Airline Ticket Buying Strategies When Departure Dates are Uncertain

Are you heading to an event that you cannot miss – but the exact dates are up in the air?

Classic case in point: Your daughter is going to give birth to your first grandchild in the next couple of months – and you’re going to be there to help out. So – do you buy your tickets according to the “due date”?

As most of us know, “due dates” are notoriously unreliable – you could show up a couple of weeks early (which does you no good at all if that’s all the time you’ve got) – or, you could show up a couple of weeks late!

So here is the question:

Should I get a cheap flight now and hope for the best? or
Should I wait till the last minute to buy the airline ticket, when I’m surer of my dates?

The Answer: I have a strategy that will cover most cases, but first, by way of background, take a look at these three scenarios:

  • Scenario #1 - You wait and buy a “last minute” ticket – inside 14 days before departure (or inside 7 days for the low-cost airline routes). This means you’ll be treated like a business traveler and charged up to 5 times more than if you bought your ticket earlier.
  • Scenario #2 - You buy the cheapest ticket possible – non-refundable airfare purchased more than 14 days before departure — and later discover you have to move your dates. In this case, you will likely pay a “change fee” of $150 – which pretty much wipes out any residual value of your early ticket purchase.
  • Scenario #3 - You purchase a “refundable” ticket – which typically costs 2 to 5 times the price of the cheapest tickets – so you’re back to paying those high business travel prices.

A conundrum indeed!

What you really need is assurance that buying a cheap ticket early won’t cost you a bundle if your plans change. Luckily, you have a couple of options:

  • Know Your Airline Fees - Fly with an airline that doesn’t charge a “change fee” (such as Southwest Airlines) or look for airlines that charge a nominal fee – and see FareCompare.com’s Airline Fee Chart for a comparison of domestic airline change fees.
  • Insure Your Tickets - Purchase tickets early but add trip insurance which usually costs 15-20% of the typical $150 change fee for domestic airline tickets. Most online travel agencies (and many airlines) offer 3rd party trip insurance that they will stand behind as their selected vendor (never assume, always read the fine print!)

However, insurance only covers the cost of your first, relatively inexpensive ticket – if you change the dates, you’ll still have to buy that higher-priced, “last minute” ticket. Here are a couple of tips that may help:

  • Use Miles/Points - If you have frequent flier miles, this is the time to use them — even if a last minute redemption charge is required, your miles are worth most when you use them for those $800 to $1200 last minute ticket “free” tickets.
  • Don’t have enough miles/points? Buy the remaining amount, most legacy airlines allow you to buy miles to top off your account
  • Find a Vacation Package - Look for last minute “vacation packages”; typically they come with a flight and hotel – and can be cheaper than a last minute airfare alone. Don’t want the hotel? Don’t use it (be sure and choose the cheapest hotel package if you not going to use it).
  • Try for sympathy - Don’t expect much, since bereavement fares and other last minute emergency assistance has gone the way of the dinosaurs, but it never hurts to ask.

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Published: September 21, 2009