How and When to Buy Airplane Tickets – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Kate K. she asks,

Q. “When is the best time to buy plane tickets? Are the rumors on when to buy true?”

A. – The simple answer concerning many of the rumors tied to airfare is yes, they still hold true. Despite significant disruption within the industry and major consolidation over the last decade the actual dynamics of pricing and booking flights for more traditional airlines haven’t changed much. For the cheapest tickets, you should plan on flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. If you don’t have time to hunt aggressively for airfare, watch for airfare specials, or to fiddle with your departure dates, the conventional wisdom that booking 1-2 months ahead of time is also likely your best bet.

However, as with most travel related questions there are a number of exceptions. When booking airfare you need to differentiate between budget airlines and traditional airlines. While booking several months in advance with a traditional airline is likely to give you a middle-range/better than average price there’s no such guarantee with a budget airline. This is because budget airlines tend not to be that cheap on a standard flight basis. If we use industry leader RyanAir as an example their generic sticker price is often fairly comparable (and sometimes more expensive) when compared to a traditional airline. Users booking with a budget airline should always book at least 1 week in advance, but also need to monitor the company’s website regularly looking for one of their specials or sales. These sales are often held several times a month and will drastically alter the cost of your ticket turning $150 tickets into $10 tickets, etc. In these cases individuals booking ahead of time without doing their research are almost guaranteed to get an inferior price.

When booking with more traditional airlines it’s important to keep in mind that the airlines have a variety of tiers set up for seats on each flight. While the seats themselves are identical, the airline only offers a certain number of seats in each price range. The more demand, the fewer budget seats available and the higher the price. In the past when airlines were more inclined to under-book aircraft you’d see prices fall closer to departure as the companies rushed to fill empty seats. Now, with most flights overbooked you’ll find this happens far less often making last minute ticket purchases far more risky (and expensive!). This approach to pricing seats is why you’ll see significant fluctuations in pricing from day to day. The advantage of booking early is that it locks you into one of the cheaper ticket tiers. The challenge can be that it also means you may miss airfare specials, or price drops intended to help fill a flight that isn’t experiencing the same demand the airline expected. It’s also worth noting that in my experience airfare prices tend to be pretty stable 3+ months out. While prices vary somewhat, it’s really only in the three months before a flight that you’ll see prices start to shift radically from day to day.

If you know you’ll need to fly on a Friday, Sunday, Monday or close to a major event or holiday your best bet is likely to book as far in advance as you can. The same goes if you’re not able or willing to dedicate the time to monitoring and hunting for airfare. On the other hand, if you’ve got a little time to dedicate to the search, and are traveling on an off-peak period I’d suggest giving yourself a month or two to watch fares before eventually deciding to book. If you have a fairly inflexible schedule and are set on a specific destination, I usually recommend that people book airfare with a traditional airline at least 25 days before their flight. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at a budget airline I’d aim to have your ticket purchased at least a week before the flight.

More/specific questions about airfare? Let me know in a question and I’m happy to do my best to respond to them! You can also visit my Travel Resource List site for a selection of useful airfare search tools.

Kate, thanks for a great question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

This post was brought to you in part by Waikiki hotels.

Frequent Flyer Credit Card Whoes

The Fjords, Norway

**UPDATE** – While still frustrated by the experience I had, I recently decided to give FF programs another go.  While I have continued to face frustrations with the process, booking and usage of my points, there is value there for those willing to play the game.  It is important, however, that you be prepared to play that game and do your research.

A few years ago I signed up for an Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Credit Card.  It seemed like a great idea.  After all, I fly internationally 2+ times a year, love travel, and put most of my expenses on my credit card. They were offering a 20,000 mile signing bonus which was solid at the time and a few additional perks including a large partner network. Unless something drastic changes I’ll never sign up for another frequent flyer card again.

It’s now 3 years later and I still have those 20,000 points. As well as another 18,000 or so I picked up before I stopped using the card out of frustration and transferred over to a Capital One cash back card. Each year as my December trip approaches I sit down and try and use my miles.  Each year I end up wasting 30-40 minutes on the phone before hanging up disgusted.

Let me tell you a bit about this year’s adventure.  I’m pretty flexible about where I want to visit.  My main criteria is time based.  My window this year starts on December 15th and ends on January 4th.  That means that I’m willing to depart December 15th-17th and return January 1st-4th.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s a far more flexible schedule than most people have. Also, I’m not overly picky about where I end up going.  A good deal in the general region I want to explore is usually good enough for me.

With nearly 2 months to go before my date of departure I called the Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Concierge service and got a very friendly associate. I gave her my dates and gave her a few countries – not cities, but entire countries – I was interested in while specifying I didn’t mind which city I ended up in.

We searched Peru without any luck.  Then Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia. From there it was on to Argentina and Chile before adding Panama, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.  You would think, given that she was searching all partner airlines with flights from Phoenix that at least ONE flight to at least ONE of these countries would have been available.  No such luck.

Annoyed but not overly surprised I groaned at the ridiculousness of it – after all – I’d essentially searched 2/3s of an entire continent and been unable to find so much as a single flight that would work.

So, I expanded my search to Asia. After all, there had to be at least some availability to somewhere. The search continued; Thailand?  Nope. Cambodia, Malaysia or the Philippines?  Nope.  Vietnam?  Another nope.

So…Asia was out. In a final act of desperation I figured I’d check two off-beat destinations in Europe I wouldn’t mind visiting – Greece and Turkey.  Want to guess the results of the queries?  You got it – nope, and nope!

So, I gave up.  She was apologetic and suggested I try to make my reservations further in advance in the future or considering upgrading to a business class ticket.  Apparently ~2 months isn’t enough lead time.  I’m sympathetic to the fact that December 14th-January 10th is a peak travel period…but seriously, with 2 months lead time, semi-flexible travel dates, searches across 3 continents and in 18 countries you can’t find me a SINGLE flight? That’s straight pigswill.

Oh, did I mention that for the privilege of being a Miles Rewards customer I get to pay a $75/year fee?   I’m sure there are a few people out there making these programs work for them, but if you’re an average consumer and you’re using a mileage plan, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re essentially being robbed.  Hell, did you know that the vast majority of “travel” cards still charge the exact same transaction fees as a normal credit card?

My advice for non-business travelers?  Tell em’ to go to hell, switch banks and pick up a Capital One cash back card that doesn’t have an annual fee, puts actual $ back in your account, and which doesn’t charge 3% on every purchase you make while abroad.  In the long run those are perks you’ll actually be able to use and which will leave you with real, tangible benefits no matter when you choose to travel.

Scandinavia Bound – Packing and Trip Prep

Hello friends!

As I gear up and prepare to start my next adventure later today, I’ve assembled a few tips and tricks for those of you who may be considering making a similar trip.  I’ll be spending the next 18 days traveling through Norway, Denmark and Germany, with a brief overnight stop in Dublin.

As i’ll be taking the trip between June 25th and July 13th daylight is not an issue (the equinox was on the 21st).  Temperature, however, will be. I’ll be leaving 110+ degree temperatures for the 50s and 60s which are the status quo this time of the year in central Norway.

I’ve recorded and included my latest packing video above. My key considerations have been layers, technology, and dealing with the high probability that I’ll end up drenched a few times.  The video is self explanatory, but if you have any questions on specifics, please don’t hesitate to ask!  I’ll be shooting photos/video on my Canon G11 and my Vixia HF200. Both of which I’ve been really happy with.


When I initially purchased my ticket, I had tentatively planned to visit Central Europe. As a result I picked an airport schedule that allowed me to fly into Dublin, Ireland (RyanAir’s main hub/cheapest airport in Europe, Madrid being the 2nd), and fly out of Nuremberg, Germany.  As I watched for airfare specials, it quickly became apparent that there’s some sort of pricing tiff going on between RyanAir and Central European airports, which drove me to choose a 5 Euro ticket (total cost, 25 Euro w/ 1 checked bag/taxes/fees) from Dublin to Oslo, Norway.  Combined with the recent economic woes which have crippled the Euro/Euro area countries, it seemed like there probably wouldn’t be a better  or cheaper time to visit Scandinavia, which is notorious for its high prices.

By the time I worked in my 1 day layover in Dublin, timezone changes, and travel time I have about 15 days of actual travel time.  Which, while longer than some trips, really only gives me 5 days per country.  This forced me to scrap my initial plans of doing Sweden, in addition to Norway, Denmark and Germany as it just didn’t make sense from a travel time cost.  Unfortunately, I only realized that I wouldn’t be able to do Sweden AFTER purchasing a 4 country, 8 day Eurail pass.  In retrospect, a 3 country, 8 day pass would have been a far better choice.  That said, the price difference was fairly negligible (some $70) compared to what the cost would have been for 8 individual train trips, which removed some of the sting from the mistake.  The final price for the pass was $390 which wile a decent expense, is far cheaper than the $80-$170 price on most medium-long leg train tickets in Scandinavia and Germany.  In addition to the base $390 fee, there will be several smaller reservation fees to reserve my actual seat, but these fees should be small.

I’ve booked two other major legs ahead of time.  These are a ferry trip from Stavanger to Bergen in Norway and a budget flight from Bergen to Copenhagen, Denmark.  While I prefer to travel on a more flexible schedule, research indicated that Stavanger and Bergen are only connected by Rail through a round about route which loops back through Oslo adding 6+ hours on to any tentative trip.  A ferry ride provides the opportunity to travel through the Fjords by boat, while traveling straight north along the coast directly to Bergen.  Additionally, by booking online through Flaggruten, a Norwegian ferry company, I was able to knock the price from 750 NOK, to 250 NOK or $38.50 USD. A hard price/special to beat.

The second challenge was getting from Bergen to Copenhagen, without having to re-trace ground through Oslo and Sweden.  What would have been a 10-15 hour train ride ends up being a mere 1 hour direct flight.  By experimenting with different budget airports, airlines and destinations, I was able to find a flight for 693 NOK which is about $107 USD.  This cut hours and hours of travel time out of my schedule, was reasonable, and allowed me to spend an extra day exploring the cities I wanted to spend time in. I found the ticket through Wideroe, which seems to be the best priced discount Scandinavia airline (they also have an amazing all you can fly pass – similar to a Eurail pass).  Unlike a number of their competitors Wideroe offers a youth (under 25) ticket, which knocked the price down substantially.  By choosing a flexible departure time, and booking a youth ticket I was able to save $50-100+ off the price of the next cheapest competitor.

The rest of my travel and transport will be done via my Eurail pass or local day tour groups.

For now, I’ve gotta run.  My flight and a new part of the world awaits!

Design Updates and Why You Shouldn’t Host With Ipower

First The Good

There have been a number of major, but subtle changes made to the site over the past month.  My hope is that while subtle, that these changes will drastically increase your viewing and navigating experience while on the site.

The most obvious of these changes is site performance based.  I’ve spent the last few weeks transferring all of my hosted websites off of my previous host – Ipowerweb – a company I was with for over 7 years and had, unfortunately recommended for years.   This also has to do with the bad – which I’ll get into in greater detail in a moment. The end result of this move, however, is a ten fold increase in website speed and performance.

Why Ipowerweb Sucks as a Webhost

The image above is a screen capture of the website performance statistics offered by Google Webmasters.  Note the point mid January where performance changed dramatically and stabilized.  The graph displays with the following blurb, “On average, pages in your site take 1.0 seconds to load (updated on Jan 27, 2010). This is faster than 89% of sites. These estimates are of low accuracy (less than 100 data points). The chart below shows how your site’s average page load time has changed over the last few months. For your reference, it also shows the 20th percentile value across all sites, separating slow and fast load times.”

If you’ve been a long time visitor, you’ll note that up until two weeks ago 8-15 second load times and periodic timeouts were somewhat regular.  I specifically targeted a new web host that guaranteed a higher level of performance for their mySQL servers – the part that was killing blog performance on Ipower.  That webhost is Dreamhost.  As I write this all of my sites and content has been transferred and running smoothly.  If you experienced any brief downtime over the last month, I apologize.  The construction/transfer period should be over!

A huge thank you goes out to Glenn Jimerson  at Vista Web Media for all of his help and time transferring the site over.

Second – More good!

In addition to a new webhost you may have also noticed a number of layout changes as well as the addition of entire new page to the website. Earlier this week I added the “Travel Videos” page which you’ll find linked to above.  This page replaces the old “Photography” page which took you to a page, then forcing you to click a link which re-directed you to my main photo gallery on Don’t worry though! The “Photography” link has been re-located to the right hand side via an image front and center which you’ve no doubt noticed.  The image links directly with my flickr gallery – which is where I upload select shots (compared to my self hosted gallery which has ALL of my travel photos).  This also brings me to one of the other added benefits of the new webhost. My old photo gallery is now…well usable. It, like all mySQL database driven portions of the site was painfully slow in the past.  No longer.

I have also re-designed my RSS button to be both more visually stimulating and to provide a cleaner sidebar.  Search has been re-arranged, and several of the other sidebar elements have been slightly tweaked.

In the page/nav bar at the top of the site – you’ll noticed that About is no longer an option.  It hasn’t gone anywhere, I’ve simply moved it from 2nd on the list to 4th and renamed it “Alex Berger” which I feel is more relevant.  I’ve done a similar thing to “Audio” which is now “Podcasts”.

Lastly, more on  the Travel Videos page:  You’ll notice that the page is little more than a list of youtube videos.  I recently realized that I have over 180 uploaded videos on youtube.   Of those, fewer than 20 are polished travel videos. In an effort to make it easier for viewers to find my polished, final products – without removing the various individual travel clips and other (must see) material I have uploaded – I’ll continue to add my travel compilation highlight videos to the “travel videos” to improve access to the content.

Third – The Bad and an Apology

I mentioned above that I’d been with Ipowerweb for years (Since 2002).  For the first couple years, they offered great services at a great price.  Performance was good, tech support was responsive and the solution was incredibly powerful for the money.  Needless to say, they built up a lot of good will with me. So much so, that when I registered a second hosting account a few years ago – I opted to set it up with them.  I’d also maintained an affiliate account with them for years and referred friends, family, etc. who were interested in a decent hosting solution – boy was I wrong.

I’d run into a few major headaches when they changed control panel platforms, or got bought out by new corporate parents – but by and large after a brief headache every 6 months or so they’d fix things and assure me that everything was not only good as new, but that they’d be rolling out new features and services to help.

3-4 years ago things really took a nose dive. The company was purchased and transferred to a new platform which resulted in major downtime, and while told it would improve performance – did the complete opposite.  You can read some of the exchange from 2008 here. At the time I was lied to, blamed for the poor site performance [common theme] and eventually assured that the company was going through great lengths to fix the problem.

In January of this year I had another bout of performance issues.  Some of you may recall how debilitating they were. Eventually I was contacted by Ernie Lopez who in addition to having a management role in Ipower was “Manager – Quality Assurance, Engineering” for Endurance International Group who as I understand it, own Ipower and a large network of other hosting providers.  I had a series of conversations with Ernie about my frustrations, before eventually agreeing to be put in a beta test program.  According to Ernie, endurance had purchased Ipower in 08′ resulting in the huge fiasco mentioned above, and was hard at work improving network structure, performance, etc. he flagged my account with Premium support, added Akamai and Gomez to the account, and put me in contact with David Brazzell at Ipower.

Thinking that the issues would be completely resolved and expecting a strong improvement in performance, not to mention impressed by the top tier people who were helping me with what was being couched as an a-typical issue, I continued to recommend Ipower as an affiliate.  Boy was I wrong. After an initial burst of attention and help – communication died off with everyone except the premium support contact who i’d been put in touch with. Even that was canceled by late October of last year.  After an initial test on the Akamai software – the stats David passed on to me showed that instead of improving performance it had added more than a second to load times.  Which were still floating around 10 seconds.  10 seconds is a lot of load time for a site.  In fact, it has probably cost me tens of thousands of views over the years.  Each time I’d complain to Ipower I got the same bullshit.  It’s your site, it’s you, etc.  – here’s an example:

“You’re very welcome. I understand that this type of issue can be frustrating, especially due to the difficulty in being able to accurately replicate your issue over a different network.

I did run some further testing on your site today, and tried running load time tests on your site after disabling the loading of all 3rd party images, java code, and youtube references using firefox plugins, and comparing them to load times of the site in it’s entirety without any stripped content.

I loaded the site ten times with each configuration, then removed the highest and lowest result, to get the following average load times:

  • stripping java, 3rd party images, youtube: 2.76 average load time
  • no stripping: 4.52

Given this information, and as you mention, the dynamic nature of your site, the load times that I experience seem within expectations. “

The above was a final response in an extended exchange – after I complained about severe periods of major slow down.  Slowdown that impacted all of my sites equally, was obviously a mySQL database overload issue, and which also was directly visible when looking at the performance of their myPHPAdmin cpanel. Hell, when working on transferring my databases to Dreamhost, the buddy helping me ran into the same timeout and agonizing speed issues – just trying to navigate their phpMyAdmin site and generate a backup was nearly impossible. Honestly, what kinda of shit company is doing such a piss poor job providing database servers that even their backend sucks – then has the balls to turn around and tell the customer that it’s their fault and that the piss-poor database performance is “normal”?  Also, keep in mind the google webmaster tools data. On Ipower = 10 second average load time.  Same EXACT setup/site on Dreamhost = ~1 second average load time.  That goes beyond fishy, straight into the realm of dishonest.

Long story short – I’ll never recommend Ipower again. Worse, I find myself now in a position where I am deeply embarrassed to have ever so much as recommended them.  So, to those of you who are current using Ipower on my recommendation.  I am deeply sorry and I owe you an apology.

To anyone considering using Ipower webhosting? Don’t. They’re cheats, liars and crooks. Just glanced at their profile on Yelp – not that I needed further confirmation – but it looks like I’m not alone in my estimation of the company.

Thank you all for reading this blog and sticking with me through thick and thin, fast and slow!