10 Tips for Frugal Pilots

Flying is fun! But it can be expensive: mandated maintenance, rising fuel costs, airport expenses, and fly-in restaurants. They all add up. Fortunately, there are many proven ways of bringing down the costs of going up. You can fly more and spend less by discovering how to be a frugal (not cheap) pilot. Here are my ten favorite tips.

Tip 1: Remember why you fly.

Life quickly becomes complex without any help from us. What starts out as a dream of flight soon becomes aircraft payments, hangar leases, insurance payments, avionic upgrades and unexpected maintenance bills. And those costs are exponential to the aircraft we select. Owning a simple Cessna 150 is much less expensive to fly than is a Cessna 182RG. He gets places faster, but I can go the same places – and a few he can't. Frugal pilots consider why they fly – recreation, business, short hops, cross-countries, family vacations, solo cloud-inspections – and select an airplane that is most cost-efficient for their primary flying goals. They then can periodically rent an aircraft for those once-a-year flights that stretch their horizon and their budget.

Tip 2: Keep it simple.

Kind of related to remember your flying goals is making sure your aircraft is no more complex than you really need to meet those goals. Many pilots choose IFR aircraft at additional purchase and maintenance costs when they only fly on instruments a couple of times a year, and only to stay current. If your reason for flying doesn't require an instrument aircraft, avionics and recurrent training, consider simplifying to a VFR-only plane – and saving money. And if local weather is temperate and your aircraft is aluminum, consider renting a tie-down rather than a hangar, saving yourself a few thousand dollars each year.

Tip 3: Manage your wants.

When (not if) I win the lottery, I have a list of cool stuff I want for my airplane – including maybe a couple more planes in my new executive hangar. Until I hit the lottery (maybe sometime after I buy a lottery ticket), I plan to stay within my needs list. Does it make my airplane safer? Will it save me money in the long run? Is it a smart purchase toward my flying goals? If it survives these questions, there's a good chance it's a "need" and will get purchased. Otherwise, it's a "want" and must await my lottery winnings.

Tip 4: Be smart about aircraft maintenance.

It seems like an airplane is always begging for maintenance. And much of it is legitimate stuff that needs to be done to be safe and avoid repairs. But some of it really isn't critical – at least not yet. Determining what is necessary maintenance and what is not can be an expensive difference. The best advice is to learn your airplane, not just the Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) but the parts book and the service manual, too. Then listen to your airplane. You will soon be able to read its sounds to know if something doesn't sound "right" before it needs a repair. Also remember that Time Between Overhaul (TBO) is an estimate of the flying you'll be able to do between engine overhauls. Knowing your airplane can help you extend its life by hundreds of hours – and cut your costs by thousands of dollars.

Tip 5: Learn from your experiences.

Keeping good records on your aircraft and the flying you do can make you a frugal pilot. For example, tracking oil analysis reports over the years can tell you if you are using appropriate additives. Figuring out how and when to lean your aircraft's fuel mixture is useful information that you can track and take advantage of. Also track oil usage between oil changes to determine if something is changing in your engine that you can't see. A simple notebook with dates, meter times, actions and observations can help you get the most from every dollar you spend on your airplane.

Tip 6: Learn from smarter pilots.

No matter what you fly or where, there's someone nearby who knows more about aviation than you do. Unsolicited advice can be annoying, but finding smart pilots who can teach without lecturing is an opportunity to improve your skills – and lower your flying costs – without having to depend on just your experiences and your pocketbook. As you identify these smart and helpful pilots, cultivate their friendships and save yourself a ton of money. And consider membership in aviation clubs that fit your needs: AOPA.org, EAA.org, etc. Also help your aircraft mechanic with the annual inspection, if allowed, by removing inspection plates and the aircraft interior and learning more about your plane.

Tip 7: Shop smarter.

The Internet is amazing. With it you can read product reviews, compare prices and find the best resources for just about anything aeronautical – including the best aircraft mechanic. And by keeping written track of your aircraft (Tip 5) you also know what you'll be needing for maintenance during the next flying season or two. For example, you can buy a couple of cases of oil and a few filters in advance for both quantity discounts and free shipping. Some flight instructors offer discounts if you pre-pay for services. Shop for your plane as you shop for any high-ticket item: do your homework and shop smart.

Tip 8: Barter and trade as you can.

If your flying budget is tight, like mine is, there are many ways to cut your flying costs without spending much money. You typically can borrow once-in-a-lifetime tools from other owner-pilots. You can trade some of your professional skills for flight time, instruction, maintenance, repairs or another aviator's surplus equipment. Consider bartering or trading the next time you reach for your flying wallet.

Tip 9: Multitask flying.

Flying your own aircraft is an opportunity to travel for a variety of reasons including business, pleasure and training. As you plan your next flight, consider multitasking. Make a tax-deductible stop at a client's on the way to your family vacation. Take an extra ten minutes during your next fly-out to practice slow-flight or precision turns. Plan a mid-trip stop in your next cross-country to visit old friends. Multitask.

Tip 10: The bottom line.

A frugal pilot is not a cheap pilot. Nor is a frugal pilot unsafe. A frugal pilot is one who makes common-sense decisions toward getting good value from every flying activity and dollar. Fly more and spend less as a frugal pilot.