On Thursday evening, I sat in front of a glowing computer screen in our dark upstairs, the girls sleeping across the hall, John watching basketball downstairs, and stared at the "Book It Now" button on airfare.com. Wishing I had a crystal ball. Buying airline tickets is such a gamble.
Of course you want to find the lowest price, some airline offering an impossibly low introductory fare (which we did in 2004 with a $776/person roundtrip Dulles-Guangzhou on Northwest!). You can find some good fares, just not during high season, which is the only time we can go now that we are bound to the public school calendar. The more I searched, the more I realized that there was pretty much no way to find tickets under a thousand bucks a pop. Ouch. Owww-eeeeeeeee. But...John just accepted a promotion at work, which means he will go from a nine-month to a twelve-month contract starting this July. Who knows when we'll be able to get away for three weeks again? It's now or never, exchange rate be damned. Better to take a bit longer paying than kick ourselves for not going.
Interestingly, direct flights didn't necessarily cost more than flights with several stops. After our experiences at Heathrow in 2007, we decided we preferred a direct flight. It's not that there's anything wrong with Heathrow specifically, but killing time at an airport with two little kids is just not all that much fun for the kids or for mom & dad. Add to that the fact that transferring from plane to plane involves going through this long security line, where you are limited to one piece of hand baggage, period-end-of-discussion. Both times, we saw travelers pleading to carry a purse AND a laptop, only to be told that unless the laptop fit into the purse, the traveler was out of luck.
It came down to two flights: Continental from Newark to Brussels was the cheapest, but involves getting up to our New Jersey family, possibly hiring an airport limo, adding six driving hours to the travel time...we nixed it and ended up going with the obvious choice: a United/Lufthansa flight from Dulles to Brussels which is known as "the bus" because so many people going between the capital of the USA and the capital of the EU travel that way.
Booking through United.com or Lufthansa.com DOUBLES the fare because you are also paying for the protections many travelers want, especially the option of canceling or changing the flight (that crystal ball again). John and I talked about it, and decided to book on airfare.com and trade the security for the 50% discount.
The only question left...when should we push the Book Now button? We had hoped that the new open skies agreements would drive transatlantic carriers into a price war. Still, halfway through March, prices had gone up a little bit, and several travel sites were warning that prices would continue to go up because of fuel surcharges related to the high price of oil these days.
I padded downstairs, peeked in the den, told John what I'd found on airfare.com, and we chatted briefly. I went back upstairs, looked at everything one more time, double and triple checked the dates and times of the flights, the rules and restrictions...
And I pushed the Book It Now button.