10 ways to get the cheapest seat on your next flight
With a little knowledge, you can fly away smiling
1) Best time to book? There isn’t one.
You may have heard that there is a “best time” to book to get the lowest fare. I’ve heard suggestions that Tuesday late afternoon is the best time, or Wednesday, or Sunday night. I’ve been told airlines adjust their fares every Monday. I don’t know if that’s a fact or not and it really doesn’t matter.
Airlines have large staffs that set fares based on the total revenue a given flight is bringing in. The task is to generate the most dollars per flight. If a plane has unsold seats, fares are adjusted downward to try to sell them. Demand for seats goes up and down: there are cancellations and new bookings all the time, which is why prices fluctuate so much. In one sense, it works the same way as the stock market.
2) It’s a carp shoot
As a passenger, there’s no surefire way to predict prices on a given flight. If you find a good fare, grab it. It may be gone tomorrow or even an hour later. The fare jockeys and their computers make adjustments 24/7.
I worked in an airline reservation office back in the day. We had no control over prices, but did have full control over how many seats were sold. Like today’s fare managers, our object was to keep each flight as full as possible.
We did this using a card system, one for each seat. You could tell at a glance when a flight was filling up simply by glancing at the thickness of the cards. We also knew from experience which times of the week, month and year were likely to be full — Friday and Sunday nights, Monday mornings, around holidays and so on. Few people flew on Saturdays. How things have changed. It’s now one of the most popular days of the week.
Some flights were in heavy demand. For example, flights to Florida before the winter holidays could fill up and be overbooked in a matter of minutes. At times like these, we’d put passengers on a waiting list and tell them we’d call if anything opened up. In the meantime, we slavishly counted cards and searched for duplicates. People had a habit of booking multiple flights just in case they changed their plans. It was a kind of a game; they overbooked, we tried to weed them out.
That was then and this is now, but the objectives are the same: keep the planes as full as possible without overbooking them. It can be a delicate art and that’s why it worth checking often. If you can, book with a carrier (or online service) that guarantees they’ll give you the lowest fare available at the time of your flight.
3) Sign up for low-fare alerts
Use a service that alerts you when fares drop. At Airfarewatchdog (airfarewatchdog.com), for example, you can search for the lowest return fare between two airports, and they’ll give you the fare at the time of your inquiry and then send you an e-mail if the fare drops. A couple of caveats: sites like these only scan for fares from major carriers and do not cover special promotions. Also, smaller carriers which often do have substantially lower fares, aren’t listed (see the next item for more). That said, if your dates are reasonably certain, signup for alerts from more than one provider. Do it judiciously or your e-mail box will quickly be filled to overflowing with alerts you don’t need. Get even quicker fare updates on Twitter: follow @airfarewatchdog.
4) See all fares on offer
For a quick view of the lowest fares by date, go to Google Flights (google.ca/flights). It’s very useful since you can see at a glance day-to-day price variations and plan your trip accordingly. Google listings are as complete as you can get for larger carriers. The company now owns ITA Software (itasoftware.com/solutions/qpx), which charts all major airline fares. The site is well worth a visit for a quick overview of fares and for a better understanding of why fares are what they are. One caution: the site does not list smaller carriers, which often do offer lower fares — WestJet, Porter and Air Transat in Canada and Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska (who have just purchased Virgin America) in the US. It does, however, list smaller airports across the continent, some of which offer such service. Knowing where smaller airports are located is a service in itself.
5) Search the smallest of the small
In the US, it may pay to go directly to the airline’s own site to book such carriers as Spirit and Allegiant. When booking, be sure to check the extras tacked on to the fare: baggage charges, seat-selection tariff and even penalties if you don’t arrive to check in with a boarding pass you’ve printed out yourself. The other thing to check is the cost of getting to your destination from these smaller airports. In some cases, ground transportation can be as much as the airline ticket.
6) Use an online booking service
Use online services such as Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz and Travelocity, and make sure you check several. They do not all offer the same prices, especially on international flights. For example, last fall Travelocity offered flights to Ireland that were $100 less than were available on the other online booking sites. You couldn’t even match the fare booking directly with the airline itself.
7) Redeem frequent flyer points
Use your frequent flyer points and sign up for special promotions on airlines you’re likely to use. Check the rules and regulations carefully, all programs are not created equal. Same goes for points given by credit cards and other purchase linked cards like Air Miles.
8) Book direct
It’s always worth checking with the airline directly. Lower fares are often available through special promotions that are never offered except through an airline. Another reason: you may find it easier to deal directly, especially if you have to change your plans. In some cases, they will allow you to make those changes without a penalty, something that will simply not happen if you’ve booked through a third party.
9) Book two one-ways
Check both one-way and return fares. You can often use different carriers going out and coming back to save money.
10) Consult a travel agent
Though not as popular as they were before so many of us began to make our own bookings on the Internet, agencies can still be very useful. They know the industry, have daily dealings with carriers and are in a strong position to ferret out the best price — and to know a great deal when they see one. They also, of course, take all the inconvenience out of making bookings on your own. A single phone call is all it takes and they do the rest.
Not all fares are created equal. There’s great pleasure in knowing you’re sitting in the lowest cost seat on the plane. Go for it.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.