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Paying for a cheaper flight: with layovers, early departures, and general headache

Nothing in life is free. And if you don’t believe that, well, then just try booking a flight to Europe in July, in the height of the high season. What you gain in a reasonable price, you pay for it, with well, everything but money. 

flight Paying for a cheaper flight: with layovers, early departures, and general headache

via wikipedia

CB and I just purchased our round-trip tickets for our 3-week summer European adventure. Rest assured that there will be many budgeting / trip-planning posts to come, but what I want to talk about is saving money by giving up time, convenience, and comfort. And oh, are we doing so on our flights.

Getting from the west coast of USA to Europe is expensive in the summer, but it can be made less expensive if you are willing to compromise. After 3 days of playing around with different websites (Kayak, google.com/flights, ITA Matrix, etc.) and adjusting different dates and arrival/departure cities, I found a fare for $1,225 round-trip, per person, from Los Angeles to London, then from Warsaw back to Los Angeles. This, unfortunately, is just about the best fare I’ve found.

The trick is that our flight back has a 6am departure time and 2 long layovers: 5 hours in Frankfurt and 4 hours in Calgary. We would have spent 24 hours traveling (not including time to and from airports) by the time we finally get back home, and that’s if all flights run on time. By selecting this route over one that only has 1 layover, however, saved us $60/person.

(We did a similar thing on our trip back from Mexico: a 6:30am departure, a 2-hour layover in Houston, and a 7-hour layover in San Francisco that turned into an 8-hour layover when our flight was delayed. It was pretty bad, but we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn’t horrible because at least CB and I had each other to keep company / take turns watching our bags).

Here are a few things that helped me decide yes, we value the savings more than our time, our comfort, and possibly our sanity:

  1. The $120 total saved would pay for 1 night in London.
  2. With a Kindle loaded with several good (free!) books, I can wait A LOT.
  3. I’m not working immediately after the trip, and CB’s school doesn’t start for another month, so even if we somehow get pushed one or two days after we are supposed to return, we’ll be OK.
  4. I’m not working immediately after the trip, and so money is at a premium. In this case, I must sadly conclude that money > time.

Have you taken early flights or multiple layovers to get a cheaper plane ticket? What’s the worst/most inconvenient route you’ve taken and how much did you save?

  • @CSMillennial - We just booked our flights to Europe, too, and had this same debate – what's worth more, money or time? We tried to compromise and balance both. I ended up buying two separate sets of tickets, which saved us money (apparently, there is no cheap way to get directly to Ireland from Atlanta!). It's a long haul on the way out, but I tried making up for the time with a flight that was scheduled during our usual sleep cycle so we'll sleep on the plane.

    I'm okay with one layover, but any more than that and I won't do it. I think I'm probably spoiled living in Atlanta with Hartsfield. There's ALWAYS an option for a direct flight somewhere, and if that's too expensive, a one-stop layover is usually available and much cheaper. ReplyCancel

  • Sally - Wait is that a typo? You only saved $60 per person or $600? I think I would pay the 60 bucks when we're talking intercontinental flights!ReplyCancel

    • eemusings - Me too!

      Assuming that saves you 4 hours of layover, you're paying $15 to gain each hour … which to me at least is worth it when you're looking at 24 hours in flights. ReplyCancel

      • Well Heeled Blog - I wish it were $600! But doing this possibly sanity-crushing route will get us an additional night in London, and I suppose I figured I\’d rather stay in London an extra night than get home in 18 hours instead of 24.

        I wish I could say my time is worth more, but at this point… it really isn\’t. ReplyCancel

  • Emily @ evolvingPF - Early flights, yes, but those are no problem for us in comparison with red eyes. We used to take Sunday night red-eyes from CA to NC a few times a year, but as we became less and less functional at work on Monday, we decided to discontinue the practice before workdays. We also don't opt for more than 1 layover on a domestic flight. I think if we ever get in some international travel, though, we'll be pretty flexible with our time to get the lowest price. ReplyCancel

  • Alicia - I have flown fully across the continent many times, and I hate the layovers. If I can fly straight from TO (or Chicago, New York, etc) it makes for a much more enjoyable flight. I hate the bustle of airports, especially if I am travelling alone – which I usually am since it's work stuff. Personally, I don't think that $60 savings for another wait is worth it, especially on the way home when I'm just longing for my own home. I am a fan of red-eyes though – just a day earlier than I need to be functional. So if I need to get to work on Monday, then I take the Saturday red-eye and have Sunday to re-coup. ReplyCancel

  • makingsenseofcents - It really depends. I will pay less for an early flight, but I prefer non-stop flights over anything else. It all just depends on HOW much I am saving. If it's hundreds of dollars, then I am more willing to go out of my comfort zone. ReplyCancel

  • @lclindeman - I have to say I agree with the commenters who feel that $60 is not worth it for me personally, but I know value is all relative, and you thought this through to come to that decision. For me, $60/person would not convince me to take a flight that was that much less convenient. ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - I didn\’t think $60 was worth it either, until I thought that with the $60 x 2 I could pay for an extra night in London (we were originally planning on staying for 3, now we\’ve stretched it to 4). I\’ll just have to have a FANTASTIC time in London to make up for the agony of our return flight. ;-) ReplyCancel

  • SarahN - I hate red eyes when you lose time (as in the time zones mean a 3 hour flight end up losing your whole night's sleep).

    I don't mind early starts from home (cause I know the transport options and how and when they run). When I'm travelling in other countries, I'm very mindful of departure and arrival times. I hate a 24 hour flight (Australia to Europe) with a whole day wait to check in and sleep. So I will pay a little more to have a later flight, or break the flight and have a night in a hotel lay over. Again, if I have time, as you do, then it's completely another story! If I don't have time (like exactly 3 weeks holiday and work the day I arrive home) then I do spend the money to make sure I get sleep to be functional! ReplyCancel

  • nsheils - We almost always choose the easier flight over the cheaper flight up to a couple of hundred dollars. The difference is that we live abroad in the Middle East, so it's the different between traveling for 12 hours with two toddlers and 22 hours with a layover when we go back home to visit. They are finally starting a direct flight to Philly, which means we get to be even closer to home when we arrive and no layover! It's going to cost us about $700 more total, but we're willing to make the sacrafice, especially if I'm flying with them by myself! ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - 2 toddlers! I definitely would've picked a direct flight by all means if I had to take care of 2 toddlers myself. ReplyCancel

  • One Frugal Girl - I wouldn't have paid $60. I don't like layovers or red eyes. I choose the comfort of nonstop every time I can and certainly limit stops when I have no choice in the matter. I would have been willing to cut somewhere else in my budget to find that 60 bucks. ReplyCancel

  • dojo - We try to get direct flights as much as possible, since layovers can sometimes turn nasty. 60 bucks/person wouldn't have made us choose this route. Sure, it's nice to save this money, but spending more hours in airports (having to feed ourselves – which is costly), the stress and problems are not worth the savings.

    We did have a 10 hour layover in Span (didn't get a direct flight from Malaga to my city, so we stayed for 10 hours in Barcelona). While it was cool to be able to visit the city a little (we clearly didn't plan on staying in the airport all this time), we did spend a lot of time and it was very tiresome. Same with a layover in Zurich to connect our NYC and Budapest flights. We had 4 hours there and did a little of sight-seeing, but again, it wasn't easy on us.

    We had to take these solutions since there were no direct flights. Otherwise, we'd always choose a direct flight, even if a bit more expensive. ReplyCancel

  • SP - I can do early flights for international trips, mostly because you get all screwed up on time zones anyway. I've had some long layovers (about 12 hrs in detroit on our way to europe) and I guess I've never really looked at what it has saved me. I've always pretty much just booked the cheapest flight. Sometimes I'll pay a little extra for a direct flight, but departure time and layover length (within reason) don't factor much into the decision. Like you, I'm fine with reading in the airport.

    We booked our most recent vacation on miles for my ticket, and ended up flying SFO -> Denver -> paris, when I'm sure there were direct flights available for some cost. (I also ended up flying back into san jose, which is really inconveinet for where I live! And T was scheduled to fly back into SFO from our connection in LA, but was able to change at the last minute so we could fly together from LA.)

    I guess I was between jobs, but I think I would have done it anyway. It was annoying to take caltrain & bart home, but the ability to go on nice vacations is in part because we spend only where it matters most to us. ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - Exactly. I figured if we can handle the inconvenience, why not save the money so we can stay for an extra day or put that money into the next vacation. How did you like Paris? Should we budget 2 days to Paris in our European trip? ReplyCancel

      • SP - I really LOVED paris. It is a very charming city, very walkable, an the food is amazing. I love the cafe culture, the wine, walking along the river, etc.

        We spent 4 days there (including 1/2 day at Versalles, which you can skip unless you love gardens or ornate palaces) and kept busy every single day. But I love museums, and we could have gone to fewer. (If you only go to one and you are a modern art / impressionist fan this is the best IMO http://www.musee-orangerie.fr)

        I think it has potential to be very crowded in the summer, but that is same as anywhere worth going I suppose. :) So yes, 2 days, or more, depending on your itinerary and what you are interested seeing. Also, you'll probably discover this as your research, but you can get advance tickets for almost everything (museums, eiffel tower, etc.) and you should do it to avoid waiting in line. We got lucky since it was off season. ReplyCancel

        • Well Heeled Blog - We haven\’t budgeted in a Paris visit on this trip, but you might have just convinced me. We can probably steal a day from Berlin and one from Belgium. ReplyCancel

  • SP - Actually, I should note that I pay a lot more attention to arrival time than departure time for international flights. If I can get an "extra day", I will pay more (even though that "extra day" is often spent jet lagged, it is better than on an airport!) ReplyCancel

  • Deia @ Nomad Wallet - That's a lot of layovers! I agree with the previous commenters, $60 seems like a small price to pay to avoid all that hassle, but then if the $120 gets you another night, I might do the same thing too. My husband was traveling from Asia to Montreal and he saved a couple hundred dollars by flying to NYC and taking the Greyhound to Montreal instead. This also allowed him to explore NYC for a few days. Have fun in Europe! ReplyCancel

  • mytoughgirl - If it's a relatively short flight with 1 layover, I'll do it like within US or within North and South America. But other than that, I'd rather pay more to get a direct flight. I hate flying and I hate the airports. It's so stuffy and I get nauseated and headache often in the airports. I need to be out of there as soon as possible. If you can handle it, good for you. But personally, my body can't handle it. ReplyCancel

  • Torsten - ZQV is a neat trick for NYC tickets – just learned that myself :) ReplyCancel

  • Flying… it costs big bucks to make a small world | Well Heeled Blog - […] my credit card points to convert to miles, I redeem frequent flier miles to get award flights, and I gamely sign up for 24 hour / multiple layover itineraries. Partly in support of future travel, I even got a job that will require frequent business trips (I […]ReplyCancel

  • MakintheBacon - My flight to Peru had multiple layovers. It was from Toronto to San Salvador to Lima and then finally Cusco. I spent a bit of time sleeping at the airport. I felt like I was in the amazing race. I don’t remember how much I saved though. All I remember was choosing that flight because it was the cheapest. Two words: never again.

    I will pay the extra money for the direct flight or least number of stops.ReplyCancel

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