Anni often says that I can be a travel agent. While I’m flattered by the vote of confidence, perhaps it’s also a sign that I’m hopelessly addicted to this miles and points game. At the same time, my situation is slightly different than most other travelers out there: for the past 3 years, aside from my transpacific flights home (to LAX), the rest of my travels have been short or medium haul flights within China/Asia. In addition, being based in Chongqing, Wanzhou, China presents an extra challenge in routing flights… you literally can not route international flights to/from WXN.
In any case, I’d like to share my methodology in finding and booking flights.
Finding the tickets. When searching for airfare, I always check a couple websites for the best price:
- Matrix Airfare Search. While not a booking site, matrix lets anyone search the ITA system, which is basically the “backbone” used by travel agencies. It’s ability to search for specific fare classes and complex routes makes it an invaluable tool when looking for the cheapest fare (or an upgrade-able fare). Thepointsguy has a really good intro to using matrix (LINK).
- Expedia.com and Travelocity.com. These are your quintessential online travel agencies (OTA)… each with their own set of pros and cons. I have noticed, however, that while they are competitive when it comes to US domestic and international flights, they are not as consistent with Asian or Chinese domestic flights. On a related note, the Chase UR Mall gives 1X and 2X bonus points (on top of the base point), respectively. Travelocity’s more generous referral points is probably why it’s more expensive than Expedia 9 out of 10 times for an identical itinerary.
- Travelzen.com and eLong.com. OTAs for the Asian and Chinese domestic market. Travelzen is a smaller HK-based OTA that accepts all international payment methods (a key aspect in getting those valuable travel category bonus points). eLong is a subsidiary of Expedia.com, and it shows with its strong search engine that’s smooth and easy to use.
- Airline website. There might be targeted promotions or limited time offers that are only available through the airline and its website. You would be selling yourself short if you didn’t at least compare the prices you found elsewhere with that sold directly by the airline.
Booking the tickets. While this might sound pretty simple… “just buy the cheapest one”… it often pays to consider a few angles before pulling out your wallet.
- Foreign transaction fees (FTF). This is actually not as simple as it sounds. Foreign transaction fees are added to transactions with overseas merchants and/or transactions that involve a conversion of currency. Of course, having a card that features NO-FTFs (such as the AMEX Platinum or the Chase Sapphire Preferred) will allow you to avoid this headache. For example: Expedia and Travelocity are US-based OTAs, but Travelzen and eLong are HK and China based companies. So, even though they can accept international CC and can process in USD, the transactions would still be considered “foreign” because they don’t take place in the US. Make sure your booking site and payment method are lined up to avoid such charges.
- Miles and points accumulation. That’s the whole point of playing this game. While this may seem like common sense, it’s important to make sure that your booking site and payment method are lined up to maximize your take. When booking my December 2012 trip back to USA tickets with AA, I wanted to ensure that the “$100.00 credit for first American Airlines purchase within first 12 months” would trigger, so I made sure to book through AA.com directly. I can’t say for sure that booking an AA flight through an OTA won’t trigger the credit, but better to be safe than regretful.