Airfare Strategy


When to purchase tickets?

According to Peter Greenberg, Travel Editor, NBC's Today Show, the best time to buy airline tickets is Wednesday morning (Tuesday night) when it's 12:01 a.m. in the time zone where the airline's hub is located.

Here's how it works. Airlines match one another, so if one raises fares (or adds a fee or eliminates a service or, these days, lowers its fares), other airlines follow suit. If WestJet launches a sale, Air Canada will match it. Fare wars usually start on Fridays and, by Saturday, competitors match each other. The rate then drops more by Sunday night or Monday morning. By Monday night, another airline may jump in and offer an even lower fare to beat the competition, and by Tuesday morning, it's over.

Once you book a ticket, you're given a 24-hour hold period to purchase it at that fare. By Tuesday at midnight, airlines' computers cancel the orders of all the people who booked but didn't buy their tickets by Monday night, and suddenly all those low fares come flooding back into the system for a short period of time. That's when you pounce. If you wait longer, the cycle starts all over again on Friday. (Source: Tough Times, Great Travels by Peter Greenberg)


The game keeps changing, but these are current best strategies for low airfares:

     Don't assume that Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia, and Sidestep all have the same fares. They don't, especially on international fares. Travel agencies such as Expedia exclude many of the smaller discount airlines such as Virgin America (which was recently added to Travelocity) and Orbitz only recently added JetBlue. Check all the online agencies, and use a multi-site search engine like Kayak and Booking Buddy.

     Search airline sites individually. Airlines have "private" sales, reserving best fares for their own sites. With the exception of Southwest, which sells fares on its own site exclusively, most of the airlines that do this are smaller domestic airlines or large international carriers. Alaska, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Jetblue, Malaysia, Frontier, Qantas, Singapore, SAS, Virgin America, and others are using this strategy. Spirit Airlines frequently has one cent, one dollar and other crazy low fares on its site only. Low Cost Carriers like SkyBus and Allegiant Air usually don't share fare data with third-party sites at all, although Jetblue fares are included in Travelocity, Cheapair.com and Kayak searches now, and USA3000 fares in Sidestep.

     If flexible, you can save hundreds by adjusting travel dates often by just a day or two. Travelocity has one of the best flexible options because it searches 330 days ahead. Try Travelocity's Asian affiliate Zuji.com for international flexible searches listed in US dollars.

     Cheapair.com has a flexible search that also goes out 330 days but it charges $10 per booking vs. Travelocity's $5. Orbitz has a limited flexible date function that searches a span of only 30 days (click on "Flexible dates"), and Expedia does flexible search only between a few dozen major US cities (click on "My travel dates are flexible"). Sidestep.com and the other major sites have no flexible search capability. Increasingly, individual airline sites are improving their flexible date search functions. American, AerLingus, Air New Zealand, Spirit, and USA3000 all have decent ones and Southwest has a very good one.

     Combine weekend fares. Last minute weekend fares are often great deals, but most people don't realize that they can construct itineraries by combining two of these fares. Let's say you want to fly from Boston to San Antonio next weekend, and you've signed up for all the weekly newsletters alerting you of these deals but there's no Boston/San Antonio deals listed. However, if there's a Boston to Atlanta fare for $128 round-trip, and an Atlanta to San Antonio fare for $108 round-trip, then there is indeed a Boston/San Antonio fare as well. Just buy two separate fares (we've noticed that Travelocity and some other sites do a good job of combining weekend fares in this manner). You can even combine such fares on two different airlines, but make sure you leave enough time in between connecting flights in case there's a delay.

     Sign up for Ding fares, AA DealFinder, and Frontier's fare alerts. Southwest offers daily "Ding" deals that pop up on your computer (announced by an audible "ding", thus the name) that can save a few bucks off their already low fares. Frontier has begun sending out similar fares by email. In both cases, the fares expire the same day they're announced but they're often good for travel far into the future. American has begun offering discounts of 10-25% when you sign up for its DealFinder feature and enter a promo code on its site. It's also a good idea to register with the airlines' newsletters because they often send out special deals and promo codes. Virgin America recently had a two for one sale, lowering fares between LA and New York, for example, to $140 RT, as a special newsletter promo. Alaska sends 20% discount "insider" promos to its subscribers on a regular basis.

     Buy hotel + air packages. It's often cheaper to buy an air/hotel package rather than airfare alone. When we say "cheaper" we mean that the total package with hotel is often less than the airfare without the hotel component. Lastminute.com is the online leader in this field. Travelocity owns Lastminute, so you'll often see "TotalTrip" options on Travelocity just above the airfare-only search results. Don't ignore these deals! Usually, they work best only if there are two of you traveling since the hotels are based on double occupancy. They're especially useful for last minute travel. Tour operators and your local travel agent also sell packages that might save you money, although not necessarily on last minute deals.

     Some of the best fares appear on Saturdays. Although they're much less common than in past years, probably because the airlines have installed new software to catch them, one of the best "blooper" fares and other low fares show up on Saturday mornings. We can only speculate why, but here are our best theories: One, airlines can only change fares once a day (around 5 PM) on Saturday and Sunday. So, if you're an airline fare analyst, and you're trying to sneak one over your competition, you'll do it with the last fare change on Friday night, which appears in Travelocity, Orbitz, etc. around 1 or 2 AM on Saturday morning. Your competition can't match your sale fares until the 5 PM Saturday update (those fares appear in Travelocity around 8 or 9 PM that night). Two, airfare analysts work under a great deal of pressure, and when are they most likely to enter a fare typo into their computer systems? Probably on Friday night, after a long hard week, with the 10 PM fare update (after all, they're human, they've had a hard week, and mistakes do happen). And these 10 PM fare mistakes stick around until the 5 PM Saturday update, so you have all day Saturday to snag them. The aforementioned peak summer deals on Virgin to London and those now famous 88 cent USAir roundtrips both appeared on a Saturday morning.

     Check fares often. Because airfares fluctuate like the stock market, you need to check them every day, sometimes two or three times a day, if you're serious about saving money. Airlines can update domestic fares three times a day during the week, and once on Saturday and Sunday (international fares change less frequently). And another little tip: be sure to clear the "cookies" on your internet browser (on Explorer you do this under the "tools" menu and "internet options" sub menu). Why do this? If a fare changes between two separate searches done over time on the same route, some fare search engines may return the results you viewed earlier rather than the new, lower results.

     Combine two separate fares rather than buying one fare. It's often cheaper to buy two fares rather than one. Let's say you're flying from New York to Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Check on one of the big sites like Expedia or Orbitz for a single fare (for example, JFK to Governor's Harbor, Bahamas) and then do two separate searches (JFK to Nassau and Nassau to Governor's Harbor). Since JetBlue flies JFK/Nassau you'll want to check JetBlue.com separately). Chances are the two-fare strategy will save you a lot of cash. This fare trick also works for flights to Europe (fly into London or Manchester, UK on one fare and then hop on a discount European airline to reach your final destination) and Asia. To search route possibilities on these discounters, check out the Airfarewatchdog route maps page.

     Buy tickets on an airline that will refund the difference if a fare goes down. Let's say you've done your best to find the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare goes down $100. Sure, if you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference, providing of course that you don't change the times or dates of your flights (and the only thing that changed was the price); but it's a little-known fact that some airlines will charge you a "service" or "administrative" fee as high as $100 for domestic fares or from $200-$300 on international ones, wiping out any savings. And some airlines won't refund the difference at all, like Air Canada. United and Alaska, however, will give you the entire fare difference without extracting a fee, as long as you accept the reimbursement in the form of a voucher good for future travel. Northwest charges just $25, for both domestic and international fares. US Airways, Continental, American and Delta extract the $100-$300 fees; Southwest gives you a credit for a future flight without charging a fee. Even on these less generous airlines, however, we've heard of plenty of instances where a polite entreaty will get you a full fare difference refund without the penalties, so it's worth try.

     Book on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That's when airlines most often offer sales.

     Buy in advance, but not too early. The best time is four to six weeks before traveling. In general, prices for any given flight are highest eight to 10 weeks and two to three weeks in advance.

     Embrace social media. Airlines are giving more benefits, like exclusive sales, to travelers who interact with them on Twitter and Facebook. Those specials are often gone within hours.

     The so-called discount airlines - JetBlue, AirTran, Southwest and Frontier - adjust their fares less frequently than other airlines, so you can feel more confident locking in a price. But their prices aren't always the lowest. Researching multiple airlines' fares is the only way to get a good deal.

(Source: Airfare Watchdog)

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