OK, so I’m trying to book my first flight to Asia and it’s – pick your metaphor: giving me a fit, making me crazy, pushing me over the edge, getting my knickers in a twist. As I’m about to explain, this is no ordinary flight. We are not just flying round trip to some major city like Bangkok or Seoul or Beijing. We are flying into Luang Prabang, Laos, and out of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Many of you, being as well-traveled as you are, have heard of, or even visited, these places. That name recognition, however, does not make them easy or inexpensive to get to. It will in all likelihood involve three different airlines and between three and four legs each way, not to mention more money than I’ve ever spent on airfare in my life. Potentially a lot more. As my colleague’s travel agent remarked, “It’s complicated.”
After several weeks of obsessively checking Skyscanner, Google Flights, and other aggregators, as well as combing through the websites of all the major carriers I can think of, I’m still no closer to booking a flight than I was at the outset. What’s worse, even though the trip is over half a year away, seats are starting to disappear!
Eventually, you just gotta call in the pros. Enter Karen, my new travel agent. My last one, whom I rarely used anyway, retired. More importantly, she was the one who messed up my name on my travel documents, which nearly prevented me from boarding my flight to Jamaica, the stress of which took three years off my life, so it was kind of unlikely I was going to utilize her services again. What’s critical, though, is that Karen specializes in flights to Asia.
Karen has cleared up some myths, uncertainties, and long-held beliefs about air travel, and what kind of travel blogger would I be if I didn’t pass my new knowledge along to you?
What the husband always says: Travel Architect, you always book our international flights way too early and then get mad when the airline either a) changes the flight times, or b) changes it from a direct flight to one with a layover. (He’s right. I do get mad. Especially with letter “b.” It’s like I’ve purchased a Ferrari but they delivered a Ford Focus. How is this not illegal?!?)
What Karen says: With international flights, earlier is always better. They are not going to reduce their fares, except for maybe a month out. Yes, there is always the chance of schedule changes, but there’s nothing you can do about that and it shouldn’t prevent you from booking early. (Ahhh, sweet, sweet vindication. Thank you Karen.)
My follow-up question: Will they add more flights?
Karen’s response: No. When they release their flight schedule, that’s pretty much it. They are bound by terminal availability and such. They don’t just create another flight because one booked up.
What my colleague told me: Wait until much closer to the date of departure for lower prices.
What Karen says: They might reduce fares a short time before the flight, but the seats may be bought up before you can book them. And even if they aren’t, you will have fewer options as to your itinerary and seating (like, say, layovers that are way too short or way too long, sitting halfway across the plane from your travel partner, getting a window seat when you desperately want an aisle seat, and so on).
My original bright idea: OK, we’ll get into Bangkok or Hanoi at midnight, go to the closest possible hotel, spend the night, go back to the airport in the morning and take a local carrier to Laos. Ditto on the return flight.
The reality: The second you leave the airport you will have to go through customs. (This may be no big deal, or it may be a huge hassle… who’s to say? I’ve been an unwilling participant in an hour-long customs/immigration line before. Never a fun time, this sounds particularly objectionable after 23 hours of travel and very little sleep.) You will also have to go through the whole security mumbo-jumbo again the next day. (Again, may or may not be a massive headache. Oh, who am I kidding? Of course it will be a massive headache!) In addition, in some places (like Hanoi), the minute I leave that airport I have to have a visa. Even if I’m just going to
sleep toss and turn at a hotel. For one night.
Karen’s bright idea: Many airports have lounges to which you can purchase access that will make overnighting it, if not exactly comfortable, at least not as bad as trying to sleep in a hard plastic chair at what you think is tomorrow’s departure gate, snaking your limbs awkwardly through straps and handles in an attempt to thwart opportunistic luggage-thieves.
Karen’s even brighter idea: Some airports have “transit hotels,” which means you don’t exit the international area of the airport to go to the hotel.
What used to be my experience: “Oh my God! The flight I just looked up this morning has disappeared!!” (Or an equally ugly experience: “Oh my God, the flight I just looked at this morning is $1000 more expensive!!!!”) Then you check from a different computer and everything is back the way it was. Order is restored, but you’re certain you must be going crazy.
What I now know to be true: Cookies. Evil, evil cookies. Not the delicious, caloric, good-for-dunking kind, but the insidious kind airlines (and everyone else) put on your computer so that when you return to their website, they know it and they have nice, jacked up fares waiting just for you. (Although I don’t see how it benefits them to make the flight simply not show up on the screen, other than to make you panic and buy something impetuously, perhaps.) Once again, how is this not illegal?!?
My recent experience: Am I seeing cross-eyed, or do some flights have business class seats that are hundreds of dollars cheaper than “premium select economy” seats?
Karen’s response: There’s nothing wrong with your vision. Business class is kind of its own thing. It isn’t tied to anything else. “Economy Comfort,” “Premium Select,” and other variations on the coach class, however, are tied to something. They are tied to the coach seat prices. In general, the higher the coach seats, the higher the “EC” or “PS” seats are going to be.
My reaction: Find us some nice, cheap business class seats, please!!
Other things I learned:
- Karen pointed out that part of the value of travel agents, in addition to taking away the hassle of researching your own flights (me: What hassle? I love this stuff… when it isn’t driving me crazy!) and sometimes having access to unpublished fares, is that they can help a traveler out of a jam. But what I know to be true from my own experience the the Jamaica snafu I linked above, is that a travel agent is only as good as her business hours. If the agency isn’t open (evenings, weekends, early morning) when you are experiencing your jam, you are on your own. Timing matters.
- Travel agents can move at a glacial pace. Every time Karen researched a possible flight, she had to submit it to the “fares desk” to get pricing, which took ages. At one point, after we had been working on these flights for well over a week, she emailed me to report her discovery that our entire itinerary could not be on one ticket – that we’d have to have two separate bookings to arrive at our destination. Pulling my hair out, I yelled at the computer, “Karen, I could have told you that weeks ago!!!”
- The fares and flights they generate aren’t always better than what you can find yourself with thorough research. Some of the itineraries she sent over were awful. Too many legs. Too many non-partner airline flights (meaning collecting luggage on layovers and rechecking with a different airline, requiring a pass through security again). Also, several “coach class” seats were as expensive as upgraded seats I found on my own on airline websites.
- Waiting costs money. In the short amount of time (that felt like ages) that I was working with Karen, the 2-3 flights I had been most interested in rose in price significantly. Once again, timing matters.
- Trust yourself, Travel Architect. You can do this on your own. No, it’s not as straightforward as booking flights to Europe, but you should trust your own instincts. Lesson learned. Expensive lesson learned.