Planning a vacation never fails to send an electric shock through my body. Sure, I love to travel, see long-dreamed-of sights, experience new cultures, taste exotic foods, etc., etc., blah blah blah. But when it comes to travel, what really gets my jet engines roaring is a process that begins with me sitting at my computer in my bunny slippers, right here in not-so-exotic Unionville, Pennsylvania. Heart pounding, with multiple windows open on my computer, I vigorously compare and contrast plane tickets, hotel packages, and rental car options – trying to piece together free travel and perks using airline, hotel, and credit card points with special promotions on countless internet travel sites.
For me, trip planning is like doing a 3D jigsaw puzzle on steroids. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit the extent to which I thrill over every “breakfast included” or “fourth night FREE!” Access to an airport lounge or hotel executive floor means my kids can cruise the free hors d’oeuvres bar or eat enough complimentary donuts to fill them up for a week! Every penny I save on expensive airport food, plane tickets and boring rental cars, I tell myself, can be applied to decadent living somewhere else on the trip!
In just such a penny-pinching and breathless state, I dove into planning our most recent vacation – traversing Vietnam and Cambodia for a month. From the outset I knew we could barely afford the trip, but my daughter was teaching in Vietnam and would be leaving soon, and seeing the sunrise over Angkor Wat was too great an opportunity to miss. I started with the plane tickets as they were the big ticket item, and their price would then determine how much money could be spent elsewhere on the “fun stuff.” Pouring through the discount ticket sites, the lowest fare grabbed my attention. It was $1052. The next lowest fare was $1,166 and they progressed steadily upward from there.
I was in such a frenzied state that the difference between $1052 and $1166 seemed HUGE, a deal maker. Not a problem that the cheaper flight left from JFK, not Philly (where we actually live). Surely someone could drive us! A minor inconvenience, I rationalized, that the itinerary included two back-to-back overnight flights with a 14-hour layover in Seoul in between. Adversity builds capacity, I said to myself. We could only check one bag each, but who needs clothes and we won’t be buying souvenirs! I was unconcerned we could only reserve the ickiest seats on the plane – the ones with the least legroom, no windows, and no aisles. Humph! What’s a little physical discomfort when embarking on the trip of a lifetime? With all objections eradicated in my head, I confidently clicked ‘BUY NOW’.
Did I mention that this money saving mania took place a full six months before I actually had to get on that plane? As the date for our departure drew nearer, however, I had to start thinking about actually getting on that plane. Thoughts of fourteen hours in uncomfortable seats and news stories of deadly leg blood clots started to keep me up at night. “No worries”, I told myself the next morning as I ordered inflatable footrests for everyone to use on the plane ($19.99 x 5…everything is X’s 5 people!!!). Hmmm, I thought in a brief, sane moment…no sleep for two days coming and going will surely lower our immunity and we might catch every nasty bug on the plane. “No worries”, I said, and ordered those Skyrest Travel Pillows so everyone could sleep on their tray tables ($156). We were ready.
Then two days before our eagerly anticipated departure, my husband informed me he had a big meeting the day after we’d arrive home and would need to sleep during our layover in Seoul. “No worries”, there’s a Transit Hotel in the airport ($200). Oh, and it turned out we actually needed to eat twice during that epic 14-hour layover ($140). While in Vietnam we couldn’t resist buying just a bit of artwork, so we had to check it in as a second bag on our way home ($100). Bright spot, we were able to get a ride to the airport, yeah! But gas ($50). On the way home, we arrived at JFK at 11:00 PM, too exhausted to get a train home, so we stayed in a hotel ($200). The following day we took a train home. (Had we not had Amtrak points, this would have cost us another $400.)
You get how this Frugality Fail is shaping up. Cheap plane tickets can be great, but they are usually cheap for a reason. Expenses associated with a “cheap” flight can become an avalanche of expenditures if not carefully considered ahead of time.
So learn from me and remember to ask yourself the following questions when calculating the actual cost of a cheap plane ticket:
1. How far is the airport from your home?
Calculate the cost of gas or other transportation to and from the airport.
2. What are the costs of parking and other amenities at the airport?
Long-term parking at an urban airport can be twice as expensive as parking at a suburban airport. The cost of meals and water can also vary greatly from airport to airport. This makes a big difference if traveling with a hungry family.
3. How long are the layovers?
Again, food, drinks, wifi and other amenities are all expensive in airports.
4. What are the arrival and departure times?
A late arrival, far from home, can add considerable expense and inconvenience to your trip and make booking transportation difficult.
5. What seats can I book?
Carefully consider the type of seating available to you on the plane when you have a severely discounted fare. If you require an aisle seat to be comfortable on a long flight, this seating may be reserved for passengers paying less discounted rates.
6. How much sleep do I need?
Taking overnight flights can be a great way to save money. If you need to be productive in the day or two following the flight, however, this might be a false economy.
7. Will I get points?
For the most discounted fares, you may not be eligible for award points from the airline. (Our flight was on Korean Air so I expected to get Delta Airline award miles. I didn’t realize until I had booked the trip that my discounted fare made me ineligible for miles. Big time bummer!)