This post is part of a series sharing my views on how to book flights online. The first post appeared here. Forthcoming posts include how to break up your fares, fuel dumping and tricks for specific search engines.
When you’re booking flights online there’s nothing more frustrating than buying your ticket only to see the flight get cheaper the next week. Maybe that’s why rules about when to book seem to pop up on those lists of “life hacks”, like this one, that says you should always book on Tuesday afternoons. What rubbish.
Many of us end up resting back on the idea that the sooner you book the cheaper your fare is going to be. That’s because we think that airfare prices look like the graph below getting sharply more expensive over time. If you were going to rely on a single rule for when to book, sooner is better is probably your best bet. But we can do better than that.
Airfare price changes over time actually look more like these graps, less regular and predictable than we’d like.
Fares change stepwise, and not in curves. Airlines sell tickets in different fare classes. There are often different conditions associated with them (refunds, frequent flier miles etc.) and they sell at different prices. So when the cheapest fare class sells out, the fare jumps up to the next one.
There’s no time scale on my graphs because I can’t tell you exactly when to buy either generally or for any given route. But I do have a few tips to help you cut through the complexity.
Tip one: Treat short and long haul differently
Long haul flights deserve more effort than short haul. The savings you get, both in percentage and absolute terms, are likely to be higher and the fare pattern less predictable.
Short haul flights, especially those by low cost carriers (or those trying to mimic compete with them) generally start out cheap and get more expensive. Sometimes there are sales, but they are hard to predict. If there are a lot of airfares available for the same price you have time to wait around and see if there is a sale. If not, you don’t.
With long haul flights sooner is often not better. Lead in fares – say more than six months out from departure – tend to be expensive. Airlines know that the most risk-averse customers will buy a long way out and they take advantage of that. Generally buying a long haul fare about two months to six weeks out will get you the best deal.
Tip two: buy the outlier
On a competitive route if one airline is significantly cheaper than the others – say 20% or more – buy the fare. It’s a good indication that the airfare is on special or, if not, the airline with the low fare is unlikely to be beat.
Tip three: set a price alert
Several aggregator sites (kayak and skyscanner at least) offer a service that emails you when flights for the dates and destinations you have chosen change price. Ignore small changes, they’re probably just exchange rate noise. But if your fare suddenly drops that’s a good time to buy.
Tip four: you can test whether a fare is in jeopardy
The tips I have given so far encourage you to wait around and see what options you get. The problem with that is that sometimes a fare class will sell out while you’re waiting and you’ll suddenly have to pay a higher price
There are two ways to guard against this:
- Do a search for your flight with a large number of people. If the fare doesn’t change it means there are enough seats for a large number of people in your fare class.
- Search for the dates either side of when you want to fly. If the fares are higher on adjacent days your fare class is probably selling out. By now. If the fares are the same there’s less of a risk of your fare changing and, worst case, if it does, you can always go a day earlier or later.
A search in time saves nine
You might have noticed that the things I recommend take quite a lot of effort: search on multiple sites, pay attention to fares over time. Sorry about that. The truth is, though, that getting to grips with the fares available well in advance of your travel gives you the best shot at noticing when a special comes on, or being satisfied with the purchase decision you make even when one doesn’t.