Now that the cat’s out of the bag and we have all four passports in hand after renewals and visas, I can focus on more important things. Like traveling again!
Last week, I booked tickets for our annual trip to the US. We had planned to go in August for at least a month (how we have become oh-so-European), but I’ll be barred from flying in August. And, who wants to be stuck in the US having to pay retail for a hospital birth? Not me! I’ll take my all-expenses-paid excursion to the German hospital, thankyouverymuch.
We happen to be one of those couples that has immediate family spread over almost the entire US. We couldn’t possibly see them all in one trip. Nor do I have the desire to die trying.
Instead, we try to see a few each visit. But, since they are far flung and we only have three weeks (the horror, I know), driving all over tarnation isn’t going to work either. Plus, shocker of all shockers, I would like to actually relax and enjoy my time in the US. Two thousand mile road trips just aren’t my idea of relaxing.
And, ultimately, we are thrifty around here which means forking over $300 times four people for airline tickets on top of the hundreds and hundreds of dollars we’ll already have to pay to get to the US also isn’t gonna cut it.
So, then, what to do?
Answer: a multi-city itinerary.
A multi-city itinerary is just that: an airline itinerary that stops at more than one destination. For example, we will be flying from Frankfurt to Dulles, then Dulles to Orlando, and finally Orlando to Frankfurt. (It’s also called a circle trip in travel agent speak.)
If you’re never put together a multi-city itinerary before, the task may be daunting. Have no fear, though. Read my how-to and tips below; then get to searching!
Tips on Booking Multi-City Itineraries
Be patient. It takes a lot of work to search multiple combinations of dates and cities. Don’t expect to get what you want by just typing in a few simple searches.
No lies here; it took me hours to find the right date combination. Then, I had to double check the details with Doc Sci’s boss. When I went back to book the tickets a few days later, I had to start from scratch as the itinerary I originally wanted had jumped more than $200.
Be flexible. Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are generally the cheapest days to fly. I say generally, because sometimes loads (the amount of passengers) are lower on other days on certain routes. However, you won’t know this until you start searching (as I said, be patient!).
Try your itinerary a week before and a week after. Pay attention to your calendar, noting any holidays. Also, if it’s peak season at your destination(s), prices just may be high, period. Your job is to find the lowest in the date range you are available to travel.
Be persistent. Perhaps the most annoying factor concerning a multi-city itinerary is the inability to search using Flexible Dates. You have to be flexible (see above), but your airline search engine refuses to be (again with the patience). Therefore, if you’re going to win the cheapest, best itinerary, you’ll have to be the one to stick it out.
It’s a rarity (or perhaps even an impossibility) that your perfect itinerary will be the first date and city combination you search. Keep looking. Try alternate airports, alternate order of stops, etc. (For more on this, see the How To below.)
Be discerning. Would it be cheaper to do a simple round-trip and rent a car? Yes, flying is convenient, but sometimes it’s not always the answer. Weigh the drive time (be realistic about how far you can go in one day with kids!) versus the money (four tickets at $250 is quite a chunk of change, but you will also have to pay for the car rental, gas, perhaps a hotel room or two).
Don’t forget your time is valuable as well, so consider how much time you’d spend in transit while flying vs. driving.
Be smart. Do your homework (for homework hints, see the How To below). Know which airlines fly frequently to which cities. It was cheap for me to add a stop in Dulles because it is one of the main United hub cities. We also need to visit Nashville on this trip, but once I threw that city into the mix the whole itinerary went bonkers (price and schedule-wise). Instead, we’ll drive to Nashville.
Be realistic. How much flying and driving can your kids handle? How many different beds can you sleep in before you swear off traveling all together? Are you better off paying an extra $25 per ticket to avoid taking toddlers on a red-eye flight? Think about what’s important to you, your family, and make decisions for a happy vacation.
How To: Practical Steps to Booking a Multi-City Itinerary
Multiple approaches to the puzzle of a (CHEAP) multi-city itinerary exist. This is just how I do it.
- Find the cheapest round-trip between the two cities where you must travel. I absolutely had to fly from Frankfurt to Orlando.
- Pay attention to the airlines that provide the cheapest round-trip. Often you will have several within $50 of each other. For me, this was United, Continental, and USAir.
- Find out the partner airlines of each of the cheapest carriers. The three worldwide alliances are Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam. You can find a list of all the members of the alliances here.
- Search the partner airlines’ websites, too. I found that Lufthansa wanted to sell me United itineraries, and United wanted to sell me Continental itineraries. Last year, I purchased a Delta itinerary from Air France at a fraction of the cost (and in the currency I wanted to use).
- Google the hub cities of each primary airline (“United Airlines hub cities”). If the other destination you want to visit is not a hub, google your destination and find out which airlines fly there. Cross check that list with the cheap airlines and their partners.
- Consider alternate destinations and make a list. Are any of your alternate destinations hub cities for the cheapest airlines? Though I am stopping off at Dulles, I am actually traveling to Pennsylvania. But, it’s much cheaper for me to fly to Dulles, rent a car, and drive several hours than flying to the actual city in Pennsylvania I want to visit.
- Examine connections. If your cheapest round-trip included a layover in Atlanta, could you rent a car and drive to your desired destination from Atlanta?
- Determine trip order. Can you visit Orlando before Dulles, or do you have to go to Dulles first? Only you can answer this one. If you are flexible on the destination order, factor in the next tip to be doubly sure.
- Don’t forget baggage fees. When flying to/from Europe, you still can usually get one checked bag free. Know that even if your itinerary includes an international destination, you will be considered a domestic traveler for all flights inside of the US. I know we can travel light going to the US, but we will take four full bags back to Europe. Therefore, it’s cost-effective for me to go to Orlando last since I’ll be loading up on items from storage and taking them across the Atlantic. I won’t be charged for those bags since I can check them all the way through to Frankfurt.
- Weigh the costs and make a decision. For me, it cost $700 per person for a round-trip itinerary and $800 per person for a multi-city itinerary. It’s almost impossible to fly anywhere these days for $100. But, if you’re coming up with $300 for a round trip itinerary and $600 for a multi-city itinerary, perhaps two round-trip tickets is the answer for you this time. Make the best decision for your resources and your family, and then enjoy your vacation no matter how you get there!