Whats the best way to buy a flight for a vacation without getting screwed?
July 29, 2009 5:33 PM   Subscribe

Whats the best way to buy a flight for a vacation that you know you are going on (greater than 3 months in the future)? I am tired of getting screwed for being prepared.

I know I need two tickets from Los Angeles (LAX) to Maui (OGG) departing December 12 and returning December 19.

So I thought I would give bing.com's future price utility a try with the flight. I just got a "Bing Travel Alert" that suggests its a good time to buy...http://www.bing.com/travel/flight/flightSearch?o=LAX&d1=12%2F12%2F2009&p=2&src=fct&r1=12%2F19%2F2009&cid=10713&viewMode=list&e=OGG

Since when has the market for tickets been dictated like this? I thought the earlier you book, the better rate you should get. I guess this isn't the case as I learned from my previous purchase of 2 round trip flights from cheaptickets.com. I booked the reservation to Los Cabos 4 months in advance and if I would have waited 1 week before the trip, I would have saved $125 per ticket. Is that insane? In what situation would preparedness not be beneficial? I guess with flights.

How can I guarantee I wont set myself up for another Los Cabos irritation? What can someone do to protect themselves from these market fluctuations?
posted by schindyguy to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
well, in your example you paid $125 to get the peace of mind knowing you have tickets. If you waited something could come up and all the tickets for that whole week could end up sold out. For some people its worth the risk, they dont have to plan around a specific week, but for others with school or work it might be more imprortant.
posted by Iax at 5:48 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Iax: so your logic leads me to believe that the premium I paid was just to guarantee the flight date?

This whole thing doesn't make any sense to me. I guess because I am using one airline in particular to compare it to: Southwest. I went to the U of Arizona and constantly flew from lax to tucson. The earlier in advance I booked, the cheaper it was. Period. There was never a time I saw a lower rate on the pricing matrix after booking.

What gives with these other airlines?
posted by schindyguy at 6:12 PM on July 29, 2009


You're paying more for certainty. If you're going to book a flight 6 months in advance, it's because you have other plans which the flight dovetails into. You book early, you know you have your tickets. Leave it to the last minute, and the flights you want may be fully booked; or they may be half booked, in which case they sell the remaining tickets off cheap as a half-price ticket is still better for them than an empty seat. Ryanair have got this down to an artform, and regularly sell seats for 1p - then make it up with credit card booking charges and luggage fees. Yet book 6 months in advance, and it's £100 each way.

They're also working on the basis that people who book early tend to be older/more mature fliers, and so have more to spend than a twenty-something couple who don't care much where they go, and book something last minute.

The reason they get away with this is effective monopolies. If you need to fly from point A to point B in 6 months time, usually too far to train or drive, then you're going to be very limited in carriers on that particular route. So they've got you over a barrel, and know it. If they were competing with other companies for your custom, then it would make sense for them to have lower prices early on to attract you as a customer at all. As it is, they're going to try and maximise every last inch of profit, and being prepared basically means you want that flight and no other so are at their mercy.
posted by ArkhanJG at 6:19 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


ArkhanJG: thanks for that explanation, but do you have any good suggestions for this situation at hand right now? I need to get there on those dates from pt A to pt B. Buy now or buy later or is it just a crap shoot?
posted by schindyguy at 6:34 PM on July 29, 2009


Some points:
1) Southwest's business model is much different than most of the legacy carriers (AA, Delta, etc.). They only fly one type of jet, fly point-to-point instead of a hub-and-spoke network; and have a simpler pricing structure.
2) Most legacy carriers make very little on most of the economy seats. They live and die by last minute and business travel, where they can cover the costs.
3) Airlines don't want to leave with any open seats, but they want to get as much as possible from people who have to fly last-minute.
4) So you see things where airlines will try to fill seats if the early sales, but then bump the price back up to make money on the last minute travelers

There's a lot of network modeling and pricing literature on how airlines set prices; I'll see what I can dig up.
posted by theclaw at 6:36 PM on July 29, 2009


If you look at your route on Kayak.com they have historical data and can give you an idea of what prices are like over time, somewhat. If you click "show chart of fare history" on the left you can get a good idea of how the prices for that trip go up and down. My experience personally as someone who buys a few airplane ticket a month usually is this

- Southwest is a little unique in that it really is cheapest to buy sooner. They don't play a lot of games with their fares, and when they're out, they're out. Sometimes they have last minute cheap fares but you can't count on this.
- Most of the major airlines do a fairly predictable thing where ticket prices are more or less flat, then dip somewhat in the 2-3 week window before the travel date and then seem to split in the week or so before the flight where some people are paying low prices and some people are paying really high ones. If a flight is a popular one, you don't get that price dip. If a flight is not popular, last minute tickets are often cheap.
- generally the less attractive your flight [red eyes, early early mornings, tons of connections] the lower your cost will be and the more you'll be able to buy a low priced ticket late in the game
- If you're flaxible you might have good luck doing something like checking Priceline which usually gives good estimates at what the low end of tickets are doing.

But, as ArkhanJG says, it can be a little bit of a crapshoot. People were predicting that flight costs would shoot up when the price of gasoline went up and that didn't really materialize. I have had people who were paying for my tickets really pressure me to "buy now before prices spike" and I didn't really see that spike [though other things like meals onboard and baggage prices did go up]. Since I'm travelling alone usually and am very flexible, I usually don't buy my tickets until a few weeks beforehand. When I travel with other people, I see the extra [or possibly higher] costs as basically being as people say, a fee for assuredness, for having the plan nailed down.

According to Kayak.com's little graph, tickets for that leg you're looking at don't seem like they go (so far) much below $400. While there might be some last minute changes, the current prices of $451 look okay. Might want to set up fare alerts for Kayak, Southwest and (not in this case but generally) Jet Blue and keep an eye and see how prices are moving. The FlyerTalk forums are also good for just chitchatting about all things flight-based, might also be worth peeking in there.
posted by jessamyn at 6:50 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Before some literature, a summary: most airlines have two goals:
1) Sell all of the tickets they have available on a given flight.
2) Charge as much as passengers are willing to pay.

The price fluctuation is the airline's attempt to set the highest price possible for the ticket at a given time based on information (including but not limited to how many tickets have been sold for the flight, historical ticket sales, competition, etc.), while ensuring that there are no empty seats when the plane departs.

USA Today column on load factors and airline business models
This is a pretty good summary of the airline industry
An academic paper on the European low-cost and legacy carrier pricing
General pricing strategies an aside on airlines
Google Books result that appears to be decent, and not missing pages from the preview unlike many of the other books I found on Google Books.

Let me know if you would like more information.
posted by theclaw at 7:29 PM on July 29, 2009


It's a Prisoner's Dilemma!

There was a great article on Slate about this about 8 years ago.

(Warning: Self-link) You can read a quick synopsis here.
posted by GatorDavid at 8:33 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks so much for the responses! Bottom line: airlines suck
posted by schindyguy at 8:47 PM on July 29, 2009


I already posted it over at flyertalk. Thanks though
posted by schindyguy at 8:49 PM on July 29, 2009


Early buyers are committed flyers -- they want that trip. This is the "flying to X's wedding or the vacation of the year" flyers.

So, buying three months out will often cost more than buying one month out. The risk is that one month out, the load will be high enough that there will be no discount tickets. If the load isn't, there will be cheaper tickets.

The consolation of buying early -- you have the ticket, you know what it'll cost you.
posted by eriko at 4:40 AM on July 30, 2009


Buy the ticket. It's the only way to ensure that you'll have one. You can track price changes with Yapta, they monitor the price you paid for your ticket and alert you if it drops. You can then call the airline to request a credit or refund of the difference.
posted by handabear at 5:41 AM on July 30, 2009


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