How do you go about choosing the best flight for your next trip? Allegiance to an airline simply on the grounds of earning status is losing its luster. Prices are going up, benefits are getting harder to earn, miles are becoming harder to redeem, and even once revered higher status may get you little more than advance boarding and a free checked bag these days. Forget airline loyalty. Next time you go to book a flight, the most important criteria to consider are cost, convenience, and comfort.

Choosing the best flight - window seat or aisle

Realize that booking flights is a moving target. What worked for your flight and airline choice one month or one year ago may be different by the next time you go to book since seat configurations and amenities change constantly. Airlines are continuing to put the big squeeze on its economy passengers, while others are upping the lux quotient in business class. In between those two classes, there is a new breed of so-called premium economy on many airlines. Some of those can be very comfy, including nicer meals and amenity kits on international flights, while others aren’t much better than economy but perhaps with a little more legroom. So what’s important to you in choosing the best flight?

HI Travel Tales has swapped flying war stories with many other travelers over the years and each person has a different opinion about what’s important or not.

Is it important to you to arrive refreshed, ready to tour or work or do you have time to spend a day or two recovering?

  • How much are you willing to pay?
  • How early are you willing to depart?
  • How late are you willing to arrive?
  • How many connections and/or layovers are you willing to consider?
  • How long are you willing to spend on a layover?
  • How far will you drive to get to an airport?

These are only a few questions that will take a bit of pondering as you weigh the choices in deciding which is the best flight for you.

Three Cs of choosing the best flights: cost, convenience and comfort

Perhaps without even realizing it, you are already weighing out these three factors when you decide on a flight.

Example: Several of us were heading to a particular Asian destination recently, but we were on our own to book. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, while several others seemed to think we’d just all decide on the dates for arrival and departure and, click, it would be done and we’d all carpool to the airport. Oh, so wrong. Within 48 hours, we had all booked – and three sets of flights were as different at pomegranates and kiwi. One wanted to depart from the local airport (more convenient); another only wanted the cheapest available (cost), but in the end decided against the trip; we ourselves wanted some dram of seat width and the ability to sleep (comfort) to avoid pure exhaustion upon arrival. Of course, really, we all were weighing out the three Cs of cost, comfort and convenience to decide on the best balance for our own needs.

Dieter saved a lot of money, but was covered wagon really the best way to travel?

Dieter saved a lot of money on this booking, but then he learned he was traveling by covered wagon. Were the savings really worth the sacrifice in comfort and convenience?

So where do you begin? Let’s start moving through the drill:

Cost – We’ll start with cost since for many people that will be the bottom line, i.e. cheaper means best. You’ll need to start by determining what average prices are for your chosen dates. For that you can use a number of search engines, from your favorite travel booking portal, to an airline’s own website, to Google Flights and ITA Matrix (stay tuned for our upcoming story comparing these two popular search options.) If THE CHEAPEST is your goal, then go to a global search engine, put in your dates, look for an option to assess dates that are a little earlier or later if you have some flexibility, then click “buy” when you find the cheapest. Done. Go about your life.

HITT Tip: Most airlines offer a 24-hour refund policy so be sure to go back within the first 24 hours to compare prices. If they have gone down, call, cancel and rebook (although some travel portals have other rules and fees you will have to be aware of). Then keep tracking prices until departure. Depending on rebooking fees, if the price drops significantly, you may still save money by canceling and rebooking.

OK, now you know the range of prices. Time to start weighing other options., if that is important to you.

Convenience – Balancing convenience against price may shift your opinion on your choice. Do you have to go a day earlier and then have the added cost of a hotel night? Will you have to get up at 0-dark-hundred to drive to a farther airport just to save a few dollars? Do you have a long layover? Do you have to drive during rush hour to the airport? Do you get in so late that local transit has stopped running? Are you making several far-flung connections and extending your travel time just to keep the cost down?

What is “convenient” or “inconvenient” for you, however, may not be for somebody else. So know what you will accept or won’t put up with, and then add that to your equation in choosing the best flight for you.

HITT TIP: Remember to factor in costs of checked baggage fees or travel time to and from the airport (and thus gas expense) as a part of your cost vs. convenience factor.

Comfort – In our opinion, this is the consideration we balance equally with cost since so many airlines are getting so terribly uncomfortable these days. If however cost is your live-or-die factor, then you may not give a whit about how uncomfortable a flight is. But if you are going on holiday or heading off to do some work, then feeling good on your flight, perhaps getting some sleep, and arriving ready to go can make the difference between pleasure or suffering.

Choosing the best flight sometimes means wine and chocolate chip cookies.

Maurice insists upon flights that provide wine and chocolate chip cookies. Anything else is optional for his comfort needs.

While the likes of Google Flights can help you with price and itinerary choices, it won’t help you with seat choice or in-flight comfort decisions – like avoiding seats by the lavatory or galley if possible. For that you need to go to Seat Guru to compare tech specs. There, you can look up the exact flight (or at least the airline) to find out about seat width, seat pitch, recline (sometimes) and amenities like in-seat power or in-flight entertainment. If you can pull up the exact flight, you’ll see seat maps that delineate pros and cons of many seats.

Notes: Economy seat width these days are considered pretty lux at 18 inches wide, with some airlines coming in at 17 (more standard) … or even less. Ouch. “Pitch” is the measurement from one point one a seat to the same point on the seat behind it. No, it’s not really “leg room” but can be equated to that. If your pitch in economy is 31-32 inches these days, you should dance the happy jig since 30 is standard. In the “good ol’ days,” economy pitch might have been 35-36, but these days you’re lucky to hit that in most premium economy sections. On the other hand, recline is a bit harder to compare since some measure in inches and some in degrees – and some don’t really share that exact information. In economy, many airlines may not give you more than a couple of inches (if at all), while premium sections can be double or triple that.

HITT Tip: Some travelers may love bulkhead seats but there are other considerations: Often no floor storage for carry-on bags, sometimes near the lavatories (think waiting people bumping into you or peering over your shoulder), or even narrower seats and immoveable armrests since tray tables are often stored in the armrests. But if you are really tall, all of that may be worth the legroom.

You may want to check out the airline’s actual site to get more details on the itinerary as well as seats. And don’t forget to look for reviews on Seat Guru, SkyTrax or Flyer Talk’s forum to check out traveler reviews and other ratings or descriptions. Consider going to the airline’s seat map of flights you are considering: One flight may be booking up faster, which could mean a more crowded, less comfortable journey. Empty seats are gold these days so if you can pick what seems to be a “less popular” flight, do that. You may get lucky.

HITT Tip: Be sure to go back to your reservation regularly after booking to see how seats are filling. You can always move your seat around to take advantage of booking patterns.

Other points to consider in choosing the best flight for you:

  • Overall flight time — This is not in-air time but hours from the time you start your journey to the end of your travel. In the case of our flights to Asia, we all had to consider flight times ranging from 18 to 38 hours!
  • Type of aircraft – Some are just more comfortable. For our Asian journey, I considered that one long leg was on a Dreamliner where for example the cabin air pressure is set at a “lower elevation” than other aircrafts; thus, it is usually more comfortable and not as dry.
  • Upgrades – Do you have miles to spend on upgrades on one airline? On some airlines, upgrading from economy to premium economy may be just a fraction of cost and worth it.
  • Layovers – On these Asian journeys, some layovers can be many many hours or even overnight. Do you want to hang out in an airport or even leave it and spend money on a hotel? On the other hand, some airlines will book you onto what is considered a “legal” itinerary in terms of layovers between flights, but in reality you need more time … or a really fast scooter … especially if your first flight is late. Look closely and you may want to nix an extra long or very short layover.
Choosing the best flight ... airport layovers can be a pain.

If you have a long airport layover, is this how you want to spend it?

The bottom line is, only you can know what you need to balance cost, convenience and comfort in choosing the best flight.

HITT Tip: Another good source of information, albeit harder to navigate, is the French-run website Air-Valid. There you can find lists of airlines blacklisted in the European Union – and, man, if they are blacklisted there, would you want to fly them? Also available is a database of crashes and other “incidents,” as well as an airline directory and traveler reviews, and an airline comparison guide. Click on the tabs (information, views and opinions, and services to find what you need.
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Therese Iknoian

Traveler at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian spent a decade as a daily newspaper journalist before launching a freelance writing career specializing in outdoor, fitness and training. All the while trotting the globe, her focus finally turned to travel. Fluent in German, Therese runs a translation business (www.ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. Also a French speaker, she loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication and the search for great travel discoveries.
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