The Best Time to Travel

If March is “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” August represents another transitional month if you’re in the academic game. The beginning of the month treats us as gently as a lamb, but the end of the month beats us like a rented mule. However, the month of August also has the reverse effect on travel. As the kiddies go back to school at the end of the month, it becomes a lot easier to travel, especially par avion.

  • Airports become more pleasant. You begin to see fewer over-burdened families clogging the airport lines and more experienced business travelers zipping through security checkpoints and boarding areas.
  • The weather at most places begins to cool significantly. The heat waves that make most people too grumpy to do anything begin to dissipate in late-August. New Yorkers begin returning to our heat island around this time and stuff begins to happen again. It’s the same in Europe, they tell me.
  • Airfares drop from the stratospheric prices over the summer. It’s been years since I’ve flown to California over the summer because it costs about $500-$600 for a domestic flight to LAX this time of year. That’s double the usual fare. I still don’t get how people afford European summer vacations at these nutty prices.

As happens at this time of year, the off-peak travel season is nigh, and airlines have been discounting airfares for fall travel. That’s great because, as we all know, early fall is the best time of year to travel. Over the last month, several airlines began discounting flights between New York and Los Angeles, the markets I travel most frequently, to some pretty reasonable levels. Because I wasn’t deliberately tracking these fares, I don’t have exact figures, but I recall that it started with the LCCs and ULCCs.

  • Virgin America started a fare war with $300 round-trip fares, between JFK and LAX, for travel between August 25 and November 18.
  • Spirit Airlines offered a $260 fare, which shouldn’t even count as a discount because they will add fees for carry-on luggage and printing your boarding pass.
  • Sun Country did something similar, but every time I’ve searched their fares in the past, there was a ridiculously long layover in Minneapolis–St. Paul. It wasn’t worth it.

Then things got more interesting as the legacy carriers got involved, and these guys know how to wage a fare war.

  • American Airlines and US Airways began offering flights between LGA and LAX, with a connection, for $238.
  • American lowered the price on tickets on their own stock to an even lower price: $216. That is about as cheap as I’ve ever seen a non-mistake fare between NYC and LA.
  • On Wednesday morning, American offered two fares, LGA-DFW and DFW-LAX, that when combined could zip you across the country and back for $150.

I implored friends and family to take advantage of these fares, especially when it dropped to $150, because there’s no way that fare was going to stick around long. And it didn’t. By Wednesday night, that fare had evaporated and flying between LGA and LAX, via DFW, cost $370 round-trip.

On Thursday morning, I saw that United matched American’s aggressive pricing and offered its own $150 round-trip fare, between LGA and LAX via Chicago-O’Hare.

I couldn’t resist and booked a trip in mid November. Although September and October are the best months to travel just about anywhere, they’re also among the best months to be in the city.

I’ll head west as the temperatures begin to drop.

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