How to decide which airline to fly when you’re planning a holiday. Whether it’s a short haul flight or a long haul flight, here’s a checklist based on the various considerations we keep in mind when deciding what airline to book flights with.
After our last post on how to experience Sydney on a Budget, a reader asked how we find cheap flights and whether we had any tips or tricks. Due to the nature of our work, sourcing the cheapest flights to a destination isn’t always our priority. Instead, we start with the airline.
So how to decide which airline to fly?
It depends upon whether we’re flying short haul or long haul, because there’ll be different considerations for each. The steps we’ll take to find flights and decide which airline to fly really depends upon how far we’re flying and how long we’re going to be in the air.
We look at the airline first for a whole lot of reasons, which I describe below. Then, after making a short list, we look for the cheap flights.
How To Decide Which Airline To Fly When You’re Planning a Holiday
HOW TO CHOOSE A SHORT HAUL AIRLINE
If we’re flying short haul and we’re only going to be up in the clouds for an hour or three, we can handle anything — uncomfortable seats, little leg-room, bad service, no entertainment system, and no meals, which means we’ll often choose low-cost airlines. For us, this kind of flying is like jumping on a bus or train as we fly so often. We’ll use the flight to work until our batteries go flat, do some reading, and catch up on sleep, of which we permanently seem to be deprived.
For short haul flights, I take these factors into consideration:
COST OF THE FLIGHT
For short haul, I’ll be focused on finding the cheapest flights (post coming on that topic). There’s no point wasting a lot of money if we’re only going to be on the plane for a short time. My first choice will always be low-cost airlines and that’s where my searches will initially focus. Having said that, in my experience, a no-frills flight can sometimes end up costing as much as a premium airline once you add on fees for baggage, seating, meals, check-in, etc — all the things that a premium airline usually (but not always) includes in the ticket price. So while I’m searching for prices, I’ll simultaneously be noting down any fees.
DURATION OF THE FLIGHT
Yes, we’re fans of slow travel, but that doesn’t mean we want to take the long way around. We’re also proponents of sustainable travel, so the shorter our time in the air the smaller our carbon footprint. We’re also very busy — we’re travelling for work as much as pleasure — so we’ll always opt for the most direct route. We’re not really interested in a detour to Hong Kong if we’re flying from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. The problem is — and this definitely applies more to long haul than short haul — that the cheapest flights often take the craziest routes. Most flight search engines will show flight durations but I always double-check details directly on airline sites.
SIZE, MAKE, SEATS
Once we’ve identified the airlines offering the cheapest flights on the most direct routes, we’ll consider aircraft size and make to ensure Terence’s camera bag is going to fit in the overhead so he can take it on board. If it has to go under it’s going to cost us extra, driving the price up, and there’s also the worry the gear might get damaged or stolen. It’s a pro-camera bag and it’s officially carry-on size but that doesn’t meant all airlines let him take it on board. Ground staff of an Australian airline threatened not to allow us to fly because, contrary to her advice that it wouldn’t fit, we insisted it would, having flown the same plane hundreds of times, including with her airline to that destination. Even if you’re on holidays, it’s important to check these things. Having your bags left behind because they won’t fit on board a small plane and the hold is full can be a real drag. For baggage allowances I go directly to the airline websites. AirSafe also has helpful baggage resources although it’s American-centric. To check seating, I use SeatGuru.
SAFETY OF THE AIRLINE
Lastly, if it’s not an airline we’ve flown before or a plane model we’re unfamiliar with, we’ll look up the safety record of that plane and airline. Sometimes you don’t have a choice as to which airline and what kind of aircraft you’ll fly. It might be the only airline going to that destination and that plane is the only one they fly there. But if you do have a choice, say, between two airlines, and you could fly on a newer plane on a better airline for a little bit extra, why would you risk your life for the sake of saving $50 or even $100. I consult AirSafe. We used to use the probability of crash calculator on amIgoingdown.com which was weirdly fun, but sadly the site is now defunct.
HOW TO CHOOSE A LONG HAUL AIRLINE
We have completely different considerations when deciding which airline to fly for long-haul routes, for flights over five hours. In fact, many of the flights we’ve flown over the years have been long haul because we’re Australian (enough said, right?), the Middle East was our base from 1998 onwards, and for many years we were mainly travelling between there and Europe, Asia or Australia.
For long haul flights, these are the things we consider:
COMFORT OF THE PLANE
For long flights, we want comfy seats, plenty of legroom, good food and wine, an excellent entertainment system, and friendly staff. We’ll almost always fly a premium airline for long haul. I say ‘almost’ because we did try a budget airline once for a long haul. It wasn’t fun. If we’re flying for longer than eight hours, we’ll probably upgrade to Business. If we haven’t flown the airline before, we’ll check Skytrax Airline Quality site to compare airlines and see which airlines have won awards. We’re happy to pay extra for comfort on an award-winning airline for a long flight, partly because we’re working and we need to hit the ground running and we can’t afford to lose a day from lack of sleep, and partly because of…
POINTS AND MILES
You will read on other blogs about ‘travel hacking’ and accumulating frequent flyer miles and using certain types of credit cards to help you accumulate enough points to get free flights and free hotel rooms and all the rest. Points-gathering only amounts to anything if you frequently fly the same airlines, fly airlines within the same alliance, have multiple frequent flyer club memberships, or use multiple cards. We don’t do any of that anymore and, in fact, I now find the points calculating I used to find fun very tedious. When we were based out of the UAE we almost exclusively flew Emirates for over a decade, we were frequent flyers with Gold status, we had Emirates credit cards, and we were always buying Economy tickets and using our points to upgrade to Business or buying cheap ‘cash plus miles’ tickets. Since we’ve been roaming the planet without a base, we’ve been flying Emirates less, and increasingly flying a wider variety of airlines, very few of which are in any alliances. If you’re in a position to join a frequent flyer programme and get an airline credit card, then sometimes it can be worth paying more for a flight so you get the full number of points you might not otherwise accumulate with a discounted ticket. I find FlyerTalk a useful resources on miles and points among other things.
DURATION OF THE FLIGHT
See Short Haul above; the cheapest long haul flights are often the longest, the most indirect and the most convoluted, with several stops and ridiculous detours. The first time we ever went overseas we flew from Sydney via Tokyo and Vancouver to Mexico City. We had a blast on our 24-hour stopover in Tokyo, but being separated and interrogated (and threatened to be strip-searched) in transit by Canadian airport security “because only drug-dealers would take such a route”, was not fun at all. If you’re on a super-tight budget you might be prepared to go the long way to pay less to save money for other things, but we’re over it.
SAFETY OF THE AIRLINE
Again, see Short Haul above; we have the same concerns about premium airlines and it affects the decisions we make more than the price of the flight. We have flown airlines like Cubana and Egypt Air before, but if we had a choice we wouldn’t do it again.
That’s how we decide which airline we’re going to fly, and we’ll work our way through those factors every single time to make sure we get the best out of our time in the air.