Getting the Most Value from Your Travel Budget
Last week, I wrote about putting together a travel policy, but just because you have a policy doesn’t mean you’re actually getting the most out of your budget. You can take steps to make sure that you’re not throwing money away, and it really involves getting to you know your travel habits like the back of your hand.
It’s easy to compare base fares and rates across several airlines/properties/rental agencies, but there are so many related fees and charges in there that the final price can be hard to predict without really knowing your business and which fees and charges will end up applying to you. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
When you’re looking for the best fares, timing can be very important. Of course, timing is often dictated by the nature of your business. If you know about solid engagements ahead of time, then you should book in advance. But in what might seem like a counterintuitive move, don’t book too far in advance. Let me explain.
If you book more than 3 months out, it’s rare that any sort of active management of those flight is being done by the airlines. Sure, there are exceptions like during special events (CES, anyone?) but for the most part, it’s just the standard rack rates that apply. Once you get within about 3 months, that’s when fare sales start coming out to help fill airplanes. For example, March and April travel won’t start seeing many deals until after the holidays are done. So don’t book too far in advance.
Of course, you don’t want to wait until the last minute either. We all know that airfare climbs quickly the closer you get to your travel date. Sometimes, you won’t know if you can travel that far in advance, so you have no choice, but a good rule of thumb is to try to book two weeks in advance if you’re sure about your plans. If you’re flying internationally in a premium cabin, those rules change. Some discount fares, for example, require a 50-day advance purchase. That sounds crazy, but if you’re going to a conference, then you’re pretty locked in on your date. Might as well save the cash.
Another thing to consider is how often you need to change your travel plans. If you change them a lot, then you’re likely going to get stuck with hefty fees of up to $150 per change along with any difference in fare. That can add up quickly. If you know there’s a high probability of needing to change your flight, then you should look toward fares that have no change fee. Chances are, if you look at the usual legacy airlines, you’re not going to have much luck. Those changeable fares are so much more expensive that it’s not worth paying for the flexibility. It’s cheaper to pay the change fee. But then you have Southwest. Southwest has no change fees. Yes, you’ll need to pay the difference in the fare, but not having to pay the $150 change fee is huge. And if you cancel your trip, you can just use that credit for a future flight without penalty.
The key to all of this is really understanding your travel habits. If you don’t change flights a lot, it can often make more sense to fly a legacy airline. If you check a lot of bags, you might want to look at JetBlue or Southwest, which don’t charge for the first bag. The same goes for hotels. If you tend to drive a lot, overnight parking fees can be a killer at some places and nonexistent at others. But if you can really dig in to your travel habits and patterns and understand them, you can make a significant dent in your spending.
Brett Snyder is President and Chief Airline Dork of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. Snyder previously worked for several airlines, including America West and United, before leaving to create a travel search site for PriceGrabber.com. Snyder did his undergrad at George Washington and earned his MBA from Stanford.