Park and fly to catch bargain airfares

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

Ever notice that the cheapest flights are often the first flights out in the morning? With airfares hitting new highs and volatile gas costs, that cut-rate 5:45 a.m. flight looks a little more attractive.

Bargain airfares
1. Motel near home
2. Not just for modestly priced Moline
3. Increase your airport choices
4. Avoid traffic disasters
5. Questions to ask
6. Save stress and dollars
7. Potential downside
8. As always, call around

Flying early in the morning can often be hundreds of dollars cheaper than mid-day or early-evening flights.

But you don’t have to leave the house at 3 in the morning and risk a groggy, half-awake accident in order to catch the early-bird deals.

By taking advantage of motel programs around the country called “park and fly,” you can get your sleep and your bargain, too.

Here’s how it works. At the Quality Inn in Moline, Ill., the “park and fly” rate entitles you to an overnight stay, a free shuttle to the airport, which is about five minutes away, and free parking for a week. With long-term parking at $6 per day at Quad City International Airport, you’re already making headway on a $69 hotel room.

And with a family of four traveling, saving $100 per ticket by taking the first flight out makes a $69 room a bargain, with the parking just the icing on the cake.

And you don’t need to worry that you’ll sleep through the alarm.

You can arrive at a civilized evening hour, swim in the pool, and get your rest.

The motel folks will make sure you wake up and are actually on the shuttle in time to fly. This way, you can get up at 5, roll out of bed and board promptly.

Motel near home
It might feel weird to stay in a motel near home. Why pay to sleep somewhere only 60 or 70 miles away?

But that one- or two-hour drive to the airport, taken the night before, opens you up to a new array of flights … including the cheapest ones.

By expanding your time options, you expand your price options. The airport in Moline, for example, usually has better prices on flights to the East Coast than The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and for just over an hour’s drive you could save $100 per ticket.

Then there’s the calmness factor, which you can think of as starting your vacation early. You can arrive at a civilized evening hour, swim in the pool, and get your rest.

And it’s not just for modestly priced Moline
Even expensive cities have some low-rate motels within easy driving distance of the airport. If you plan ahead and use discount hotel sites or a travel club, you can get one wonderful deal.

Take pricey San Francisco for example: The Good Nite Inn, which offers a free shuttle to San Francisco airport, had rooms for $57 per night, for weekday stays, through the Web site.

Increase your airport choices
Park and fly works especially well for faraway airports. Sometimes, an airport that’s more than 100 miles away from your home offers far better rates.

If you consider a motel room, you expand your geographical range of airports dramatically — again expanding your deal possibilities.

Sue Poremba of State College, Pa., used a park and fly rate when she flew out of Allentown, normally a three-hour drive for her.

— Updated: Dec. 26, 2007

“If it was totally my decision, I would do it every time I had to fly out of an airport more than two hours away,” she says. “Sometimes we can save $100 or more if we fly out of Philly or Pittsburgh rather than out of State College.”

Multiply that $100 by the number of travelers, and it starts to look enticing.

… Keep in mind that hotels sometimes offer better deals on long-term parking than the airport.

Avoid traffic disasters
There are other goodies to consider. If you’ve ever bitten your nails in traffic on the way to an airport, you know there’s another benefit to sleeping at a motel.

When you sleep over, you can avoid the possible snarls of traffic. Long drives can mean long delays, as Poremba found out.

“Allentown is normally a three-hour drive for us,” says Poremba. “We figured we would leave home around 1 p.m., get to Allentown before evening rush hour, get settled in the hotel and then go out to dinner before getting a good night’s sleep.

“Turns out, it was a seven-hour trip because of three different accidents and lots of detours and sitting in traffic,” she says.

Fortunately, the flight was the next day.

“I can’t even imagine how stressful that trip would have been if we were supposed to catch a plane that evening,” she says.

Questions to ask
Sure, there are plenty of potential pluses. But not all park and fly deals are created equal.

Ask about
Hotel shuttle
Parking regulations
Extra parking fees

Before you book, call to ask for details about the hotel shuttle.

“If you’re using a hotel shuttle, make sure it’s a round-the-clock one,” says Hilary Nagle, of Waldoboro, Maine, who was stuck using a cab from Boston’s Logan Airport.

“Nothing worse than getting delayed, calling for a shuttle and finding out you have to take a cab. That can eat a big chunk out of the savings.”

Another inquiry to make is about parking regulations. Some motels let you park free for a night or two, others for a week and others are unlimited. And these policies change frequently, so even if you’ve stayed there before, call again.

Some motels tack on extra parking fees, which are still usually lower than the airport. It’s worth clarifying before you sign on.

Even if you don’t plan to sleep over, keep in mind that motels and hotels sometimes offer better deals on long-term parking than the airport itself.

“At the Manchester, N.H., airport, long-term parking and the park and fly option, the Highlander Inn, which is a hotel as well, are the same price — $8,” says Leah Williams, a college instructor.

“But I had AAA — $1 cheaper at Highlander — and thought it would be easier not to have to hunt for my car. The previous time I forgot where I parked my car in long-term. What can I say? It was 3 a.m. when I parked, and three weeks later, where I had put it was a little fuzzy.”

— Updated: Dec. 26, 2007

Save stress and dollars
Finding your car can be a plus, and of course, free parking can make a vacation sweeter.

When Suzanne Hall flies out of Nashville, which is about 2½ hours from her home, she stays at a Holiday Inn Express, which offers free parking.

“Our car stays in the well-lighted lot while we are away,” Hall says. “The hotel shuttle takes us to our 6 a.m. flight and picks us up when we get in about 8:30 p.m.

“We love it,” Hall says. “We don’t have to pay to park, and we don’t have the hassle of driving to and parking at the airport.”

Staying the night after is key for Hall.

“We stay over when we get back, because Nashville is on Central time and we are on Eastern time. By the time we get back to the hotel, it’s around 10 p.m. our time,” Hall says. “Too late and way too stressful to drive home. Better to go to sleep, get up and head out in the morning, stopping for breakfast on the way.”

Potential downside
Sometimes, staying in a motel increases the stress instead of decreasing it.

Calling around can get you an even better deal.

Mary Logue tried a park and fly at the Cleveland airport with an early flight. “In many ways it was more trouble that it was worth with the packing and unpacking for even one night,” she says.

Then there are the late-arriving hotel shuttles, which is what Emma Rainey sometimes contends with in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There, she stays at a motel that kicks in one to two weeks of free parking, which is handy for her trips to California.

“The only hassle is getting them to pick you up once you’ve returned. Sometimes it’s prompt, sometimes not.”

Then there’s the really dramatic disaster.

Bill Kupersmith, a professor at The University of Iowa, says he tried park and fly and it was “a huge mistake.”

“It was at a motel near O’Hare Airport in Chicago,” he says. “While the parking lot by the motel was fenced in and the gate was locked, a thief scaled the fence, smashed a window of my car, stole the radio by tearing the dashboard apart with a crow bar, and escaped.

“Of course the motel was not liable for anything,” Kupersmith says. “Live and learn.”

As always, call around
There’s not much you can do about a thief scaling a fence. But when it comes to park and fly programs, you’ll probably find that you have choices.

Most motels have competitors nearby. Calling around can get you an even better deal.

You might also want to check out a Web site called, which is a reservation service that specializes in this type of accommodation.

And as always with motel rooms, check out your wallet before you check in. Your credit cards, road-service plan, club memberships and alumni association might give you 10 percent to 30 percent off the price.

Even with no discounts, though, you’ll probably come out ahead. For families traveling, it’s hard to beat the convenience and savings of showing up the night before for an early morning flight, and letting the motel make sure you make it on time.

Now that’s a vacation.

— Updated: Dec. 26, 2007