Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Travel Tuesday: How to Find the Best Airfare

Continuing the theme of last travel post, let's talk about how to find the best airfare.



When you're searching the web for fares to a specific destination, it can seem so arbitrary, like there's a cockatiel in some back office randomly pecking keys to assign prices to routes and days of the week.  Even knowing a bit about how it works it still makes me believe it's all just a bird.

Here is an article that explains the history of airfare, and how it's evolved to what it is today.  Basically it comes down to airline revenue management. The airlines want to maximize profit on selling seats by constantly playing the game of ,"how much can we charge without losing out to the competition?". It involves complicated algorithms and constant, real-time adjusting of prices.

If you're really interested in learning more, there's a training course from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that requires 45 hours of study and a 3 hour exam for the low low price of $650. Sure, it's an investment, but at the end of it, you'll be able to build an airline from the ground up! (Of course, you'll still need planes and pilots and what not...)

So what are my tips for finding the best airfare?

Let technology do the work for you - there are a number of websites and apps that search for the best fares across most airlines. Here are some of my favorites:


Google Flights - this is my go-to for checking fares across multiple airlines at once. It searches almost all airlines across the world (excluding Southwest and a few smaller regional airlines - it will display the schedule, but NOT the live availability or pricing). You're able to search round-trip, one way, or even multiple city stops.

Why I Like It: On a desktop/laptop computer, I use the Google Chrome web browser. If I'm in a hurry, just typing the city pair into the web address bar will bring up Google Flights as the first search result. Additionally, when I'm ready to buy, it takes me directly to the airline's website, so I'm not purchasing it through a third party.  This works in the mobile Chrome app as well.

Note: For a roundtrip or multi-city ticket, the flight price displayed on the first result is the total price, not just for that segment of your trip.  It's also the total for however many passengers you've entered into your search bar. (The default search is for one passenger, and even if you change it, it will continue to display the aggregate price of all segments for all passengers.)



Hopper - this is an app (available for iPhone and Android) that attempts to predict the best time to buy a fare for particular dates and a specific route, or the best dates to travel for the lowest fare, if you're flexible.  It's not perfect, as not all airlines share their data with Hopper (notably Delta and Southwest are missing), but it's incredibly user-friendly.

Note: I do not purchase flights through this app, only use it to watch fares (I'll explain why later).

Why I Like It: The 'Watch This Trip' function. I plug in my city pairs and dates and it sends me an alert every time the price changes. In particular, I'm usually watching airfares to San Antonio (hello sister!) on American Airlines at any given time, since they usually have the best schedule/price from my home city.


For international itineraries, sign up for one of the many low fare alert companies, who literally spend all day searching for fare sales/mistake fares to send out to their email subscribers.  My personal favorite is Scott's Cheap Flights.; it's how I got round-trip airfare to Iceland for under $300 last March.

Note: This is best if you are flexible on your travel dates/times/departure airports. Some of these fares are a result of the really crummy scheduling - for example, a 16 hour layover somewhere, or 3+  stops, resulting in a much longer total travel time than usual. The caveat to my amazing airfare to Iceland is that I had to drive 8ish hours to Newark, which is obviously not super convenient. (The airline I flew now has departures from Chicago, but at the time, that wasn't an option).


The second tip for international itineraries in particular is to call a travel agent and bundle. We work with bulk consolidators who have negotiated contracts with airlines to offer fares at below market rates. These are fares that you will not find by searching the web. To sell the fare, it must be packaged with a hotel stay and/or a rental car. 

Actual example: Last year, my cousin took her family to the UK for Christmas and I was able to get all their flights (6 tickets) AND a 7-passenger van rental for 10 days for the same price as if they had just booked their air alone on the internet. That's basically a free rental car.

The biggest mistake people make when purchasing their own airfare is doing it through third-party online travel agents (OTAs), such as Expedia, Momondo, Cheapo Air, etc.

It's fine to use those sites to price shop, but when you're ready to buy, either purchase it directly from the airline or through a trusted travel agent.

Why is this a mistake?

If something goes wrong with your flight, or you need to change something, it takes an obscene amount of time to get it fixed. 
If you book a flight on Expedia, and something happens while traveling and you call the airline directly, they won't help you. They'll refer you to the original booking agent, in this case, Expedia. Then you call Expedia (and wait on hold for some rando in a call center), only to be put on hold, because THEY have to call the airline and make the change.

But if I book through a regular travel agent, won't I have the same problem?
No, because you'll call the travel agent first, the person you have an established relationship with, and then go have a cocktail or stress-eat some Twizzlers while they figure it out for you.

What if I book it myself directly with the airline?
Then you can call the airline directly and have them work on it for you.

So, what do you think? Any other methods you use that I didn't mention?
Let me know if this post was helpful, and if you book a ticket using any of these tips.

Until next time!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Travel Tuesday: Airfare and Schedule Changes



Plane tickets, you guys. What a can of worms.

The cost of airfare all by itself can be the catalyst or hindrance for an entire vacation, am I right?
I'm sure you'd like a post on how to find the best deals, when is the best time to buy, and all that, and I'll do that soon.

First though, it's imperative you understand what you're actually getting when you purchase airfare.

Say you find a great deal on tickets to Switzerland in nine months for the whole family.
Perfect - you found the cheapest fares by leaving Tuesday at 11 AM and returning the following Friday, home by 9:30 PM.
You buy those tickets and start to plan the rest of the trip: securing accommodations, booking guided tours, etc, because the getting there and back part is set in stone, right?

Not necessarily.

When you purchase airfare, you're entering into what's called a Contract of Carriage.
Simply put, the airline is agreeing to transport you from point A to point B, but the time, routing, schedule, and equipment used is entirely up to them and subject to change at any time. Furthermore, they are not responsible to you for any inconveniences that arise as a result of any of these changes and events beyond their control (or Force Majeure, as they call it, such as weather, war, government, labor strikes and 'Acts of God' , to cover themselves for all the rest).  
If they issue a major schedule change that does not work for you, they will refund your money. They are NOT obligated to offer you extra compensation (i.e. business lounge passes, paying for a hotel stay, reimbursing a rental car, etc).
There is plenty more in the fine print about baggage, oversold flights, etc but that's the gist of it.

So, back to you and your trip to Switzerland.

Three months pass and you get an email.
Subject: There has been a schedule change to your flights

Insert Any Airline Here has changed the time of your connection from New York to London, so you will miss your final flight from London to Zurich, meaning you'll be stuck in London overnight.

All is not lost, friend, you now get the pleasure of calling the airline directly and walking through the following options with a reservation agent:

Scenario A: The airline can re-accommodate you on other flights, getting you in at around the same time as previously scheduled but you now have an extra stop on your outbound flights, so you'll have to leave at 5:45 AM for the airport. Painful, but doable.

Scenario B: The new schedule is the best available, so you'll have to stay in London one night. Better call the hotel in Zurich and let them know you'll be delayed checking in a day. You will still have to pay for that missed night, because your hotel was booked nonrefundable, but at least they won't cancel your reservation. $
If you don't want to sleep in the London airport overnight, you have to find a hotel nearby. $$
Oh and also, you had yourselves booked for an afternoon walking tour that you'll miss too. Also nonrefundable. $$$

Scenario C: You hate all options offered by Insert Any Airline Here, and don't want to have to change your land reservations. You demand your money back and attempt to re-book yourselves on another airline altogether. Except, oops, the amazing fares from three months ago have disappeared. $$$$$$

None of the options above are ideal, and all require a great deal of time on the phone with the airline, but it happens all. the. time

Now, if you're working with a travel advisor, they will take care of this for you, and should have already made you aware of this possibility from the beginning.

If you booked these tickets on your own, here is my advice:

+ As soon as you get the schedule change notification, get online and look for other flights operated by that same airline.  If it's a weather event, of course pickings will be slim, but the airlines will re-book you on the schedule of your choosing, if the flights are operated by them, or by a partner airline on a codeshare.

If your personal schedule allows, consider tweaking your outbound or return dates a day or two. If you can find a better schedule by leaving a day earlier, the airline will usually re-book you without charging the standard change fee. 
+ Finally, consider purchasing travel insurance, particularly if the destination is international, or it's a big bucket list trip and you're spending a lot of money.  Travel insurance covers all prepaid, nonrefundable trip expenses, and will reimburse you for any extra expenses that incur as a result of things like this (up to a certain dollar amount).
To recap: airlines can change their flight schedules at any time for any reason, but you have options when this happens. Just don't expect them to pay for a night at the Ritz Carlton for your inconvenience. Forewarned is forearmed!

Until next time, friends!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

New Series: Travel Tuesday

For starters, I recommend using a map when planning a trip. It's more helpful than a blank piece of paper. But this is a stock photo and Random Hands don't know any better.

Friends, I'm not going to turn this blog into an advertorial about why you should work with a travel advisor, but since I am one (officially card-carrying, even!), I figured I could use this space once a week to talk about all things travel-related.  Due to the nature of my job, I am occasionally asked questions about various aspects of travel, and I think this might be a good place to answer those that come up most frequently. I'd also like to talk about destinations that inspire me, share tips and tricks I've learned from the travel industry, and highlight unique travel methods/styles.

Today is obviously not Tuesday, but I wanted to give you a heads up that this is a thing I'd like to start. I can't promise it will be every week (hello, track record), but I'm hoping to give this blog a little more structure.

Next Tuesday I'll dive into one of the most important (and complicated) aspects of travel: understanding airfare.

Until then, please let me know if there is something in particular you'd like to discuss. 

In the event that colleagues at my current agency stumble upon my blog, I am stating for the record that all opinions and comments are my own and do not necessarily represent the views/policies of the agency I work for. Also, please seek a licensed doctor for medical advice.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

On Shopping for Swimsuits

Image via
Remember the good old days of bathing costumes?

The last time I went swimsuit shopping, I was at a mall in Texas with my sister.

We stopped at a place called Everything But Water, which at first glance appeared to be full of fabric samples that you could pick from to have a suit made. Upon closer inspection, the bits of fabric turned out to actually be fully formed suits.  We left because neither of us had thought to bring a magnifying glass along.

Next we headed to an activewear store called Athleta, in the hopes that they would have sporty but attractive options.  We were in luck!  However, they must use the metric system to number their sizes, because what I would fit in in any other store was so comically tight, I had to take a brief nap in the dressing room after prying it off.  Also, a store associate barged into my booth while I was changing so obviously I can never return.  Not because I'm embarrassed, but because the kaleidoscope of body parts she witnessed will probably never leave her brain, and she needs time to make peace with that.

That was nearly a year ago, and the search is still on.  I'm going on a cruise in a couple of weeks and I'd like to go swimming in the ocean at least once without being that person in drippy shorts and a t-shirt.

ugh.

UGH.

Is there a woman alive that enjoys the process? I feel like even the most toned and tanned among us still has body parts that she wishes she could hide, or at least de-emphasize.  Even if it's just like, her left knee.

I'm not toned or tanned.  I'm white and fleshy, and in a bathing suit,vaguely reminiscent of bread dough left to rise too long in a warm place.
So naturally, I don't spend much time subjecting people to that image.
Weirdly though, I also don't spend a lot of time begin self-conscious.  My body is what it is, and putting on a bathing suit doesn't reveal anything people don't already know.

Surprise! I have a tail.
Just kidding.

But I digress.  My main issue is with what's available in the swimsuit market --for everyone.  There are suits with SO many cute prints and patterns but they're on tiny two piece bikinis, or my personal favorite, the "monokini", which is basically a bikini that they forgot to finish cutting out completely.

There are suits that shape and slenderize and cover completely, but where are the cute prints and patterns for those? Why are we still using garish, poorly placed floral designs in dated colors?  As though enormous pink hibiscuses on  black fabric are going to distract the observer from the flesh it's struggling to contain.

WHERE IS THE MIDDLE GROUND???

It's not like swimwear companies aren't trying -- there are all kinds of "plus size" lines out there attempting to bridge the gap.  The problem is, they're just taking the tiny suits with their plunging necklines and weird cutouts and making them bigger.  Which, fine, but personally my wobbly bits aren't here for your sad game of hide and seek.

Or...get this...adding zippers to make the conservative one pieces look more interesting. ZIPPERS.  Can you imagine taking a baby to the pool while wearing a swimsuit with a zipper down the front? It'd be 30 seconds before the baby got grabby and someone called the cops to report public indecency.

Basically all I'm asking for in a swimsuit is for it to cover the bits that have never seen the sun without being a) hideous or b) ankle/wrist length burkini in which i tragically die from heat exhaustion.

That's it, you guys.  That's all I need.
And I don't want to have to try on 300 more to find it.
Are you out there, magical swimsuit? Let me know. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Holiday Letter 2017


Happy Christmas and Merry New Year!!!
Iceland, March 2017
What a 2017, friends. It has been a very mixed bag of jellybeans, some tasting of blueberry and some of sour milk.

The world we live in feels a little more every year like a smoldering compost heap about to burn down the barn while everyone’s in the front yard pruning the roses. I am overwhelmed when I think of all that is bad and broken on the Earth. It feels socially irresponsible to consciously stop paying attention to the daily details but I have had to for my own peace of mind.

The key lesson for me this year was to focus on being a force for good in my immediate surroundings FIRST.  Really that’s the best we can hope to do, isn’t it? And if enough of us do it, the positive energy we radiate outwards will overlap and reach into the barren places.

Listen, I don’t know what that means either, the tag on the teabag this morning said Perfect Energy, so I’m feeling in touch with the universe.

Anyway, we’re here to talk about ME. Here is the story of my 2017:

It’s been a year full of exciting TRAVEL. In March I explored the fairytale/Viking nation of Iceland with my brother Sam and two dear friends.  In August, I rented a cabin in the woods of Brown County, Indiana with friends, and we camped like queens. In September, I took a work trip to the gorgeous province of British Columbia. In a few weeks, my whole family will be celebrating Christmas in Boston.

It’s been a year exploding with BABIES. My sis continues to win the family house cup by announcing she’s expecting a second child. She’s not alone, I did a study* and there’s been a 63% increase in babies among friends, family members, and random people I follow on Instagram.  2017 was a banner year for propagating the human race, my friends.**
Let’s keep the trend going-- the world needs more purity and innocence.
Don’t look at me though, I killed two houseplants and a gifted rosemary bush is slowly wilting from inattention.

It’s been a year of MOSTLY POSITIVE CHANGE.  I switched travel agencies, making for the first time a job change within the same industry. (What? Building a career?) It’s been just over a month and I’m wondering why I waited so long to make the leap. I am so much happier! I have health insurance! No one wastes an afternoon arguing with the entire office trying to figure out who broke the toilet seat in the employee bathroom!***


I briefly went paleo. How brief? 4 days.  One night I demolished half a head of roasted cauliflower and had such a terrible stomach ache afterwards, I ate a grilled cheese the next day out of spite. I haven’t looked back.
(I said mostly positive change, remember.)

I think I’ve finally taught Grampie how to stop burning microwave popcorn, so you’re all invited back to the house on Sunday nights again.

I went zip lining not once, but TWICE, which is a huge deal because I am terrified of heights/my feet leaving Earth. YOU GUYS, the second time was between two mountain peaks.  I mean, I cried at the end, but I still did it. I CAN DO ANYTHING!! The trick is to start screaming before you leap.


British Columbia, September 2017
What will 2018 hold? For the world, I’m not even tempted to guess. I think it won’t matter, as long as I greet each day as an opportunity, rather than an obligation.

Sorry, I had another cup of Peace Tea.

I’m so so thankful for my family, my friends, clean water, air, and sunshine. I’m thankful I can digest gluten. I’m thankful for replacement hormones that appear to be stopping my distressing hair loss.
I’m thankful for all of the things I have that I do not deserve.
I’m thankful for plants and dogs and babies.
I’m thankful for deep, abiding fellowship.
I’m thankful for mercy and grace.

I hope I can keep all of these things in 2018. I hope that if I can’t, I have courage in the face of adversity, and patience and faith in the face of the unknown. And you too, my friends.

I love you all so very much.

Please enjoy the enclosed page of photos from my travels. I have no babies or dogs for you to hang on your fridge, but you will note the shot of me standing pompously in front of a float plane, overcompensating for all the other areas in which I lack.

Have a sparkling day,****

Ellie

  

*No I didn’t.
**Listen, I just got up from my desk to stretch, accidentally elbowed a lady and a baby fell out. Just now, I mean it. His name is Isaiah Succotash and his parents are over the moon.
***It was Patricia (fake name) and everyone knows it. 
****The best email I got in 2017 was from a Parisian hotel concierge who finished a very business-like exchange with this delightful phrase. I’ve included it and this footnote to drive home the fact that I am so cool, hahaha ok I’ll stop.


 

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