Purchasing a flight 3 months in advance is always taxing. The best thing you can do is figure out everything you can confirm, like the airport you need to arrive at, then work your way down to time, then to price, airline, baggage situation, ect.
I sent an email to the farmer asking if he would share with me the best way to get to his farm. I asked him for a good time to arrive and if there was an ideal bus situation. His response was:
The nearest to my place would be Catania airport and from there you can take a bus directly to PIAZZA ARMERINA if you arrive at a reasonable time in any weekdays.except sunday
This was enough information to start shopping because I had a concrete place to fly into and a vague time frame. Call me old school, but I use Orbitz, Google Flights, and Expedia. There are so many metrics for choosing the most ideal flight and everyone has a different order, but here are mine:
Departure times and dates
If you are like me, you are a corporate drone that lives and dies by PTO. Choosing trips around company holidays can make a world of difference when trying to maximize time. My goal for this Italy trip was to take 10 work days off, so two full weeks. However, my company gets a Friday off in April (thanks Jesus!), so I chose to leave around that Friday. This adds an entire day to my trip for free. Additionally, sometimes there is a late Thursday flight you can take and almost get two bonus days. Also, most of these international trips are offered in similar intervals. For example, there may be a flight to Amsterdam every day at 2:00 pm. You can use that pattern to maximize your time and set filters for flight searches. Prices will fluctuate based on demand, so leaving on a Thursday may save you a ton of money vs. leaving on a Friday.
I don’t like wasting too much time in the air or on the floor. That being said, I’ve slept in the Dubai, Dehli, and Doha airports in my younger years and it was totally worth it for the savings. However, as I get older, the jet-lag and the back pain isn’t worth $300 anymore. I rather be refreshed and maximize my time traveling, but there is a cost associated with that. If $300 is going to buy me an entire extra day in my target location, then I’ll spend it on the flight. Usually, the time in the air is about the same regardless of airline, but the time in the connecting airport is where you can lose or gain time. I’d recommend trying to minimize layovers. From a “making your connecting flight” safety standpoint, I am not huge on the 9 hour layover in France where you go into town, take a picture, and come back. If I want to go to France, I’ll come back. This idea of “well we are here we may as well” is so 1980’s. Insinuating that you won’t be able to visit Europe again is just an antiquated thought in my opinion. It isn’t going anywhere. Going into a city is usually a 50 minute commute both ways in a taxi/uber and what you get out of being in the middle of a big city is usually not much. You end up spending way more on seeing nothing spectacular. Moral of the story, try to minimize those layovers and don’t get sucked into the 10 hour overnight-er in Amsterdam where you are going to maximize your trip to go see something for 5 minutes and risk eating a brownie that will make you miss your flight to your final destination.
Airline Company Switches
You can usually save $200-$300 by hopping around airlines, but it comes at a cost. For one, you can’t send your bag the entire way without the added risk of them losing it. Also, if one airline cancels, the other isn’t going to just let you hop on theirs. Additionally, you are probably buying this through a 3rd party, like Expedia, and the airline itself isn’t as nice to third party purchasers. I like to stick to one airline so that game day is easier to organize. One itinerary just seems to ease a lot of nerves. If one airline pushes their flight four hours and that makes you miss your connecting flight, there is no recourse. If you are on the same airline, you will get bumped or accommodated. This is my third bullet, so it isn’t a make or break ordeal. If you can save a ton of money, I’d probably do it.
Sit your butt in economy, but I wouldn’t live and die by price. I’d give yourself about $300 of wiggle room in order to accommodate for the first three bullet points
So you found a flight to Iceland for $400? Guess what - your carry-on is probably going to be $150 at the gate, food will not be free, and you are going to land at 1 am when there are no taxis and your hotel is closed. Finding an airline with included meals, drinks, and baggage can save you hundreds of dollars. These are the hidden costs pro-tips that can really make or break your trip. I haven’t been on an international flight that didn’t feed me 3 meals and that is because I stay away from budget airlines. Additionally, they have always had infinite drinks (including wine and beer) and they have always let me carry on my bag all at no additional cost.
I put this last not because it is not important, but because there will be much less wiggle room on this by the time you choose everything else. If you can get there and back with the first five bullet points checked, you probably have narrowed it down to just one or two flights. At this point, you won’t be swimming in options. For the most part, make sure you can get to the airport at a reasonable time and that you give yourself a day or two back home before work starts. The lack of options at this point makes this a low priority more than anything.
I used Expedia, Google Flights, and Orbitz to get a feel for the options. Here is what I knew:
I needed to get there on a week day at a reasonable time for the farmer to pick me up
I needed to be at the Catania Airport
I needed to get there at a time when I could get a bus ticket to Piazza Armerina
I needed to either leave on Good Friday and Thursday so I could maximize my time off
I also had the luxury of either flying out of Austin or Houston, so I toggled between cities and dates. I made an excel spreadsheet that looked like this:
I used Yelp! and researched these flights. As noted earlier, many of these go in daily intervals, so they are used a lot and people have opinions that they post. My findings basically, very quickly, knocked out the Norwegian flight due to it being a “budget” airline. Flights had been postponed and it clearly wasn’t a comfortable flight according to the reviews. However, also noted earlier, that wouldn’t have deterred me in my 20’s. In this case, I was willing to pay a premium, mainly because my trip was three months away and I would lose sleep over it.
The Austin flight with multiple airlines wasn’t going to work because I didn’t want to arrive a 11 pm. 11 pm arrival means you will be leaving the airport around 1 am after landing, taxiing the plane, and going through customs. Arriving in a foreign country during the night is just not a great position from a safety standpoint. I was also traveling alone so my risk tolerance was even lower than usual.
The Austin flight on Delta/KLM (basically the same airline) scared me off due to the 2 hour layover. I’d recommend nothing less than 4 hours when connecting international flights. Two hours is doable, but everything will have to go perfect in order to get on your connector. Remember that you will be in a new airport in a land of a language you probably don’t know and you will be waiting in the “non national” passport line in customs. These are also huge airports, so travel time between terminals can be 40 minutes alone. I once missed a connecting flight in Paris from Scotland to Greece because it took us almost an hour to get from one flight to another.
The Houston Flight on the 19th was $241 more than the flight on Thursday, so I decided to take a half day Thursday and buy the April 18th one instead. This was a pretty simple choice at this point.
The Houston flight on the 18th was pretty darn good. The 3 pm departure allowed me to work until 11 am, hop in an Uber, and get to the airport with three hours to spare. Also, it was on one airline, so all the noted headaches above did not apply. Lastly, the five hour layover was the perfect amount of time. This would give me time to find my gate, walk around for up to 3 hours after a long flight, and even have myself a baguette or two. Additionally, I could try to figure out my cash situation while I was at a big airport. There are probably more options and better rates in Paris than the small Catania airport.
The return flight situation wasn’t great, but it wasn’t difficult either. The same price and layover on two different days. I decided to take the May 3rd flight and deal with the 14 hour overnight layover in Paris later on. In fact, I probably wouldn’t assess that situation until my first layover in the airport. The five hour layover would give me time to see if there was a comfortable place to rest or even an in-airport lounge or hotel. In Dubai, they have pods where you can just rent a bed in a dark room for a few hours, so I’m always open to ideas that don’t require me to leave the airport. I would have dealt with this different if it was on the way there, but by the return flight I would be in total expert travel mode and be able to make a decision on the fly.
I decided to purchase my flight on the KLM website instead of through a third party. I always recommend this if possible. Airlines are much nicer to people who use their services. Now, this is the part of the process where you learn about baggage fees, meals, and seat assignments. I say this because I don’t want you to sit down with your credit card thinking you will be done in five minutes. This is actually the most stressful time for me. Also, have your passport ready because you will want to enter than information as well. Lastly, do a VISA check to make sure you don’t need a travel visa to go somewhere. Americans do not need one for Italy, but when I went to India, I most certainly did and that involved mailing off my passport at their consulate. If that is the case, you will want to do that as soon as possible.
First, I checked out the food situation, I did some google searching and that said the food and drink situation was fine. The airline website even told you how many meals you would get and asked if you had any diet preferences. Moral of the story, food and beverage was included.
Second, the baggage situation. This was merely on the screen. It wanted to know if I wanted to purchase a checked bag or additional bags. This means that you don’t get a free checked bag, which is pretty common on an economy flight. However, they also had the dimensions and weights for a free carry on. This is were I quite literally got a tape measure and measured the dimensions of my bag. The weight situation I don’t worry about because if it fits but doesn’t meet the weight requirements, you can just put on clothes until it does. The second you get your ticket, you can repack the bag. After using an inches to centimeters conversation tool, I learned my bag was going to meet the requirements for a free carry on. This was a huge win. If your bag doesn’t fit, this could be a point where you either decide to shell out some more money or reassess your bag situation. It is usually cheaper to buy a bag online than at the gate. Again, this is why I don’t recommend sitting down with your credit card. Set aside some time to feel great about your purchase.
Lastly, the seat situation. I was about to purchase four flights. Two flights that were over seven hours, and two flights that were three hours. First, I went to Seat Guru, a website that quite literally polls people and gives you reviews on every seat on the plane. The airline website will tell you what airplane you will be on. At this point, you can see if there is a solid movie situation, comfortable seats, learn about bathrooms, and even see if there is WIFI and USB plugs for your phone (what a world we live in).
I decided to purchase seats on the two long flights for $40 each and just go lottery on the shorter flights. I will admit, most people think purchasing a seat is a waste of money, but I beg to differ. I can’t stress enough how much of a positive impact walking around and drinking water can have on your ability to beat jet-lag. Do some research and you will find the benefits are clear. I always recommend purchasing a middle row aisle seat (usually there are 3 seats, an aisle, 4 seats, an aisle, and another 3 seats). This is because people often travel in pairs and individuals are usually flying on company dime and will use their funds to buy an aisle seat. This means there is a good shot there will be an empty seat next to you if you are solo. Additionally, if you are next to a group of three in a row of four, usually the person next to you will actually go out the long way in order to not bother you. They rather inconvenience their friend than wake you up. This is why I recommend the middle row aisle and not the sides that usually have three seats. You will be getting up every single time someone needs to get up and that is obnoxious. The aisle gives you the ability to drink as much water as you want because you can always use the bathroom without inconveniencing anyone, which is key on these long flights. I probably drink 2-3 liters on each international flight and get up often to walk around and stretch. Hydration and blood flow is paramount for beating jet-lag.
Finally, after researching the food, measuring my bag, and googling best seats, I bought the flight. Using this process to purchase a flight can feel more like an Olympic event than a typical airline purchase, but setting time aside to buy the perfect flight can truly enhance your trip.