Why Your Family Might Save on Airfare By Searching for One Ticket at a Time

Feb 25, 2019

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When you are flying as a family, you might enter the total number of family members that will fly with you as you search for airfare. While it makes sense to search for the total number of passengers while price shopping, you might actually end up spending more money on airfare than needed by approaching your search in such a seemingly logical manner.

When you search for flights in bulk (i.e., for more than one person), if the number of travelers has exceeded the number of seats currently available in the lowest fare price bucket, you’ll end up paying the more expensive fare for all passengers on your reservation. For example, if there are three more seats available in the lowest fare bucket and you need four seats, all four of you will likely end up paying more rather than three getting the lowest fares and one entering the new lowest available fare class at a higher price. Note that fare buckets/fare classes are not the same as economy versus first class. There are lots of different fare classes even within economy — here’s more info on how that works.

To avoid paying more for everyone’s tickets, just enter one passenger at a time in your airfare search.

family with luggage airport
(Photo by Ariel Skelley / Getty Images)

Let’s take booking a flight between Baltimore and Aruba on Southwest Airlines as an example. On this particular flight, there was just one seat left at $245. Note: While Southwest will tell you how many seats are left at that particular price, not all airlines are this transparent.

If you were family of four and just entered “4” passengers during your initial search. It will show you a price of $275 per passenger. You wouldn’t even know a single traveler would pay $30 less for his or her ticket.

Instead, you could book the first passenger in your group at $245, and then the rest of the passengers at $275 each. This means you’ll have two different confirmation numbers, but saving $30 by taking an extra step at booking is well worth it in my book. If there were more seats available in that lowest fare class, obviously your savings would only increase.

To figure out how many individual reservations you need to make, first enter “1” passenger into the search result, then “2” passengers and so on, up to the total number of passengers you have. Once the fare price per person increases, you know you’ll need to book those passengers in one reservation and the rest in a separate reservation. Of course, if you are booking on an airline that makes this process more transparent, then you may not have to do that sort of testing.

Bonus tip: Be sure you are entering children as children in your searches because children sometimes fly for a bit less on some carriers, especially on international itineraries.

The Disadvantages

While paying the least amount possible on a flight is my ideal way to fly, there are some things to keep in mind when you book your family on separate itineraries to save money:

1. Loss of Status Benefits

If you or another family member has status on a particular airline, many times other members booked on the same reservation will also inherit those status perks. Some benefits might include free checked bags, early boarding, seat upgrades, etc. If you are booked on separate confirmation numbers, those benefits might no longer be available to all your family members. At the very least, this process will require a phone call to link the reservations and potentially get some of the status perks applied, but that process isn’t always guaranteed with all airlines, so weigh the pros and cons.

2. Issues With Child Reservations

Typically, you are not able to book a child’s ticket on his or her own without paying a fee to fly as an unaccompanied minor. Some airline websites won’t allow you to book a fare for a child under 5 without an adult on the same reservation because flying alone at that age is not allowed. If you do have to book separate reservations, try to book one of the parent’s tickets on their own reservation and then keep the children with the other parent.

Tip: Some airlines will allow you to book a child’s reservation over the phone and they will waive the fee for this as long as they can link it to an adult’s reservation since you can’t do that for yourself online.

American Airlines representative
(Photo courtesy of American Airlines)

3. Problems With Seat Assignments

Depending on the airline and the fare class, you may or may not be able to pick seats ahead of time without paying an additional fee. For reservations that do allow you to select seats, if you have separate confirmation numbers, you increase the likelihood that you will be split in the event of irregular operations, equipment swaps, etc. While domestic airlines are required to try and keep children under 13 seated next to their guardian, you still might face a slight issue at the airport with the gate agent having to work some magic to get some of your seats back together. If you are on an airline or fare that does not include free seat assignments, being on separate reservations makes it very likely the system won’t automatically assign you seats together.

With Southwest Airlines, this is less of an issue thanks to the airline’s unique boarding process. However, you will need to remember and check in each reservation at exactly 24 hours before departure to get as good of a boarding number as possible — unless you have Early Bird Check-in or are eligible for family boarding and your exact boarding card position doesn’t matter as much.

(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Bottom Line

When traveling with multiple people, always start your airfare search off by entering one passenger and compare the price to the average per passenger price if you search for your family as a whole group. If the price differs for the worse, consider booking separate reservations to save your family money. And of course, no matter how you book, be sure you are using one of the best credit cards for airfare purchases.

Here are some other tips for flying your family for less:

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