Airfare Sales Limited in Many Aspects

One of my employees added a note to her recent Deals Blog post about a Frontier sale that was supposedly good all summer long. The note said, “Deals available on just a few dates.”

If that strikes you as odd, you don’t know much about today’s airfare sales. They’ve changed from yesteryear, but you can still save money if you’re flexible.

Hear airfare expert Rick Seaney’s riddle to editor Anne McDermott: When is an airfare sale not a sale?

How to find a cheap flight fast

Q: An airfare sale is good anywhere, anytime, right?

A: No, it’s not. Sales today are narrowly targeted to attract customers who will fill up those empty middle seats and are typically limited to specific routes, days and even times.

Q: If a particular route goes on sale, at least all the seats on planes flying that route are discounted, correct?

A: Incorrect. Typically, there are about 10 different prices for all the seats on a plane, so there are just a few with the cheapest sale prices. In theory, airline sales must include at least 10% of a plane’s seat inventory, but the Department of Transportation declines to confirm the specifics.

The Deals Blog – what you need to know about sales

Q: When an airline holds a 3-day sale, you can find sale seats just as easily on day 3 as you can on day 1 or 2, right?

A: Not necessarily. The cheapest seats tend to sell out quickly. When that inventory is gone, it typically doesn’t reappear before the sale ends because airline reservation systems only make more seats available if they’re not selling-as-expected. But airlines have spent years perfecting the science of knowing when people will buy and what they will pay, so resupplying this sale inventory rarely happens.

Q: Isn’t it true that most sales are good for travel on most days?

A: Rarely. Today’s airfare sales are often limited to flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because these are the least popular days to fly and airlines want to entice us aboard so they can fill up their planes.

Q: So, fly the “right” days and you should be good, right?

A: Maybe not. Don’t forget most airline sales also include specific blackout dates that are especially common during holiday periods.

Q: Are there any deals outside of these limited sales?

A: Yes. Every route is different, but some routes have everyday low pricing and rarely see a sale. When there is a drop in price, other airlines on that same route typicallty match the new lower price to stay competitive.

Q: In general, are today’s sales worthless?

A: False. Today’s sales can offer great bargains, but the best of them go to people who are flexible enough to fly mid-week or to off-peak destinations.


Updated: February 10, 2016