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10 Huge Mistakes People Make When Booking Flights

Tips from a pro on when and how to book your air travel.

When it comes to air travel, the frustration begins long before that wrap-around-the-corner security line. But luckily, there are a few simple tips that can reduce the fear of forking over more hard-earned cash to the airline than necessary. Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make and how you can learn from them.

1. Searching Directly on an Airline's Website
I am often asked what the best website is to search for air travel. Here it is: ITA Software’s Matrix Tool. That’s not what you thought I was going to say, is it? While you cannot book travel using this site, it is a comprehensive search engine of flight prices. It is even willing to combine airlines into one reservation (something many airline sites are reluctant to do). It is easy to filter results by class of service, departure time, nearby airports, and even the specific airline or connecting city you want. Once you find the preferred flights, use the airline’s website to book the ticket. If it involves multiple airlines or the same price isn’t on the airline’s website (hint, try using the multi-city tool), then try Orbitz. If you find it on ITA Software’s Matrix tool, chances are Orbitz will sell the same fare. Other popular options include Kayak or the map search tool on Google Flights.

2. ...Well, Sometimes
Airlines like Southwest and Allegiant do not list flights on other sites to save on internal costs. This means that lower prices might be available, but it requires searching each airline’s own website.

3. Going for the Low-Hanging Fruit
So you got a good deal on Spirit or Allegiant, but bring your credit card. Fees for everything from seat assignments to carry-on bags can add up, and savings you scored on the ticket might be eliminated once you land. Do your homework and study an airline’s fees before the hitting the purchase button. Those that travel light and without specific seat preferences will fare best on these carriers.

4. Not Being Flexible with Airports
Don’t forget to search multiple area airports when booking a ticket (most websites have this option). Alternative airports exist in many markets: New York has six (Islip, JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, Newburgh/Stewart, and White Plains). Miami residents can tack on Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach as options. Be sure to factor in the cost required of getting there, and if needed, the parking costs. Families stand to save the most with this option if buying several tickets.

5. Falling for the “Pay for Premium Seats” Trick
If the only free seats available to reserve are middle seats, it can be tempting to pay for a preferred seat. But, not all preferred seats are actually worth it. Some of American’s planes inherited from US Airways sell seats closer to the front of the plane despite having no leg room. How do they get away with that? They explain that you can get off more quickly (but is that worth $50!?). Keep in mind that airlines often block seats or reserve certain rows for frequent fliers. Instead of paying for a preferred middle seat, just don’t assign one at all. At the airport, you will be assigned one automatically (sometimes at the last minute). You have a better chance of scoring one of those blocked seats. The worst thing that could happen is that you get that same middle seat in the end. Of course, families or couples traveling together cannot always risk being separated.

Don’t forget low-fare carriers.

6. Giving into the Fear Factor
Many websites use language like “only one seat left” to convince you of dwindling availability. While it is true that seats in that “fare bucket” may be limited, chances are this is just a marketing ploy since an airline may release more cheap seats based upon algorithms from revenue management folks. Even if you do purchase a ticket because you’re worried the fare might rise, time is on your side. U.S. airlines and most travel domestic travel websites give you a 24-hour grace period to cancel. Until recently, American Airlines did not (in favor of the option to hold a seat online for 24 hours), but they have since joined the bandwagon.

7. Not Knowing about the Cookie Monster
Be sure to clear Internet cookies after an online fare search (or at least use an incognito window, different browser, or different device). Airline websites sometimes deposit cookies to tell if you've been searching for a particular ticket, and occasionally, they will hike up the price after a couple searches. The intent is to make it appear that the price is rising quickly to encourage you to book a ticket. So clear those cookies, and always double check ITA Matrix before booking to make sure it is the best deal (low-fare carriers like Allegiant and Southwest excluded).

8. Not Considering Airport Taxes 
Some airports charge outrageous taxes to fund improvements or pay for regional expenses. It can save you cash to avoid some airports over others. For example, Germany has high airport taxes; avoiding a flight connection there can shave money off the overall cost. Flying from U.K. airports incurs additional tax cost, too, especially if in a premium cabin. Savvy travelers to Europe might fly into the U.K., but choose to fly back from a non-British airport to avoid as much as $200 in taxes.

9. Ignorning the Benefits of Flexibility
While this is especially important when booking award tickets, it also applies with paid tickets. Flights can be busier on some days over others when airlines may charge a premium. Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays can be especially busy on high-traffic business routes. In the case of leisure destinations like Las Vegas, Saturday and Sunday can be busy with weekending visitors. Be flexible with your travel plans by using the calendar search function available on many websites. Learn to be spontaneous. Websites like The Flight Deal and Secret Flying post amazing deals (including the occasional mistake fare) for those that can act quickly.

10. Making Silly Errors
Beware the “autocorrecting” airport. It is probably better to type in the airport code when searching fares rather than typing city name. Who wants to buy a ticket to Portland, Maine (PWM) when your destination is Portland, Oregon (PDX)? These mistakes could be pricy if not caught within 24 hours of a reservation. Also, pay attention to departure times. It is not unusual for flights to leave in the wee hours of the morning, especially overseas. Showing up at 1pm for a 1am flight could really hurt when it comes to paying a change fee.

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