Airlines use complex computer algorithms – in simple terms, Dynamic Pricing – to automatically adjust flight prices based on current sales volume, anticipated flight occupancy levels based on historical data, time of flight, location of origin and destination, geographical location of the purchaser, airline competitive pricing, etc.. etc.. etc… These can adjust in seconds, minutes, hours or days. Indeed it’s highly likely that no 2 people separately booking on the same flight paid the same price.
General rule of thumb for best purchasing practices: Day of week: Tuesday at 3pm ET is the best time to buy airline tickets in the US according to many studies; Time before flight: Buy 4-12 weeks before a domestic flight, 6-24 weeks before an international flight for the lowest fare; Day to fly: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are the cheapest days to fly in the USA. Purchasing from within Asia typically a little cheaper than North America.
Keep in mind that fares will be highest on the weekend. Airlines know that’s the most convenient time for people to think about vacation plans, so they markup their prices then. Sales released early in the week are also gone by the weekend. Airlines don’t manage their inventory as much on the weekend because they have fewer staffers on hand — so if a few tickets sell for a specific route, prices will automatically jump higher because computer algorithms perceive an increased demand.
Know the best time in advance to book tickets. According to studies cited by The New York Times, international flights have been the cheapest 3-5 months in advance, but there is variation among different regions. Domestic flights within North America are a bit trickier to pin-point, but it’s a good idea to start searching 3-4 months in advance and see if they get any cheaper week after week — there have been studies indicating a 6-weeks-in-advance sweet spot for domestic flight booking.
Know when airfare prices are typically the lowest. Airlines generally release sales for specific routes Monday night because they want travel agencies to catch wind of sales early in the week. Deals are then matched by competitors Tuesday morning. Therefore, your best shot at these deals is by searching for flights Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon or evening.
It’s a good idea to do a search for specific routes of interest on several days of the week (including weekends) at least a week before you are planning to book, so you have an idea of how much the tickets cost. That way, you can identify a sale when it appears.
Use aggregator sites to search for fares. There are simply too many different airline and travel websites for you to make individual queries in each one, so use Google. It not only aggregates dozens of airline and travel websites to give you the best price, but it also has a low-fare calendar so you can see which are the cheapest days to travel in a 30-day period. You can also easily include nearby airports in your search.
Not every airline/travel website is included so you may want to visit favorite airlines separately. Also, if you know that a certain airline operates out of a particular destination or specializes in certain routes (e.g., Air Canada for flights to and from Asia), you may want to make those searches separately to make sure you’re not missing the best deals.
Clear out your cache and cookies in between airline searches, especially on different days or weeks. Be careful when comparison shopping using the same browser — pixel marketing and cookies now link across many sites — so if you forget to clear your browser cache and delete cookies, you may find that the prices on different sites are within 5% of each other. Using different browsers (Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Explorer etc..) and different IP addresses (VPN) you will often see big price differences.
For advanced ideas, consider piecing together flights by hand with cost-saving characteristics. Here are several methods to consider:
- Instead of searching for round-trip tickets, search for two one-way tickets separately. Sometimes purchasing separate tickets on unaffiliated carriers will save you money. Be warned, checked luggage may not be passed through on back to back one way tickets unless within the same alliance, and if one earlier flight is delayed, it you may loose the 2nd or 3rd flight entirely making a costly mistake.
- Search for red-eye flights and other unpopular times. Because of supply and demand, it is going to be more expensive to fly during a convenient time like 10 a.m. than in the middle of the night at 11 p.m.
- Search for 2nd tier nearby airports — often they are much cheaper. For example, instead on London Heathrow, consider Stanstead or Gatwick.
- Be aware that in some countries like China, it is routine for airlines operating out of many cities to cancel the last flight of the day and combine it with a following morning flight to maximize occupancy. Hotels are often at your own cost.
- Use a VPN and shop as though you are from another country if flying from one international location to another international location. You may save even more by not purchasing in your home country. This can yield massive price fluctuations on same flights.
- For example, let’s say you are from the USA and you want to fly from Thailand to Canada. Your best bet to search for prices in Thailand, not the US, as this fare is best priced from that market.
- US booking engines typically give a higher price.
- Countries with a sole carrier that have a monopoly often yield higher prices than other airlines operating in and out of that country.
Travel on the holiday days themselves. If traveling around the holidays, know it is generally cheaper to fly on the holiday itself. People generally want to relax on holidays, and not deal with the hassles of air travel, so tickets are sometimes cheaper then. Christmas Day, US Thanksgiving, New Years Eve, Memorial Day etc.. are all cheaper days within the USA to fly.
It’s an art and a game all in one.