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Booking Flights


Recently, a group was booking their flights for an upcoming vacation and having gone through the numerous booking options, our friend Ralph commented that buying an airline ticket used to be a lot simpler. You either booked economy or first class and the price included your seat and checked baggage. He is spot-on, booking a flight has become more complicated.

Nowadays, economy separates into several subcategories and first class is only offered on certain air carriers. Business class was created with its own subset of differing fares and replaced first class on some, but not all, airlines. Shortly after Ralph’s comment, another friend, Jean-Paul, was going through a similar booking exercise and noted that the whole process has become quite complicated for those who may travel once a year and just want to book a flight at a reasonable price.


Both men are correct, the flight permutations associated with booking different air fares can be time consuming and confusing for those who do not regularly book their own flights. Gone are the days of two simple choices. Now when purchasing your airline ticket, you need to consider if you want to travel in economy, business or first and then decide if your class preference is available on the routing you are travelling and then look at the options within the class you have chosen. You then have to keep checking for price bumps or decreases.


For example, if you want to travel in first class, you have to find out if the air carrier you want to fly on, has a first-class section or whether they only have a business class category. The two categories are not the same although the business class on some air carriers is their former first class and essentially the highest category of travel experience they offer. First class on certain airlines is definitely a step up from their business class and hugely different from their economy class (have a peek at Emirates First Class Suites to give you an idea of what you can get if you book a truly first-class fare).


If you want to travel business class, you will find that it too has been subdivided into categories that offer up separate pricing. Since this different pricing works much the same way as the economy pricing, this is my cue to do a deep dive into booking a ticket in economy since most people opt for this category of travel. Economy fares also go by the names of coach, standard or main cabin seating depending on the airline.


As I live and work in Canada, I am going to use Air Canada as an example of differing economy fares.


You decide to take a trip and you want to book a flight in the most economical option possible. After all, your flight is only the means of getting you to your destination and you don’t want to spend a lot of money on the transportation to get there.


You go onto the Air Canada or a third party (such as Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz, Cheapo Air, Travelocity etc.), site, and you are instantly faced with choices and differing prices. I am going to focus initially on the Air Canada fare options which will make it easier to explain the third-party offerings later.


Economy Fare Categories


You click on the economy fare and you are suddenly offered three different economy rates, each increasing in cost:


                  Basic                                Standard                           Flex

Refunds       No refunds                     No refund                       Refund for a fee

Seats           $ for a fee                       $ for a fee                      Standard seat


Bag             $ for a fee                       1 free bag                       1 free bag


Aeroplan      25% Points                    50% points                     100% points


Each one of these fares will put you on the same plane in the same size seat. But each one comes with a different price tag. The Basic is the cheapest while the Flex is the more expensive economy fare. As you can see, they give you different benefits.


WestJet offers two choices, Flex and Econoflex which offer the same basic concept of paying more for seat location and the ability to cancel or change flights.


Once you decide on which  fare you are comfortable with, you then have to decide on your seat. If you want to let the airline select a seat for you, chances are you will be assigned a middle seat if the aircraft has middle seats.


If you are comfortable at being assigned a middle seat, and don’t want to pay to select a seat, then don’t make a selection. But if you are like me, and have definite preferences as to where you sit when you travel, you will need to choose and pay for your seat.


But once again, you are faced with a choice. Preferred or standard seat. Remember, these seats are exactly the same size, the difference is in the location and spacing.


What is a Standard Seat versus a Preferred Seat?


Economy seats are generally 40 to 48 centimetres wide with the distance between seats (front to back), ranging from 76 to 86 centimetres.


Air Canada Preferred Seats, are economy seats in exit rows, in select bulkhead rows and in the first few rows of the cabin on some flights. These are NOT part of a standard seat selection and you will always pay an additional fee for these seats. The fee you pay for a preferred seat is not the same as the fee you will pay for a standard seat.


Once again, location, location, location. As an example, you may be in row 12 in economy on a flight. Row 12 might be a preferred seat. Behind you, in row 13, is a seat the exact same size, but it is not considered a preferred seat. If you select that seat in row 13, you will pay less for your seat than the person in the preferred seat in front of you. Sitting beside you, might be a person who has not paid any money to select a seat, but they have randomly been placed in the seat beside you.


WestJet Preferred Seats also provide additional legroom and are located at the front of the economy cabin. Exit row seats are the same and WestJet states that these not only provide additional legroom but passengers will have the opportunity to board earlier.


Exit Row Seats are also Preferred Seats


Can anyone sit in an exit row? For safety reasons, not everyone can sit in an exit row so even if you pay extra to sit in an exit row, you may be told to change when you arrive at the airline check-in counter by the staff working there or by the air crew onboard if they feel you may not be able to execute the emergency exit protocols in event of an emergency.


What is a Premium Economy Seat?


Premium Economy seats are usually found between the business class and regular economy sections of an aircraft. They are (in my mind), reminiscent of the former business class seats we used to find on aircraft 20 years ago before the seating in business class migrated to individual pods.  Premium economy seats are larger and more comfortable than those found in the standard economy but not quite on par with those found in business class.


What about Seat Sales?


Seat sales come up from time to time and like any sale, will offer up discounted rates on tickets to specific destinations or across the board.


Will a Seat Sale Give You Different Fare Options?


Sometimes. A seat sale might give you a discount equally across all fare options. Let’s use the example of a $300 discount that applies to every ticket whether you book an economy ticket in Basic, Standard or Flex fare.


I used the word "sometimes" because some air carriers offer a seat sale against only one type of fare. This usually happens when there is a percentage discount, such as 25% off on all economy tickets.


How often do Seat Sales Come Up?


It depends but generally seat sales will tie in with special events like Boxing Day and Labour Day. They will also take place during slow times of the year such as the mid to end of January. There can be seat sales on routes where sales might be a bit sluggish or slow.


Are the Air Fares the Same All the Time except for Seat Sales?


No, air fares might vary or fluctuate throughout a day, a week or a month. I am going to provide you with examples of different fare offerings on an identical route and in the exact same category examined over the course of three days. Yes, I am serious, these are prices offered on the same routing, same day/time departure and returns and in the identical class: 


$1799.56  standard

$1374.67  standard

$1422.56  standard


As you can see, the same flight, same class and same departure and return dates and times provided a difference in pricing over the three-day period. If the person had booked at $1799.56, they would have paid $424.89 more than if they booked 24 hours later at $1374.67 price. If they failed to lock in that great price of $1374.67, the very next day, that same flight would cost them $478.90 more.


What is the different type of baggage?


Personal items are included in the various types of fares  and those are generally purses, small carryalls etc.


Carry-on bags included in the various types of fares  and are usually a little larger than the personal item and includes small suitcases, backpacks etc.


Checked bag is a larger suitcase, bag or box that on most international flights, can weigh up to 50 lbs.


Note: Always check weight restrictions on different carriers - particularly discount carriers such as charters.


What is the Cost of a Checked bag if not included?


The baggage allowance for flights between Canada and other international destinations varies based on the route selected and the date your ticket was issued. Returning to my Air Canada example, a first bag fee of $75.00 applies to Economy Basic fares. The fee for a second bag is $100.00.  WestJet offers differing rates such as First Checked Bag; Prepay, $30-36; Self-Serve Check-in, $40-48; Airport Check-in, $50-59.


Some third parties or flight consolidators will charge $150 CAD the add a checked bag to your ticket so always check in advance.

Checked baggage is always included in Premium Economy, Business Class and First Class tickets so no need to worry.


If you have a travel credit card, check your benefits.


If you have a travel credit card (such as a TD, CIBC, Amex Aeroplan cards  or WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard), you might automatically get one free check in bag if you travel with the associated carrier. So a basic fare wherein you are charged for a checked bag, would not make any difference to you because you will automatically get a free checked bag because of your credit card.


Booking through a Travel Agent


I am not a travel agent; I am a travel writer so I am a keen advocate of using a registered travel agent to book travel. Flights however are a little different. I prefer to book my own flight arrangements – Always. I will book directly with an air carrier or with a trusted third party if the price is significantly reduced. Why? Because I have the time and interest to keep searching flight options to give me the best routing and deal. I also can be very picky about where I sit on an aircraft and I always check seat availability before booking.


My advice is if you are comfortable booking your own flights, do so. If you find the endless searching for the best deals a waste of your time, or you simply don’t want to be bothered, then book through a travel agent. One word of caution though, booking through a travel agent will not necessarily ensure you get the lowest price.


Why do travel agents not always get the lowest rates on airline tickets?


Travel agents may or may not get you the lowest rate on air travel. They don't usually earn a lot of money for making flight arrangements and so they don't devote a lot of time to searching and searching for flight deals. Whereas you may check for flight deals numerous times over a month, a travel agent might only check a few times over a day or two or only at the time you make a specific request for flight information and booking. 


Can you find a flight deal and have your travel agent book it?


Yes you can. Screen shot the deal and send it to your travel agent to book it. If the deal is still in effect when she/he goes into the system, they can book if for you.


The most common question I get asked relates to why there are such big discrepancies in ticket prices.  As already mentioned, the simple answer is that ticket prices will fluctuate and when you book will make a difference. You can look at fares in the morning and see a price and an hour later get a totally different price and a different price again at night.


Is Booking Business Class different?


As evidenced in economy bookings, you will find that an air carrier will offer you different rates depending on the type of booking you are making. Same cabin, same size seats, different prices. Once again I return to Air Canada as an example:


                    Business Lowest                                              Business Flexible



Bag                2                                                                           2


Aeroplan       150% Points                                                         150% points


Standby        on selected routes                                              included


Refunds        refundable for a fee                                            fully refundable


Business and First Class Combinations

I have booked flights that have seated me in different classes. On one flight, when I decided to treat myself, I opted to travel in First Class on an international flight. However, my ticket had me flying in economy, business and then first class. The reason? The type of aircraft available.

Living in Ottawa, my flights often feed through Montreal or Toronto. On the Montreal route, chances are that I will be flying in a small aircraft that does not have a business or first-class section. This was the situation for my "first Class" flight. I was seated in the same size seat as someone who booked an economy fare. From there, the aircraft taking me to my next departure airport only had a business class option as their premium level of travel. In that case, I travelled in business class. It was not until the third flight that my "First Class Ticket" actually had me flying in first class. The type of aircraft and air carrier will dictate what is available to you.

Therefore, when booking your business or first class tickets, looked for "mixed cabin" notices.


Things to remember when booking:


1. If you are booking through a third party, they will always offer the basic fare rates as their first option. If you choose the basic fare, do NOT book your seating or checked baggage through them as they will charge you more. Once you receive your booking confirmation, book your seats and checked baggage directly through the airline.


2. If you have the time and inclination, keep searching for flights. I might visit an air carrier site numerous times in a week looking for price drops. Patience and diligence will pay off. 


3, Clear your browser history after searching the air carrier sites as constant checking with the same search criteria means the air carrier website will not give you different prices. 


4. Check your credit card to see if you have any travel benefits attached (such as insurance or one free checked bag allowance etc.).


5. Don't be afraid to check for different departure dates and times. Choosing different dates or times can mean a savings of up to $300 or more per ticket. That fare difference could cover an extra night in a hotel and your meals.


6. Take a look at the seating configuration of a plane. In some cases it is NOT worth paying for a seat selection. For example on flights from Ottawa to Montreal, Air Canada usually uses a dash 8 which is a 2-2 seating configuration (XX  XX). You will get either a window or aisle seat. The flight is very short and it is not worth paying money for a seat selection unless you really need to sit in a specific seat. Save yourself the seat selection fee.  But on long haul flights (such as an overseas flight), you want to have control of where you sit and pay the extra seat selection fee. 


As usual, if anyone has any questions or comments, please feel free to make them here or send me an e-mail.


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