Monday, November 3, 2014

Divide & Conquer When 4 Seats are Impossible

One of the challenges of using points to travel with a family of four is finding seat availability. It's hard enough to find one or two seats on a reasonable itinerary; four can be next to impossible. I ran across this challenge while booking flights for my family on a summer trip to Washington, DC. 

Four free seats can be hard to get.
[courtesy debsch,]
I had a dream of jetting my family non-stop to DCA from SEA on an Alaska Airlines flight I hand picked for its arrival time. I had prepared perfectly- the points were in my account, I knew exactly what I wanted, and I was ready well before the 331 advance days when the flight would become available. Nothing was going to stop me.

Or so I thought. Closer to my booking date, I did some dry-run sample bookings 331 days out so I'd have the booking process down pat. But the flight was not available. At least not for four travelers. One or two travelers, yes, no problem. But three or four? No luck. No matter how late I stayed up and how close I got to the actual time when the award seats became available, never could I find more than two seats on this flight.

I started going through my list of possible compromises. I could sacrifice the convenience of non-stop. I could take the two available seats and hope more award seats would open up eventually. Maybe now was the time to pay for a service like ExpertFlyer to help me watch for future seat availability? I was reluctant to spend additional money on what was merely a wish, as there was no guarantee future flight availability would ever show up. And leaving half the family behind or paying a steep fare closer to departure (because I was out of flexibility) were not risks I was willing to take.

My solution was to hold firm on the non-stop, but instead be flexible with the airport, and also split us up. While I was searching for my perfect flight with two travelers, I noticed a flight to Baltimore, a nearby airport, that left and arrived at almost exactly at the same times as my dream flight. This one was also unavailable when searching for more than two passengers, but at least there were two. I looked into the train ride from BWI to Washington: forty minutes and six dollars. We booked two tickets on each of the separate flights. 
Two different flights with similar departure and arrival
times, but to different airports serving the same metro area.
We all make decisions that expose our priorities, and mine was the simplicity of a non-stop flight. While it isn't ideal in that we'll split up, at least we can all travel together to the airport.