Why Cheap Flights Aren’t Always Best to Buy

A view from above an airport while people wait for their cheap flightThere are many ways to find cheap flights, and most people try to find the cheapest one possible when they go on vacation. There are some great search engines out there like Momondo, Skyscanner, Vayama, and Mobissimo to help you, but should you always go for the cheapest flight? Is that always the best way to go?

Last year, I decided to join the Oneworld network, which meant I had to join American’s frequent flier program. Let me tell you—I’m not a big fan of American Airlines. (Though they’re better than United.) Their planes are old, they never have personal viewing screens, and microwaved food is a better option than what they serve in coach. But I fly them because my frequent flier miles transfer to their partners I love to fly—Japan Airlines, Cathay, and Qantas.

But flying these big, international carriers rarely gets me a cheap fare. My flight back to America could have been $200 cheaper if I’d flown Aer Lingus. My flights around the States could have been 50% less if I’d flown Southwest, Air Tran, or JetBlue. My return flight to Europe is on Air France, because I simply couldn’t justify the huge ransom American was asking.

So why do I, a budget traveler with numerous articles on flying cheaply, spend the money on such flights instead of going for the cheapest deal? Because when you’re a frequent flier, cheap flights are not a cheap long-term option. If you only take a couple flights a year, going for the lowest cost is exactly what you should do. A free flight isn’t worth the time it would take you to accrue the miles to get it, especially considering the higher flight costs. Go cheap, save money, and don’t worry about miles. But if you fly a lot each year or take even just a few long-haul flights, joining a frequent flier program and accruing miles makes much more sense.

Because you get elite status, and elite status on airlines gets you a number of perks:

  • Quicker check-in
  • Quicker boarding
  • No baggage fees
  • Airline lounge access
  • Complimentary upgrades
  • Quicker security screening

For someone who’s in the airport every other week, those things are real luxuries. They make a big difference to me. Long lines for both check-in and security are very frustrating. You know the drill but most people don’t. I hate it when I’m in the security line with my shoes off and laptop out while the person ahead of me is still fumbling for the bin. Additionally, elite status gives you lounge access. Airline lounges have good, free food, drinks, and free internet, which can make long layovers and waits more bearable. Most importantly, though, elite status gives you free upgrades and the ability to get business class and first-class tickets at a coach price. Not having to be in coach on a 14-hour flight to Tokyo? Priceless.

For long-term and frequent travelers, it makes a lot of sense to join these programs. You fly a lot and should be rewarded as such. Even if you’re on a one-year trip around the world, you should join a frequent flier program. During your trip around the world, you’ll take at least six flights, most of which will be long haul. By the time you reach the end of your trip, you’ll have accumulated enough points for a free flight, which can be used to extend your trip, or—should you have trouble dealing with being home—a quick trip somewhere. Though you’ll be paying extra, the perks will pay for themselves in no time, as you’ll be flying more comfortably.

Moreover, there are plenty of good ways to gain points before you leave. If you get a rewards credit card, you can get points for every dollar you spend. My American Airlines account has over 40,000 points because of flight points, a huge sign-up bonus (25,000), and spending. I’m already close enough for a free international flight, and I’ve done nothing special.

Last year, I paid thousands of dollars more for flights than I normally would have. But, while I often take cheap short-haul flights, paying more throughout the year to have a comfortable experience and be upgraded into business and first class is worth it.

For infrequent fliers, it makes little sense to pay for premium flights. You should always go cheap. But for frequent fliers, long-term travelers, or round-the-worlders, signing up for a rewards program and paying for flights on the big airlines will benefit you greatly over the long-term as you accumulate miles and elite status quickly. This will get you free flights to keep you traveling longer. When you travel often, it’s important to travel smarter, and sometimes cheap isn’t the smartest option.

  1. Matt,
    You’re spot on about the cheapest not always being the best….and the One World alliance certainly has its perks.

    A benefit of elite status on AA that I didn’t see mentioned is that the fee for the first checked bag is waived.

    On rewards programs for credit cards and such I would mention the AmEx Starwood Preferred guest program as being superior – I know, it’s not directly related to airline miles, but the reward points are transferable to your FF account. And don’t forget, you don’t have to be a business to apply for a business card (sort of a way to ‘double-dip’ the rewards)

    You’re certainly not alone in despising American Airlines, but I just don’t understand it. I mean, I agree, they suck – but no more than any other major U.S. carrier at least in my experience.

    What airport/airline lounges have you gotten free WiFi?

    • NomadicMatt

      All the major lounges have wi-fi. The American ones do I know for sure.

      and excellent point about the baggage fees.

  2. You make great points. Sticking with Delta has certainly made our flying experiences much more pleasant. We leaned towards them during our travels before moving abroad and now the perks are worth so much more than saving a few dollars here and there. Nothing can compare to skipping the long line in the Sao Paulo airport when we go back and forth to Brazil, that alone is priceless. Not to mention our trips to the Caribbean the past few years have been on FF miles. Now with baggage costs it is even nice to save $15 when we can!

  3. Excellent article Matt! Because of the huge amount of competition with Low Cost Carriers in Europe, a lot of Europeans simply don’t know that these programs exist (the likes of Ryanair etc. are not part of the major programs). I was among these people until last year when an American couchsurfer told me that I was crazy for not being a part of a program considering how much I travel.
    I’ve been going with Air France and their partners since then and hopefully when I get to the next level I’ll see some benefits, although I still don’t actually travel that much; maybe just 4-8 times a year (since I travel to live in places for several months at a time). When the ticket price difference isn’t that much I’ll go with an option that will earn me miles. Sadly it’s too complicated for me to earn in other ways like use of credit cards etc.
    Try to share this info with Europeans; they’ll thank you for it!! :) A lot of us would travel further afield but still not actually have a FF number. I’ve mentioned this several times and people really are in the dark on this side of the pond!!
    Air France are taking me from Prague (actually Czech airlines to Paris first, but it’s the one ticket) to Rio soon. Can’t wait!! And I get my seat screen too 😀

  4. Agree with that one Matt. We specialise in round the world airfares that sometimes are either done by alliances or other times done by combination airfares. The alliance airfares can be a bit more but I think are worth it with internal flights included and mileage accrual all on the one ticket. We travel a fair bit for work in Australia and belong to both an Air NZ membership and Qantas frequent flyers. Qantas is also good as we can accrue points on credit cards and transfer them over. For around $300 per year we get a Qantas Club lounge pass [if we flew a bit more we’d get it for free but have to be gold] which is such a huge benefit. Every time we’re at an airport it’d cost us $10-15 each for food and drink and for the 1 pass myself and 1 guest [my partner] can go in. So for every return trip we do we’re getting at least $20-30 worth of stuff…although I tend to sink a few beers and that value goes north. But I guess it’s more the intangibles…for that pass we can also line up in the business class queue and get extra luggage allowance. So true though, if you’re going more than once a year international and a few short haul trips it’s best to view your travel spend as a value rather than cost focus.

    • NomadicMatt

      I agree that once you travel a lot, it’s more about value than cost. I fly a lot so I want to have comfort and that’s whats important- comfort. It’s about the intangibles.

  5. NomadicMatt

    Well, I actually don’t think RTW tickets are cheaper than “a string of cheap flights.” I traveled around the for only a few grand because I strung together cheap flights. But if you are looking for freebies and luxury, then a RTW ticket is the better option, especially if you continue to travel afterwards.

    However, with credit card miles and cheap airlines, you can travel cheaper than a RTW ticket.

    • Mm I don’t agree necessarily with that. But, we are both in Aussie so for our market it’s perhaps a little different. We don’t have a regulated system of one way fares [yet] so there isn’t a lot of choice for long haul point to point to point to point fares.
      The SWISS fare in my book, see http://www.roundabouttravel.com.au/info/airfare_deals/deals/swiss_airlines_rtw, is consistently the best if you couple it with some LCC flights in between. That ticket for AUD2600-2800 will get you into and out of 3 continents as long as you go in one direction and the middle continent is Europe.
      i.e. Aus – North America – Europe – Asia is the most common but South America and Africa as also available….considering that and the route options to make your own way if you want, such as into Jo’berg out of Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam, it’s damn good value and I don’t think point to point fares can come close to it. Buttttt, that’s because we are a long way for anywhere and have our own market conditions.

  6. I belong to every frequent flyer program known to man. Eventually, I figure I’ll accrue enough points on each to get me something. United/Star Alliance is my main program, and here are some of the benefits I get out of that:

    If you book a coach ticket in Y, M, B, or H class, you can use your United Miles to upgrade to business class. YMBH are usually a little bit more expensive, but if you’re on a long-haul flight, paying $200 to $400 more might be worth it to you. Remember business class comes with other perks: two carry-ons, use of the Red Carpet Club, priority check-in, priority security, priority boarding.

    If you have status on most programs (i.e., not the basic level but some sort of Gold or Silver status), you can usually use the lounges even if you’re flying coach. Also, you get priority check-in, priority security, and priority boarding.

    In 2004, I used my Star Alliance miles to fly from London to Seoul round-trip in business class on Lufthansa. FOR FREE.

    Last month, I used the RCC in Chicago on my way to London. I was flying an upgraded coach ticket, so I was International Business. I got two free drink tickets for the lounge and free wireless. This was awesome because my flight ended up delayed for 90 minutes so I could just hang out and surf the web.

    When I had Premier Executive Status on United–roughly from 2004 to 2006–I was upgraded all the time. That was awesome. You also earn more miles if you have status. i forget if it.s 1.25 or 1.5 miles per mile flown, but it’s something like that.

    One thing you don’t mention, Matt that might be worth exploring. Sign up for credit cards that get you miles. I have a United Visa and a British Airways AMEX. I’ve accumulated something like 80,000 miles on my BA Amex over the years that is just waiting to be spent!

  7. I’ve often wondered this. I flew to Thailand with Thai Air from London (one of the Star Alliance) and then made 3 more trips to Japan and back with them. I am probably going to fly with them again next year to the same area. I always assume frequent fliers are, you know, for frequent. Don’t know how useful or cost effective it’d be for 3/4 trips/year

  8. Great post.

    I agree that if you don’t travel as often it might not worth it. But don’t forget that frequent flier miles program mostly accrue by miles. So even if you don’t travel very often but on a long trip then it will definitely add up. For me, a couple trips to Thailand will already give me free domestic ticket in the US. But lately, I have seen the increase in their redeem program. It seems to take more points than in the past to get free tickets. Economy?

    • NomadicMatt

      All the airlines are making it harder!! I agree. It’s a growing trend that hurts people on the edge of reward programs. Those who fly “just enough” to get in.

  9. I’ve had a few cheap flights that cost a lot of time and suffering. Yet, I’ve always had a good trip with Continental (I live near their hub). Granted, part of that is luck, but it still makes me feel good about flying with them. However, I would still choose a cheaper flight if I was going to save a significant amount of money.

  10. Andrew

    Hey Matt,

    Another great article. I am with you on the hatred of American Airlines, but I am also using their AAdvantage with tons of points on my card. I am using some of those miles next week for a Denver to NYC flight and will be lucky enough to qualify for first class.

    But I agree with you 110%, if you are a once or twice a year flier, then simply use a kayak or other travel search engine for the lowest deal. Plus of course always check the airline’s website (sometimes prices are cheaper).

    Enjoy Europe and I look forward to your posts from overseas…next time you are in the NY area we have to meet up for a drink or twelve.



  11. I abslutely 100% agree that cheap and budget flights are often not the best. In fact when you really nail down the costs such as ground transport from the far out of the way airports then it can be more expensive.
    More than anythign though, the service can often be poor.

    • NomadicMatt

      It depends what you are going after but many times, especially when it comes to RyanAir, you are just better going with a major carrier.

  12. Frequent flyer may be the way to go for long haul and flights from the states but I suspect that when you get to Europe you’ll be making best friends with Easyjet, Ryanair and Flybe.

  13. The airlines that give frequent flyer miles are the ones that usually book you on other airlines without extra charge, when needed, if their flights are cancelled or overbooked. That is a huge advantage.

    Not so with the Allegiant Airs, Ryanairs, Southwests, and Westjets of the world.

    However, follow Anil. Use traditional airlines like American and Delta only when they are “a bit more expensive,” not when there is a significant difference.

  14. Bravo!

    Your blog was very informative and spot on.

    I love that you compare frequent fliers to causal fliers.

    Everyone is watching their dollars and cents, but I firmly believe in “knowing where you’re spending your money.” Don’t blindly splash your cash! Once you’ve determined your budget, you can get a better idea of where you have financial wiggle room. Flights aren’t simply transportation, they are part of your travel experience. No sense in being a basket-case at the end of a long-haul journey if it means scrimping and saving. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “If you’ve truly enjoyed yourself, the great memories will outlast the price.”


  15. Katie

    Your article is written (so very typically!) from the point of view of an American – which is reflected in your attitude. IMHO frequent flyers should be penalised not rewarded…for screwing up the environment.

  16. Avery Mclees

    Another Great blog post, I will bookmark this in my Newsvine account. Have a great day.

  17. I’m definitely trying to max out my purchases on one alliance only. But this year I opened my first travel credit card and so far have jumped from 17,000 FF miles to 77,000 FF in 2 months just for opening a credit card. The funny thing is, I haven’t even flown yet this year.

    • NomadicMatt

      It’s amazing! I use credit cards all the time to jump my balance. I got over 300k FF miles from American Airlines that way.

  18. I’ve come to this realization recently. I usually just book the cheapest and deal with short layovers, sleeping in airports and multiple flight later. I didn’t mind either. However these days, I’m either getting too old for it or have just wised up!! My last long flight was absolute hell. It got really messed up in the end, but looking at the itinerary I should have known it would have. I think next flight I will go for the better itinerary, even if it is $100 more. I’m thinking of opting for some kind of rewards program from now on if I am spending a bit more anyway.

    • NomadicMatt

      At some point, it’s better to pay a little extra for some comfort, especially on a very long flight.

  19. Well said, Matt. And my friend put it really well when I wasn’t sure what to do about a NY–>HK flight where my airline alliance of choice (Star Alliance) was $400 more than the cheapest flight. If your goal is to get free flights, pick the cheapest option, save $400 and use THAT $400 toward a free flight! Boom!

  20. Youri

    It really depends where you’re from. The Frequent Flyer Programs in Europe are often not that awesome. I’m a member of SkyTeam and I fly regularly from Amsterdam to Mexico and back with KLM which is 5700 miles (one-way). The cheapest seats however just reward you with 25% of the miles, if you want the full 100% you’ll pay 1000 euros more on a return ticket. For me that’s not worth it, also no signing up bonuses for creditcards and the miles you earn with them don’t count towards your status (to get you to Elite), just for getting free flights.

  21. Ray

    I used this article primarily to see what flight search engines you would recommend as I am now booking my flight to Brazil next year for World Cup.

    It turns out that Momondo helped me out the most by providing me with some extra flight schedules/airline options that unfortunately neither SkyScanner nor Kayak had at the moment.

    I ended up having to pay almost $300 more than I was expecting ($1620 vs. $1318 CDN on flights listed on Skyscanner), but (a.) I get to spend an extra night in Rio toward the end of my trip, and (b.) while my return trip from Toronto to Rio includes 2 layovers there and back, the average wait time is about 2 1/2 – 3 hours at each airport. That is also important in case any of my connecting flights are delayed slightly.

    On a side note, some of the “cheaper” flights on Skyscanner were already booked by the time I tried to make an online payment. When I called up their recommended flight search engine, I was told by Customer Service that those flights were already booked, and that their system was down at the moment. Their next available Economy flights were heading up in the $1800 range already, so Momondo actually saved me some money in the end!

    Thanks to your advice in this article, Matt, I was able to find a balance between cost and convenience for this trip! I just thought you should know! Thanks again.

    BTW, I am an Aeroplan Member (Star Alliance), so as an added bonus, the best flight option for this trip happens to be all Star Alliance members — Air Canada/United Airlines, and TAM. That should allow me to finally earn enough points to get a free trip somewhere within North America within the near future! 😉

  22. Neal

    Hey Matt,
    Not sure where to post this one:
    I have access to a free house in Costa Rica (House-sitting). It’s available all of Q1-2014. I can only spare a week or so of vacation (yep – trapped by the cubical walls). Is there a website where I can tell them when I am avalable to fly (Say Jan 15 to March 30) and my “price” & duration (1 week) and they will tell me when such a flight comes up? I could probably get by with 24 hours notice. They have an empty seat to fill? Maybe tap into some of these folks who charter the blocks of flights and don’t fill them all?

    Love the blog,