You get a text from a friend: “Flights to Paris are 300 bucks!” it says. Do you a) Book now, figure it out later, b) Agonize over whether you should do it and finally go to book only to find it’s sold out, or c) Hit delete — you don’t need that temptation?

When it happened to me, thanks to a travel planner friend who keeps an eye on all things budget travel, my husband and I were team “a” all the way. Once the giddiness — we’re going to Paris! — wore off a bit, some of the reality sunk in. We’re flying out of an airport 80 miles away. It’s the most bare bones of economy seating so there’s no checked luggage. And sitting together? Ha! With no free seat selection it’ll be a miracle if we don’t each land in middle seats on opposite sides of the plane. Now, for $300 airfare to our favorite place on earth, those are all trade-offs we’re willing to make.

But when you’re under the gun to make a decision it can be tough to weigh the pros and cons. For some guidance when it comes to navigating bargain airfares, I talked with Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights, the treasure trove of cheap airfares (I actually had to unsubscribe from his deals email because it was just too much temptation!). And I chatted with Ben Mutzabaugh, Senior Aviation Editor for The Points Guy, an essential site for frequent travelers.

Cheap flights are everywhere

First, what’s the deal with all these cheap airfares? After I scored our flights another friend nabbed flights to Paris for $266! Is it just me or are bargains everywhere now? “We are living in the golden age of cheap flights,” Keyes confirmed. “It has never been cheaper to travel overseas.” His site shared a round trip to Amsterdam for $203 the day we spoke.

But how can they be so inexpensive? Our actual flights cost $68; the rest of the price was taxes and fees. It boils down to a few things, Keyes said. There’s a lot more competition putting downward pressure on international flights; newer, smaller planes can make the ocean crossing; and fuel prices have plummeted. Besides that, those cheap coach tickets aren’t really how the airlines make their money, anyway, he explained. There are all those airline branded credit cards, there’s cargo, and then of course those spendy seats at the front of the plane. Basically, the plane is going anyway, so the airline just tries to recoup what they can, Keyes said, so we can thank those other revenue sources for our subsidized cheap seats.

You have to do your homework to understand the real cost

“People have to do their own homework to know when a good deal is a great deal,” Mutzabaugh said. “$300 round trip to Paris is rarely a bad deal … But if you’re on airlines that are going to charge you $200 in fees that great bargain becomes just a good one or just a normal one.” (If I want to choose a seat on our American flight, and anything other than a middle, for instance, it’s going to cost 60 bucks each, each way.)

When you see a fare you like, do a quick Google search, Mutzabaugh said, searching the airline and additional fees. Also, “be checking about changes and cancelability,” said Keyes. “Some fares don’t allow changes even for a fee.”

Beyond that, force yourself to pause and consider the costs that are easy to overlook in the excitement of the bargain. We have to drive to another city so there’s gas and parking to add to the price tag. Then there’s pet care (or child care for travelers with families they’re not bringing along) and even a housesitter or someone to water your plants. That all eats into the trip budget. That said, remember, Keyes said, that you have to eat anyway, whether you’re buying groceries, or food at your destination.

What kind of ticket are you buying?

When these unbelievable airfares pop up, you have to act fast, but don’t be rash. “The real trick is, when you see those great fares you’ve got to know a little about the airline and the type of fare,” Mutzabaugh said. It’s not really apples to apples when you’re comparing fare categories, but in general, the rock bottom fare on the big domestic carriers (American, Delta, United, and Alaskan for U.S. flights) is going to be basic economy.

These fares are how the traditional carriers go up against new budget airlines, Mutzabaugh said. “That strips out some of the things that used to be included but now you pay extra for.” Namely seat assignments and baggage, maybe even carry-on. “No matter how light we pack it’s hard to go to Europe without some luggage,” he said. Changes are likely to have prohibitive penalties at this fare level, too, and you’re going to be the last to board, so say goodbye to any overhead bin space.

That said, some luggage makers are stepping up with solution to the no guaranteed overhead bin space situation with pieces designed to fit under the seat in front of you. Based on this review alone I’m seriously thinking about picking up this Samsonite number as my “personal item.”

Next there’s a regular coach ticket, or standard economy. “That comes with normal things you’d expect in this decade,” Mutzabaugh said. The higher price “will typically allow you to select a seat, maybe not the best, probably in the back, enable you to bring a carry-on, also get a better boarding group.” You’re still going to be pressed to find overhead space, he said.

Then there are upgraded economy seats with extra legroom and perks like free drinks, and a hybrid of coach and business with even more advantages. But chances are that the shocker fare you’re eyeing is the bottom of the barrel.



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