Updated Feb. 7, 2017
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard airfare shoppers say, “I looked for the sale price but couldn’t find it. Is this a scam?” No, it’s not a scam, it’s just the airline business. And yes, you can still find cheap flights.
Confusing Airfare Prices, Explained
To illustrate, let’s take the entire airline industry and shrink it down to a single airline with a single plane; then, I’ll answer some questions.
- One plane – 100 seats
- Fares from $100 to $1,000 (rising in $100 increments)
- All seats are filled
Q: Why aren’t the fares all the same price?
- A: Airlines may have ten different price points for seats on a single plane, and passengers will pay different amounts based partly on overall demand for tickets, on the timing of the ticket purchase, on what the passenger is willing to pay.
Q: I saw a sale with $29 fares. How come I couldn’t get one?
- A: First of all, the sale probably said, “from” $29. And, that $29 price was probably one-way, meaning the return fare could be higher. Finally, most sales note that the cheapest seats are limited in quantity and when they run out of the $29 seats, they rarely add more.
Q: Who pays the least and who pays the most?
- A: On domestic flights, tickets purchased early (but not too early, about 2 months before departure) will usually be the cheapest; on most airlines, last-minute shoppers pay the most.
Find Cheap Flights Despite Confusing Airfare Prices
First, always – always! – compare airfare prices. No single airline always has the best deal.
- Buy tickets in the sweet spot: Shop 3 months to 1.5 months before departure for U.S. domestic flights; shop 5 months to 2 months before departure for international flights. UPDATE: During 2016 and continuing through this year, we’ve been seeing excellent fares between the U.S. and Europe even during peak-season months of June and July. Shop now and if you see a good deal, grab it.
- Shop on Tuesdays: U.S. airlines typically launch sales on Tuesdays and by 3 p.m. eastern time, the competition has matched the lower fares and shoppers have more good prices to choose from.
- Set airfare alerts: This is a boon for local and international travelers who know where they want to go but aren’t sure when to buy. Set an airfare alert and let the deals come directly to you.
- Travel cheaper days: In the U.S., the cheapest days to fly are usually Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturday. In other countries, weekdays are generally cheaper than weekends. The best tool for this is the Getaway Map (very simple).
- Travel cheaper seasons: In the U.S., flights from September to May are often significantly cheaper than June, July and August – with January the cheapest of all – just avoid peak travel periods at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break. The guidelines are similar for Europeans but it can vary in other parts of the world. For example, if you’re in Australia or New Zealand, flights in November as well as February to April are often good deals, as opposed to the peak season prices for December and January. Again, start your search with the Getaway Map.
For more tips, please see my Insider’s Guide to Airfare.