Few things excite travelers more than the words: Flash flight sale. And given that we're on the cusp of fall, now is prime time to snap up a heavily discounted airfare, as major carriers hold their end-of-summer sales. Before you buy that ridiculously cheap flight, though, check the fine print.
"With more airlines going to à la carte pricing for airfare, fewer and fewer amenities are included with the fare," says Matthew Ma, co-founder of The Flight Deal, a travel website that cuts through the clutter of flash sales to deliver only the best deals to your inbox. "We had long been disappointed by the various fare alert sites available on the web," he explains. So, they created a new metric to determine if a sale airfare is worthwhile. "By breaking down a fare and assigning a price per mile traveled, we've established our baseline for price comparison," he says.
We tapped Ma to find out how he knows if an airfare is too good to be true. These are the six things to check before you book your next trip.
What Are the Baggage Fees?
Hands down, Ma says baggage costs are the most common hidden fees travelers fall for. "With Basic Economy fares becoming the norm, it is really important to understand baggage fees," he says. "For example, American and United do not allow normal size carry-ons with their Basic Economy fares unless you have elite status or a co-branded credit card. So let's say you bring a normal size carry-on on an American Basic Economy fare, you will be charged $25 for that carry-on each way. That is an additional $50 to your trip. If you are a family of four, each with a carry-on, that's an additional $200 round-trip."
To avoid baggage fees altogether, take a mental note of these top airlines. "Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America do not have carry-on fees with any of their fares, so if they offer a comparable fare for your travels, use them instead," he recommends.
Is There a Seat Fee?
"The second most common hidden fee is that the best seats—the window, aisle, closer to the front of the plane—will require a fee to be assigned in advanced," says Ma. If you have a specific preference, you could be charged an additional fee, which can add up.
To compare which airlines charge additional fees for "add-ons" like in-flight meals and seat preferences, Ma recommends checking Kayak. "They have a nice summary of each airline's fees for bags, seat assignments, and in-flight amenities."
Is the Airline Reliable?
It mightn't be a common issue, but Ma says it's smart to be wary of airlines that are offering sales due to financial issues, as it could lead to cancellations. "Is the airline offering the flash sale having financial difficulties? For example, Air Berlin recently had a good sale, but it also recently declared bankruptcy and cut all its long-haul flying out of Berlin," he says.
Where Does the Connecting Flight Depart From?
Nonstop flights can be costly, so travelers who are willing to take a connecting flight or book each leg of the journey separately can make considerable savings. But before you confirm the booking, Ma says to triple check the details. "Travelers should also be wary of connections that involve airport changes when searches involve a city," he says. "For example, a search for New York City will include LaGuardia (LGA), John F. Kennedy (JFK), and Newark (EWR) airports. You don't want to change airports in order to catch a connecting flight unless you enjoy the pain of NYC traffic."
Is the Airport Correct?
It might sound like a no-brainer, but in the excitement of a flash sale, it can be easy to confuse airports. Ma points out that some of the most commonly confused airports are:
- San Jose, California, and San Jose, Costa Rica
- Bali, Indonesia (located in Denpasar ), and Balikpapan, Indonesia
- Sydney, Canada, and Sydney, Australia
- Santiago, Chile; Santiago, Dominican Republic; and Santiago, Spain
- Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine
- Granada, Spain, and Grenada
- Manchester, New Hampshire, and Manchester, England
- Birmingham, Alabama, and Birmingham, England
- Salvador, Brazil, and San Salvador, El Salvador
What is the Cancellation Policy?
If you're concerned that your flight might be too good to be true, Ma says it's crucial to check the cancellation policy before booking. "All airlines must have a 24-hour risk-free cancellation policy per U.S. Department of Transportation regulations if the flight departs or arrives in the United States," he says. "Does the site that is offering the flash sale offer it? If not, is the sale available elsewhere that does?"
The takeaway? Read the fine print, and make sure you're protected before booking. "In general, we worry less about whether or not it's too good to be true and rely on the various protections in place," he says. "We also wait a week or two after the purchase of the flash sale airfare before making any other prepaid travel arrangements to ensure the issued ticket is valid."
Have you had experience with hidden fees?