Booking an international flight

Now it’s the time: I need to book our international flight to Southeast Asia and I know already that this is probably going to be the most expensive invoice that I need to file in the travel expense list. And it’s not just about the cost, but the time that I’ll have to invest in finding the best solution for us. Have you ever dreaded that moment? Fear no more, I’d like to help!

Option 1

Go to your local travel agency. I know, it’s not fun when you let somebody else do it, but when you have so much to do and no time to take care of all the travel details, you might want to delegate. You can talk to them about your wishes, the travel dates, where you would like to go, what you would like to do and see. They can reserve a seat on a flight for you for 24-48 hours and assist you in choosing your pre-packaged holiday in a resort. Usually they offer a complete package that includes charter flights, all-inclusive package at a resort of your choice (you can opt for a self-catering, breakfast only, half- or full-board as well), airport transfers and a list of activities proposed by the resort. If you choose this option you don’t have a lot of flexibility: the package holidays are already organised with start and end dates (charter flights are already booked by the tour operators), the number of nights in a resort are usually fixed (6-7-8 or multiples of them) and once you are there it might be hard to interact with the locals because that’s the key of the hospitality business of a resort: if you stay in you spend money there. 😉 Don’t be fooled by the (soft) all-inclusive packages: there’s always something extra to pay on site. In this case be prepared to travel with other people who usually want to relax for a week or two or just switch off their brains during their holiday. In case you just want to book a flight, then be aware that usually travel agencies don’t deal with low-cost airlines, so your international flight might be a bit expensive.

Option 2

Request a personalised service. An example of that is our friend Gregor from leantravel.net. He can assist you in all the details related to your international flight or travel. He’s an avid traveller and can recommend anything from a family-friendly area of a big city to the best brunch restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. When you contact him it’s important that you write down your requests on his website. A few examples could be: “Airport XYZ is my favourite” or “I don’t want to fly before 1pm” or “I have 30 Kg of luggage” or “I’d like to collect miles on my frequent flyer card (specify which one you have and your frequent flyer number)” and the departure and return dates. Also, if you need him to organise your holiday, it would be good to let him know if you’re into sightseeing, museums or local culture, if you’re a foodie, if you prefer budget accommodation or 5* hotels, if you want to rent a car or you prefer moving around with local transportation and so on. He will come back to you in 3-4 days with a couple of proposals for your upcoming trip and the total price for each of them. Clearly you can ask him to modify your favourite one and once you see the perfect option for you, he can guarantee the total price for 24-48 hours (depending on the complexity of the personalised package). At this point you receive a code to enter on his website to proceed to a PayPal payment. Remember that with this kind of transaction you don’t need to have your own PayPal account, but just a bank account or a credit card. PayPal guarantees that your payment details are secured and the agreed amount is sent to leantravel.net’s PayPal account so that all the reservations for you can be made. Once this is done you will receive an email with all the details. Easy, right? This way you can spend your time relaxing or packing your suitcase while all the aspects of your trip are taken care of.

Before you make a request through leantravel.net you will read a reminder about stuff that you need before you travel: health and travel insurance, visa and valid passport with at least 6 months of validity from the onward travelling date. Prerequisites: you need to speak some English or a bit of the language of your destination country. If you book a package holiday you usually have a tour operator assistant on site who speaks your language and can help you in case of any issue. With a personalised package you need to be independent and aware that in case something is not quite right you need to fix it by yourself. This goes from delayed luggage at the destination airport to a stupid ear infection after diving in the Maldives, from a misplaced passport (and maybe some troubles at immigration) to how to order “el plato del dia” in Mexico. Depending on your request, Gregor can organise airport transfers or give you recommendations about how to get from the airport to your hotel. Among all the hints that will soon be available on his website, you can find useful apps for travellers, the top things to do in a lot of places in the world, travel stories from his customers and some cultural aspects of the countries that you are going to visit.  Oh my goodness, this is going to be very expensive!!! A tailor-made holiday will cost a fortune! 😀 Hahahaha! No, don’t worry! Gregor assured me that his service charge is very reasonable. Will the whole trip be expensive? Well, it depends on what you want to do, but wouldn’t you want to know in advance the price for a 3-week road trip in California or a two-week island-hop in Thailand? Wouldn’t it be terrible if you went to New York and found out that you have barely enough money to feed yourself and your travel companion(s) but you didn’t factor in the tips? Or that you’re now on a picture-perfect island in the Indian Ocean but you can’t afford to go diving? If you’re not into resorts and pre-packaged holidays, you’re a very busy soul, you’re interested in knowing more about the local culture or you have no idea of how to organise the holiday that you’ve been dreaming about, just ask Gregor! 😉

Option 3

DIY 🙂 You probably know the airport that you want to start your journey from. It’s usually the closest to home or one that is easily reachable by car or public transportation. If you don’t know it already, memorise the IATA code (here the link to the International Air Transport Association, search by Location name). It’s a 3-letter code that uniquely identifies an airport. When you check in your suitcase you find the destination airport IATA code on your luggage tags. E.g. LAX stands for Los Angeles International Airport, LHR is London Heathrow, FCO is Rome Leonardo Da Vinci/Fiumicino Airport. Memorising your origin and destination airport IATA codes makes your flight search faster because you will only need to type 3 letters. For example, we want to travel to Koh Samui, Thailand and our origin airport is Düsseldorf, Germany. My flight search will then be DUS –> USM.

Now, if you’ve never been to your chosen destination, you might not know which airlines fly there or if they have a direct flight. You can get an idea by using Google Flights or Skyscanner or Kayak or any other flight search engine of your choice. Before you do that, please be aware that most of the flight search engines, airlines and travel companies collect information on your activity on their websites (cookies) and they use it to check the most searched routes and your preferences (e.g. your favourite airlines or number of stops…etc.). Clearly all this collected information will be used to increase their business. Have you ever searched for a flight, gone back to the same search a couple of days later and found that the same flight was a good 20% more expensive? That’s what I mean! The best bet is to clear your cookies and use an incognito window on your browser so that your search history won’t be saved.  Go to your favourite flight search engine, type your origin and destination airport IATA codes and your preferred dates of travel and look at the search results. Do it only once or if you need to do it again, at least change some parameters like the travel dates. This might avoid the price increase that I mentioned before. Some flight search engines have a checkbox or a drop-down menu that lets you select your flexibility in terms of travel dates (e.g. ± 3 days). Recently they started showing the best prices in the calendar buttons where you select your outbound and inbound dates after you’ve chosen your route. I’ve only ever seen this cool feature on flight search engines, not on the airlines websites.

If your priority is keeping the price low, then you need to know that flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday is usually cheaper (if there’s no long weekend/bank holiday coming up!) and that the day you book the flight has an impact on the price. For example, never book a flight on a Friday!

Usually the search engines show you the cheapest flight on top. Once all the results are loaded, you can usually filter your search.

Here’s a list of common filters:

  • flight duration in hours – only useful in case there’s no direct flight to your destination
  • number of stops – 0 or more
  • duration of layover – in case there’s no direct flight
  • favourite airlines – if you’ve had bad experiences with a specific airline, you can uncheck the box related to that airline and it will disappear from your search results
  • outbound time and return time – if you need to reach the airport using public transportation and the first train gets there at 7 am, you might not want to book a flight before 10 am, just to be on the safe side
  • connecting airports
  • cabin – economy, business class, first class…
  • price range – you can see the minimum price and you can set your maximum budget

All the above filters depend on your preferences and naturally there’s a price to pay for being fussy 🙂

A few examples:

  • You want to fly in economy class, after midday, max 1 stop and you don’t want to have a layover of more than 1.5 hours. You might be lucky and find a flight in your price range, but the choice will be limited.
  • You want to go to the airport after work (evening flight, after 8pm), you can’t be flexible with the dates as you need to be back to the office by Monday morning, you’re flying on “hot dates” like right before or after bank holidays or school holidays and because you’re travelling with children, you prefer a direct flight. Be prepared to have a high limit on your credit card!
  • You just want to go somewhere, your boss doesn’t bother you if you talk to him/her about your holiday after you’ve booked your flights (maybe on the cheapest dates), you have at least 2 weeks at your disposal and you don’t mind spending 4-5 hours at a connecting airport. You probably won the jackpot!

Clearly these are just a few examples and every traveler is different. What I personally like is having one stop somewhere in between my origin and my destination airports so that I can stretch my legs and walk a little bit at the connecting airport. Also, if the connecting airport is more or less in the middle of my journey, this ensures that I’m not sitting on an aircraft seat for too long. I can manage 6-7 hours, but after that my feet are swollen and my back hurts. Hahahahah, I know, I’m getting old!

But back to your search results. Once you have your top 3 results, check which airlines fly to your destination (you might need to fly with different airlines depending on where you want to go), the overall flight duration and the connecting airports.

Check the same flight on the airline website (again, remember to clear your cookies and use and incognito window!), get a better understanding of what you get for that price (e.g. including or excluding checked luggage or food and drinks on board, flight entertainment or other).

Overall flight duration – if it’s more than 20 hours you might want to consider splitting your journey and check out the city of your connecting airport before you fly again to reach your destination.

A good thing to remember before you fly is to make sure that your clothes are comfortable. You can still be stylish, but why do you need to endure hours with that jeans button carving a hole in your belly? And even if you need to sit there for hours, you can still take some time to walk to the toilets and back, stretch your feet, bend and stretch your knees, rotate your shoulders and straighten your back. Well, maybe not everybody can move so much, but I’m short 🙂 so this is never a big issue for me. Even if you’re tall, take advantage of an empty corridor (usually after they served a meal and collected the trays) to take a walk around and move your joints.

Your flight has 1 or more stops

If you’re flying with the same airline and you’re not crossing major international borders, usually you don’t need to worry about your checked luggage and you will find it at the arrivals on the conveyor belt at your destination airport. However you should always check with your airline if your transfer time is considered “enough” in your connecting airport. London Heathrow has a Flight Connections Guide that you might find helpful. One and a half hour might seem enough time to go from your arrival to your departure gate, make a quick stop at the restroom, drink a coffee and enjoy the complimentary Wi-Fi connection but keep in mind that some major hubs are very big with several terminals and sometimes you can’t walk from one to another – see Manila NAIA airport as an example where you need at least 3 hours and organise your transportation between terminals. Been there, done that! Also, be aware of the visa requirements at your connecting airport as you might need to go through immigration, collect your luggage and then check it in again once you get to the departure terminal. EU citizens can travel freely within any European country and stay as long as they like. Also, we are blessed with a long list of countries in the world that provide free visa on arrivals for 15-90 days. However, it’s always a good idea to check if your passport gets you a free (or relatively cheap) entry in a specific country, whether this is your connecting airport country or your final destination one.

Long layover (>6 hours)

You have a couple of options in this case: you stay at the connecting airport or you go and explore the surroundings. If you choose to stay at the connecting airport, before you get there you might want to check what they offer to passengers in transit. Usually you find restaurants and shops (check on the airport website if they have specific opening times or if they’re open round the clock), services like free Wi-Fi, showers, baby changing stations, smoking rooms, prayer rooms, playrooms, sleeping pods, massage chairs and many more. You might want to have some local currency with you (you can usually find ATM machines in every airport) or at least some US Dollars. In our experience Dollars are widely accepted, even if you are usually charged more than paying with the local currency. Remember that wherever you are within the airport, you’d better be as close as possible to your departure gate at least one hour before departure as this is the approximate time needed to complete the boarding procedures of an international flight. Set an alarm on your phone just to be on the safe side! 😉 Quick tip: if you connect to the airport Wi-Fi network or as soon as you turn off the flight mode, your phone will usually switch to the local time – bless technology! – so you won’t be late for boarding time (check your settings for Android and for iPhone here). Also, unless you have an international data plan, before you leave your country you might want to turn off your data connection. I always forget that and my Italian phone provider charges me 4€ (the daily data charge when outside of Italy) because it takes a few seconds for them to understand that I’m roaming but only a fraction of a second to check Facebook updates. So first they charge me for data connection (last time they charged me 4€ for 4KB of traffic!) and then they send me a text message to inform me that I’m roaming. Really?

If you decide to explore the surroundings you need to make sure that the bit of sightseeing that you would like to do allows you to be back in time for check-in and security check before your departure and don’t underestimate the long lines that you might find! There are now several companies that specialise in long layover sightseeing tours. They pick you up at the arrivals hall, take care of your luggage, take you sightseeing and then bring you back to the departure hall. However I wouldn’t recommend this solution unless you have at least 8-10 hours between flights or you’ll risk missing your connection.

Ok, that was a lot of information 🙂 Enjoy your flight as it’s part of the adventure! One day maybe we’ll all use a teleporting system but until then travel safe, enjoy your time up in the air and make the most of it!

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3 Replies to “Booking an international flight”

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