Crazy Airfare: Why Ticket Prices Go Up and Down from Day to Day

Ever wonder why airfare ticket prices sometimes go up and down like a yo-yo? Not just day to day, either; fares can change from hour to hour. Once you know the reasons for this, you’ll be a smarter shopper. And smarter shoppers always find the cheapest flights.

LISTEN: Bonus advice from airfare expert Rick Seaney.

Why Ticket Prices Go Up and Down

First, let’s look at the prices of three different airline tickets. All were found on the same date (Nov. 13), same airline (United), same route (New York-Kansas City), and all are for travel in the same week in January.

  • Ticket A: $511 – for travel Jan. 1-3
  • Ticket B: $311 – for travel Jan. 1-5
  • Ticket C: $227 – for travel Jan. 5-7

What’s different are the specific departure and return dates, which is the answer to a lot of pricing questions.

How and When You Fly Matters

All that follows can have a bearing on the price of your plane tickets.

  • When you buy matters: Shop Tuesday afternoon; most airlines launch sales on Tuesdays and by mid-afternoon competing airlines have matched the lower prices.
  • Days of the week you fly matters: Ticket A is good for travel on what are usually the two most expensive days to fly, Friday and Sunday. The cheapest days to fly are typically Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Half of Ticket B is on a cheap day, all of Ticket C is on cheap days.
  • Seasons of the year you fly matters: Ticket A is wholly within the expensive Christmas/New Year’s travel season while Ticket B straddles the holiday period and Ticket C is within the cheap January Deal Zone. Other expensive times to fly are Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and peak holiday periods like Spring Break and the summer months of June, July and August.
  • How you fly matters: All the airfare prices quoted above are for nonstop flights. If you fly a connecting route, adding a single stop to the itinerary, every single one of those flights is suddenly cheaper. Ticket A, for example drops by $200! This doesn’t always happen – it depends on the route – but it’s often the case so always compare fares for both nonstops and connecting flights.

Now start shopping, and see how good a deal you can score.

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Updated: November 20, 2015