Cheap Flight or False Economy?

by chris on October 21, 2009

Concorde

Concorde

Can you remember the Concorde? It gripes me that aviation has actually gone backwards. 1970’s technology was more advanced than we have 30 years later? That can’t be right, can it? People would gladly pay the extra cost of flying supersonic because in a couple of hours you could go from Paris or London to New York. People would fly for a meeting and get back to their family as if it was a normal business day, or even to go shopping! It was the ultimate time vs money equation, and also the ultimate in luxury travel (next to having your own private jet I guess).

During my gruelling trip to Las Vegas* I thought about it a lot.

* I know, boo-hoo, I have to fly to fun locations and hang out with cool people, woe is me, right? I am reminded of the word Robert Llewellyn introduced; Moasting: “to moan and boast simultaniously”.

The last couple of times I took flights I swore the next trip would be business class. Of course by the time I sat down to book, I still tried to book the cheapest I could find.

Like many people I am willing to spend money on cool or necessary stuff but dislike (understatement) paying too much. Whatever that means.

Unfortunately in many cases the old chestnut “You get what you pay for” holds true, and unfortunately my last trip kind of proved that to be the case.

In actual fact I really didn’t save any money trying to find a cheaper flight. Let’s count the ways:

  • Opportunity cost – All the time my wife and I were scouring the cost comparison sites I could have actually been earning money. Looking for a cheaper flight was time out of my business.
  • Productive time on land – Rather than sitting in airports, taking the long way round the planet, and making connections, I could have either been in my office or at my destination making full use of my time. Again, time is money. Seeing the herd of weary travellers made me think of zombie movies … plaaaaaaaaanes!
  • Productive time in the air – While in the air I did not have power sockets, wifi, heck, I didn’t even have my own entertainment system. I didn’t even have a comfortable seat (what should have been leg room was taken up by a big metal box). (I did get some time to do some productivity mindmaps, but could have done much more).
  • Logistical nightmares – The time from start to finish was stressful because of the logistical “issues” that arose by using four different companies to arrange one trip (Opodo, British Airways, US Airways and American) and none of them being too keen on claiming me as a customer. I couldn’t check in online because each claimed another company was responsible for me. Nice. This meant sitting at my gate hoping I would get a seat, then getting one of the last seats on the plane and having to ram my luggage wherever it would fit. Win!
  • Comfort – It’s not just an upgraded experience on the actual plane that economy miss out on, but in the airport too. I found out from fellow passengers I could even have had a shower during my layover, in addition to the free comfy lounge, and curtesy coffee and cookies.

I am not saying I am always going to book first class or even business, but I am from now on going to look carefully at what the difference in ticket price really means.

It’s the difference between price and value. A lower price is sometimes not worth the price you have to pay.

I’m off on another trip, this time to the other side of the globe, in the next few days. My hope is we booked well this time!

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike CJ October 21, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Totally with you on this one Chris. I actually approach each booking with a “This time it’s business class for sure” and often end up booking economy because I’m so shocked at the price difference! The problem for me is that it is HUGE!.

I was looking this morning at flights to New York. I found an amazing value flight at €400 return for economy, so I checked the upgrades. AN EXTRA €1100 for premium economy and an EXTRA €4290 for Upper Class. (now you know the airline!)

That’s madness, and much as I love all the extra benefits, I really couldn’t bring myself to pay THAT much more for them. I wonder if the problem is that both classes are filled with corporate types on expenses, or are they empty half the time?

I’d be quite happy to pay an extra 50% for premium and double for Upper, but ten times more? I’ll have to check out that excellent post on this site about getting upgrades and see if I can swing one for this trip :)

Mark C. Webster October 21, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Good point. I also find myself assigning value to things in weird ways. For instance, I have no problem ringing up a $40 tab in a bar or restaurant, but I struggled with whether I should spend an extra $40 on more legroom on a red-eye flight.

Always good to think big picture…

Chris Guillebeau October 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm

This is great, Chris. I’ve come to much the same conclusions myself, with a bit of variance:

1) I also try to fly Business and plan the trip well, and most of the time that it works out it’s due to Frequent Flyer Miles, Round-the-World tickets, and other travel hacking. Admittedly, this takes time, which leads to…

2) I totally understand about time and money, but for me I actually enjoy the travel planning process (well, some of it). Therefore, I’m not always trying to get things done the quickest or most optimally. I take extra connections, spend a long time on the phone getting the perfect awards ticket, etc. It certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but then when I fly Virgin Upper Class — or whatever — I totally forget how much time I spent getting it sorted out. :)

Keep up the great writing!

chris October 22, 2009 at 12:38 pm

@Mike – I heard that the front cabins subsidise the rest of the tickets, but sometimes it seems the price difference is just crazy

@Mark – True! What I will pay for a meal and what I will pay for a better seat just do not tally ;)

@Chris – I need to be more organized, I am sure by now I could have had a decent airmiles collection but I never think about it. Just like I have spent a fortune at Apple store but never got a business account where I could have saved a decent % :(

Gareth Crew October 22, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Cool post Chris. Concorde :( I miss it. Where I used to work Concorde came past, and I remember running out into the carpark on its final run….

I think a pivot table, cost/benefit analyses of the trip, whether it’s for business, pleasure and work it out that way. I think for your trip to Las Vegas, as you were working so hard, you should’ve gone posh :) Think of it that you would make more money as you’d be fresher!

Failing that, if you don’t want to pay for the extra cost and want it to be free, nab a random lady and say you’re on your honeymoon! Upgrade here I come! :)

chris October 22, 2009 at 12:58 pm

@Gareth – Working for a travel/flights company as you do I am appalled that you would be so devious as to suggest I defraud ;) ;) ;)

Gareth Crew October 22, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Hehe! Just giving you some ‘inside information’ ;)

Don Makoviney October 22, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Agreed. Some people think these things are actual luxuries – paying to avoid some inconvenience. I get this when someone asks why I would pay someone to mow my lawn. Like it’s an exorbitant luxury or something. Really? Pay someone a hundred bucks a month to mow. When it would take 4-5 hours a month (at minimum) to take care of it during the month myself. In 4-5 hours I can make quadruple that money – sometimes more depending on the project. Not to mention the maintenance and care of the lawnmower, edger, weed whacker, etc.

Of course if you like doing yardword (like many of my friends do), then more power to you.

dm

chris October 22, 2009 at 8:56 pm

@Don – Yup, it is a very good comparison. It’s about value and the bigger picture. I didn’t buy a Mac for this reason but when I think of how much time I used to lose due to crashes on my old “budget” PC, I think the Macs have earned their keep many times over – same thing :)

Claudia Gonella October 22, 2009 at 9:30 pm

My booking mindset is completely different on long haul (power socket a must, leg room a must, airmiles), than on short flights (cheapest is best).

Justin October 27, 2009 at 4:34 am

Ha, I totaly agree with you on this one. I went to India a few years ago and in my obsession for getting the cheaper price I ended up going a day earlier than my brother, saved £20 and got there about 4 hours beforehand. It also took me the best part of 6 hours to find.

Having said that I did get to fly with Qatar air, without a doubt the best airline I have flown on and I was able to tick Qatar off as a country I have visited even if it was just one night in a hotel… Still one less in my mission to visit them all!

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