Booking airplane flights these days is one of the most confusing and potentially aggravating of all travel activities, which is why a lot of folks just leave it to travel agents.
But since I can do it myself online, I do. Just like millions of other passengers — including lots of baby boomers — I like the sense of control.
But how much control do we really have? Dotcom sites like kayak, skyscanner, priceline, hotwire, Expedia, Orbitz, CheapoAir, etc. etc. will all give you a range of prices, but they’re only good for that particular time — they can change (often drastically) day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute.
Sometimes you find a great fare only to learn a few minutes later that it’s sold out — but wouldn’t you like to book this other one for $300 more?
And questions abound: Is it better to book early, book late, or book somewhere in between the two? Does the day of the week or time of day make a difference?
Some new studies purport to show some answers — and possible strategies.
CheapAir.com (not to be confused with CheapOAir.com) has analyzed data from 2013 — more than 4 million airline trips — and found that, on average, domestic airline prices were at their lowest 54 days before the flight.
The “prime booking window,” though, could range anywhere from 104 days before the flight to 29 days before. Last-minute bookings were definitely not cheaper — flights were costliest the day prior to takeoff and were pricey every day for two weeks prior. Very early domestic bookings also weren’t great bargains, for the most part, since discounted seats usually aren’t offered prior to three or four months before the flight.
For international trips, though, it pays to book earlier: 151 days in advance when flying to Europe; 129 days before when flying to Asia; 101 days before winging off to the Caribbean; 89 days before flying to Mexico; and 80 days before flying to Latin America.
But there’s a caveat: If you’re planning to fly to a “hot” destination at a hot time — say, New Orleans for Mardi Gras or Rio for Carnaval — you should forget the prime booking window stuff and just book as soon as you can, because seats will start to get scarce and airlines won’t have any reason to lower their fares.
Now, is there a best day during the week to book?
According to a FareCompare.com study, there is, at least for domestic flights: Tuesday afternoon at 3 pm, East Coast time. After that, the airlines often start raising their fares and by Thursday, many if not most fares are higher, sometimes considerably so.
It also helps to know that Wednesdays are the least expensive days to fly, with Tuesdays and Saturdays right behind, while Fridays and Sundays are the most expensive days to fly, on average.
And the cheapest times of day to fly? The earliest flights in the morning; red eyes (overnights); and flights that start during the lunch or dinner hours.
And here’s one I didn’t know but wish I had: If you’re shopping for tickets for more than one passenger, you may save big bucks by booking them one at a time. That’s because if you’re shopping for two, say, and there’s just one cheap seat available, the airlines won’t tell you about the cheaper seat — they’ll sell everyone in your party tickets at the same (higher) price. The more people in your party, the more likely you’ll pay more for each ticket.
But in the end, it’s really all a crapshoot anyway.
Last Tuesday at 3 pm I booked two domestic tickets exactly 54 days before the flight and ended up paying more than I ever have for that particular destination. But I will admit I could have gotten them cheaper — had I been willing to fly out of New York’s decrepit LaGuardia rather than a more convenient airport.
Sometimes saving money just isn’t worth the aggravation. But when it all falls into place and you somehow manage to outsmart the airlines — or at least get a cheaper seat than the guy sitting next to you on the plane — it’s a nice feeling.
This Week’s Travel Quiz:
According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, how much did international visitors to the U.S. spend in 2013 on travel-related expenses (including air travel on U.S. carriers)?
A. $180 billion
B. $150 billion
C. $210 billion
D. $120 billion
I’ll have the answer in my next post.