It’s no secret that Adam and I have visited some incredible places over the last few years. As soon as we’re home, unpacked, and settled in after one trip, we’re hard at work planning our next one. Our process starts by narrowing down where we want to go, which is a huge part of the fun- spinning a globe, scanning the Instagram and Pinterest accounts we follow, and even mindlessly surfing the web have led us to pictures of food we want to try, sights we want to see, and corners of the globe we can’t wait to uncover for ourselves. One great destination often puts us on the road to another one, and our itineraries have been known to get… a bit complex from time to time. That’s when the hard part starts: finding a flight to get us there.
The Internet is brimming with travel hacks and “secrets” on how to get the best flights for your budget. By now, most of us know that we can score upgrades and even free flights with the right combination of credit cards and loyalty clubs, and many frequent travelers are sure they know the best days of the week or times of day to book their seats to save some extra money. Some of that might work out perfectly for you as you finalize your next trip, and we would encourage you to incorporate any or all of that into your planning- there’s a reason a quick search for “how to find cheap flights” brings up so many articles with the same advice.
But we’re not here to share that same advice with you. As a matter of fact, we don’t book our trips with any of the ideas above in mind.
So what’s our secret? In a word: flexibility.
That’s it. That’s all. Flexibility.
Here’s how that one word has taken us all over the world- and how we’ve saved money in the process.
Case in Point: Road Unraveled Visits Asia
Our trip to Asia in 2015 started off as a simple itinerary that got more and more complex as we planned. We knew the highlight would be Borobudur, which made Yogyakarta, Indonesia our focus. We didn’t want to spend a whole week there, though, and Bali didn’t hold enough interest for us, so we expanded our map search just a bit and found Malaysia and Singapore were not too far away- so our trip to Borobudur quickly became a three city tour of Southeast Asia.
When I started to search for flights, I was immediately disheartened by how incredibly expensive it would be to incorporate all three cities into a single itinerary. The first route we had planned would have us flying from DC to Singapore, Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur to Yogya, and Yogya back to the US. The last leg of the journey seemed to be the problem; I kept finding incredibly long layovers in Tokyo, which would get us home a day too late. But it got me thinking…
Flexibility Tip #1: Consider an Extra Stop
I changed my flight search just slightly and discovered my hunch was right: somehow, it was cheaper for us to spend a couple of extra days in Tokyo, Japan. That was great news- but it added another layer of complexity to our itinerary.
Our revised route had us flying from Washington to Singapore, Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur to Yogya, Yogya to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Washington. The journey was possible, but it was cluttered with lots of layovers that would take away from precious time we could use to sightsee. It felt like a whole lot of flight time for a 10-day trip! Which leads me to…
Flexibility Tip #2: Check Alternative Airlines
Yogyakarta is just over two hours from Kuala Lumpur by plane, but our journey was slated to take more than six hours- during daylight hours- from takeoff in K.L. to touchdown in Yogya. That’s because we would need to include a three-hour layover in Jakarta, where we would clear customs, collect our luggage, and check in for the second flight. Jakarta seemed to be an unnecessary stop, but none of the websites I checked could offer a better option.
A quick Google search ended up providing the perfect solution: low-cost regional airlines. As it turned out, AirAsia had incredibly affordable direct flights between Kuala Lumpur and Yogyakarta. Another quick revision to the itinerary showed replacing a couple of flights with trips on AirAsia drastically dropped the price of each ticket. It became clear we could save a lot of money and time by using AirAsia to fly between Singapore, K.L., and Yogya- but the itinerary still looked overly complicated to me. That’s where the next lesson came into play:
Flexibility Tip #3: Reorder Your Itinerary
I first thought about changing the order of our flights when I plotted our journey on a map. Adding in Tokyo was great, but it felt like we were backtracking a bit; we were also there for a lengthy layover while waiting for our flight to Singapore at the start of the trip. That sparked my next idea: what if we made Tokyo our first stop? I had somehow committed myself to ordering the trip in a certain way, but we didn’t have to be in any city on any specific day- so why not check out the alternatives?
After checking a few combinations, we found the final route of Washington to Tokyo, Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur to Yogya, Yogya to Singapore, and Singapore to Washington was the least expensive option and would allow us to have a good amount of time in each location. We booked Washington to Tokyo, Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore to Washington on a single ticket with major carriers, and we booked flights between Kuala Lumpur and Yogya and Yogya and Singapore separately and directly through AirAsia. The final product was an itinerary that minimized flight time and layovers and maximized our time on the ground. Was it still complicated? Sure, but it was much more manageable and productive than it would have been if we weren’t flexible.
Flexibility also paid off when we compared the itineraries from a financial perspective. If we had stayed true to the first itinerary we discussed, we would have spent $2,900- per ticket. By applying these three lessons, though, we only paid $1,670 per ticket- which means we saved $1,230 per person that instead went to hotels, food, and tours to round out our trip. Flexibility just might save your travel budget!
Case in Point: Road Unraveled Visits Cape Town
When we decided to spend New Years in Cape Town, South Africa we knew it could be an expensive journey; it’s a long way from the US, and holiday travel always means paying a premium. We were departing from Boston (the closest airport to where we would have just spent the holidays with my family), and we knew right away flying nonstop was out of the question- there would have to be a layover somewhere. Our first few attempts to find reasonable flights turned up empty; everything was expensive, inconvenient, or both.
Initially, my goal was to minimize the length of time between any flights so we could get the trek over with as quickly as possible. It seemed like that would be our best chance of spending as much time as we could in Cape Town. The problem was finding a desirable place to layover. Many flights would take us far out of the way; flying all the way to Istanbul, for example, seemed like a waste of time when we really wanted to go south, not east. But as you might expect, the “good” layovers came with much higher price tags, and we wanted to find a balance between time and total cost. So when we couldn’t find an ideal itinerary, we applied another lesson:
Flexibility Tip #4: Make Undesirable Itineraries Work for You
The most inexpensive flight we found had us departing Boston in the early evening, landing at 6:00 A.M. in London, and continuing on to Cape Town on a 7:00 P.M. flight. At first glance, that itinerary looks terrible. 13 hours between flights? That’s not going to get us closer to our goal of minimizing layovers! But then again… an entire day to explore London, one of our favorite cities? Sure, we would be exhausted from the overnight flight, and sure, the jetlag would be horrible by then, but couldn’t we suffer a bit if it meant we basically got to visit for free? The cost of the ticket was already included in the price of our round trip to Cape Town!
We ended up booking those tickets, and sure enough, we arrived in London bleary-eyed but enthusiastic about our undesirable itinerary. We saw the Tower of London, had a pint and a meal at a pub we loved when we visited in 2013, and rode the London Eye at sunset as we sipped champagne and took in the gorgeous cityscape. By 7 P.M., as our plane pushed back from the gate, we were all smiles as we compared iPhone pictures and reviewed what ended up being a terrific day.
Was it what we planned? No. Was it ideal? No. Did we make the most of it? Absolutely. And just as importantly, it saved us money. Alternative itineraries with shorter layovers would have cost $2,500 per ticket. We ended up spending $1,750 per ticket, which means we saved $750 per person- and we got a bonus day in London. Flexibility wins again!
Case in Point: Road Unraveled Visits Italy and Croatia
In April of 2016, we planned an exciting trip back to Europe. We started in Florence and ended in Dubrovnik, and at first glance it looked like one of our easier trips. Italy and Croatia are just across the Adriatic Sea from each other… so would it surprise you to hear we spent a night in the middle of our trip in London?
Yup, you read that right: for us, the road from Italy to Croatia went through the United Kingdom.
Venice to Croatia via London. It was actually cheaper to have this layover & we'll have more time in Dubrovnik tomorrow. #FlyingWestToGoEast
— Road Unraveled (@RoadUnraveled) April 19, 2016
There aren’t a lot of direct flights to Dubrovnik, and that’s especially true in April. The Italian leg of our trip started us in Florence before moving on to Venice, and I was amazed when I searched for flights from Venice to Dubrovnik that our options were so horrible. Affordable flights could take up to 30 hours including a layover, and shorter options had dangerously close connections. We really weren’t excited to lose a whole day to sitting in an airport. That brings us to our final lesson:
Flexibility Tip #5: Maximize Your Time with Unconventional Stops
We found a flight for just $170 that would have us depart Venice late in the evening, spend eight hours at London Gatwick, and arrive in Dubrovnik the next morning. Why in the world would that be a good idea? Instead of leaving Venice in the morning or afternoon, we left at night, which meant a full extra day to spend exploring the city. Where we sleep isn’t as important to us, so we were fine with spending the night in an airport hotel at Gatwick, even if it meant an early wakeup call to make our flight the next day. We landed in the morning in Dubrovnik, so we had most of the day there as well. Limiting our travel to overnight hours means we could maximize time in both cities.
Not surprisingly, our unconventional layover saves us some money as well. We found a single direct flight for $310 and connecting flights for $290, which means we saved $120 on each ticket. A hotel at LGW is less than $100 for the night, much less expensive than what we would spend in either Venice or Dubrovnik, so we come out ahead. If only we were there long enough to get into the city!
So how can you make these lessons work for you? Let’s review!
Sometimes adding a stopover can be a surprising budget saver. Check frequent, popular routes from your local airports- is there a city close to where you are going that might make for a great visit? Get creative and enjoy the journey! Also, consider airlines like Icelandair that market stopovers as part of their routes. There’s nothing wrong with seeing an extra city or two on your way to your destination!
Loyalty to an airline can be great, but don’t overlook the smaller, regional carriers that serve the corner of the globe you’re visiting. Ryanair and EasyJet are recognized (and popular!) in Europe, and we were happy with our AirAsia experience. If you’re jetting between cities, look for smaller carriers that might offer better deals. We found tickets as low as $25 for a one way ticket, and even after adding in baggage fees it was a great deal!
It sounds crazy, but it’s true: if you’re flying on a multi-city ticket, try changing the order of the stops you will make. You may find that a simple change can lead to a change in price- maybe even a drastic one!
Our 13-hour layover in London wasn’t the first time I have faced an undesirable itinerary, nor was it the first time I discovered there are ways to really enjoy some extra time in a new- or even a familiar- stop.
Finding yourself with a longer layover than you want? Look into transit tours as an alternative to sitting at your gate. I had a great long layover when I let Turkish Airlines shuttle me around on a whirlwind six-hour tour of Istanbul. If you’re particularly adventurous, many airports are close to cities and directly connected by public transportation.
For shorter layovers- or if leaving the airport is more than you want to do- you might still be in luck. Some airports are surprisingly fun- more and more are adding passenger-friendly amenities like movie theaters, museums, and even free massage chairs to make the minutes pass by. Adam and I were at Singapore’s Changi Airport for five hours and were surprised when we wished we had more time to explore.
Don’t waste a minute if you don’t have to- make your time work for you!
Along the lines of the undesirable itinerary, don’t overlook unconventional stops! A flight might take you far out of your way while also adding time to more crucial parts of your itinerary. Don’t rule out an overnight stay or a longer layover in a city that you weren’t planning to visit. You might save some money in the process- and you might get to enhance your trip in ways you didn’t expect!
Make Flexibility Work for You!
Staying flexible has allowed us to have some incredible experiences while saving quite a bit of money. Since we don’t rely on frequent flier miles, points, or other opportunities to travel for free, flexibility has helped us to stretch our budget and keep us on the road.
When you’re planning your next trip, keep these tips in mind- they might just help you to save some money or enjoy a few more hours in a destination you love!
Looking for more tips on planning a great vacation? Here are a few more articles to help you out!