Scanning for an air deal? Grab a map

Amsterdam in spring, copyright Jane Wooldridge 2014

Amsterdam in spring, 2014

Just when you thought airline travel was getting oh-so-slightly easier (thanks to TSA pre-check lanes), the airlines have become even more difficult.

In the wake of the American Airlines – US Airways merger, schedules have rearranged in ways that benefit the airlines but often slam travelers.

And as anyone who has tried to fly recently knows, airline rates have gone, well, sky-high. We could explain the business case of why, but unless you’re an institutional-sized stockholder of an airline, you probably don’t care about the why. You just care about how you’re going to cope.

The answer: Invest some time in looking at the alternatives.

Multi-search engines like  and online agencies like Expedia and Travelocity are great for checking the obvious to find airlines and routes that might be cheaper than the travel plan that first comes to mind. But finding the best deals often requires human creativity.

Amsterdam 2014 / copyright Jane Wooldridge

Amsterdam 2014

For a recent trip to Amsterdam, the fares on our usual airline-of-choice bordered on ridiculous. With map in hand, we started looking for nearby cities served by lower priced airlines and hit on Dusseldorf — two hours away by car or train, and served by Air Berlin. To figure out our total costs, we added in the price of a car rental, estimated gas (which always costs more in Europe than we remember) — and found we could save hundreds on each ticket. Better yet, we were able to snag frequent flier tickets via a partner arrangement, which cut our costs to a fraction of what we’d paid if we’d flown directly to Amsterdam.

Planning an upcoming trip to Malta, Sicily, Nuremberg and Amsterdam proved more confounding. Many of the flights we would have found most convenient didn’t fly the day of the week we need to travel. Some of the routes were torturous — and time-consuming. Others were just more than we wanted to pay.

So out came the atlas. With the map on the table and the computer at hand, we looked first for low-cost airlines that fly into Malta or Sicily. Ryanair, Easyjet, Air Berlin, Germanwings and Meridana were all possibilities. (Some we already knew about, some we found through European low-cost website Opodo, and some we found by checking the airport website to find out which airlines serve them.)

Working backwards, we figured out that Ryanair flies to Malta on the date we need. (Easyjet’s service ends at the close of summer.) We looked at all Ryanair routes to Malta and searched from flights from Miami to those cities. The best deal and schedule, we concluded, was to Milan. Then we repeated the process for our other travel points.

End of the day, we’re flying Miami to Milan, with enough time to go into town for lunch, before flying on to Malta. Our trip with friends includes Malta and a ferry ride to Sicily. From Palermo, we’ll fly back to Milan on a supercheap flight, snag a cheap overnight hotel and fly on to Nuremberg. We’ll cruise from Nuremberg up to Amsterdam, then fly back to Miami.

Sounds complicated and time-consuming. You got it. But when you balance out more than $2,000 in savings, it was time well spent.

As for the those airline schedule changes, let’s just say that my old airline and I are undergoing a sort of trial separation. After sorting through all the options, I found a cheaper and easier way to get to Boston, where I go often. Turns out breaking up isn’t that hard to do after all.