Traveling: Booking Cheaper Flights Abroad

It’s that time of year where many foreigners living in Japan are starting to cement their winter vacation plans.  In my case, I haven’t been home in 4 years so I purchased a ticket back, and I’ll be joining the crowd returning home for Christmas. 😀

With Christmas plans settled, what I’ve been in the market for now is a plane ticket to Quebec to attend a BFF’s wedding next May.  It might sound like jumping the gun, but finding the best price usually takes a few months of keeping up with the going fare, watching out for when it dips in price, and being ready to book then and there when a good deal comes up.

I’m not an expert at playing the market and finding outrageously cheap deals, but I’m generally able to fly back home or halfway across the world for around or lower than 100,000 yen ($1,000 USD) round-trip no matter what season, and so some of my friends said I should make a post about it.

In a past entry here, I already outlined some basic tips for traveling within or outside Japan.  One of those recommendations was not choosing to purchase your plane ticket through a Japanese travel agency.

To summarize what I wrote there, most Japanese travel agencies will try to hook you in with an advertisement for a fake deal.  Then either one of two things will happen:  1.) They’ll pretend it’s sold out, seats are limited, and offer you another much more expensive fare.  2.) The advertised price doesn’t include taxes, surcharges, and other fees (passed off as real, but often nonexistent or more expensive than the actual cost), so the actual ticket price ends up being 2-3 times whatever the ad was offering.  Big companies notorious for this are JTB, H.I.S., and H.I.S.’s “low-cost” alternative, Across No.1 Travel, but basically be on your guard anytime you’re not booking directly with an airline.

If you do end up booking with a travel agency, you’ll either need to charge the fare to your credit card, or send the amount in one lump sum to the agency/airline via wire transfer.

I like to look at all my options first and I recommend you do, too!  If you’re OK with no-frills flying, low cost carriers (LCC) like Air Asia and Jet Star have some great specials.  Don’t rule out booking directly with a Japanese airlines, either.  I usually start my search by using an overseas travel search engine.  Why?  Mostly it’s the fact that they aren’t hindered by a lot of the Japanese seasonal fare rush and price gouging that’s a challenge to deal with when booking domestically.

Generally anything that falls between the end of December – New Years holidays (Oshōgatsu), the end of April/beginning of May (Golden Week), mid-July/August (when children get out for summer vacation and Obon), or any other Japanese holiday weekend is going to be insane.  Additionally university students get a long semester break mid-Feburary, which can make airfare prices go either way.

On the flip side, airfare might be expensive if you’re booking during busy travel periods overseas, but usually isn’t so ridiculous that you can’t find something good if you prepare well enough in advance.  Most people will tell you to book as early as you can, but in my experience good deals often spring up between a couple of months after new date airfares have been published and 5-6 months in advance of the date you intend on flying out.

I’m sure you also might have heard that booking last minute gives you a better deal, too.  This hasn’t ever once worked out for me or anyone I know, and here’s why:  Booking last minute is only good for people ready to go on vacation anywhere, at any date, at the drop of a hat.  Unless you’re single, work freelance, and/or can work from anywhere you probably don’t have this luxury.  Last minute deals usually only come 1-2 days before or the same day the flight leaves.  Even if that sounds good, if you’re trying to get to a specific destination, you run the risk of them being sold out.

Especially in Japan, very few people have date flexibility because most Japanese companies frown on their employees using paid time off for vacations, and will sometimes even try and cheat you out of any non-holiday paid leave.  If you have less flexibility than required to book last minute, but enough flexibility to choose your own departure and return dates, you can look at fares in calendar form to compare which dates will save you the most.  Many times this means departing or returning Tuesday-Thursday.

I don’t have one travel engine site I swear by every time, because most sites nowadays are pretty consistent across the board with prices, but I often end up going with Cheapoair because they have a pretty good search database.  In the very least, I always use them to look up who might be offering the best fare, so I can then book directly with the airline.  Travel engine sites might save you a few bucks during booking, but may not include baggage, meal options, or a good cancellation/refund policy.  They might also charge you a hefty fee to process your credit card.  Changing or canceling might not always be an option with travel engines, so booking directly with an airline might save you money and hassle should something go wrong.

I began my Quebec flight search the first day rates for my travel dates were published.  I’ll traveling over a mid-May weekend, so it doesn’t fall into any U.S. or Japanese busy seasons.  It does, however, coincide with a Canadian holiday weekend in Quebec.  The cheapest I could find on any site at the time was around $1,500 USD for a one-stop both ways, round-trip flight with a ridiculous 20 hour layover.  Bleh, that definitely wasn’t happening!

Luckily most search engines offer a notification service that informs you of better priced, newly published fares if you’re willing to sign up for their newsletter.  Be sure to check how much spam mail this might mean dealing with first.  If the privacy statement isn’t too shady about what they’re planning on doing with my personal info, I usually subscribe.  Then later after I’ve made my booking I go back and unsubscribe.  Rinse and repeat each time I’m browsing airfares for a trip. 😉

Mid-September I got a notice for a one-stop/non-stop, round trip fare for around $1050 USD via Air Canada with all fees/tax included. Nowadays, I consider anything under or around $1,000 USD from Japan to halfway around the world to be a good deal.  When I was in high school/university and the economy was doing a little better, this price was actually not so good/somewhat expensive.  How things have changed!

I don’t have a very high limit on my credit card, and I’d just charged my wisdom teeth removal on it, so I needed to wait until I finally received my bill yesterday and could pay the balance off.  In the meantime fares dropped to around $1,000 USD, so it ended up being a lucky call that I waited.  Although there were two travel booking sites on Skyscanner gave me the best base fare, the total on both ended up being higher because of a $50 USD credit card processing fee.  In the end, I went to Air Canada’s website and booked directly.

I’ve heard rumors that travel search engine sites save your cookies, and sometimes publish higher fares the next time you click than the first time you checked.  Apparently this is in order to make you think tickets are running out and encourage you to act fast and book before dates sell out or prices rise again.  Either way, whether you buy into this or not, it’s good to clear your cookies regularly and so I did before checking back yesterday. 🙂
So ya’ll, it looks like I’m on my way to Canada come May!  I’m so excited to see my BFF and toast to her happiness.  As an added bonus, I’ve never been to Canada before, so I hope I get to see some cool stuff while I’m in Quebec.

If there’s any sure fire methods you use for getting the best deal on airfare, I’d love to hear them!

– J

P.S.  Washing Rice just turned 1 year old today, hooray!   .̇̇.̣̇̇̇.̣̣̇̇̇̇.̣̣̣̇̇̇̇.̣̣̣̣̇̇̇̇.̣̣̣̣̣̇̇̇.̣̣̣̣̣̣̇̇.̣̣̣̣̣̇̇̇.̣̣̣̣̇̇̇̇.̣̣̣̇̇̇̇.̣̣̇̇̇̇.̣̇̇̇.̇̇
Here’s hoping the coming year is just as awesome! ✌(՞ਊ՞

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