You Buy Your Airfare?
Part 2 : How the Airlines Play the
As this image seeks to graphically depict, on any given
day there are about 150,000 flights in the US.
Imagine - if you can - how many variations in fare there
are on all those flights.
Part two of a three part
article on When is the Best Time to Buy an Airline
Ticket - please
2. Theory Put Into
Web Services to Help You
Sometimes we just sort of
'know' that airfares are on a one-way trend upwards, but even
that 'knowledge' can be flawed - if airfares go too high, then
fewer people travel, the airlines panic, and all of a sudden
they start offsetting their higher published fares with lower
To an extent, it sometimes seems
the higher the published fares go, the lower the discounts go.
So - what to do? There's
also always a danger that if you wait too long, the flights will be
full, and you'll have lost out on the waiting game.
In this, the second of three
parts of this article series, we provide some general pointers as
to the various factors at play here.
General Rule - But Exceptions
The basic simple general
rule used to be that the further in advance you booked your
travel, the better the deal you'd get on your airfare.
But the wonderful (?) growth
in computerization has allowed the airlines to become
incredibly sophisticated at managing their seat inventory and
controlling the yield they obtain from the seats they offer for
The simple rule now is
peppered with exceptions. In this part of our three part
series, we go through some of the exceptions and why they exist,
and talk about some of the general issues associated with finding
the best fare at the best time.
The Reason for the Basic Rule
The Basic Rule - the closer to
travel, the more expensive the fare, and its twin - the further
out you book, the cheaper the fare - was first instituted as a
crude way of separating business and leisure travelers.
In simplistic terms - which
applied prior to the massively sophisticated inventory and yield systems
the airlines now have - the airlines used advance purchase and
also a laddered series of change/cancel penalties on the basis
that business travelers would pay more for (valuable to them)
abilities to book close to travel dates and make frequent changes,
but leisure passengers would only travel if the fares were low,
and in return, they were able to lock in their dates and make
bookings far in advance.
Hence the traditional scale of
increasingly expensive fares (but with lower and lower
change/cancel fees) the closer to travel you book.
What Are the Key Advance Cut-Off
There are lots of different
cut-off points for advance purchase fares. International
fares typically have some types of advance purchase fare with more
advance than do domestic fares.
Not all routes have fares with
all levels of advance purchase, but generally you'll see a mix of
fares with some of the following cut-off dates
It is rare to see air fares
requiring a greater than 21 day advance purchase.
Waivers and Favors
Note that, in the past, it was
relatively common to find travel agencies with preferred
relationships with certain airlines, and part of that preferred
relationship were various 'waivers and favors' - the ability to
break some of the rules associated with airfares, with one such
rule being the ability to break advance purchase requirements on
fares - maybe without restriction, or maybe along the lines of
'you can book a 30 day fare up to 10 days prior to departure'.
These waivers and favors
were also commonly built in to corporate travel contracts too.
Such arrangements are less
common now, but if you research around, you might find an agency
or airline (if you represent a large corporate travel department)
that will still allow you some or all of the traditional waivers
Other Factors - Availability
Just because a fare exists on
a pricing schedule does not mean that there are any seats
available at that fare on the flight you most want to travel.
But here's the interesting
thing. The airlines change the number of seats they are
willing to sell at each fare type, on a daily basis (or even more
For example, maybe when they
first schedule a flight on a plane with 100 seats (typically about
eleven months in advance) they might say 'We will sell up to 30 of
the seats at the lowest fare, up to 50 seats at a mid/low fare, up
to 80 seats at a mid/high fare, and any/all seats at full fare'.
Example 1 - Increased Low Fare
Then maybe six months prior to
departure, they have sold all 30 seats at the lowest fare, 15
seats at a mid-low fare and 10 seats at a mid/high fare - 55 seats
in total. This would mean the flight would now have no seats
remaining at the lowest fare, 5 seats at the mid/low fare, and 25
seats at the mid high fare.
The airline's yield management
system might then project that based on this level of sales so
far, the flight will end up with ten unsold seats. So it
might open up ten more seats for the lowest fare, making then
availability of 10 for the lowest fare, 15 for the mid/low fare,
and the same numbers as before for the higher fares.
You as a potential passenger
will suddenly see a lower fare (re)appear for the flight.
Example 2 - Decreased Low Fare
On the other hand, the
opposite could occur instead. Maybe within a week of the
flight appearing in the computer reservation systems, half the 30
cheapest fares have been sold.
This might trigger an alert in
the yield management system, which thinks 'Hmmm - this flight is
unexpectedly popular' and so it cuts back on the remaining
cheapest seat availability, perhaps reducing it from 15 remaining
down to 5 or possibly even all the way to zero.
You as a potential passenger
would suddenly see the lowest fare disappear for the flight.
These examples imply only
occasional reviews of the flight's selling progress. In
reality, the yield management system is adjusting inventory all
the time, based on how this flight is selling, on how the flights
before and after are selling, and on all sorts of other parameters
One day the system might tighten up on
inventory, the next day it might loosen it again.
It is very difficult to second
guess the yield management system (although - see below - a good
travel agent sometimes can), and the point we're simply making
here is that a flight which appears sold out one day might become
wide open the next day, and also vice versa.
Waivers and Favors
Another traditional waiver and
favor that used to be offered was the ability to 'convert'
inventory from one fare type to another - the ability to switch
seats from a higher/more expensive type of inventory category to a
lower/less expensive inventory category.
This can still sometimes be
found, although not as commonly as before.
Overall Pricing Trends
A rising tide lifts all boats,
or so we are told. In the world of airfares, if there is a
steady ongoing trend towards higher fares, then the longer you
wait to buy your ticket, the more likely it is that the price will
have increased due to across the board airfare increases.
How can you tell if fares are
steadily increasing or decreasing? It is always hard to
predict the future, no matter what any type of past trend line
suggests, but there are a couple of pointers as to what to expect.
If the load factors on flights
are high and increasing, you can expect to see airfares also
increase. That is a simple expression of supply and demand -
the greater the demand and less the supply, the higher the prices.
There's another aspect to
supply and demand too. Even if airfares stay the same, with
higher load factors, the airlines will release fewer seats into
their cheapest fare categories and hold more in higher fare
So when load factors go up,
air fares go up even more steeply due to the combination of
overall airfare increases and reductions in the number of reduced
fare tickets available for sale on each flight.
The US Department of
Transportation publishes monthly statistics on load factors.
This can give you a great insight as to if the market is firm and
firming, or weak and weakening.
There is a certain element of
'cost plus' even in the most sophisticated of airline pricing
models. In other words, if jet fuel is going up in cost,
then sooner or later, airfares will probably go up too.
The Economy in General
In boom times, there tends to
be more business travel, expense accounts are more forgiving, and
people in general travel more. Air fares go up.
In bad times, there is less
travel, business travelers start to fly coach instead of first
class, and fewer people travel for any reason at all. Air
fares go down.
If a new carrier starts
service on a route, it is normal to see fares drop - especially if
the new carrier is not a traditional 'dinosaur' carrier but rather
a new low cost carrier.
Even if new service is
provided by a dinosaur, and the fares remain the same, the extra
capacity might see more seats pushed into the lower fare
On the other hand, if an
airline withdraws from a city pair, you know that the best case
scenario will be for fares to stay the same, and the more likely
case is for fares to rise, particularly if they'd been somewhat
depressed during a fare war prior to that point.
So, keep an eye on the news
related to your favorite city pairs. If you learn of a new
airline planning to start service, wait for the fares to adjust
down due to
the increased competitive pressure before buying your next ticket.
A Wildcard - Airfare Sales
This is a tricky factor to
plan for. We all know that airlines hold sales from time to
time, and if there's a chance to fit our travel into the
itineraries on sale, so much the better.
But when can we expect sales,
and what periods of the year will they cover?
That is harder to say,
although there are some traditional periods for sales to appear;
both in terms of the travel periods on sale and the times of year
when the sales occur.
And, in general, there will be
more sales if the overall travel market is soft (ie lessening load
factors and a poor economy) than if the overall travel market is firm.
This is another area where a
good travel agent can help - if they are familiar with the
destination you want to travel to, they probably know from their
years of experience if and when to expect sales that might cover
your travel dates.
Needless to say, an airfare on
sale is probably going to be less expensive than the lowest
published fare, so they are great things to take advantage of if
they come along, but is it worth missing out on the lowest
published fare and risking no sale appearing?
This leads to :
Risks Associated With Delaying
Each day you delay your
purchase gives you one day less of options and opportunities for
something good to happen, and may see your preferred flight fill
up some more and available fares rise.
You might be waiting for a
sale, only to have it never happen, or for the rules of the sale,
when it does happen, to be such that your travel is excluded.
So at what point should you
'bite the bullet' and buy the best fare you can find?
There are a few more factors
to consider so as to best answer that question. Keep
How Many Choices Do You Have
If you are flying from, for example, Los Angeles to Chicago, or
from New York to London, you have a dozen or more non-stop flights
to choose from, every day, and literally hundreds of flights that
make one or more connections enroute.
But if you want to travel from Sacramento to Madison, or from
Buffalo to Leeds, your options start to reduce. And if
you're traveling between perhaps Beijing and Pyongyang, with only
one or two flights a day, your choices are minimal to start with.
Clearly, the more choices you are willing to consider, the more
you should hold out for the best deal out there, because you're
not likely to run into problems of suddenly finding yourself with
all convenient flights full.
On the other hand, if you're facing a limited number of flights
right from the get-go, and particularly if you know it to be a
flight/route that regularly fills up, and/or a route with few
competitors, then different rules apply and you're better advised
to 'cut your losses' and to simply buy the lowest published fare
and accept it for what it is - augmented perhaps by using the
YAPTA service to monitor fare reductions that is mentioned in
part three of this series.
Airport Choices Too
At the risk of stating the obvious, don't forget that many
cities are served by multiple airports. Not all airlines fly
to all airports, and some airports are perceived as being more
valuable than others.
So if you are wanting to fly, for example, between London and
Brussels, don't limit your searching only to flights between
Heathrow (LHR) and Brussels/Zaventem (BRU). Consider also
other four London airports and also Brussels South Charleroi
(CRL) to ensure you see all airline/airport combinations, some of
which are more likely to be discounted than others.
Depending on where in each city/region you are ultimately
traveling to and from, sometimes the secondary and generally
cheaper airports can be actually more convenient (and easier to
pass through) than the major and more expensive airports, and
sometimes airlines will have special promotions to one airport but
not to another.
How Flexible Are You?
If you are wanting to book flights to get you to a convention,
or to connect with a cruise, then you have exact dates that you
must travel on or before to get to your destination, and certain
dates that you must travel on or after to return home again, so as
to connect with the event/activity you are traveling to join.
But if you are simply wanting to go on vacation for a week, you
may have more flexibility - it might not matter so much if it is
from Monday to Monday, or from Wednesday to Wednesday, and if it
is this week or next week.
Maybe even a one day change in your travel dates will be
inappropriately costly to you. If an extra night at your
destination would cost you another $500 for a night in the hotel,
food, and the cost of a lost day of income from your job, and if
the airfare saving matching that is only $50, then clearly you are
better advised to simply pay the extra $50 to the airline rather
than to 'save' $50 on your airfare but incur an offsetting cost of
On the other hand, if an extra day is a weekend day with no
loss of leave or income, and if you are staying with friends
rather than in a pricey hotel, there is clearly very little cost
to spend an extra day at your destination, and if you can on the
one hand save $50 and on the other hand enjoy another day away,
then you should consider such alternate dates as may be feasible,
giving you many more chances to find the lowest fare each time you
check them out.
If you are more flexible, you can afford to wait longer,
because you have more choices to fall back on.
Something a Travel Agent Can Tell You
So you go to an internet travel site and look up the fares to
travel somewhere. You see a range of fares currently
available from perhaps $200 to $500. But typically what you
won't see is information on fares that are not currently
For all you know, there might be a lower $150 published fare,
but which currently all the seats allocated to that fare level
have been sold out.
A good travel agent can work their computer to ascertain two
things - first, if there are any lower fares that in theory would
apply, but which are simply sold out at present, and secondly,
they can sometimes make a value judgment as to how likely it is
that more seats might be released at that lower fare.
A flight that shows, to the travel agent, maximum available
inventory in every fare category except the best discount fare
category might have more seats released into that lower fare
But a flight which shows nearly all inventory classes zeroed
out and only a few (less than maximum) seats remaining in the full
fare codes is probably already well into its oversell profile and
less likely to have more ultra-discounted seats available.
This is where a good travel agent who knows how to read and
interpret a raw availability display can help you.
Not Just Published Fare Availability
One of the biggest bits of misinformation the airlines have
succeeded at is causing people to believe that the best air fares
are now available directly from the airlines themselves.
You'll even see bold promises such as 'lowest fares guaranteed' on
some airline sites (and on some other internet travel sites too).
While this may be true when it comes to domestic travel, it is
often not true for international travel. You need to search
out travel agents who specialize in the destination you are
traveling to - they may have much lower contract/net/consolidator
rates with airlines that never appear on any websites.
The way the guarantees work is that the websites might have the
lowest published fares, but these other and lower fares
are deemed unpublished.
It is sometimes possible to save 10% - 25% off the lowest
published fares by seeking out sources that sell unpublished
These unpublished fares often have completely different rules
to the published fares - they might only apply on certain flights,
and/or on certain days of the week. They might have very
different requirements for advance purchase and fees/penalties for
changes, and they might or might not qualify for frequent flier
They also might have a different inventory allocation than
other discount fares that you see on regular airfare websites.
But it is worth the effort to hunt down sources of such
tickets. On a $1000 international fare, you might save
yourself a couple of hundred dollars. If two of you are
travelling, that could be a $400 or more saving - enough to pay
for the first several days at your destination, and maybe even
with a bit left over for an
appreciation to be sent in to The Travel Insider, too!
Web Sites That Help You Know When to Book/Buy
Knowledge is power; and in the air fare game, knowledge and the
power it gives you also translates to money - either more money to
the airline if they succeed in bamboozling you, or more money to
you if you triumph and make the best choice of when to book.
Happily, a number of websites have appeared offering
helpful information for you
when you are weighing up when to buy your travel. For
more information about this, please click on to the third part of
Read more in the rest of this
This is part two of a three
part article on When is the Best Time to Buy an
Airline Ticket - please
2. Theory Put Into
Web Services to Help You
Related Articles, etc
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20 Apr 2012, last update
26 Jun 2019
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.