines website for entrance details.

My amazing credit card: the American Express Platinum Credit Card

Ah, yes, that beautiful, metal shiny credit card that’s heavy and just plain damn sexy. As an American Express Platinum Cardholder I have amazing benefits and perks. Not only do I have complimentary access to an American Express Centurion Lounge (which is like an airline lounge, but for American Express Platinum cardholder, with locations worldwide and many domestic lounges opening soon), I also have free access to Delta’s Sky Club with a confirmed ticket purchase. I have to say confirmed ticket because I can’t go to this club if I were traveling on a Non-Revenue standby employee benefit ticket. 

In addition to this credit card’s Centurion lounge access, I have membership at the American Airlines Admirals club. I bought this yearly membership using my AMEX card. This Platinum card has a perk of a $200 credit towards any airline. I can spend up to $200 on food, drinks and amenities and AMEX will credit that to my billing statement. Well, me being me, I decided to use this $200 credit towards an Admiral’s club membership. A club membership costs about $650 for the year. I got it for $450 because AMEX paid for $200 of it. Whoo hoo AMEX!! I really do love this American Express Platinum Card. Give me a few weeks and I’ll write a short article on the perks and benefits of this great credit card.

The American Airline Admiral’s club is located at every hub base American flies in to, with more on the way. This club is a great investment for me because I am always at the airport. I can relax in this quiet area when I’m traveling for pleasure. There are even Admiral’s clubs located in foreign countries, and we have access to the clubs of other international Airlines who are partnered with American, airlines who are a part of the One World Alliance like British Airways and Japan Airlines, Quantas, and Cathay Pacific.

Flexibility when traveling

Taking all this information into account, which a whole lot of strategizing, I always keep one thing in mind: what if the worse were to happen? What is my contingency plan? What are my options if, for some reason, my plane diverts to some random state because of a medical emergency requires a landing? How am I prepared to handle that, what resources do I have at my disposal?

As a flight attendant I have learned that traveling requires a certain amount of flexibility. A whole BUNCH of flexibility. If you can’t do the splits or bend over backwards…

Although no passenger thinks that a worse case scenario will ever happen to them…well, sometimes it does happen and it is one of the worse experiences you’ll ever experience. You have to realize that your flight itinerary and your whole schedule is at the mercy of the airline. That airline is at the mercy of weather, broken planes, random flight cancelations, or some unknown travel disruption or diversion.

I’m sure you’ll find terrible airline experiences out there on youtube. Did you happen to watch the debacle with American Airlines when a video-blogger records his horrible delay experience? Or have you read The Points Guy blog on his terrible flight experience? Believe me, travel disruptions are the worst. They are out there and it will happen eventually. That’s why I will never, ever travel on the same day of a paid or planned event. I will never travel the same day to a wedding or a concert. I have seen too many disruptions and plans ruined because of same-day travel. I will always have a back up credit card, the airline’s rebooking/reservation number, and extra food in my carryon item for when the going gets tough.

Travel disruptions, Trip insurance, what are you entitled to?

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is how a difference in ticket price will help you for those unplanned for events. There is nothing worse than the frustration of not being able to control your own plans. Yeah, you are supposed to be at that 1pm meeting, but your flight is now diverting to a different state. You can yell at the flight attendants all you want but they have no control over where and when the plane moves. You can hate the airline for the diversion. You can hate everyone and everything for not making that 1pm meeting. 

The point is you paid for this airline to get you from point A to point B at the time the airline designated. Well, unfortunately, you need to read the Contract of Carriage that every airline has. There is a fine point that states the airline is NOT liable for departure and arrival times. Wow, I hope you read that twice, three times, a bunch of times. Correct, the airline is NOT liable to their set departure and arrival times. Isn’t that crazy? Taking this from United’s Contract of Carriage, “…Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere…are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract…”

I bet you’ve never heard of Force Majeure either, huh? These are the situations that exempt the airline from any liability. Weather. Acts of God. Riots. Civil unrest.

Now flight delays are an all-the-time occurance. They will happen and most of the time the airline will do everything reasonable and more to get you back on track. The airline is a company that wants your money, right? That same company is staffed with fellow human beings who understand the frustration of delays. They are going to help you.  Get that anger out of your system, get a drink, and then figure out your next move.

  1. Who do you call to get you where you need to go. Do you want to go home? Do you want to go to your original destination?
  2. If you’re all of a sudden staying the night somewhere where you’re not supposed to be will the airline provide you a hotel?
  3. What will happen to your checked bags?
  4. What kind of compensation can you get?

When I have had diversions on my flights I always provide my passengers with the rebooking phone number. When you call this reservation number you have someone who is dedicated for rebooking and helping you get back on schedule. Plus, you don’t have to spend time in that large line at the gate waiting for your chance to break down those poor, helpless gate agents. 

Certain credit cards have travel insurance as an added perk. I know that my CitiBank Advantage card has reasonable compensation for hotels and food after I am delayed a certain amount of hours. There is also a certain amount of compensation for airline tickets if I don’t make it to my destination. You definitely need to learn the terms and conditions of your credit cards, or look at the benefits of a credit card you are applying to. That should be a huge factor for which credit card you get if you’re looking at one of these airline credit cards. You never know what insurance you’ll need, so this is a nice perk if you don’t want to purchase full trip insurance.

 Travel disruptions are the worst. And there is so much extra information that I have to write another post dedicated solely to disruptions. Stay tuned for that.

Decisions Decisions.

I hope all this information is useful to you. You are spending a lot of money on plane tickets so buy smart and strategically. That is a lot of money to waste if something doesn’t happen the way you wanted it to. 

This post is part 1, the buying of a ticket. The next few related posts will be about Trip Disruptions and the actual First class experience on Delta airlines. I finally decided to fly Delta and try out their accomodations. Until then, dear reader, safe travels!