Why you should care
These tips help you book now and find better options later.
You’ve known since September that you’re going on a spring break trip with your family. But here it is almost April — the clock is ticking, and you still can’t decide whether you want to swim with the nurse sharks in Mexico or go dog-sledding with huskies in Montana. The kids are screaming that, once more, you’re ruining their lives with such indecision.
Who would have guessed that the answer for the wishy-washy traveler in all of us is actually not an app but good old-fashioned ingenuity, provided by loopholes that the travel industry hopes you won’t figure out. Like those dollar seats that some, need we say, savvy folks have uncovered, or taking advantage of a relatively new traveler-friendly regulation. Bon voyage.
Use Your 24-Hour Window
Great news: The government can help ease your indecision. Federal law requires airlines to allow customers to either cancel a flight reservation for a full refund within 24 hours of booking or put a reservation on hold (no payment required) for 24 hours at the quoted fare. Not sure which flight you want? Hold or book a few of them, and then cancel when you get better intel. Though it may take a few days to get all your cash back after canceling a paid reservation, you may find a cheaper flight in the meantime. Research shows fares usually drop in the 24-hour window. United Airlines offers a FareLock option, which, for a small fee, holds a customer’s itinerary at the quoted fare for three to seven days. Though FareLock is not available on all flights, whenever it is, it buys you more time to decide.
Tip: Buy a ticket on every bus you could plausibly take.
Don’t Select Your Seat
We’ve all been there — you’ve finally made a decision and are ready to book. Alas, your only choices are the middlest of middle seats, those right by the restroom or, worse, premium seats. But don’t lose hope. Avoid temptation and do not select a seat. That’s right: Simply skip that page and book the flight. If you have a paid ticket, they have to let you on the flight. Yes, you might get stuck in one of those crappy seats. But, as George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog notes, “If in fact all the ‘cheap’ seats are taken, you’ll get a premium economy seat when you check in.” In any case, you can’t do any worse, so live a little and roll the dice!
Buy $1 Tickets
Even savvy travelers sometimes end up ticketless. But other tricks are available — like going by land, for example. Megabus, a bus company in the U.S., Canada and Europe, uses a pricing scheme called yield management that can work to your advantage: It charges $1 per ticket for the first batch of tickets. So if you think you want to travel on a given weekend, just buy a ticket on every bus you could plausibly take. Polina Raygorodskaya of Wanderu.com also suggests that “combined with buying in advance, booking off-peak times is the other key to the $1 Megabus ticket.” Even five $1 tickets still add up to less than the usual last-minute price of around $40 — and it’s much cheaper than airfare.
To some people, tips like canceling and rebooking your ticket or buying tickets you won’t use might seem like you’re ripping off the travel industry. Sure, it might not be what the companies intended. But with change fees reaching up to $250, isn’t it better to make changes on their dime rather than on yours?