Here's what you should know about booking a flight for the first time
Ever since I graduated college in May, learning to be an adult has come with many firsts, to say the least.
I spent the beginning of my summer frantically running around the streets of Manhattan filling out applications with New York City landlords and brokers as I looked for my first apartment in the city. Then, I started my new job here at TPG in July. Slowly but surely, I'm starting to settle into this new chapter of my life.
However, since I began working at TPG, I haven’t booked a trip fully on my own. The idea of booking a flight seemed so nerve-wracking and time-consuming. From figuring out the best dates to needing to wait until a certain day of the week to snag the cheapest fares, I didn’t want to deal with such a seemingly extensive process. After all, post-graduation life is already full of so many growing pains, including the need to pay rent on time each month and learn the ropes of living on your own.
Now that I'm covering travel for a living, though, I've been itching to head somewhere for a quick getaway. So, I decided to face one of those many adult tasks head-on and book a flight — completely by myself — for the first time this October.
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Choosing a city
Most of my trips in the past have been family vacations. My first time truly flying alone was to Denver this past summer, but it was for a conference where I was essentially confined to a hotel for three days with hundreds of other journalists. For my first solo trip, I wanted to take a domestic trip that was far — but not too far — and to see somewhere I'd never been before.
So, I got to work figuring out where to go.
After extensive deliberation, I narrowed down my list of contenders to Austin and New Orleans. I had always wanted to visit the two cities, as each offers a vibrant food scene and a distinct culture.
Deciding between the two was difficult, but ultimately, I set my sights on New Orleans.
Now seemed like a good time to experience the city without the chaos of Mardi Gras or the hordes of tourists that come in spring and early summer. Another plus for New Orleans: There were more flight options from New York — and they were shorter, too.
Deciding on dates and times
For my first flight, I aimed for a short, overnight trip. I booked three weeks out — enough time to find lower fares and figure out where to stay after I finalized my flights.
I turned to Google Flights to see what fares looked like for the week of Oct. 24, the travel window I finally settled on.
I was happy to see that fares seemed low during the second half of October. So, I settled on an itinerary departing on Wednesday, Oct. 26, and returning on Thursday, Oct. 27. It gave me 36 hours to spend in the city — just enough time to get an overview of the Big Easy.
With the dates settled, I zeroed in on picking my exact flights.
Narrowing down airports
Now that I live in New York City, I have three airports to choose from every time I fly: LaGuardia Airport (LGA), John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR).
LaGuardia is closest to my apartment, but the airport offered the fewest nonstop flights to New Orleans. As a result, I decided to focus on finding a flight from one of the latter two airports despite knowing there’d be a lengthier commute.
Picking an airline
I thought choosing a city was hard, but deciding on an airline was even harder. Since this was my first time booking by myself, I didn’t necessarily have a particular airline I was loyal to.
I grew up near Newark's airport and had almost always exclusively flown from there on United Airlines for family vacations. I opened a United MileagePlus account last summer after flying to Denver, so the possibility of stacking up miles in that account was a consideration for me.
However, I didn’t want to limit myself either, so I cast my net across all the major airlines to see what was available.
Besides the potential for earning miles, I considered factors like whether the fares were for basic economy or regular economy, if there were additional fees for luggage or carry-on bags, how convenient the flight times were and if nonstop options were available.
I looked at six different airlines: Spirit Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. I used Google Flights to get a general overview of pricing for my search (conducted the week of Sept. 26), but I then visited each airline’s website to look at my booking options.
Spirit, which claims to offer the cheapest possible fares, was on the more expensive end once I factored in all of the add-on fees.
While fares to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) totaled $94, fees for “perks” like a carry-on bag and seat selection caused the total price for a round-trip flight to jump to $322.
On Spirit’s website, some of the fares from Newark were astonishingly low, starting at $27 one-way. However, the single $27 fare available left Newark at 5:45 a.m., and I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of getting to the airport two hours earlier, at 3:45 a.m.
The trips returning to Newark were more expensive, and some had such cumbersome connections — including one with an overnight layover — so they weren't realistic considerations.
Since I had never flown with Spirit before, I was hesitant to go for the airline’s “Saver” option. It required buying a membership, and I didn’t want to sign myself up for something if I wasn’t sure I’d use it again.
In the end, the low fares felt a little misleading. Spirit tacked on additional fees to every other aspect of the flight, from the carry-ons to the seat selection. I didn’t need to check a bag for such a short trip, but I wanted the option of bringing a carry-on for my flight. Without any of these perks, I’d be limited to just a personal item that would have to fit under the seat in front of me.
What shocked me the most about this process was how expensive the fees were for carry-ons. A carry-on cost $64 each way, which felt a bit unreasonable to me.
On top of it all, the seats were expensive. For the returning flights, the cheapest seats available for advance purchase were $6, but the cost of the cheapest possible seats differed for all four flights — I would have ended up spending an additional $101 on seat selection.
The total cost of a round-trip itinerary from Newark to New Orleans came out to $322 — a whopping markup from the $94 base fare that initially drew me in. That felt too expensive for an airline that has always been known for its cheap prices. The fares were low, but the additional fees weren’t worth it to me. I’d rather pay a more expensive fare that included seat selection and a carry-on than spend an additional $228 for what I considered to be basic comfort.
Of all the airlines, JetBlue surprised me the most. The airline’s “Blue” option offered fares at reasonable prices from JFK, with the added bonus of a carry-on. JetBlue has a “Blue Basic” option that had even cheaper fares, but because it didn’t allow me to bring a carry-on, I ruled out the basic economy option.
With the “Blue” option, the total price of the flight came in around $197. I didn’t have to pay extra for the seat or carry-on since both were already included in the fare.
JetBlue also had additional fees for perks like priority check-in and checked baggage, but since I only needed a carry-on, I didn’t feel a need to purchase any of the extra perks.
Considering that I didn’t have to pay extra for add-ons because I chose an economy fare, JetBlue became a strong contender. The airline’s numerous nonstop flights to New Orleans were another plus, as they’d save me from transiting through another city as I would on have on other carriers' connecting itineraries.
With JetBlue, the option that made the most sense was a flight that would take off from JFK at 2:59 p.m. and land at 5:19 p.m. on Oct. 18. My return flight would leave New Orleans at 6:20 p.m., giving me a whole day in the city. While the timing was not perfect, both flights were nonstop and would still give me sufficient time to explore New Orleans during a quick trip.
Delta offered some cheap fares, with some as low as $190.
Even though Delta has a basic economy option that allows for a carry-on, I opted for the “Main” option, which cost $250. That’s only $60 more than basic economy, and it allowed for seat selection without any additional charges, which seemed like a good value to me.
The $250 price tag was a little more expensive compared to JetBlue, but it didn’t strike me as shocking since there weren’t any extra fees tacked onto the fare.
Of the options available, the most appealing was an early morning flight at 8:20 a.m. and a nonstop return flight at night the next day. By flying Delta, I would have the better part of two days for exploring New Orleans.
While other airlines had later options, they either caused the fare to spike or created unreasonable travel times because of connections. That was hard to justify for such a short trip.
Compared to other carriers I considered, American did not have as many nonstop flights to New Orleans. Additionally, many of the direct flights from JFK no longer had a basic economy option, so I had no choice but to consider the “Main” option.
Luckily, I was able to find a nonstop round-trip flight with American. The main cabin fares totaled $198, which I found reasonable, and the itinerary would give me sufficient time to spend in the city.
Since JetBlue was the carrier operating these flights due to its Northeast Alliance with American, the round-trip itinerary's prices and times were the same as the JetBlue option I had been considering.
Given that JetBlue was operating the two flights, American did not have seat selection available on its website.
Southwest was one of the more inconvenient options I looked at, in part because of the carrier’s relatively limited presence in New York. The airline had numerous itineraries, but many were sold out or had limited availability.
I favored the 2:55 p.m. flight from LaGuardia to New Orleans’ airport, which was only $74 one-way. Luckily, it was one of the few time slots that didn’t seem like it was going to sell out immediately.
For the return trip, there were even fewer options. I focused on the last flight leaving New Orleans at 4:50 p.m., but it would include a stop at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).
With Southwest, I opted for the "Wanna Get Away" fare for the extra flexibility. The total came out to $221, which was reasonable. However, other than Spirit, Southwest was the only other carrier with an itinerary that included a stop.
Because only one flight was nonstop — not to mention the higher fare — I felt less inclined to book with Southwest. Additionally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the times — I only had a day to spend in New Orleans, and these flights did not maximize my time on the ground.
There was also nothing on seat selection in the booking process, so the process of choosing a seat was unclear to me as a newer traveler. I later learned that the reason for this was because of Southwest's open seating policy, which allows all passengers to pick their seats as they board instead of choosing a seat assignment in advance.
United was the airline I grew up flying with, so I felt like I already knew what to expect from a United flight.
My search priced a United round trip in economy on my preferred dates at $208. I favored economy over basic economy (which cost $148) because United’s basic economy option does not allow for carry-on bags. Compared to my experience with Spirit, a $208 round-trip flight seemed like a deal.
By opting for the 7:45 a.m. flight, I could have most of the day in New Orleans after arriving at 9:57 a.m. United also offered the most direct flights compared to the other airlines, which was perhaps no surprise given its large hub in Newark. Additionally, the return flight the next day was at 7:53 p.m., allowing me to maximize my limited time in New Orleans.
Since the regular economy fare included seat selection and was available for both departing and returning flights, I ended up not spending extra money on what the airline considers to be preferred seats — like those in the exit row or closer to the front of the plane.
Even with an upgrade from basic economy, my United flight was cheaper than other options like those with Spirit. Plus, I felt like I would get more flexibility from an economy fare while avoiding incurring additional charges for bare minimum necessities that help make a flight comfortable.
Earning miles in the United MileagePlus program was appealing, too, even though my ticket would earn fewer than 1,000 miles for the total trip. Because of this, the earning potential didn't end up swaying me much.
The final verdict
I expected Spirit and Southwest to be cheaper given their reputations as discount carriers, but both ended up being either equally as expensive or more expensive than the others, so I crossed them off the list.
Of the six airlines I researched, Spirit disappointed me the most with its many fees, and I was surprised at the fact that it ended up being my most expensive option. Southwest’s fares were on par with United, JetBlue, American and Delta, but my main issue was that my returning flight had a stop. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the available times for Southwest — I chose a 2:55 p.m. flight to New Orleans because it was the cheapest option, but my preference was for something earlier in the day.
Delta was one of the more expensive options as well. A $250 round-trip flight to New Orleans wasn’t unreasonable for the week of Oct. 24, but was more than I wanted to pay — especially given the other choices.
I ended up sticking to what I know and chose United. JetBlue and American were the cheapest of the six, but in the end, United was close in price and I knew what to expect since most of my flying experience has been with the carrier.
But, above all, it was the schedule that really sold me. The ability to leave New York for New Orleans early and return late at night the next day would give me about 36 hours to explore New Orleans. JetBlue and American were cheaper, but since I’d depart from JFK in the afternoon and then take an evening flight from MSY the next day, I’d only have around 24 hours in the Big Easy.
Cheap fares were important, but so was the ability to pack as much as possible into an overnight trip — and I feel like I got that with my United itinerary. A reasonable fare, a good flight schedule and now the chance to see someplace new all came with United.
It took a little effort, but I feel as if my research paid off. Now, I’m looking forward to seeing the sights of New Orleans — and to making my first solo getaway as a young adult.
There were some big lessons I picked up along the way. The fares changed frequently during my search. Plus, I never realized just how important good flight times were to maximizing my trip. Matching those ideal times to low fares was a bit of extra work, but worth the effort. And, beware of fees! Some of my original top choices nearly doubled in price once I accounted for those — a lesson you don't want to learn the hard way after you've already booked.
The process was a little intimidating and at times tedious, but in the end, I found what I was looking for. So, if you’re like me, stick with it and see what's out there. Before long, you might be on a fun trip of your own.