Friday, June 17, 2016

Making the Most when Paying for your Flights

Gone are the days when calling the airline or visiting a travel agency was your only option to book a flight. Now there are so many on-line sites offering myriads of flight options in a variety of prices to get you from point A to B.
Many of these sites also compare findings from other sites. This is a great way to compare prices and itineraries.

My current go to site is Skyscanner Canada.

Other favourites are:

Google Flights is good for researching flights, but often the options you find are unavailable when it comes time to book.

All of these web sites cover different airlines and have a variety of different combinations to get you there and home.....which is important because, like booking points, it gives you the option to choose a long layover. Please see my previous blog post to find out more about layovers.

In my last post, I discussed taking advantage of a long layover. If the layover is long enough, you can do a sample tour of a city.

My husband and younger son booked their flights to Cape Town and home from Nairobi, deliberately with a long layover in mind. They will stop for almost twenty hours in Abu Dhabi on the way to Africa and for the same amount of time in Dubai on the way home. Fortunately, I managed to get a long layover in Dubai on the way home for my eldest son and myself at the same time so the whole family can check out the city.

Don’t forget that when paying for your flights, as mentioned in my last post, you still want to keep track of extra fees and taxes.

So now is the time to flex those fingers, and get ready to flight shop.

Please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other tips or questions about this topic.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Booking Flights through Aeroplan Frequent Flyer Points

 When it came down to booking our flights for Africa, the first thing I did was check my frequent flyer points.

Frequent Flyer points are a beautiful thing. They usually (not always) save you money and they add options that I can’t always afford when paying outright for flights.

I’ve been saving my Airmiles for over a decade, so I checked there first. It was no surprise that despite having lots of points, I couldn’t get any flights to where I wanted to go. I will talk more about Airmiles in a future post.....probably on a day that I’m in the mood to rant.

The next place I looked was with Aeroplan. Because I use my Aeroplan points fairly frequently, I only had enough points to get two tickets to Cape Town, South Africa. If we wanted the whole family to be on the same flights, it gets really expensive to pay for the other tickets. We decided to travel in pairs, save some money and meet up in Cape Town. Since my eldest son, Graham and I have flexible schedules, we decided to take a bit more time and book using the points.

Points allowed Graham and me to take advantage of one stop-over option as well as having an open jaw itinerary. (An open jaw is when you fly into one place and out of another). Unfortunately, the Aeroplan web site does not have the capabilities to book an open jaw flight together with a stopover; you must use their call centre to book that type of itinerary...and there is a $30 per ticket fee to book through their call centre.

Graham and I decided we wanted to fly from Toronto and have a one week stop-over in Morocco before flying to Cape Town to meet my husband and younger son, Cameron. At the end of the trip we will fly back to Toronto from Nairobi. So we knew the dates and locations we wanted to fly to, so it was time to use our points.

I prepared before dialing Aeroplan’s call centre. 

It’s a good idea to study the flight options for your destination on the Aeroplan site. Their web site shows the same flight options that are available to the Aeroplan phone consultant. Decide ahead of time which flight options you want so that you are not rushed for a decision when on the phone with the Aeroplan consultant.

In my case, there were many possible airline combinations for the three main flight legs of our trip. I studied the details of all the options.

When looking at the options, the Aeroplan site shows you:
1. How many flight changes (layovers) there are.
2. How long each flight takes.
3. Which airports/city the layovers are in.
4. How long between flights.
5. The total number of hours of the layover.   
6. Total travel time from departure to final destination.

Most people look for the most direct route that takes the shortest time to their final destination. I often look for the longest total travel time because this usually means that you have a very long layover somewhere (hopefully somewhere exciting). If the layover is long enough, say 8-20 hours, you can leave the airport and tour the city.  Our family did this on two separate occasions; once in Barcelona and another time in Istanbul. It’s a great way to get a taste of the city.

If you plan to do this, check how long it takes to travel from the airport to the city centre and factor that along with the time it takes to depart the flight and a minimum of two hours to check in for your next flight. Decide if that gives you enough time to see what you want to see.

Graham and I will have an eight hour layover in Lisbon on our flight from Morocco to Cape Town. We will also have a fifteen hour layover in Dubai, on our way home from Nairobi. 

Plan the details of your layover ahead of time. Do the research so that you can maximize your touring time when you are actually there.

Booking on points is not free. You still have to pay for taxes, fees and surcharges. Sometimes you can pay for these by using extra points or you can pay by cash/credit card. These fees vary greatly depending on which airport you are arriving and departing from, what countries you are in and which airlines you are flying. Literally it can mean hundreds or even over a thousand dollars difference in flight itineraries. For example Air Canada has very high surcharges (including a fuel surcharge that hasn’t gone down with the price of gas), whereas Ethiopian Airlines has very low fees.

The best way to get an indication of what the extra costs are is to go on the site and look at how much it costs if you booked each leg of the flight separately.  As I said, this just gives you an indication of the extra fees because more fees are added if you book a whole itinerary instead of booking each flight separately....Don’t ask me why. That is just the way it is.

If you have any questions, comments or advice on this topic, please drop me a line.

I will let you know about how we got a great price that includes a few layovers with my husband and younger son's paid flights in my next posting.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Choosing the Right Tour for Africa

After a five year hiatus to care for my parents in their final years and subsequently deal with the estate, I find myself back to writing my blog. The difficult times have highlighted the importance of appreciating the people I love and living life to its fullest.

With an impending empty nest adjustment looming this fall, my husband and I want to have an extended period of quality time with our sons. Africa seems like the perfect place to go for a seven week, once in a lifetime adventure.

We actually secured our tours before booking our flights.

We decided to start in Cape Town, South Africa for three days on our own before starting the tour with Nomad African Adventure Tours which travels through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and ends in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We’ll spend a few days exploring Victoria Falls on our own before flying to Nairobi. Our safari company, It Started in Africa, will pick us up from the airport and take us directly to Arusha,Tanzania where we begin our one week safari. Most of what we are doing in Africa is with tour companies.

Finding the right tour is not as easy as you may think. There are hundreds of them out there, all with different styles of travel and in a large range of prices. Our family decided on doing a fairly basic tour; camping in tents and bringing our own sleeping bags with Nomad Tours. The company provides the tents, mattresses on the ground and most meals. Washrooms are mostly shared.

We also searched through many Tanzanian safari companies before deciding on a private one week jeep safari with "It Started in Africa". They customized our tour with a mix of camping, hotels and lodges. They supply all the linens and tents.

One of the first places we look when searching for a tour company is on Trip Advisor. We check out the approval ratings and read all the comments from travelers. Since these comments come from real people and are often detailed, it gives a good idea of what you are buying into.

Next we choose our top companies and send them inquiries for detailed itineraries and request a quote. This also gives us an idea of what the tour companies consider "must see" sights are for the area.

Now that we have a better idea of what we want to see, we contact our three or four favourites, give them an outline of exactly what we want and have all of them quote with the same specifications. This allows us to compare apples with apples when the quotes come in.

I always make a point to speak to our top tour operator choices. There is a feeling that you can get from a voice that just can't be replaced by an email. I feel that how they answer the questions in person also gives a deeper reading into how I would be treated as a client.

If there is something that concerns me about what I hear, or the itinerary, now is the time to bring it up. They are more likely to offer you extras or bend the rules a bit, before they have your money. For example, Nomad Tours allows you to bring one duffel bag and one day pack and a sleeping bag. I had back surgery a few years ago, so I want to bring an extra self inflating sleeping mattress with me but with seven weeks of supplies in my duffel bag, it won’t fit. I brought this up with Nomad Tours before we booked and they agreed to let me bring it as well as my duffel bag for no extra charge.

Finally, we go back to trip advisor to check out the ratings for all the accommodations and sites that are suggested by the tour companies...even campgrounds are rated on trip advisor.

Our next step, was to book our flights. But that’s a topic for my next blog post.

If you have any questions, comments or tips, I would love to hear from you.