The high airfares that families face during school breaks—when every other family is trying to flee town at the same time—can feel positively punitive. Often the only solution is to opt for the least convenient flights—typically in the late evening and early morning—which means sacrificing the kids’ sleep schedule and your sanity. Are the costs really worth the savings?
That’s the question I’m asking myself today. My family of four just flew back from Georgia, where we visited relatives over the Easter school break. I paid $1,200 for our four tickets from Newark to Atlanta. While I’m glad to have saved about $300 by booking the last flight of the day to Atlanta and the first flight of the day back to Newark, the decision took its toll on us. I thought I’d detail the pros and cons of our experience, in case you ever need to make a similar decision.
- We saved $300.
- There were few lines. Upon landing at our destination late at night, we did not hit any lines picking up our rental car, nor did we hit any traffic driving to our hotel. When flying back at dawn, there was no line at check-in or security.
- Our early morning flight left on time—which, of course, is a big advantage to early morning flights. They are the least likely to be delayed.
- Upon landing, we had a full and productive day ahead at our destination (since it was only 8:18 a.m.).
- We lost way too much sleep.
- Our nighttime flight was delayed—as is often the case, thanks to the cascading effect of delays throughout the day. Our 7:14 p.m. flight to Atlanta translated to a midnight arrival at our hotel.
- Airport transit services were limited in the wee hours. We had to set our alarm clocks for 3:00 a.m. to catch our 6:01 a.m. flight home because we had to ensure we could return the rental car, catch the Skytrain from the airport rental car center to the terminal, get through security, catch the Plane Train to our concourse, and find the kids some breakfast before the 5:36 a.m. boarding time. It’s a good thing we left time for the unexpected because, upon breezing past security at 4:45 a.m., we found that the Plane Train that operates between concourses was out of service. We had to walk from check-in all the way to Concourse D (five concourses away)—which, as anyone who has spent too much time at ATL can tell you, is a major hike.
- Airport concessions were closed. ATL is the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic, yet there were no snacks to be found at 4:45 a.m. Fortunately, a coffee shop in Concourse D opened at 5:00 a.m. (The United Club there doesn’t open till 6:00 a.m.)
I’d love to hear: What have you put yourself through to avoid a high airfare? And how do you decide whether the inconvenience and sleep deprivation are worth the savings?
There is a third type of flight common to the traveler i n Asia and sometimes it’s in South America too. That’s the middle of the night flight. Many flights from say India to Europe or the USA are scheduled to depart between 2AM and 4AM. These present pretty much the worst of both worlds .All the logistical difficulties Wendy writes about, but sold at the standard price – no reduction for the horrible hour.
Why are they scheduled then? Airlines used to say it was for convenient arrival scheduling, but their own timetables often prove them wrong. Does anyone know why?
Families should arrive at an expensive resort in the a.m. – ask for early check-in, or at a minimum stow your bags at the front desk. Carefully prepack a bag with a swimsuit/sandals/tee-shirt (or hiking boots or ski bibs, etc.)
I flew two kids cross-country many times, and also to several Hawaiian islands from Seattle, using this tactic. Paying school-holiday rates at splurge-worthy resorts easily tops $500/night with tax, parking, resort fee and extras like cabana. Much more if you have a large family and get two rooms or a large suite.
Arriving at midnight or later and flopping into those pricey beds facedown is a waste.
This is what airport hotels are for. Check in to a hotel as close to the airport as possible (there’s a Hyatt right in Orlando airport, for instance. No shuttle needed.)
In the light of day, after breakfast, pick up your car or call the resort transport. Arriving early at the resort, after making a drugstore pitstop for water, sunscreen and other fluids you didn’t bring on the plane, is ideal. You don’t get stuck with the worst room, as you do arriving in the dead of night. Swim, tour around the resort to explore, have lunch and sign up for watercraft rentals and the like. By the time your room is ready, you already have the lay of the land and are in vacation mode.
Exotic islands might not have serviceable Best Westerns and Holiday Inn Express for this strategy. But airports in Florida, the southwest, Denver, etc. that are gateways to resorts have them.
Prepacking is key. I found the small amount of extra planning was worth it and avoiding ‘losing’ day one of the resort stay, while allowing us to travel on cheaper. quieter evening flights.
These are usually the seats sold by the cheap internet web sites such as Priceline because there are the least desirable. For the ones using public transportation to the airport – and there are many of us who have access to public transit in the big cities – the earliest flight is impossible. As for the latest flights, if it gets cancelled, you are SOL.
For those people who travel internationally to meet a river cruise, tour, ocean liner, etc., I have my own preferences. First, we like early flights to Europe; our experience is we must get to East coast for flights to Europe. Our tour companies do not get us flights (nor have we found any) from the Southwest directly to our Europe destination. We also try to get 3 – 4 hour layovers on the East coast. This way, by the early morning flight (we like 6-7 am,) we should get to East coast by late morning/just after noon, and can freshen before our flight onward. We also try to get non-stop from East coast to Eur. Second, we live only 45-50 miles from the airport, but traffic into the city starts at 6:00 am or earlier; so, we usually get a hotel near the airport that has shuttle the night before and are usually forced to take the park n fly. That particular hotel only charges $6.50-$7.50 per day for parking after the 14 day free park n fly; our trips are 20 days or longer. The airport parking is more like $35.00 a day. And the hotel parking is covered.
Third, by getting the late afternoon, early evening flight to Europe from East coast, we get there in the morning, sometimes as early as 7:00 am or as late as 10:30 am. The tour agency usually picks us up at the airport and takes us to the ship or hotel. After storing our bags at the hotel (or on the ship), we head out for bottles of water and a little look see, or the tour company takes us on a local vicinity walk, so when we check in we unpack what we must for a day, then have a meeting, then bed for early bus touring. On the flight across the ocean, we plan on 4 hours of sleeping, even if it’s taking a “drowsy” allergy pill or acetaminafen 500 mg, and after a meal we can usually sleep okay.
On an Asia trip, we would leave in the afternoon for the West coast, and those flights are usually nearer to midnight or late evening to Asia. We definitely plan on getting several naps on that kind of flight.
I know I didn’t mention children, because we don’t have any to consider, but early/late flights, why, and convenience is mostly the issue here. Believe me, my traveling partner is just as cranky as kids can be, but he tells me to book a trip anyway and I try to appease him by encouraging to look on the bright side, bed and meals in 20 hours!
Hi Wendy. This is a nice, thought-provoking post. I would add that for morning flights you do have to factor in how long your trip to the destination may be. If you have several hours on board the flight you can easily nap, catch up on the sleep you missed by leaving the house/hotel early, and will arrive energized at the new destination. It is tough for a short flight like the one you described. Also, if you are traveling with young children during a busy time such as Easter, you may have a potential conundrum at check-in at the hotel on the other end. Often, check-in times aren’t until 3PM and if you are at your destination by 8AM, with luggage and kids, it could be an issue. I generally travel solo, and with minimal baggage, so leaving one bag at the hotel bell desk and then going straight out to see the sights is not an issue. Thus I love doing the early flights. I can maximize the day.
Late night flights, however, unless they are a north-south red-eye, I generally like to avoid. If your flight gets delayed to Newark, for example, and you want to save the $80+ to take a cab into Manhattan, you could be stuck on the platform waiting for New Jersey transit for up to an hour. And it’s just exhausting when that happens after you’ve already had to sit somewhere in a plane for longer than expected due to delays. It can kill the whole mood of your trip at the end.
Hi Wendy, I avoid late arriving flights as invariably, when checking into a hotel, I get the last, worst room. It’s not worth that aggravation to save a couple of hundred dollars.
Hi Wendy, Traveling with four children under the age of 10 means that we definitely have to pack our patience. We’ve learned that our kids generally do better with an earlier start versus traveling late in the day. Packing some healthy snacks and going to bed early the night before can definitely help. The excitement of getting to our destination in time to swim or play definitely outweighs the challenge of leaving extra early. We tend to avoid late night flights since they are not super restful, and the day after can lead to the kids being cranky…think ‘late night sleepover syndrome’.
Good to know for people with kids.
With three young kids, I always try to take the earliest flights in the morning leaving from our home airports (LAX or SBA). We put pillows, blankets and travel clothes in the car the night before and warm up the car for a few minutes before we wake up the kids and carry them to the car. 3am or 5am – it doesn’t matter. They usually sleep on the way to the airport and are in a great mood by the time we head into the terminal. There’s always time to get breakfast at the airport, and like you say, there are never flight delays. We’ve flown several hundred flights with the kids and have only had one major delay / missed connection, and that was an afternoon flight.
Coming home, though, I usually aim for 10-11am departures, even if it’s a little more expensive. Obviously it depends on where we are, but that gives us time to get a full night’s sleep, eat breakfast at the hotel, finish packing and head to the airport. With suitcases, triple-checking the room for left items, returning rental cars, etc…, early morning departures always seem too stressful. If rush hour traffic is a concern, I’ll book a little earlier or later.
I avoid booking red-eyes at all costs. Unless an overnight flight is long enough for the kids to get at least 8 hours of sleep, I opt for daytime flights. I’m never willing to trade a little cost savings for a potentially miserable travel experience or delay getting to/from our destination.
As a solo traveler, I only book those early and late flights…both to maximize time, as well as to avoid the young kids. I don’t often find them cheaper, though.
Great post, Wendy! My husband is an airline pilot so *if* we can fly non-rev, we must fly either early or late but the savings are totally worth it and thankfully the perks allows us to travel more. However, we often purchase tickets to help with our sanity when traveling with our kids! This also results in early/late flights as well because of airfare. Once, while in a frenzy of school-vacation-travel-craziness, we drove from Maine to Philly to catch a flight to TX. Flights out of New England (I’m sure any region) during break weeks are consistently full so we made a road trip out of it! (Of course I’m putting a positive spin on this – in truth, it was hell!) It worked, but it was the loss of sleep took its toll.
Late night flights are my go-to as eliminating a hotel night gets me pretty close to justifying the cost for a lie flat business class ticket which makes intercontinental travel much nicer. Math would quickly change with kids or cheaper hotels.
Yep, the math changes when you have kids, but for solo travelers I like your thinking!
I’ll do it when traveling by myself, but with little kids (5 years old & 7 months old), it is just too punishing in most instances. It is so hard to get out the door in the early morning with babies and toddlers! I will occasionally take a late evening flight with them on a return from a long-weekend trip to maximize the time away, but I hate those delays that inevitably have stacked up and always vow to never do it again (of course, I do it again 6 months later and repeat the cycle!).
On a different subject, I’m loving the new site and blog, Wendy! Congrats on your big move.
Thanks, Leslie. I remember when my kids were your kids’ ages. We almost always flew midday-ish because otherwise it was just too torturous. It was only when my youngest turned 8 that I felt we could risk a bit more discomfort.
Living on the west coast, it’s difficult to not have an early morning flight if I’m heading back east.
Fortunately, living in Spokane the airport experience is relatively easy: short lines for Pre-Check and plenty of seats in the terminals.
The downside of Spokane is not much competition — mostly DL heading east and AS for west coast jaunts. AA doesn’t serve Spokane at all (minimal flights to PHX on US) and UA has cut way way back on service to GEG.
I’d love to add more legs to avoid a high airfare, but that’s counterintuitive to how airlines price nowadays.
I’ve often punished myself (and my family!) with flights like this. I generally do the EARLY morning flights and my strategy is:
– book the night before the trip at the airport hotel, or, if cost is a factor, at a hotel with a free shuttle (24 hours).
– turn in the car the night before, since we’ll be taking the shuttle.
– carry snacks for breakfast – granted, probably easier for a 6 year-old than for kids 10 & 12. Better yet, I book a hotel with a free continental breakfast and take their “breakfast boxes” to the airport.
Thanks for the tip about “breakfast boxes,” Gwen. Funny, I’ve stayed at many a hotel with free breakfast and have never heard of such a box. Next time I’ll ask.
We love the early morning flights. The on-time benefit is huge and if I am going to pay for a family of four at a nice resort, I hope to get there while there is still some daylight. Since our favorite airport is 2 hours away, we tend to go down the night before and stay at a hotel near the airport. There is an extra expense there, but if we go with the “park-and-fly” option, where we can leave our car there free of charge for our stay, we actually save money.
I like that “park-and-fly” tip: Leave your car in the airport hotel’s parking lot for free during your trip! And I couldn’t agree more about arriving at the resort early in the day when you’ve got kids in tow.