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Vernazza in Cinque Terre, 2015

Yipee!  It is time to go a’hunting for summer!

I’ve been talking about my nascent travel plans for this summer among friends and a few folks asked how I find somewhat economical airline tickets for summer travel.  When I began planning last month, I dug out last year’s notes but what I had saved was slap dash not not useful.  I had to do some reinvention of the wheel and, in order not to repeat that exercise, I’m writing it down now. Also, I’ve been reading travel blogs and websites and frankly, I don’t agree with some of what I’ve read.  I am always trying to squeeze an extra mile out of my travel dollars and this is what has worked for me.  (If any reader has suggestions to do better, please comment.)

General considerations:

Best days to fly: Wed, Tues, Sat

Worst days to fly: Fri, Sun

Best time to buy tickets: Tues, 3 pm EST (This is a hotly debated subject.  I usually check at this time when I am getting ready to buy.  Just in case there is a dip.  I’ve also had uncanny luck on Saturday afternoon.)

Buy tickets one a time (This is rather scary for me because I need Julia and I to travel together, sitting together, so I’ve never tried it.)

Clear cookies before buying, especially when I’ve been searching all over the web for good fares.  Just one time it made a difference.  A price dropped by about $50 after I cleared cookies.

When to buy:

I’ve read that domestic tickets should be bought not sooner than 3.5 months before and not later than 14 days before traveling.  Sometimes there are last minutes deals, but to be honest those deals usually come during off season and I haven’t had the luxury of traveling off season for awhile.

I’ve read and found that the best time to buy domestic ticket is about 54 days/9 weeks in advance.  My caveat here is that I usually find the best winter holiday fares in late August, early September.

The best time to buy international tickets, specifically to Europe and Latin America, is 96 days/14 weeks, to 171 days/24 weeks ahead of departure.  I have never been organized enough to look almost 6 months before I travel.  For summer travel, I usually start checking fares in March and plan on buying in the beginning to middle of April.  So, usually about 13 or so weeks before traveling.

Other considerations:

I also consider how I am getting from home to airports and where the car is going to be during my travels.  Significant time parked in a lot can add up.

I can leave from Milwaukee, WI (General Mitchell Airport), or from Madison, WI (Dane County Airport).  Airport parking in Milwaukee is $12/day. The supersaver lot is $7/day.  (The SuperSaver lot is located on Air Cargo Way only minutes from the terminal.  Free shuttle buses run every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day. Follow the signs on the Airport Spur or from Howell Avenue.) From the Madison airport, I can catch a short cab ride home or possibly have a friend pick us up. Madison parking is $6-12/day.  Gas to Milwaukee in 2015 was about $15.  I am proposing to travel for 45 days this year.  If I travel to and from Milwaukee, parking will be at least $315 plus gas.  I’ve decided that it may be economically sound to take a bus to Milwaukee to depart from there and to fly back to Madison.

Finding fares:

Now, comes the part I like best!  Hunting for fares.  I do the preliminary work in early March, asking the most general questions about where to go, what to do and whether there are friends to visit.  Last year, my first round of questions elicited my list of Italy, specifically Turin, Venice, Siena and Florence, and London.  We could travel for a bit more than 3 weeks and so London was cut early on but to the Italian part of the list, I added Cinque Terre.  Except for Turin, I had visited all these places a long time ago and wanted to go back.  This year, we have 5 weeks.  I’d like to go back to Turin and also to Rome.  We may take some day trips using the cities as home base.  I would also like to rent a car again and spend some time in the country, possibly near water.  Last year, we were in southern Tuscany; I’m not sure where we will be this year.  My oldest daughter is planning to go to a wedding in London right after we will leave for home.  We are talking about her either meeting us in Italy or London, and Julia and I spending about a week in London before we go home.

With these sketchy ideas, I start the hunt.

I start with google.com\flights using the explore maps.  I put in a place to take off from and Europe as the destination.  A map with cities and prices pops up.  Looking too far ahead, like four or five months out, the prices are not always accurate or even visible, but it’s a beginning. I do the same thing on momondo.com and also click on the Flight Insight tab to compare variables which might influence price.  From these searches last year, I found out that the most  economical city in Italy to fly into was Milan.  Milan is also a great railroad hub and about an hour by train to Turin.  By looking at various combinations of arrival and departure places, I decided to arrive in Turin and leave from Venice which saved us the time and money it would take to backtrack after we visited Venice.  It was at that time that Venice became the last stop on our trip.

With some ideas on where I’d like to fly to, I do a general search on expedia.com to find out which airlines fly to where I want to go.  I’ve also used Kayak, Skyscanner, Hipmunk, and Vayama (although I’ve read they have bad customer service.).  A good article with more hints is cheap flights within Europe, an article by Rick Steves.

With a list of airlines that fly the route that I’d like to take, I poke around their sites.  In my experience, about 75% of the time, the airline site has a slightly better deal than sites like Expedia.  It is also good to search on airline sites that don’t appear on the major booking engines. Southwest is the obvious candidate here. Southwest tends to keep the majors in check on their overlapping routes, so you can find a lot of benefit in shadowing Southwest’s route maps.

As you search, keep track of where you find the best fares.  Last year, my list looked something like this for one day of searching:

29 March  2015

SAS, Wed 22 July-Mon 10 Aug, NYC-Milan/Venice-NYC  $1,783.28

United, Wed 22 July-Mon 10 Aug, Milwaukee-Milan/Venice-Milwaukee  $2,546

SAS, Wed 22 July-Mon 10 Aug, Chicago-Milan/Venice-Chicago  $2,189

United, Wed 22 July-Mon 10 Aug, Baltimore-Milan/Venice-Baltimore  $2,452

SAS, Wed 22 July- Mon 10 Aug, NYC-Rome/Venice-NYC  $1,791

Southwest, Sat 18 July-Wed 12 Aug, Milwaukee-NYC-Milwaukee $524

I did a number of these on different days with different airlines.  I caught an SAS sale in April and paid $1,000.42 each for us to fly NYC-Milan/Venice-NYC.  I grabbed it the day I saw it because I knew by that time that it was a good deal.  Flying from Milwaukee to NYC and back again was $262 each.  Flying in an out of New York gave us an excuse to visit Cheshire for a few days.  Parking was $189 for the month.  So, total cost to get from my house to Italy and back again, with stops in New York, was $2,713.84 or 1,356.92 each.

Another interesting site is http://www.travelmath.com/flights/.  Great fun for travel geeks like me who enjoy miles per dollar, best hotel sites, plus some restaurants, etc. In an overwhelmed mood, it would drive me crazy.  I’ve signed up for fare alerts from http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/fare-alerts/update, momondo.com and justfly.com.  Just remember to unsubscribe when you buy tickets.

I will add more to this as a zero in on this year’s travel tickets and if I discover more.  I’ll also add our air fare for this summers travels as soon as I find  those perfect tickets