Jim Carson One of these things is not like the other

Jim Carson
Mathdorphins

Business trips bring out one of my weaknesses: trying to exploit the airline pricing system for my own, secretive purposes. For example, I finally have a set of dates for Norway (Germany fell-through) and have spent waaaaaay too much time trying to balance the factors important to me:

  1. Be there to conduct my business. Obviously.
  2. Minimize the cost to the company – While I’m generally keen with not pissing away the company’s money, the real motivation comes from a discontent with the airlines and their pricing juggernaut.
  3. Minimize my time in airports and on airplanes – Both are unpleasant; however, since I’ll be going to Europe, there will be carts available for cheese and chocolate shopping during any layover. The corollary to this: avoid winter connections through Dallas, Denver, Chicago or JFK. (And Atlanta, Cincinnati, Newark, Houston, well … you see the pattern.)
  4. Spend some non-business time actually seeing the place I’m visiting. It’s the proverbial “carrot” for having to travel during the weekend. If I can do this without affecting #2, then it’s a win/win.
  5. Focus frequent flier miles — the trip’s about 10,500 miles. If I can fulfill 1-3 and pour them into one account, I could be in for a bonus later in the year. On the other hand, I just lost 14,000 miles on United because I hadn’t traveled enough. This is why it’s less important.
  6. Sit in an adult-sized seat, preferably on an aisle – Years ago, I would try for window seats, guilting myself into not drinking any liquids and minimizing trips to the bathroom so as not to disturb the other passengers. I came off the plane with a dehydration headache and feeling cranky. To the extent I can do so, I now try to get an aisle seet and keep the fluids a-flowin’. Sometimes this is out of my control, often in contradiction to #1, #2, and #3.
  7. Do not leave obscenely early in the morning — My sleep needs are meager, but I *cannot* sleep on planes. Furthermore, getting up early only means I have to worry about it before I go to bed. Like Bruce Banner, you don’t want to make me angry when I’m sleep-deprived. However, this is ranked last because it’s a “game face” for dealing with airline travel.

This is the traveling marketer problem, similar to the traveling salesman problem, but with additional, simplifying constraints. Not all constraints are bad, as you’ll see.
The first set of airfares Expedia and Orbitz came up ranged from $2,643 for a one-hop up to $4,493 (!) for a two-or-more-hop. I initially thought the latter fare included a massage from the co-pilot but, alas, it’s just a combination of travel the airline doesn’t seriously want to sell me. Regardless, this “opening bid” spectacularly violates all my criteria. Poking the bruise further, the return segment suggests I’d be willing to leave at 6:15 a.m. Factoring in the Airport Experience (time to check out of my hotel, get there, check bags), it’s more likely I’d need to be out of bed by 4:15 a.m. Additional, useful information: Norway is +9 hours from Seattle and on average, it takes me about 1 day per hour of time zone change to fully acclimate.

Using AAA’s butt-ugly travel search tool, I find a $1,400 trip. (This is why you have to try more than one search engine.) It’s a two-segment, but with enough combinations that this is an upper-end for fulfilling #2. With this fare, the extra segment stretches the trip out to 23 hours in airports and airplanes each way… seriously bounding #3, but possibly enough to justify the iPod purchase. however, it tells me which airlines actually fly into Trondheim, identifying a key limiting constraint in the gillions of travel segments. The coup de grace for this itinerary is I’d miss the Sunday night dinner with the folks I’m meeting. Requirement #1 is inviolable.

The math-dorphins kick in when I learn that SAS, KLM and Air France have flights into Trondheim. Since I also know there will be stops in their hub cities Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Paris, respectively, it lets me focus my searching.

I go to Kayak.com, which presents the most number of variable-tinkering options. (In retrospect, I should have gone here first since it magically queries all of the other sites, kind of like qixo.com, but less trying to get me to purchase fares through it.)

Lo, 773 combinations! By returning a different day, there’s a $1,200, three-segment fare that arrives when I need it… but takes 42 hours to get me home thanks to a 21-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle airport. This is not as egregious of a violation of requirement #3 as it sounds because I’d ditch my carry-on and take some form of transportation into town and see something. In the ideal, marketing-spun world, this would be like having a per diem to go see the Louvre.

:whee: Poking around some more, I am able to determine which travel days were “sweet spots,” affecting the fare the most. The best price I found was $799, but required traveling on Wednesdays. I can’t come up with a business case that says “let Jim putz around in Norway an extra day – it’ll only cost the company another $200 in hotel expenses.”

By leaving Thursday evening instead of Saturday morning, I fulfill my planned itinerary (#1), knock the airfare down to below $1,000 (#2) and have a day to see the town (#4). The two best itineraries require a trade-off between #3 and #7: the one conferring frequent flier chits compatible with the airline cabal that I most often use domestically (which is to say, all of the time), has a 6:15 a.m. return departure.

Is being half-way to a free domestic ticket worth the three hours of sleep?

5 Responses to Mathdorphins

  1. John says:

    > Is being half-way to a free domestic ticket worth the three hours of sleep?

    Only if you get to go to Lego-land or something fun.

    As far as grown-up seats go, I like to refer to Seat Guru, which rates every seat on every plane for comfort, legroom, etc.

  2. dan says:

    Take a look also to Trabber. A search engine that retrieves content directly from online travel agencies and airline website. Here is the address: http://www.trabber.com

  3. Doug in Exile says:

    Can’t you take an Amtrak sleeper to New York and a nice trans-atlantic cruise to Norway? Avoid all semblance of airline association.

    Possible downside: no ff miles. But by way of compensation, you can get some really nasty food in Amtrak’s diners….;-)

  4. woodstock says:

    Doug must be traveling coach because Amtrak serves the best coffee I’ve ever had in their dining cars. It’s Douwe Egberts.

    Norway, eh? And you’re worried about avoiding changing in Chicago during the winter? ;)

  5. jim says:

    Woodstock: Well first, O’Hare O’Hates me. Almost all of my flights through there will be delayed. The only reason it doesn’t affect me more is my connecting flights are also late. (I suspect airline padding of times contributes to this.)

    But in general, it’s risk mitigation. Let’s assume I have a 20% chance of being delayed for each leg of the trip. For a non-stop, that means I’d have an 80% chance of making it there on-time. (1 – 0.2) = 0.8 == 80%

    With one stop, that drops down to (1 – 0.2)^2 == 64%

    Add a second stop, and my expected on-timeliness is a hair over fifty-fifty. For the more creative itineraries, I might as well plan on being sardined in an aluminum tube with overflowing toilets, being surprised if I’m not.

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