Aug. 12, 2009 — -- Today, cheap is chic. The less you pay, the smarter you look. But when it comes to flights, the cheapest airfare isn't always the cheapest. Confused? I'll explain and show you how to save money.
Let's start with this example: You need a flight from New York to, say, Los Angeles with a departure around 9 a.m. And let's say there are three such flights, on three different airlines: one out of LaGuardia, one from JFK and another out of Newark. Which do you choose?
Why, the cheapest, of course. But what if they all cost the same? Doesn't matter which one you choose, right? Wrong.
There's more to your airfare than the price listed on that e-ticket. In fact, "same price" flights can vary by hundreds of dollars. It's up to you to figure out all the extras -- what you have to factor in to get a true picture of what you will pay, but I'm here to help. Let's start with the basics.
Airport: Which one is closest to home? Time is money, and if you are forced to rise long before dawn to get to the airport on time, that's going to cost you. Only you know how valuable your time is but don't forget to factor it in. If you live in Manhattan, the LaGuardia flight might be best. If Long Island is home, JFK might be easiest.
On-Time Arrivals: If your flight is taking you to an important business meeting that you cannot miss, here's a tip: Check with the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics, to see which of the three flights has a better "on-time arrival" percentage. This can vary widely, so hit the flight statistics Web site and get the facts.
Ground Transport: Figure the cost of taxis, hired cars or mass transit. If you're driving yourself, add in the parking fees (but don't forget that these days, many airport parking facilities offer discounts and coupons -- look them up on your airport's Web site).
Baggage: Which airline charges and which is "fee free"? Bag fees add up. American Airlines recently upped its rates so you now pay $100 for checking two bags roundtrip. Plus, airlines like Delta and Continental now have a two-tiered bag fee system: they charge an extra five bucks for airport check-in, as opposed to doing it online. And remember, even zero-fee airlines may not be totally free -- some have longer luggage lines, and that costs you time.
To find the latest fees, check out this handy chart I created to keep track of the airline add-ons.
Food: Remember complaining about airline food? Those were the days! Now we complain about the lack of food -- or paying for it. Sure, you could make your own liverwurst sandwiches -- and alienate your seatmates -- or drop $9 on United's turkey/Swiss club wrap. Again, factor it in. And just be glad US Airways quit making us pay for our Diet Cokes.
In-Flight Amenities: Airlines charge for all sorts of things today so it behooves you to know exactly what you need or want, whether it's more legroom, WiFi, TV or just the chance to board before others. All this may cost you so, yes, factor it in.
Mileage Clubs: Do you belong to the frequent flier clubs of any of these three airlines? If you belong to all of them, you've got some decisions to make: are you closer to "elite status" on one or the other? Have you checked your airline e-mail lately, to see if any are offering bonus miles for certain flights? I've been inundated with offers lately. Check them out before you hit the delete button.
Dogs and Cats: Traveling with a pet will cost you, no question. It's cheaper in the cabin, but if Fluffy weighs more than 15 pounds, you'll probably have to go the costlier cargo route. The new Pet Airways can be even more expensive -- on the other hand, your pet will have someone catering to its needs, so factor in the price of "peace of mind."
By the way, if you don't mind taking longer to get from New York to Los Angeles, you might find much cheaper flights if they include a stop or two. It's something to think about if you're going for the lowest possible ticket price.
But if you want the shortest flight possible and you have a choice of three flights that all cost the same, remember the final tab may vary wildly. The key to a successful purchase is knowing what you want out of a flight and knowing what you're willing to pay. A cheap flight is good but a relatively cheap flight with some comforts may be better. As they say, do the math.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.