Resources / Fun Links: Flying

I am no wizard at finding special deals on flights. Just a regular guy. There are dozens of articles and blog posts online purporting to offer tips on “The Cheapest Days to Fly and Best Time to Buy Airline Ticketsand the like, but while I’ve tried to keep these things in mind (e.g. buying tickets on Tuesdays, or is it Wednesdays? And buying them 30-60 days out, or was it 60-90?), I’ve just never really taken the bother to become one of those people who works to “game” the system, to scout out the best fares. In the end, for the most part, I typically use Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, and the like, and hope for the best. Sometimes I manage to plan well enough in advance to catch the best fares; sometimes not so much.

But, I’ve recently been pointed to a few flight-deals websites that are not so widely known as the big names above. I hope you might find them helpful.

Boarding Air Asia at Naha Airport.

(1) The Flight Deal (http://www.theflightdeal.com/) is one such site. Its main feature is a front page listing specific “deals” – specific flights, from point A to point B, that are especially cheap at the moment. As I write this, some of the top deals include:
*$260 roundtrip to Mexico City, on American Airlines, beginning in Newark, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC, or Cleveland
*$288 round-trip from New York to Sofia (Bulgaria) on Brussels Airlines
*$484 round-trip on Icelandair, leaving from Seattle or Portland (OR) and traveling to both Reykjavik and London.

Click on any one of these, and it shows you, in cleanly organized categories and plain language, some of the key relevant details for the deal. For the Seattle/Portland to Reykjavik/London trip, for example, it explains that if you want to skip Reykjavik and just fly straight to London, while you might be able to find the $484 rate on Priceline, you’ll probably have to end up paying $511. It goes on to tell us that Icelandair allows two checked bags with the fare, and gives a link to further travel tips for Iceland. Further down, it gives us the details for Fare Availability: “Valid for travel from mid October – early December. Free stopover in Reykjavik for up to 7 days. Must purchase at least 1 day in advance of departure,” and warns us that if the blog post is more than 2 days old, the fare is probably gone. (Sorry.) Finally, it gives details as to how, precisely, to search for and find that fare.

I browsed to the “North Asia” section expecting to find posts about Japan, since Shinpai Deshou is a Japan-focused blog, but strangely, didn’t find any posts at all for deals relating to Japan, or for that matter Korea. Maybe it’s just a bad time right now. I did find, however, an interesting blog post explaining how, as a US citizen, one can visit Beijing or Shanghai for up to 72 hours without any visa – the trick is, Beijing or Shanghai has to be merely a stopover on your way to a third destination. So, US to China to … somewhere else.

(2) Secret Flying (http://www.secretflying.com/) works quite similarly. Clicking on any region of the world will bring up a list of current deals for flights leaving from that area. Some of the top ones right now, as I’m typing, are for round-trip flights from San Francisco to Kahului (Maui) for $341, Dallas to San Francisco or vice versa for $116, and Boston to Chicago for $76.

Right: A view of Honolulu from the air.

One of the nice features on Secret Flying which is not immediately obvious on The Flight Deal is the ability to search a specific route (e.g. LAX to NRT)(located right below the map on the front page), or to just search keywords more broadly (look for the magnifying glass icon at the top right). I tried NYC to TYO, using the catch-all codes for New York and Tokyo-area airports (thus including any variations on e.g. Newark to Haneda, JFK to Narita, etc.), and got nothing, at least not right now today. Searching more broadly for “Japan” as a keyword, I found one deal for flights from Belgrade (Serbia) to various East Asian cities for €300-400 on Etihad Airlines, with a stopover in Abu Dhabi; one from Zurich to Nagoya for €382, also on Etihad; and one from New York, San Francisco, or San Jose to Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, or Taipei, on Air China, for only $398 roundtrip, with a stopover in Beijing (a fine time to use that 72 hour transfer-without-visa option).

While the search feature is nicer (or at least easier to find), Secret Flying does not offer as much details on each flight deal as The Flight Deal. In many cases, it seems to only offer the absolute basics (eligible origins, destinations, price, airline, and available date range), and then has a link to the airline or travel agency that will actually offer/provide the deal.

One thing to keep in mind for nearly all of these deals is that there are typically two different date ranges to keep in mind: one, when you have to buy the tickets, and two, when you can travel. For example, many deals require you to buy tickets by July 31, and are only eligible for flights in October to December.

On the way from Kagoshima to Naha.

(3) Google Flights (https://www.google.com/flights/) is one Google feature I never knew existed.

On the front page, it offers the basic search feature you would expect of any travel site: the ability to type in or choose a specific trip (specify your dates, origin & destination, # of passengers, etc.) and see what prices are available, at which times, on which airlines, with which itineraries.

But, it also offers you the ability to type in just the starting airport, and then select a few elements, and see a range of possibilities. For example, type in LAX, and select August, and 1 week [duration of travel], and it pops up with “London, Aug 27 – Sep 2, from $814,” “New York City, Aug 18-24, from $294,” and a whole bunch of other possibilities. You can fiddle with it, to name the origin airport, month, travel duration (e.g. 1 week), and then select a part of the world: leaving the above options the same and selecting “Asia,” I get options for Shanghai, Istanbul, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and many of the other major cities in the region. You can also browse by “Interests,” allowing the site to help choose for you destinations that are good for Museums or Islands, Winter Sports or Casinos; Nature or Adventure Travel; and so forth.

And, the interface is really sleek, colorful, and attractive, and easy to navigate. The info for each possible destination city is given in a block of a different color, and with a photo of iconic or emblematic sights for that city.

But I think the feature I found most exciting was the ability to visualize the possibilities on a map. Click on the map that says “Explore Destinations,” and it will bring you to a version of Google Maps with possible destinations given in red dots, with dollar amounts next to each. Narrow the search by various criteria – e.g. airline, price, duration, interest – and it’ll adjust which dots appear on the map. My housemate, who is always on the hunt for cheap flights to exciting destinations – happy for the adventure, regardless of whether the cheap flights that day happen to be Honduras, Alaska, Talinn, or Taipei – uses this to quickly and easily see what exists. Selecting LAX as my departure airport, particular dates in September, and a budget of under $650, it immediately lights up flights to Honolulu for $539, to Hong Kong for $633, Beijing for $638, and numerous cheaper flights (of course) within North and South America. Click on any of these cities, and it’ll give you a list of possible flights, and then you can browse through the different itineraries. Click on “Show Flights” on the main map page to get a longer listing of possible itineraries.

I clear my price limitation, and click on any desired destination. How about Naha, Okinawa? It offers roundtrip tickets starting at $750. Okay. I look through the list of itineraries, and find possible layovers in Vancouver, Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai… I used it recently to attempt to find a way to squeeze a lengthy stopover in Honolulu out of a Los Angeles to Tokyo flight without it costing too much extra; alas, though I did do it once before, the gods were not with me on that day, and such a flight was just not going to happen.

But, here is where it gets fun – or, at least for the way my housemate likes to travel. Scroll down to the bottom of the list of possible flights, and click “Show X longer or more expensive flights.” If you don’t mind paying a little more, and the complexities of the logistics of doing multiple stopovers, you can use Google Flights to great effect to find complex multi-stop itineraries that allow you to see many different cities for the price of a single round-trip ticket. Scroll through this longer list, choose an outgoing flight with a few stopovers, and then a return flight with stopovers in different cities, and, BAM, so long as the connections are already in place as regularly scheduled layovers along your route, you can make a LAX to Tel Aviv trip, for example, into a LAX -> Frankfurt -> Munich -> Tel Aviv -> Vienna -> London -> LAX trip. Might cost a bit more, but might not cost too much more, and you get to see all of these cities. Of course, there are things to figure out like whether your checked bags will go all the way through to Tel Aviv (or LA, on the return), leaving you with only carry-on luggage to use while you’re in each of the European cities, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; and you have to figure out just how long you have in each city and whether that really works out for you, and just how to schedule it to lengthen any/all of those stopovers if you so desire. But, it’s a start.

What I think is a great advantage of Google Flights is that it seems to incorporate a huge range of airlines, and a vast array of destinations. I have often found that many of the big-name travel sites, like Priceline or Travelocity, have trouble with overseas destinations, perhaps because they have corporate ties to only particular airlines. I was actually surprised when regular English-language Kayak.com was able to offer me flights from Tokyo to Okinawa on JAL, ANA, Peach, JetStar, or Air Asia; in the past, I’ve often found many of these sites to only work for origin airports in the United States. Google does not have any such airline limitations due to corporate promotion (as far as I can tell), and can thus offer a fuller range of what’s actually available.

At Santa Barbara Airport in California.

(4) Finally, I’d like to introduce you to Flyer Talk (http://www.flyertalk.com/). Basically just a discussion forum, this is a rather different type of site from those above. I have only just begun to dip my toe into the vastness that is Flyer Talk, but basically it’s a community of well-experienced travelers, plane geeks, and the like, who post about and discuss a huge range of things related to travel tips, interesting or unusual routes and destinations, and the like.

From the front page of the Forums, you can see they have sections for talking about individual airlines’ Mileage Rewards plans; Hotel Deals; Travel Photography and Travel Technology; individual specific destinations; travel questions related to particular needs such as religion, LGBT, disability accessibility, travel with children, travel with pets, and so forth. Navigating these forums can take some getting used to, as many of the people here use specialty jargon – not only using the airport codes, such as ORD for Chicago O’Hare and NRT for Tokyo Narita, but also phrases like “It seems this would give me more EQM for the flight,” which Google tells me refers to “Elite-Qualifying Miles” on American Airlines’ rewards program, and “will it make the flight either RPU or CPU eligible?,” which would seem to refer to Regional and Complimentary Premier Upgrades.

But, boy is it extensive. The forum section on Japan alone contains nearly 5,000 discussion threads, covering a wide range of topics, from which side of the plane to sit on to get a good view when departing/arriving Narita, to things about Pokemon GO, Japanese baseball tickets, the Hokkaido Shinkansen, the strengthening yen, duty free whiskey, processing credit card charges from Japan, questions about specific itineraries, and numerous posts about specific hotels. Perhaps of a little more direct utility, there are pinned MasterPosts at the top of the forum on “Help! I Have a Connection in Japan!,” and Narita Layovers & Hotels.

So, if you’re looking for travel advice or tips, this may very well be a good place to go. Flyer Talk will not only offer you information on routes and destinations (including trains, hotels, money, etc. travel tips in the destination), but it’s surely the most extensive resource I’ve seen for providing information on airport layouts, airport amenities, the features or amenities of particular airlines or particular planes, and so forth. Next time I’m wondering which flight routes do or don’t have in-flight entertainment or in-flight food service, or which seat to choose to get the best view of a given landmark from the plane window; where in a given airport to find particular amenities or services; or the best tricks for navigating a particular airport or desired travel route, I’m coming back to Flyer Talk.

Another section I find quite enjoyable, which is the part that really makes this “Fun Links” as well as a Resource, is a section on Trip Reports. Searching around the site, I found one post discussing details about a particular unusual route that sounds quite interesting – United Airlines’ Micronesia Island Hopper. This is a flight from Honolulu to Guam that stops on the islands of Truk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Kwajalein, and Majuro for very brief layovers. Since Honolulu and Guam are both in the US, it counts as a domestic flight, allowing you the odd privilege of visiting places outside the US without actually needing a passport. That is, so long as you don’t leave the airport. Which means you won’t be seeing too much of any of these islands, in terms of the culture, the food, etc. But, even so, it’s a neat opportunity to say you’ve been there, to see the airports at least, and to hopefully get a good view of each of these islands from the sky.

That post was just informational, but over in the Trip Reports section, someone has actually posted a thorough detailed account & numerous large photos of his experience doing this itinerary.

Looking at the list of topics on the overall Trip Reports list of threads, I see that many of them are more mundane. But, take your time and search through them, and you’ll find some pretty incredible things. Like this post, in which someone discusses his trip to Turkmenistan, Siberia, and Malaysia, along with links to Trip Reports on his journeys to literally almost every other country on the planet. Or this one, in which the poster relates his adventures flying to Iraq, driving into Syria, coming quite close to ISIS-held territory, and meeting & talking directly with anti-ISIS forces, Yazidi individuals, and Kurdish officials. Not only is the story really something, but his photos of the people, places, food, and so forth are incredible.

And, even without going to such lengths, there are tons of excellent travel reports for Japan, the US, Europe, and around the world, whether your interest is just to enjoy someone else’s trip vicariously, or to learn about hotels, restaurants, tourist sights, or travel tips.

I have no doubt that there are a whole bunch of other features, other special ways to use each of these sites, and I also have no doubt that there are plenty of blog posts and guides offering tips. Fiddle with them yourself, or seek out such online sites, and best of luck! Happy flying!

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About Travis

I am an aspiring scholar of Japanese & Luchuan history with a particular interest in cultural history & the arts, from the traditional to the contemporary, the elite to the popular.
This entry was posted in fun links, living abroad, study abroad, useful links and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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