How to Secure Inconvenient, Overpriced Holiday Flights for Your College Student

Helicopter parents are so last decade. The have now been replaced by snowplow parents, who roll in and smooth everything over for their children. Like calling the professor to complain about an A- (a true story – it happened at BU).

The Neurotic Parent, though still overly involved, does not hover or plow. But I am a control freak when making flight arrangements. I do not trust travel agents because they care mostly about booking finance types on flights to Dubai and do not have the patience to spend the day hopping from kayak to expedia to SouthwestAir, looking to save $25 or so. And although my boys are pros at procuring sold-out tickets to Coachella, if I let them reserve their own cross-country flights, they would route themselves through Ibiza. So, for as long as I can read the tiny font on kayak, I will be a Booking Engine Parent.

I generally do a fine job and have even gotten us to Nairobi and the Galapagos using miles. But I inevitably fail over the holidays.

Here are some helpful tips for completely screwing up your kids’ holiday reservations:

1. Book on the same dates that the entire country is flying. The website suggests that fliers avoid traveling on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the Sunday after winter break. Of course, these are the dates that most college kids have to fly because they have good intentions of not missing Monday classes… although they probably will still be in the vacation mode and sleep through them anyway.

The Neurotic Parent technique is to start looking for those return Thanksgiving and winter break flights the previous April, when the prices are already outrageous. Next step in the process is to decide to game the system and wait until summer. Then in late October, suck it up, accept that the fares will never go down and hastily snap up the last seat on the plane.

2. Believe that the travel dates your kids give you are accurate. Bribe your children with extra legroom if they provide you with correct final exam dates. You will have to text them incessantly for 3-4 weeks before they respond with those dates because it is a real effort on their part to log into their online schedule. Once appropriate flights are booked, be prepared to pay a hefty change fee to leave two days earlier because it turns out that “My last exam is a actually a research paper and I’d rather work on it at home.”

3. Buy into the urban legend that Wednesday is the best day to book flights. Cancel your conference call. Abandon your pilates class. Reschedule your therapist appointment. Then devote a solid block of time each Wednesday morning to booking, canceling (within 24 hours) and re-booking. Wednesday, you see, is supposed to be the primo day for deals. But sadly, Jet Blue, Virgin and American have yet to hear about this legend. Or about the clearing-your-cookies, incognito approach to travel planning.

4. Try to find decent times, short layovers and good seats on reputable airlines. You might hate redeyes or center seats or discount carriers, but students can deal. They will even happily fly on airlines called ‘Spiritually Turbulent’ or ‘No Snacks for You.’

5. Assume that they will get to the airport on time.  Most college leave for the airport at the exact minute that they’re supposed to be going through security. So it’s not a great idea to book them on the last flight of the day, even if you have lots of Starwood points.

6. To make flights extra unbearable, forget to remind your kids about the two essential carry-on items: sinus meds and phone chargers.  Odds are that they’ll develop a debilitating upper respiratory infection the morning they are supposed to travel. Without Sudafed, which is now harder to purchase than crack cocaine, they will spend six hours feeling as if their heads are about to explode. And assume that they will leave their chargers at school, so you won’t have a clue about when or where they’re landing once they have missed their flight and rescheduled.

Of course, nothing beats the joy of having them home for the holidays, even if you ended up spending $1098 on a roundtrip excursion that usually costs $287. Next year, of course, you’ll think about employing those Booking Engine Parent skills in January. But after checking out the fares, you’ll probably move on to reserving your own off-season package to the Turks and Caicos.

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