There are plenty of articles that claim to tell you every secret that you need to know about airfares. How to find the cheapest, when to book, what tricks you can use. But do they really give you the facts?
Unless you are fortunate enough to have more money than you know what to do with, you are probably looking for the cheapest way to fly from where you are to where you want to be. And that’s where these 7 airfare facts you may not know could help you find something a bit better.
This information has been put together from a combination of research and over five years experience in the travel and tourism industry with regular dealings with airlines and booking flights.
Last minute fares are not common
There is plenty of hype around the internet about how the best thing you can do to get cheap airfares is to wait as long as possible before booking as airlines will drop prices to fill planes.
This practice is best known in the hotel industry and substantial savings can be made by those willing to book a room at the last minute.
While this can happen occasionally with airfares it is very rare and really it is far more likely that you will miss out completely on a seat. It is worth trying if you do not have to travel on a particular date. Flexibility and the willingness to risk having to get a later flight are key to this strategy.
This leads us to the second fact, which is becoming quite commonly known after a few high profile incidents in early 2017 involving a couple of well known American airlines.
Airlines overbook flights whenever possible
I just mentioned the incidents that embarrassed one of the top airlines in the USA when they physically dragged a passenger off the plane because they needed his seat for a staff member and had overbooked the flight.
The reason airlines overbook is to make sure a flight is as full as possible. You may wonder how overbooking achieves this.
It is a fact that quite a large number of people never show up for their flight and with this in mind the airline basically is taking passengers “off the bench” and using them to fill the vacant seats.
About 10 years ago the average “no show” rate for North American carriers was as high as 12%. That’s a crazy one in every eight people not bothering to show up. However a more recent report shows that number may now be down as low as 5%.
The most likely passengers forced to miss the flight due to overbooking are those who paid the lowest fares and those who booked closest to departure.
Once again this can work well for people with flexible schedules as many airlines will offer replacement flights plus travel vouchers to those who don’t fit on the plane. But it’s not so good if you have to get somewhere now.
When is the cheapest time to book?
Once again the internet is filled with articles claiming to let you in on the secret to the perfect time to book your flight for the biggest savings. Well, research has shown that the real secret they are hiding is that as a general rule there is no best time. No cheapest day of the week, no miracle hour, more often than not it is the luck of the draw. But there are exceptions to the rule.
Research tends to suggest that rather than at the last minute, the most likely time for an airline to discount prices due to low seat sales is approximately six weeks before the departure date.
Another strongly supported idea for the best time to buy tickets is shortly after release, which is usually about 10 months before departure date.
If you have ever wondered why you can not book a flight more than 12 months in advance I can give you an answer. For some reason the systems used around the world for booking all flights can not accept a “year” designation in the booking information. Which means they can only understand one of any particular date existing.
For example the 1st of August could only mean the next 1st of August on the calendar, it can not understand that there will be another next year. And so airlines are restricted to releasing flight details between 300 and 360 days in advance.
Another time that is perfect to book flights for a great price is during the “early bird” season. In Australia we have Europe early bird fares released in October each year usually with great prices to travel between February and September the following year. Base fares will generally increase each month from then.
The final “cheap” time to book is when travel agents or online ticketing agents have sales. These are often special fares negotiated directly with the airline and can give genuine discounts but be sure to check the prices with competitors to ensure it really is a bargain and not just some great marketing.
Which leads us to another secret that is often overlooked.
There is this thing called a “private fare”
I mentioned above about the special fares negotiated between agents and airlines. These are called “private fares” and will only be available to the agency who negotiated the fare, not to the general public or other agents.
The online travel agencies have used some fantastic but sometimes deceiving marketing to convince people that they are cheaper for airfares than the old style “bricks and mortar” travel agencies, but with airline commissions to agents generally around the 2 – 4% mark there is really no wiggle room for them to be offering big discounts.
On the other hand if an agency with a shopfront is part of a large chain who has negotiated a private fare, they may be hundreds of dollars cheaper than the online competitors.
I worked in a branch of the world’s largest group of travel agents for a couple of years in Australia and, while I admit to not always booking my personal flights at work if I could find the same thing cheaper elsewhere, I never found anything lower than the prices we were given on some of the private fares.
The moral of this story is don’t rule out a travel agency with a shopfront and just assume the online guys are cheaper. After all, when all is said and done they are just another travel agent.
Don’t always believe what you read
The company I was a travel agent for had a number of different branded shops under their giant umbrella. The main brand would advertise that they guaranteed the lowest airfares or you would fly free.
Sure they had to lose a few dollars on selling a flight occasionally but more often they would sell flights with a mark up, sometimes substantial. How did they manage this you may ask.
It is well known in marketing circles that if you convince people you are the cheapest then most of them will never bother to check against your competitors and simply take your word that they are getting the best price.
As I mentioned above, airlines have all but removed commissions to agents and so they now have to charge a booking fee or somehow add more to the base fare.
If someone questioned a higher fare then they would beat the competitor by $1 to give the customer the cheapest fare and just tell them it was a great deal they found and stroke their ego about being so diligent and finding the bargain.
So this is another reason why you should never buy on the spot if you have not checked anyone else’s price for the same flights. No matter how they try to tell you that the fare might increase if you wait.
Maybe you could take advantage of this next fact.
Reserving seats on flights
Did you know that travel agents can hold seats for you on many, but not all, flights with no charge and no commitment to buy? More common with International flights than domestic but it is a service worth considering if you think you have a good fare but just want to check competitors.
Many of the airlines in the USA don’t allow this at all for their domestic services but often you can get 24 to 72 hours of decision time without the fare increasing on International flights.
At the end of the hold time the seats are simply released back to being available and your hold on the seats cancelled.
While this service is not on all flights you should definitely check with a local travel agent or even your preferred online booking agency next time you are looking at flying.
It’s a class based system
One of the hardest things to explain to people as a travel agent is why the prices are so different for what appears to be the same seat on a plane. The short answer is that it’s about booking classes.
Now if you ask most people what booking class they have for their flight they are likely to say economy or business class. And that’s where some of the confusion starts.
You see, economy and business, etc are travel classes but not booking classes. Confused yet? I’m not surprised.
A booking class is, for all intents and purposes, the same seat on the plane sold at different prices. The reason they do this is to offer people various levels of pricing security and flexibility.
To add to the confusion they couldn’t just say “A” class is they highest price an work the way down the list, they had to randomly associate letters with benefits.
For example the cheapest booking classes are usually “V” or “K” but can also be “U”, “S” or “M”, while the most expensive booking class in economy is “Y” class.
So now that we have cleared up nothing but showed you how this is confusing even for experienced travel agents, let’s get on to why they have different booking classes and prices and what you may get for the extra money.
The most obvious difference between some of the booking classes is the inclusions with your fare. It’s often not just a matter of saying you want a check in bag or not but a matter of booking the right class and hoping it is available. Want meals or entertainment onboard? That may need a different class again.
The more subtle difference in price and class is about flexibility. A higher booking class and fare may give you a free date or time change or free cancellation, while the cheapest price is most likely to be non-refundable and non-changeable. So before you book that next flight and brag about how cheap it was you should check the fine print and hope the ticketing policy really suits your needs.
So if all that was not confusing enough the airlines decided they would throw another spanner in the works and limit the number of seats available in each booking class to maximise their profits.
So it’s not just a matter of saying you want baggage and a meal and no cancellation costs and expecting it just because their are seats left on the flight. It may be that class has been fully booked as each class has a set number of seats available for sale.
And that is the most likely reason why the price is more expensive today than it was yesterday. The cheaper class has sold out and now a higher class is the cheapest available. You will pay more but get a more flexible ticket. Usually useless to you but more money for the airline.
So when should you book?
What it really boils down to is whatever suits your circumstances. You should have a good idea of what would be a good price for your trip. When you find that price you should grab it and not care what happens after that.
Price goes down a week later? You still got a price you were happy with.
Price goes up next week? Winner, winner chicken dinner! You bought it cheaper.
If you don’t have set dates then you can afford to be a bit loose and free with waiting for a deal. But if you are betting it all on getting a great last minute sale then you probably should also be buying lottery tickets because the odds of winning are pretty similar.