Should You Book Your Flight Based On Time Schedule? If Yes, How?

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My parents have had a rather rigid set of rules when it comes to picking flights based on time: pick an outbound flight that arrives in the morning or early afternoon that doesn’t depart Hong Kong before 9 AM, and pick an inbound flight that departs in the late afternoon that arrives Hong Kong sometime before 12 AM. This works well on certain shorthauls, when there are 10+ flights a day to pick from, but it’s certainly less effective when flying longhaul.

Sometimes I’m stuck without a choice, or pick by airline (if I’m flying from Zurich to Hong Kong in economy, for example, nothing is enough to get me on Swiss’ 3-4-3 economy product).

img_4897Swiss has a cramped economy product that I’d probably avoid despite ideal flight times (not that Cathay Pacific won’t either in the near future)

However, I’m starting to find out that some of my choices are still based on flight times, and sometimes they depend on the configuration as well. I’m not too sure if this is useful for the bulk of you as you have your travels planned already, but summer is also a good time to plan travel far into the future, so I decided I’d throw this post out as somewhat of a guide of how I pick my flights (again, if you disagree, take my opinions with a grain of salt).

There are so many moving parts to flights that I’m only going to talk about choosing flights based on timetable for direct flights. There’s a lot to be said about choosing flights based on timetable for connecting flights, though I’ll save that for a later post later in the year.

So, How Do I Pick My Flights?

First of all, my schedule is packed these days so when booking into the near future I need flights that work around them sometimes. For example, I could be flying right after school, I could need to come back at a certain time because I have school the next day, etc.. However, as I don’t usually travel on school days, I don’t usually have to work around that – and obviously, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

a plane on the runway

However, let’s say that I have a few free days and I want to take a short trip to, say, Singapore. Let’s say that all flights have availability on Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines and they’re all priced the same. What times do I like flying?

In the case of Singapore, the airport is around 20 minutes from Marina Bay, so I don’t have to leave too much time to get to my hotel unless I’m staying really far from the city. Ideally, I’d want to fly in to Singapore at around 1 PM, to make it to the hotel by the 2 PM check-in time. I don’t usually like arriving a city too early, as there’s not much you can really do before settling in to your hotel (especially if you’re on a redeye, where you’ll be dead tired a lot of the time if you’re travelling shorthaul).

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However, if I were shelling in cash for business class (or even economy, in this instance), I probably really wouldn’t want to end up on a 777-300, where I’d get a seat that I don’t consider as much better than premium economy. I’d like to end up on an internationally configured A330, 777-300ER or A350, where I’d get to maximise my four hours in the best seat that I can.

a seat on a planeCathay Pacific Boeing 777-200 Business Class

In that case, I’d have a look at the flights before and after. The flight after is operated on a regional A330, which I wouldn’t really want to be on either; and while the 9 AM flight arrives at a time that I’d appreciate, I’d have to get up pretty early, only to have a connection in Bangkok.

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There’s a flight on the A350 that departs Hong Kong at 8:45, and arrives Singapore at 12:35. However, I’d have to request early check-in if I wanted to be at the hotel room by that time.

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If I was bound to Cathay Pacific, personally I’d go for the 8:45 AM flight, and spend a little time at Changi Airport before leaving. I have no qualms with spending an hour wandering around Singapore, and I’m likely to get early check-in if it’s only for an hour. However, if this flight wasn’t available, I’d probably choose to connect, as I get free WiFi on the flight anyway.

IMG_0593Cathay Pacific’s A350 business class is infinitely better than their regional business class

Singapore Airlines also flies to Singapore at comparable prices (not that I’d ever take Singapore business class at those prices, especially when prices to Auckland are around 6,000 HKD more roundtrip). First I’d try to look for a flight that arrives at around 1 PM, so I’d get to my hotel at the check-in time of around 2 PM. It turns out that Singapore has a flight arriving at exactly 1 PM, but it’s on their regional business class product, so I’d look elsewhere.

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What if I arrive slightly earlier? Singapore Airlines has a 777-300ER on the 8 AM flight, though I’d be waking up extra early just to arrive too early to settle in.

a screenshot of a phone

There’s another flight that arrives at 4 PM, though unfortunately it’s also offered by Singapore’s regional product. I’d therefore think about taking Singapore’s A380 business class product – though their 777 product is marginally better than their A380 product, it’s only a four-hour flight, and I wouldn’t have to get up extra early for it. That said, if I had the option of early check-in, I probably would opt for the 8 AM flight (I didn’t on my last trip to Singapore because their 8 AM flight comes from San Francisco, and didn’t offer a premium economy product until very recently).

a screenshot of a flight schedule

So, for shorthaul outbound travel I’d worry most about the arrival time, and consider the following factors:

  • Does the flight arrive at a reasonable time so I can get to my hotel by the earliest check-in time possible?
  • Do I get much more if I wake up early for the flight?
  • What hard product does the flight offer – is it a watered-down regional cabin, or is it a full-on international cabin? Ultimately I won’t worry about this on a quick jaunt to Taipei, but starting from flights that last around two and a half hours long, I’d like to squeeze in some work if I’m paying/redeeming for business class, which I’d like to do with more space if it’s priced the same

What about for shorthaul inbound travel? Normally I’m focused on being able to go to the airport not too long after the latest checkout time, though I’m more lenient in that regard, as I have no qualms with exploring an airport (or checking out a few extra airline lounges). Let’s look at Cathay Pacific’s options from Singapore to Hong Kong between 12 PM and 7 PM, which is what I’d consider slightly too much time at the airport:

a screenshot of a phone

However, here’s a dilemma I now face: I can choose between Cathay Pacific’s regional business class seat for a quick flight home, or I can choose to route through Bangkok for a flight on the A350.

a screen shot of a computer a screen shot of a computer

a screen shot of a computer

Despite it only being a four-hour flight, I’d probably try and shoot for the A350, as I’d be able to work with the onboard WiFi. However, if the flight didn’t feature WiFi, I probably wouldn’t connect on such a short flight – in my travel blogger role I probably still would so I could test out Cathay Pacific’s lounge in Bangkok, which seems great, but bearing the sanity of a normal traveller, Cathay Pacific’s regional business class seat is still better than economy.

However, let’s say I weren’t bound to Cathay Pacific, as Singapore Airlines also charges comparable prices (again, not prices that I would take). Here are Singapore’s choices between 12 PM and 7 PM:

a screenshot of a flight schedule a screenshot of a flight schedule

Ideally I’d be out by 3 PM, as I’d be able to check out at 12 PM, take a taxi to the airport, then check out Singapore Airlines’ SilverKris lounge for a sizeable amount of time. However, the 3 PM flight is operated on a 777-200, which features Singapore’s regional product.

I can, therefore, choose between the 1:05 PM flight and the 6:30 PM flight, both of which feature the same business class product. Personally I have no qualms with walking around Singapore for a bit while asking the hotel to keep our bags, then spending a bit more time at Changi Airport, so I’d go for the 6:30 PM flight (which I prefer over connecting on Cathay Pacific anyway, as their 777-300ERs feature WiFi as well). In this case I’d probably pick the 6:30 PM flight, though I probably wouldn’t if facing the same situation at a less renowned airport.

Invalid request error occurred.a large airport terminal with a large screen

In this case I’d book a Singapore Airlines itinerary (as opposed to the Cathay Pacific itinerary), as I’d get longhaul business class seats at acceptable times both ways. So for shorthaul inbound travel, I’d worry most about the departure time, as I wouldn’t want to spend too much time out since I’ve packed all my bags and am, after all, going to be on a flight. I’d consider:

  • How much time does it take to the get to the airport and how much down time am I facing when I get there?
  • Does my preferred flight time offer an ideal hard product, and if not, am I willing to sacrifice the perfect flight time for a better hard product?

What About Longhaul Flights, When You’d Most Likely Get The Same Product On The Route Anyway?

On longhaul flights, I’d definitely make sure I check the product first (for example, Air France deploys both A380s and 777-300ERs to Hong Kong – their A380s feature angled flat seats, while their 777-300ERs feature reverse herringbone seats). I’d try to get on the better product no matter what the flight timing is, unless I’m traveling alone (in which case, put me on Air Sudan business class, if it entertains the blog). 😉

a seat in an airplaneSingapore Airlines is a pretty good example – their 777-300ER business class is considerably more comfortable than their A380 business class

I worry less about the arrival and departure times on longhaul flights in terms of what I’m going to do after I get to my hotel, and would focus more on my sleep pattern. If I get somewhere at 6 AM, will I have somewhere to go? Will I be well-rested?

But let’s take Cathay Pacific’s route from London to Hong Kong. Based on flight timing alone, how would I choose my flight? This depends on how I want to spend my flight – whether I think I’d be able to sleep, or whether I think I’d be up working (which is largely dependent on what cabin class I’m sitting in). Cathay Pacific offers an A350 from Gatwick which departs in the mid-afternoon, so if I’m flying mid-afternoon I’d pick Cathay Pacific, as I’d probably be working on a mid-afternoon flight. But what if I’m flying from Heathrow, when no flights feature WiFi (as all of them operate on 777-300ERs)?

I’ve talked about my flight seat preference thought process. Cathay Pacific has five flights from Heathrow to Hong Kong, in this order:

Cathay Pacific 252 departing 12:25 PM arriving 7:05 AM
Cathay Pacific 238 departing 5:05 PM arriving 11:55 AM
Cathay Pacific 250 departing 6:20 PM arriving 1:15 PM
Cathay Pacific 256 departing 8:10 PM arriving 3:05 PM
Cathay Pacific 254 departing 10:20 PM arriving 5:10 PM

So let’s say that I have full control over my schedule (e.g. I’m not leaving a summer camp where I’ll be at the airport by 12 PM), and my hotel checkout time is at 12 PM. I’d get to the airport at 2 PM, so theoretically I’d be best off on the 5:05 PM flight, where I’d able to have dinner, then sleep. That’s what I’d do if I were seated in business class or premium economy.

a seat in a planeCathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER Business Class

However, if I’m seated in economy, I’m probably not going to be able to sleep soundly if I follow my preferred seat selection (which is the right side seat on the center block of the last row. I do value sleep when flying, though I’d sacrifice some quality sleep time if it meant I didn’t have to climb over two people whenever I had to pee. So would I force myself to take multiple naps so I could power through the day, or would I pick a different flight?

I would actually try to get on the latest flight out – I’d be able to conk out for a while on the plane, but would probably wake up halfway, where I could probably work for a bit. It won’t take long for me to get sleepy once I’m in Hong Kong, but the flight lands at 5 PM, so I’d be able to sleep not long after that.


What if I’m going from Hong Kong to London Heathrow? Cathay Pacific’s five flights to Heathrow are timed as follows:

Cathay Pacific 237 departing 12:15 AM arriving 6:15 AM
Cathay Pacific 255 departing 12:20 AM arriving 6:20 AM
Cathay Pacific 257 departing 9:10 AM arriving 3:15 PM
Cathay Pacific 239 departing 12:15 PM arriving 6:10 PM
Cathay Pacific 253 departing 2:35 PM arriving 8:30 PM
Cathay Pacific 251 departing 11:55 PM arriving 5:40 AM

First of all, it’s pretty cool that Cathay Pacific has three flights to London departing within half an hour. Given that this is a 13 hour flight, either they have a lot of money and they’re burning it off on fuel, or there’s an incredible demand between Hong Kong and London.

a large white airplane at an airport

So, if I were returning home to London, I’d probably pick the 2 PM flight (where it’d be morning in London, and not late enough to sleep yet if I’m in Hong Kong), work throughout the flight, then conk out in London, especially if I were in economy. If I were in business class, I might consider maximising the flat bed by picking one of the night flights, and spending a bit more time in Hong Kong, as you can do a lot in a few hours in Hong Kong.

However, if I was flying to London, I’d probably pick one of the night flights if seated in business class or premium economy, as I’d get to stay up for the meal, and sleep later at night, which would allow me to adjust to local time better. I’d probably pick the 12:20 AM flight, as it arrives latest, which means I get to sleep in latest (and it’s also half an hour less of waiting for a hotel room if the hotel doesn’t offer early check-in).

If I was in economy, I would probably consider the 2:30 PM flight – I wouldn’t expect to be able to sleep, though when I get to my hotel room, I’m tired enough to completely conk out. While Cathay Pacific’s economy class is comfortable, many people have issues with sleeping upright, and I am no exception.

What if I was going to New York? Cathay Pacific offers three flights to New York, which are as follows:

Cathay Pacific 830 departing 9:15 AM arriving 1:10 PM
Cathay Pacific 840 departing 4:10 PM arriving 8:10 PM
Cathay Pacific 846 departing 6:45 PM arriving 10:40 PM

Neither of these flights are ideal, as New York is twelve hours behind Hong Kong, and the flight itself is sixteen hours long. When seated in economy, I wouldn’t be able to sleep much, so I would go for the 4 PM flight. Around ten hours into the flight I would probably drift off for a while, but it wouldn’t be sufficient sleep – it would last me until about 11 PM in New York, where I could conk out and wake up the next morning.

a group of people sitting in an airplane

What if I’m looking for some sleep on the flight in business class or premium economy? Neither of these flights are ideal – I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep on the 9:15 AM flight, and would end up tired in New York, as it’d be 1:10 AM home in Hong Kong. The later flight is great for sleeping – until you end up bright eyed and bushy tailed at night in New York. That’s actually more of a good thing, actually, considering how wild New York nightlife is – but say I want to be able to adjust to New York time like a “normal” person.

In that case I’d probably go for the 4 PM flight. I’d stay up for the few hours, feel tired at around 11 PM, and I’d be able to sleep my way through most of the remainder of the flight. I’d wake up early the next morning, though at least I can check into my hotel room after arriving JFK at 8 PM, and probably be able to sleep a little later that night.

To sum up, my thought process when picking the right longhaul flight goes something like this:

  • What hard product will I be getting? Am I expecting to sleep much on the flight?
  • How will I adjust to my new schedule once I arrive at my destination?
  • How will I plan my flight?

Bottom Line

Ultimately this is how I personally choose a flight that’s right for me, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. However, if you’re facing 4-5 different flights on an upcoming trip and you’re trying to pick the one best for you, I hope my guidelines will contribute to your travels.

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