Does 'flying cheap' really save money?

The least expensive flights aren't necessarily the best deals

By , Guest blogger

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    Malaysia Airline jetliners taxi at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia. When buying cheap flights, factor in additional costs, like meals during layovers and additional nights in hotels.
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Saving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Stefan said, the whole “fly cheap” thing is another topic one might argue. of course, bargains are bargains. but here you really have to compare money with time (holiday time, kind of more valuable to me). for my next holidays on phuket thailand i paid about 40% more than the cheapest flight (350 dollars return more). but it is non-stop, two times 5 hours or so not hanging around in dubai, singapore or whereever.one chance less to have your luggage lost. i save the taxi fare into bangkok (times two) plus at least one night expensive hotel (the place in my final destination is much cheaper) and i arrive in the evening at my final destination, so after a good night of sleep i am good to go (no checking-out early, running to airport, …). makes a whole lot of sense to me.

This is clearly one of those situations where you have to clearly define, before you buy a ticket, how much an hour of your time is really worth. More specifically, how much is an hour of your time at your destination worth versus an hour sitting in an airport reading or eating (relatively) expensive airport food.

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So, first of all, what value will you get out of arriving at your destination an hour or two (or five) earlier? Will you be doing something compelling upon arrival? Or are you just going to your hotel, checking in, and kicking back on the bed to watch ESPN?

If you’re just going to kick back in your hotel room, you might as well go for the cheapest possible ticket. You can just as easily relax in an airport sports bar or curled up in a chair with a book during a layover as you can relax in your hotel room during that same period.

On the other hand, if you’re going to do something of value upon arrival, that should certainly weigh into the equation. The question you have to decide for yourself is how much value that earlier arrival has versus spending a similar amount of time in an airport, and that depends on what you value and what your situation is.

The best thing I can do for running the numbers on this is to describe my own family’s trip to Seattle and some of the considerations we used when buying tickets.

First of all, the Des Moines airport was far more convenient for us to fly out of than virtually any other airport of any size. The next closest major airport is the one in Minneapolis, though there is one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that has a significant number of flights.

The Minneapolis airport would require us to drive roughly three hours both at the start and at the end of the trip. However, it did also have nonstop flights to Seattle at a slightly lower rate than those in Des Moines. After calculating the cost of four tickets, the parking options, and the gas and wear-and-tear cost of driving to Minneapolis, we calculated we would save about $14 per hour of driving if we flew out of Minneapolis instead of Des Moines.

Now, is $14 per hour a fair fee for time spent in a car with three young children? After some discussion, we decided it wasn’t worth it.

But what about the nonstop flight versus the flight with a layover? This entered into our thoughts as well. We decided that the flight with a layover was actually better for us for two reasons.

One, the individual flights were significantly shorter, comparing a roughly 3.5 hour flight to two roughly 2 hour flights. Given the attention span of our young children, we thought the two shorter flights would work better.

Two, the stop in the middle would allow us to keep the children roughly on their same meal schedule and allow for bathroom breaks and diaper changes without using a tiny airplane bathroom.

Add on top of that the fact that we wouldn’t have done anything extra in Seattle by arriving early and it made sense for us to choose the flight with the layover.

How much would we have had to save to make the Minneapolis nonstop flight worth it? Sarah and I decided that our cutoff would have been about $20 per hour for the drive up and the drive back. Remember, this time compares directly with an hour spent doing something enjoyable at home or an additional hour at our destination or, depending on the other flight, possibly layover time (which, as mentioned above, isn’t necessarily a bad thing in our case).

We used this as our criteria for shopping for tickets and wound up flying out of Des Moines as a result.

The cheapest ticket possible isn’t always the best deal. The cheapest ticket almost always adds time to your flights. If you don’t have any other significant use for your time, then go for the cheapest ticket. However, if you have a genuine use for your time, don’t be afraid to pay a bit more to get the ticket that works well for you.

The key is to think about how you’ll use your time and how much you value those various uses. Give that some thought before you ever start shopping and you’ll be sure to find the best value for your dollar and for your time.

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