How To Plan Your Nomadic Flights

Wanderer
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Wanderer

The Wanderer retired from his engineering job at a major Silicon Valley semiconductor company at the age of 33. He now travels the world, seeking out knowledge from other wealthy people, so that he can teach people how to become Financially Independent themselves.
Wanderer
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This week we’re going to take a break from the Investment Workshop since our bi-weekly buy schedule has drifted a bit from our target of the 15th of each month, so we’re going to wait to do our regularly scheduled buy next week.

And because of the recent interest in the nitty-gritty details in how we plan our nomadic life, FIRECracker has asked me to talk about how we plan our flights.

When it comes to our traveling, we divvy up the planning responsibilities roughly in half. FIRECracker’s job is to figure out where we stay, what attractions we go see, and the day-to-day budgeting of what gets spent at each location. My job is to plan all the actual moving parts: the flights, the buses, figuring out the local subways. Basically, all the stuff that gets us from one home base to the next home base is my area of expertise.

And over the 2+ years of near-constant travelling, I’ve learned a few things that allow us to get from one corner of the world to the other for surprisingly little money. And I’d like to now share some of those lessons with you.

Hub-And-Spoke

Unlike trains or buses, airlines don’t charge you based on the distance between the two cities you’re travelling to. This is because unlike bus routes which tend to be arranged in a “net” pattern with routes between every city and every other city, airlines are arranged as a hub-and-spoke system, in which certain major airports act as hubs where lots of planes fly into/out of, and then from each hub regional airlines service passengers in smaller, short-haul flights.

This is why if you were to attempt to fly between Buffalo, NY and Rochester, NY, you would invariably bounce off of NYC despite the fact that flying to NYC from Buffalo actually overshoots Rochester. NYC is the hub for the region, so all flights go to/from there.

 

This is mainly for economical reasons. Airlines HATE flying planes with a handful of people on them since the fixed cost of getting a plane into the air and (safely) onto the ground is so high. So they want to make sure every flight they fly is as full as possible. Lots of people need to get to/from Buffalo and NYC. Lots of people need to get to/from Rochester and NYC. Not many people need to get from Buffalo to Rochester. That’s how the hub-and-spoke system got created.

So understanding the hub-and-spoke system is the first lesson I learned travelling the world. And here Google Flights is your best friend.

What I did when I started travelling was just to spend an entire afternoon playing around on Google Flights. I would start putting in random cities into the search fields and see what flights it would spit out. Then I would check the stop-overs. After a while, I’d start recognizing the same cities and the same airport codes over and over. On the eastern seaboard, it’d be BOS (Boston), ORD (Chicago), IAD (Washington DC), JFK, LGA, EWR (New York City). On the west coast, I’d keep seeing LAX (Los Angeles), SFO (San Francisco), and IAH (Houston).

Eventually, I’d get so used to the same airport codes coming up again and again that I’d start referring to cities by their airport rather than their actual city name. “Hey, do you want to go to O’Hare?” “What’s O’Hare?” “Oops. I mean Chicago.”

Stay Near the Hubs

Now, when you’re working and stationary, understanding the hub-and-spoke system gives you very little advantage. You live in Rochester, and you know the nearest hub is NYC. So what? How does that help? As long as you’re forced to live near your workplace, every flight path has to start and end in your home town.

But once you become nomadic, that’s where the magic lies.

Because once you learn where the airport hubs are, you quickly realize there’s a pattern to be exploited:

  • Hub-to-Spoke flights are expensive
  • Hub-to-Hub flights are cheap

For example, as of the time of this writing a one-way flight from Tulsa, OK to Miami, FL is $130 USD. But a flight from Dallas, TX to Miami is about half of that, despite it being approximately the same distance flown. Why? Tulsa is not a hub, while Dallas is (specifically, DFW, or Dallas Fort Worth).

So as we planned our world trip (which then became our permanent nomadism), we naturally got drawn to spending time near the major transport hub cities.

Note that I said NEAR. The tradeoff of staying in a major city is obviously the higher cost of living. NYC is a great example of that, and attempting to retire in NYC would bankrupt even Mr. Money Mustache. So the compromise we came up with is staying NEAR that major transportation hub, preferably in a city that nobody’s heard of.

Let me give you an example.

I recently alluded to this on the ChooseFI podcast, but we found a hack to staying in London but not with London prices. It should surprise nobody that London is a major transport hub to and from Europe, but staying in London proper will screw up anyone’s budget. So instead, we stayed in a suburb of London called East Croydon.

Ever heard of East Croydon? Didn’t think so. And that’s exactly why we were able to find AirBNBs there for a third of what a hotel would cost in London proper. It’s a small little blue-collar industrial city halfway between Gatwick airport and London. Absolutely not a tourist attraction. But it also sits directly on the National Rail line between Gatwick and London, so despite the fact I’m paying a third of the price for accommodations, I can get to both London Victoria station and Gatwick for £4. When I checked into my AirBNB, the host gave me a knowing glance and said “So you figured out the secret, eh?”

To which I responded: “Yes. Yes we did.”

Sweep the Dates

Once you’ve figured out the hubs and the cheap hub-to-hub flights you can get between them, you can then select a hub-to-hub flight in Google Flights and then open the calendar to see how the price of those flights fluctuate over time. You’ll be surprised by how much they do.

In fact, one of the biggest limitations of working is that when you do fly, it typically has to be on a Friday or a Monday. Airline companies know this and will charge you a premium for the privilege. But when you’re retired and nomadic, you can travel at ANY time. And this is where the really surprising deals can show up.

Check this out. As I write this, it’s mid-October. So going into the holiday travelling season, I’m not expecting a lot of deals to be had. But when I pulled up a fairly typical hub-to-hub flight we would take (London to Berlin) and swept the dates, I was able to find one-way flights for $17 USD about six weeks out!

$17 USD! I could take that flight with the cash I have in my pocket RIGHT NOW. How are they able to do this?

Nobody ever flies on Wednesdays.

It’s just that simple. They’re running empty planes on Wednesdays because nobody ever takes that flight. They’d rather have someone taking up that seat with pocket change than nobody. But if you’re retired and nomadic, the day of the week means nothing to you. And you, yes YOU, can be that person taking up that seat with pocket change.

And that’s how I flew to Chautauqua UK from Berlin for less money than you probably have in your change jar.

Look Out For Wormholes

I’d like to take a moment to talk about something near and dear to me: Wormholes.

No, not the ones that farmers talk about. I’m talking about these:

Yeah. Those bad-asses. Like the ones in Star Trek: DS9, except I can’t use any of those images or Gene Roddenberry will come back from the dead and sue my ass.

For all the non-Star Trek: DS9 fans out there (also known as FIRECracker, who still can’t figure out the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars), a wormhole is a kind of instant portal from one excessively-far place to another excessively-far place.

And despite the fact that these mostly exist in science fiction, in the flight maps these occasionally show up as well. And by that I mean surprisingly low-cost ways to go an insane amount of distance.

You will occasionally find these by accident by playing with Google Flights, but I found them by subscribing to various airlines’ newsletters. Some are trying to follow the RyanAir model and opening up low-cost routes to distant locales and hoping to use the resulting popularity to fly 100% fully-loaded flights. They make money, we save, everybody wins! Free market bitches!

These routes are not obvious, and not easy to find, but once you do find them you can use them forever since they’re permanent rather than temporary glitches. Here are a few I’ve discovered:

  • YYZ (Toronto) to LGW (Gatwick). One way for $230 CAD (or $184 USD).
  • LIS (Lisbon) to YYZ (Toronto). One way for $250 CAD (or $200 USD).
  • EWR (Newark) to KEF (Reykjavik). One way for $213 CAD (or $170 USD).
  • ATH (Athens) to SIN (Singapore). One way for $250 CAD (or $200 USD).

For the record, these are approximately the same one-way ticket price of those Buffalo-to-Rochester flights I mentioned earlier.

And all this with cold, hard cash. Not a single travel-hacking trick to be seen. Which will of course be the target of a future article.

So yeah. Again, just scratching the surface of one aspect of how we pull off this awesome nomadic life we lead. If there’s something you’d like to hear more about, let us know in the comments below and we will write accordingly.

Peace Out!



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41 thoughts on “How To Plan Your Nomadic Flights”

  1. A friend of mine use to joke around that where he lived in SF determined which places he was going to visit and which airlines he could actually use. It’s amazing staying close to certain hubs what great deals that you can find. Living in the DC area I am fortunate that there are two airports really close to me as well as BWI which is about an hours drive. Definitely lots of options for me 🙂

      1. “DC’s a great one, though I haven’t had a chance to fly into Dulles yet. How’s the airport?” Terrible to fly into, terrible to fly out of. When you land on an international flight you cannot walk to get your bags, you are guided to a giant people mover where you have to wait until everybody on the flight boards, packed like sardines, until they then drive you around the tarmac through the planes to the immigration area. It just gets better from there. Bonus points though if you have Global Entry– that thing is brilliant.

  2. What is your opinion of low cost carriers/airline safety records?… I know a lot of people who prefer to travel on Star Alliance carriers or more recognized brands for safety standards.

    Are there any airlines that you won’t fly with, no matter how cheap the ticket? I haven’t tried RyanAir/Easyjet yet… what were your thoughts? I liked IcelandAir (at the time of travel, they had free stopovers up to 7 days –> which it looks like is still offered). Great way to connect Canada to Europe.

    And are you guys still traveling with just a carry-on? Definitely saves a bundle 🙂

    1. Definitely steer clear of Air Asia – heard nothing but very bad things about them, particularly in regards to their safety!

      1. We will check the airline out on https://www.airlineratings.com/airline-ratings/ They use a star system to gauge airline safety (based on the audits and certifications they pass, plus any recent record of accidents) and we generally don’t fly on anything less than 5/7 stars.

        And funny story about Air Asia. We were flying them all the time in SE Asia last year when their rating was still “pending.” We figured, “Oh, that’s just because they’re so new. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Then after we got back to North America we checked Air Asia again. 2/7 stars!

        We were like “GODDAMMIT we were flying on a death trap!”

        1. AirAsia is broken down into several different companies / geographic locations. Only Airasia Indonesia gets a 2/7 AirasiaX for example gets a perfect score of 7/7

  3. Be sure to put skiplagged.com on your list for flights. They show “hidden city” fares where it’s cheaper to book a flight with a connection, and then never actually take the second leg of the trip.

    In these situations you can’t check luggage because it will go to the final destination and you won’t be there. Search one-way tickets only.

    I checked today and there’s a flight from LAX to Vancouver on Oct 25th that goes through Toronto for $89. A flight to Toronto for $89 = amazing!

  4. This was a great article! I’m entering my 3rd year of traveling and I want to start saving… I know a little late 😳😳

  5. Oh my goodness! Fantastic article. I’ve never heard of wormhole routes before. Those costs are INSANE! You just made me breathe a little easier about my retirement budget so thank you very much!

    1. Also a question: I was looking up the wormhole flights you listed on Google Flights and noticed that they’re all budget airlines. Have you ever had an issue with budget airlines on long haul flights? Do they have less amenities than regular airlines (TV, outlets etc.)? Do they all try to screw you over like RyanAir (printing boarding pass before you arrive at the airport or pay a huge fine etc.)?

      1. Generally, yes, you get less amenities. Westjet, for example, doesn’t have in-seat TV’s. Instead, you have to pull out your laptop/tablet, connect to their in-flight wifi hotspot and watch movies that way.

        They generally don’t provide free meals either. We pack a lunch before we get to the airport. But if you can navigate all those minor inconveniences, you can go surprisingly long distances with very little money.

  6. Keep the secrets coming! I know your recommendation for National Express saved me a small fortune from Manchester to London. Get in touch with me if you ever have some time at IAH, we can have coffee and continue our conversation on the dark side of Japan.

    1. Oh God, I had forgotten about that. Yeah, that dark-side-of-Japan thing is going to remain a Chautauqua-only conversation. Never writing about that on THIS blog.

  7. As a retired road warrior, I can confirm all of FC’s tips are spot on. FYI – for those concerned about air travel safety, if you want something to worry about, focus on the plane, not the airline. Commuter units (props and +/- 50 seat jets) have the worst record. Even then, your odds of getting killed/maimed/dismembered are much greater while commuting to and from the airport than on the actual flight.

  8. Actually the primary reason those mid-week flights are cheap is because many (usually the scheduled majors) have long-term contracts for freight carriage with Postal and courier companies. They HAVE to fly those planes every day in many cases to keep the contracts, even if they have no punters up top. If it wasn’t for the cargo contracts, they wouldn’t fly them.

    ————————-

    Funny you should stay in Croydon – yes I’ve heard of it – I was born there! Never want to go back though.

  9. Wow, I never thought I would see my hometown, East Croydon, mentioned so favourably on the interwebs, let alone on this blog!

    When I went to uni, I was having the same conversation about what a great place it was to commute from. 15mins to London proper-awesome. Yes, it is a bit rough on the eye and, like me, quite a few people I know have taken “wormholes” to move away from it, but Croydon still has its charm.

    I Just want to say thanks for sharing what you do. Both of you are a real inspiration. I can’t believe you guys are relatively new to the FI scene, as you are owning it right now. Your investment series changed my life!

    1. “Your investment series changed my life!”

      Awwww, really? That means a lot, it really does.

      And yeah you’re right. East Croydon is not city you go to for the idyllic English countryside, but value-wise it’s a hidden gem that nobody seems to know about. Even people who live in the UK are surprised to learn this when I tell them!

      1. Absolutely! I’ve been investing since I can remember, probably 1997, but it always felt like gambling.

        Now it feels like investing! With absolutely no stress! I can say that I’m following Warren Buffets first rule – ‘Don’t lose the principal amount.’

        Fun facts – Croydon is more famously known for the ‘Croydon Facelift’. There’s even a Wikipedia page about it! And it had London’s first airport before LHR and LGW existed.

          1. Croydon is mostly synonymous with Chav culture. There’s no exact equivalent in Canadian culture, but the closest I found was prairies, mooks, or wiggers. So if a woman sporting a ponytail, such as the famous supermodel Kate Moss (also from Croydon), was thought of as inferior to the “establishment” elite (no matter how much she had “made it”), they would think of her as a chav. And so Croydon facelift = you may be good looking, but you are still a chav. The classic British class system!

            Have a great time in Ecuador. Can’t wait to hear all about the latest Chautauqua.

  10. I’ve been using Google flights myself in the past six months. I love the ease of use and the fact that they show prices from other booking sites like Expedia and Orbitz. You can simply change your flight dates without flipping the page. Will be flying to Singapore and The Philippines next week and was surprised to see how low the airfares to Asia for October flights.

  11. Google flights is nice if you know where you want to go, but have you ever used kiwi.com? They have a radius search on a map! It’s pretty amazing. And it works for both departures and arrivals at the same time. So you can still use the calendar function, and find the cheapest dates to travel from within X miles of NYC to within X miles of your destination.

    For example, if you want to travel in December and have the flexibility to fly out of NYC, DC, or Philly and want to go to Spain, it will search all airports within your chosen radius of departure, for airports within your chosen radius of arrival, for all dates in December.

    And now I know I can get to Malaga, Spain on Dec 4th for $188 from an airport I’ve never even heard of, SWF in Newburgh, NY. Man, I can’t wait to start traveling like this!

  12. Star Trek DS9, Voy, TNG, TOS, ENT fan here! any questions? kkkkk
    You’re like the Bajorans/Federation exploring the wormwhole. We just need to keep the dominion out of it so we can take the most out of it !!

    1. You can’t KEEP the Dominion out. They just show up wherever they feel like.

      I actually remember DS9 quite fondly. The first half of the series was kinda stupid, “Oh no, Quark is running an illegal gambling parlour AGAIN!” But when the Dominion showed up it transformed the show from “Station Manager Simulator” into “Gritty War Drama IN SPACE.” I loved it.

  13. Great information packed post! When you’re staying near a hub airport, do you keep the AirBNB and do shorter trips to non hub cities? Or do you only travel to hub cities? Or is it better to leave the hub city rental while you travel to the non hub cities and then return when you’re ready to travel to another hub?

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