Everyone likes a bargain, and there are only three (legal) ways to travel by air for free.
One. Work for an airline.
Two. Marry someone who works for an airline.
Three. Become an obsessive “hobbyist” who lives on planes.
Back before the children, Al (The Hub) got a job working for an airline. No, he wasn’t a pilot or a flight attendant. There are lots of other jobs at airlines and airports. They all come with terrible salaries but great travel benefits. The flights are free or almost free, though your time is not your own and you are broke once you get to your destination. Furthermore, you can be all buckled in and ready for pushback, but if an actual paying customer arrives before the door closes, you’ll get pulled off and tossed back into the standby queue at the gate. And because you have to get back to work –and because your boss knows where you are — you’ll need to squeeze a week’s worth of fun in Rio into 3 days. If you have the travel bug like I did, you’ll love it.
Al and I did lots of traveling in his airline days. I’ll save those amusing stories about jumping out of cabs in Cairo at 3 a.m. for when we have a beer at a quiet bar. The point is, that’s how I know that Option One and Option Two work.
Before we get to Option 3, let me point out that air travel is a highly inefficient use of energy. It’s the single biggest contributor to your personal carbon footprint – (except for driving a car, eating, wearing clothes, and living in a house — globally, air travel only accounts for about 3% of carbon emissions). You can feel appropriately guilty about that (as, indeed the New York Times would have you do – which is why I hate the NY Times), you can do that whole carbon-offset thing , or you could ask why the cost of the carbon offset is not charged back to the airlines by governments in the first place. You could also embrace ecomodernism and reject “People Are Bad” environmentalism and live in a city. Finally, you could just take a nice vacation and forget the whole thing.
Now – on to Option Three. Hobbyists. I must say, I’m fascinated by this guy. I concur with the blogger for The Economist who, with characteristic under-statement, writes that “a life in which your only roots are in an airline seat sounds like a sad one”. Indeed. Speaking personally, it’s not only sad, it’s completely alien. I’m hearing the words, but not understanding the meaning. It’s like those holy men who stand on one leg for 5 years.
Standing on your leg for 5 years is possibly less strange, if only because it is more common. Let’s just agree to say the concept of living on an airplane for 4 months and standing on one leg for five years is neck-and-neck in the race to weird things not on my personal bucket list.
This guy makes more sense. He got upgraded to go around the world in first class, and blogged about it later. I admit I’m fascinated by the decadent idea of showering at 30,000 feet.
Still, it seems to me that the whole point of flying is to GET SOMEWHERE, and then stay there for a few days. Most of us want a cheap flight to a place, and not as an experience in and of itself. The idea of flying to Detroit by way of Tierra Del Fuego just to get the miles sounds so painful, I’d rather take a bus.
On the other hand, these guys make it sound so easy, you’d be crazy NOT to do it! And I admire the ingenuity of the pudding guy. It’s like those coupon clippers who feed their families for free: in theory, it sounds like a great idea. In practice, I’d rather just sit on the sofa and have a nice scotch.
So, what about some tips you can actually use? Let’s start with…
- Sign up with one frequent flier program, and then always fly the same airline. Delta is my current favorite.
- Book on a Tuesday and fly on Tuesday, Wed, or Sat
- Close your browser, then use Chrome “incognito” tab to avoid algorithms that increase the price up because you’re searching for airfare (yes, they do that)
- Find out when fares are lowest by checking Google Flight Explorer, and plan your trip around those dates.
- Use travel websites that search the most number of airline websites. You’ll shave a few bucks off, most likely, but don’t expect miracles. Try Momondo, CheapOAir, or compare a bunch of flights at once on JetRadar (which has Kayak and budget airlines)
- Airfare watchdog lets you sign up for alerts.
- For the daring: try “hidden city” ticketing. Airlines hate this. It’s risky for two reasons: blacklisting and rebooking. Read the controversy here. Check out skiplagged here.
- Book on very cheap carriers, such as spirit airlines in the US and Ryan air, Norwegian air, and WOW (Iceland). The price is right, but be ready to pack VERY light (in lieu of a suitcase, I suggest a small plastic bag from the local superette) and bring your own bottled water and
food (I survived entirely on dried fruit and nuts for three days once). Warning: the first time I flew on Spirit Air, it was so horrible that I found myself silhouetted against a sunset, shaking my fist at heaven and swearing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never fly Spirit again!”
- Use GetAirHelp to get your money back from the airline after they screw you over.
- Become a pilot.
- Take a cruise instead, or crew a yacht.
- Last, but not least …. here’s how to find a job with an airline.