Unfortunately, the big airlines haven’t caught on to the market of residency applicants, so they don’t issue month passes or an equivalent (any airlines out there paying attention?).
Airline travel is by far the most expensive and most complicated part of arranging your interviews. As a medical student embarking on the 2-3 month tour of somewhere between 8 and 20 programs, you are probably most concerned about saving money while keeping as much flexibility as possible. Here’s some strategies and ideas to help:
Strategy 1: If you live in a hub city, consider whether the long-term payoff for gathering miles on one airline will be worth it. Right now it might cost more, but if it may make a difference a few years from now. If you get the credit card associated with the airline, there may be other benefits. But, on the downside – the tickets will usually be more expensive. The other big downside to using most of the “hub” airlines is the relative lack of flexibility. If you need to change tickets at the last minute, you’ll have a change fee that varies from $75 to $300.
Strategy 2: Go with the cheapest possible ticket through one of the third party providers like Travelocity, Expedia, Kayak , or Orbitz. When you are booking these tickets, remember a lot of big cities have more than one airport. When you do the math, a much cheaper ticket plus a rental car to drive an hour may put you ahead. Make sure you read the fine print on these “deals”. This is probably best for the last minute ticket – there isn’t much flexibility if you have to change your flight.
Strategy 3: Fly Southwest Airlines.
I try not to endorse specific companies, but it is really clear to me, after talking to a lot of students, that there are some real advantages to flying Southwest Airlines for your residency interviews. The biggest is that there are no change fees. This means that you can book SW Airlines, check for dramatically cheaper fares elsewhere and then cancel the flight with no fees. Since SW Airlines lets you keep a “bank” for these unused tickets, you can just apply it to the next trip (or to the well earned vacation at the end of the interview trail). Check out their flight routes to see the cities they serve.
Try to organize your interviews geographically
This isn’t always possible, but when it is, it will really save time and money. On the East coast, don’t forget that the train is a good option to get from city to city. If you have more time and less money (and are interested in a great story you can tell) you might think about taking a bus between cities.
There are a lot of myths about early vs. late interviews. In my experience, it doesn’t really matter. Most programs have really taken the time to pick the best candidates for their program. No matter what date you come, they are going to be interested in you. You may want to think about clustering the “early” interviews in one geographic area and the “late” interviews in a different part of the country.
Despite what you wanted originally, you may find that you have been “forced” to book back to back interviews on opposite sides of the country. There is nothing wrong with politely calling the program coordinators to explain the situation and ask if there might be any flexibility to move you to another date or put on you a waiting list. Don’t push – remember, being rude to people who aren’t in charge is considered a huge red flag by most program directors. (Not to mention that it’s just not right.)
Build in flexibility for weather
Residency interviews happen during the winter months. If you are flying through or to the northern states, there is a real risk of flights being delayed or cancelled. Don’t book tight connections and last minute arrivals. Many programs have a social event the night before the actual interview day. This is really important to attend (more on that later). In order to make sure you arrive in time, try to book flights early in the day. If there are weather delays, you will usually still have some options that let you get there in time. If you make the early flight and arrive early – enjoy a new city that might be your home for the next 3-7 years! Find a good museum, have a great lunch, go for a walk in a local park.
Avoid red-eye flights
Yes, they are cheaper. But – you will arrive crumpled, tired and not at your best. This is not the time to cut corners. Take a flight that gets you there rested, in time and able to be ready.
Other advice (from poormd.com, flyertalk.com, businessinsider.com)
- Shop Tuesday at 3pm Eastern for the best prices
- Prices stay low Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
- Sale prices are removed from websites on late Thursday
- Some flights are discounted at night, so check in the early morning
- Airlines start discounting tickets 3.5 months before departure
- Airline ticket prices dramatically increase 14 days before departure
- Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to travel
- Monday, Friday and Sunday are the most expensive days to travel
- Sign up for every frequent flier, frequent driver (rental car) and frequent sleeper program (hotels) you can
- Follow airline Twitter accounts for last-minute deals
- The first flight of the day is often the cheapest