Although I love to travel and experience new places and things, I have to admit that I hate the process of booking and planning the logistics of a trip. I’ve had to force myself to do it over the years, because I’ve learned how big of a difference paying attention to those details can make on a trip budget.
I’ve consistently been able to save 10-20% on just about every trip I’ve taken the past 20 years or so. Mostly through good old fashioned research. The big ticket items of any trip are usually hotels and flights. We’ll be spending >60% of our budget on hotels & flights during our upcoming 2 month trip to Barcelona.
It makes sense to pay close attention to the hotel and airline rates you’re getting since they’re such a big chunk of your budget. Stalking travel websites for the best deals well in advance of your trip is time well spent, as I’m about to demonstrate from a recent flight booking experience.
Best Time to Buy International Plane Tickets
I had done some research a few months ago in preparation for our summer trip, and learned that the prime window for booking a flight from the US to Europe is about 4 Months +/- 1 Month. The graphic below courtesy of the CheapAir website does a good job of showing how many days in advance you would need to book from the US in order to get the best shot at a great deal.
I started watching airfares about 6 months in advance in December to establish a baseline. I felt that a fair price was between $600-900 per person for a round-trip flight from Dallas, TX to Barcelona, Spain with 1 stop. Since we were going to be traveling with my 7 year old daughter, and this was her longest flight yet, I prioritized duration (there are no direct flights).
I was shocked to see how expensive the flights were at the time. They ranged from $1,500-$1,800 per person. That was almost double what I budgeted for the trip, and seemed outrageous to me.
When I budget for a trip, I try to stand firm on the overall number, it’s the same discipline I used to manage our expenses and cap our lifestyle costs. Seeing those prices made me panic a bit, since this could have a severe impact on the overall quality of our trip. That extra $2,000 would be better spent on local experiences, not the same crammed flight seats I would be getting regardless of price.
Eureka! – The First $2,000
I went into my slightly obsessive and persistent mode, and checked on airline flights almost daily from that point on. Since American Airlines has a hub in Dallas, and a practical monopoly (thanks to recent consumer unfriendly mergers), I checked their site for the best prices. I also preferred them since all my mileage points were with them.
I also checked Priceline.com which is a travel aggregator site that shows pricing from multiple airlines. There are many other similar ones out there.
I struck gold almost exactly 5 months in advance of my trip. On a random Saturday morning, I was checking the American Airlines website, and Priceline, as well as other sites. A United Airlines flight popped up on that day that I hadn’t seen before from Dallas. It was a great itinerary, and was only $701 per person!
I wasn’t sure if this was the start of prices dropping, so I hesitated, since I really preferred an American Airlines flight. Finally after a few hours of indecision, I jumped on the opportunity and locked my pricing in for 3 tickets, at almost the same price as 1 ticket from a month ago!
I continued to check pricing for the next 30 days, since 4 months was the ideal window just to see what happened to pricing during that period. I never saw that price again! Nor anything that ever came close to it. As of the published date of this post, the lowest the pricing ever got again was $1,400, even on the specific flight I had booked.
I just managed to save us $2,000 total on our flights!
It was a 1 day anomaly! Or so I thought…
Lightning Strikes Twice! – The Next $1,000
My parents came up to visit from Houston, TX recently. We talked about the summer trip we were taking, and they expressed interest in visiting us for a week.
We looked at airline prices from Houston, TX and were again shocked at how expensive they were for anything with a reasonable flight duration. Flights were running ~$1,300 at that time.
Having learned a valuable lesson from my past experience, I told them to hold off on buying the tickets for now. We were still in the prime advanced purchase window, and I thought we could do a bit better. I couldn’t see prices going up, so the better strategy was to kick-on my OCD again and start stalking the sites.
About a week later, I was on the now trusty Priceline.com website and saw the flight and price below:
Out of curiosity, I checked to see what the price was for the exact itinerary on another travel website aggregator, Kayak. Which incidentally is part of the same group as Priceline.
I was very surprised to see that it was almost twice as much on that site
Then I decided to check the airline’s website directly, assuming they would have the lowest price regardless. Here’s a screenshot from their site for the same exact flight, from the exact hour I was researching:
It was the most expensive of all the options!
Needless to say, I jumped on those 2 tickets immediately and booked the flights at $630 per person. Which is a savings of about $1,000 total compared to the airline’s price.
And once again, the flight disappeared the next day never to be seen since!
So was I lucky or persistent !? A bit of both I think…
My Biggest Takeaways
I learned a few lessons from this experience, which I’m documenting with this post for future reference.
Persistence pays off – Check early and check often. It’s not a waste of time. There’s no way of knowing what algorithm is being used by these websites to adjust pricing, and their timing appears random. Best way to lock in a great price is to be persistent.
Don’t hesitate – By watching pricing consistently, you start getting a feel for what a good rate is. Once you see a flash sale like the two examples I shared above, don’t hesitate and book immediately.
My new friend – The Priceline.com website saved me a total of $3,000 on my trip. It is now my friend. I will be checking it on all future trips. They also have a price guarantee, which helps me sleep better at night.
One Final Thought
I’ve always believed that it’s not how much you spend, but what you spend it on that really matters. For me being frugal and chasing deals isn’t just about getting something cheaper. It’s about converting those savings into something I value more.
If you’re wondering what I’ll be using the extra $3,000 in savings for, check out this episode in Barcelona from one of our favorite travel shows on PBS. I’ll be replicating the entire experience for my parents during their week with us in Barcelona.
PS: You can find that episode on youtube here, if you’re interested in watching it.
Readers, do you spend time stalking flight prices? Have you experienced the same price drop example? Share your thoughts below. Thanks!
You can call me Max…I’m a Gen-X executive planning to retire from the corporate grind by the age of 45. Although I’m already financially independent, I haven’t yet reached true financial freedom. Join me on my journey as we discuss everything from personal finance to travel and beyond.