The flight booking boondoggle

00:00, Jul 22 2013

This past week I have been looking at flights home at Christmas. My plan is to come home in the middle of December for a month, skip across the pond to Sydney to see my sister and then fly home from there to San Francisco. 

Booking air travel has become a confusing and exhausting proposition.

I'm looking now because the last time I went home for Christmas (from Boston) I left it too late and found myself engaged in a 52-hour flying marathon to save $1,500 off the direct Air New Zealand fare (Boston-Phoenix-Los Angeles-Brisbane-Wellington, with significant layovers along the way).

As late as 2010, I went to a travel agent to book major international travel. I always imagine that they're making a set amount off your business regardless of the carrier you book with and while I've never seen a travel agent's computer screen I imagine it to be a straight goldmine of flight information that only they have access to.

With travel agents irrelevant these days (I know they exist still, but the writing is on the wall, right?), it has created a power vacuum with travel booking. Services like Hotwire and Expedia came along, then KAYAK seemed to perfect the formula, but new offerings keep popping up: CheapTickets, TravelZoo, FlightFox. I can't keep it straight who is what and what's different. You then have the airline websites themselves, which differ from the cheap ticket services, who each seem to exclude different sets of airlines and routes.  

It makes searching for the perfect flight (hitting just the right spot between convenience and value) a little like working out a Rubik's cube. There're so many sources of information to align into the decision making process. And if I ignore any of them, I'm bugged by the feeling that I got screwed on price.


And when I'm not splitting myself into 10 different temporal realities online to find the best deal, I'm engaging in an epic game of airfare chicken. It's July and prices for December are already slightly above what they would be ordinarily. But alternately, it's not infeasible that another round of special fares may be released onto the market.

Come October, flights will be in the mid-to-high-$3,000 range for my particular itinerary. Now, they are in the low $2,000 range. Buying now is practical. But what if I just waited a week? Or two? Just to see?

I think it was Dostoyevsky who said that if God was dead, anything is possible. I know it's a particular grating brand of first world pontificating to apply such an epic ethical quandary to air travel, but with the Internet empowering us to act as our own travel agents it brings all sorts of quirky possibilities on to the table.

Searching for flights, I saw that through Air Tahiti Nui, if I extended my dates a few days in either direction I could save myself a couple of hundred dollars and also qualify for three free nights at a Tahitian hotel.

I could get a dirt (and I mean dirt) cheap fare on China Eastern Airlines if I was amenable to flying in and out of Sydney and routing through China.

I also discovered that coming from the West Coast of the United States of America to New Zealand, utilising Hawaii as a stopover brought considerable savings. I've never seen this show up in flight searches before. But thinking about Tahiti (and also how Hawaiian Airlines now fly Auckland-Honolulu) spurred some investigation and I found that buying a San Francisco-Honolulu return flight and Honolulu-Wellington, Wellington-Sydney, Sydney-Honolulu all separately was a clear winner on cost and convenience.

(Still tempted to treat myself to Tahiti. We'll see.)

I miss going to a specific, physical place and sitting in front of a man who (maybe foolishly) I trust to give me good advice and tell me the best way to go and how much it is going to cost.

All this just leaves me questions: why shouldn't I eat the time, save the money and fly though China? Is Air Tahiti Nui a safe airline? Is Honolulu a terrible place for a layover?

I try and source these answers on Google and it is all just noise. But this is the modern reality, I guess. Everyone is an expert and no one is an expert, all the same.

Jeez. Flights, am I right? What's your strategy?

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