Flight plight: Prices soar with the season

November 13, 2012 2:00:59 PM PST
The word jumps straight out of Adam Goldstein's mouth when talking about holiday travel: "Expensive."Indeed. According to the research done by Hipmunk, the travel search site he co-founded in 2010, the average flight prices at the nation's busiest 55 airports for travel for Thanksgiving are around $527. December flight fares? About $645.

Those prices, and the pains that go along with flying or travel in general, are largely what led Goldstein and Hipmunk co-founder Steve Huffman, to come up with an "agony" factor for their web site, a new ranking to go alongside the traditional indicators like price and trip duration, because it "just seemed to be evocative of how painful travel is."

In addition to listing flight options from major airlines, Hipmunk also shows options for Amtrak (when applicable) and private jets. The site also features a hotel function where people can view a ranking by "ecstasy" after considering numerous factors including price and location to desirable destinations -- as well as an ability to look up other lodging possibilities such as vacation homes and bed and breakfasts.

"We realized that this notion of sorting by price really didn't encapsulate all of the factors that someone would care about when they're searching for flights, and similarly for hotels," Goldstein said.

Goldstein had the idea for Hipmunk while in college at MIT. As a member of the school's national championship debate team, it was his duty to plan the travel schedules for the entire team as it roamed the country to compete in events.

"It was really satisfying, being able to schedule things that worked for everyone and get the best deals, but it just took so long," Goldstein said. "It felt like the system wasn't designed for the way that I thought about travel? It wasn't helping you understand the tradeoffs between different choices."

So how do you avoid agony and promote ecstasy while making holiday plans this travel season? Goldstein has a couple of ideas:

  • Buy tickets before they sell out. This might seem like an obvious one, but "a lot people wait too long and then they end up in a situation where the only options that are available are bad ones."
  • Consider alternatives to your airport. If you are traveling to or from an area that has many airports (i.e. New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area), look at the options at smaller, less popular airports. Many sites, Hipmunk, included will let you search by the city itself instead of the actual airport.
  • Consider trains instead of planes. When looking at shorter distances, trains can be cheaper options if you're not in a major rush to get your destination.
  • Be flexible with dates. Certain dates will always be highly expensive -- and unavoidably so. But better deals can be found by being willing to leave a day earlier or later.
  • Look at locations of hotels. "This is something that I think a lot of people miss. You know if you're going to a city for the first time just because a hotel is listed first on some ranking doesn't actually mean that it's in a neighborhood that you'd actually want to stay in."
  • Don't buy into the 'Midnight on Wednesday Myth'. We are told over and over that we can land a terrific deal, if we know exactly when to call or go online. "I've heard so many different rumors and things about this," Goldstein says, "and I just don't put any stock into any of them."
Still want more travel tips? Here's a few more from Fly.com:

  • Search for fares with travel dates that fall on the actual holiday. Prices can be lower because there is typically less travel demand at those times.
  • Consider flights with a layover. It is important, though, to make sure to avoid cities known for inclement weather (i.e. Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis).
  • Check for discounted parking or car service coupons online before you leave.
  • If driving, get the Gas Buddy app. The app can help locate nearby stations that offer the cheapest prices.
  • Ship your holiday gifts ahead of time to avoid additional baggage fees.