Last updateFri, 15 Mar 2019 3pm

Savvy travelers use range of tactics to get cheaper flights

An airline’s load factor – the percentage of seats sold on a particular flight –  would seem to be a mathematical calculation of scant relevance to most fliers. 

It is, however, the chief contributor to the constant change in the price of tickets that helps fill planes and obtain maximum revenue for airlines.

Undoubtedly, the main thing most fliers care about is getting the cheapest deal. But exactly when is the best time to buy an airline ticket to get that deal is a question that even air travel experts have yet to define down to an exact science.

Those who travel frequently in economy class usually have a basic idea how to approach the issue,  based on the time of year one is flying and making sure to book tickets with time to spare.   

The differences in cost can often be substantial. Two recent flights I took to London from Guadalajara rendered startlingly  different bottom lines. One ticket purchased a couple of days before travel in July last year cost almost 2,000 dollars. The other, bought six weeks before traveling in mid-January this year set me back less than 900 dollars.

But even when travel dates are not flexible, there are techniques that fliers can use to find better deals.  Most involve using search engines on travel specific or airline websites. While Kayak, Expedia or Orbitz may be the most well known ones, savvy fliers – especially those going to more out of the way destinations – should search as many flight search websites as possible, as the results can often vary.

Perhaps the most important tip is to follow is the “booking window.”  A study by CheapAir.com that analyzed more than four million flights in 2013 found that 54 days prior to departure was the optimum time to purchase a flight to get it at its cheapest.   Flights tend to cost least between 104 and 29 days prior to a flight, the study revealed.

Says CheapAir.com: “According to the data, sometime around 225 days out (7 1/2 months), on average, fares started to drop and by 104 days out (3 1/2 months) they had fallen to within 10 dollars of their low point. From there they continued to drop, slowly but steadily, until reaching a low 54 days before departure. After 54 days, fares started to climb again, remaining within ten dollars of that low until 29 days out. Then, the increase began to accelerate and once you were within 14 days the fares really shot up dramatically.”

Interestingly, the study showed that the best time on average to buy a ticket for Christmas or Thanksgiving travel was June 4. Cheaper prices are guaranteed when booking early for international destinations rather than domestic travel, the study revealed. 

Never leave booking tickets to the last moment, says CheapAir.com: “Our data completely debunks the myth that if you wait until the last minute, there will be big price reductions to take advantage of, as airlines dump empty seats. That simply doesn’t happen, and buying a flight with less than two weeks advance purchase is the last strategy we would recommend.”

CheapAir stresses that the booking window can be fallible.  Some people swear by the “four-week” or “six-week” rule. A study by the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) that complied data from every U.S. travel agency over the last four years determined that most people booked the cheapest airline tickets 42 days in advance. 

It also makes sense to check soon after making a booking to see if the price of the airfare has fallen. If there’s a difference, airlines will often allow travelers to rebook without penalty.

One website, Yapta, tracks airfare price changes even after tickets are purchased. Yapta sends refund alerts when prices drop, and even allows passengers to claim refunds through their site.

Here are some other tips that travel experts say can help reduce the cost of flying.

  • It’s almost always cheaper to fly during the middle of the week than on a weekend (Wednesday is the cheapest day).
  • Early morning or late night flights are cheaper, particularly on domestic flights, in Europe in particular.
  • Be flexible in your travel dates. Search engines that offer good flexible date searches include Hipmunk, Skyscanner, Travelocity and Kayak.  Also check out Kayak’s explore tool (www.kayak.com/explore) if you’re more interested in price rather than the actual destination.  Matrix Airfare Search (matrix.itasoftware.com) even provides a month-long fare comparison, while allowing you to enter the length of your stay.
  • Those who fly frequently should consider getting a travel credit card for building up miles.
  • Explore the possibility of using alternative airports that may be 50 to 100 miles from the intended destination.  (This is how many budget European airlines provide such good deals.)
  • Get on airlines’ mailing lists for offers, and check Twitter and Facebook for specific airline deals. (Mexican low-cost airlines Volaris and Interjet frequently announce deals to the public this way: Volaris last week was selling one-way tickets for its new route to  Denver, Colorado for 100 dollars.)
  • Check individual airline websites that may not appear on all travel search engine sites, such as Southwest in the United States and Ryanair in Europe.

No one in the airline sector believes that fares are going to get cheaper any time soon. The tendencies are toward increased fuel costs, airline taxes and security fees, while mergers of large airlines reduce competition and giving them less reason to discount fares.  Airlines are also trimming their fleets to pack more passengers on to flights to save costs.  But as this article shows, travelers can do a lot themselves to cut at least a few pennies off the cost of their flights.

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