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A Matter of Timing? How to find the lowest airfares

Posted April 17

Not everyone agrees there's a best day of the week to lock in a low airfare. But doing some legwork and shopping in advance are always solid strategies. (Deseret Photo)

Timing, they say, is everything.

Whether that applies to getting the best deal on an airline ticket largely boils down to whom you ask.

“Yes, it does matter when you book your flight,” said William Frye, an associate professor at Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “Typically, the farther in advance one books a flight, generally the less one will pay.”

Gillian Morris, the co-founder and CEO of the airfare alert app Hitlist, isn’t quite so on board.

“There is no perfect time to buy a flight, just like there is no perfect time to buy stock,” she said. “The prices for both are dependent on the market and will fluctuate according to demand and other forces that can't be predicted, like the weather.”

Still, even with many factors out of a traveler's control, there are some strategies on when to look and how to snag a bargain. And once you find something affordable, go ahead and lock it in.

“Book a ticket when you need it,” said Christopher Elliott, author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.” “Some airfare soothsayers claim you can find a bargain by waiting until a particular day and time, like Wednesday at 1 a.m. in the airline’s time zone. But the savings are minimal and probably not worth your time — not to mention the lost sleep.”

Fuel and prices

Beating the bushes for affordable airfares was less challenging just last year. As oil prices dropped in 2015, airline ticket prices slipped some 15 percent, according to data from the Department of Labor.

It didn’t last. Even with continued relatively inexpensive fuel costs, ticket prices have done an about face since January, when average airfares were up 1.2 percent from the prior month.

Moreover, long-range forecasts call for more of the same. Market-research firm IBISWorld predicted the average price for a domestic airfare in 2016 will be roughly $394. Further, as air-travel demand continues to increase, consumers can expect to pay 5 percent more per year over the next three years.

Demand isn’t the only driving force behind rising airfares. As Pauline Frommer, editorial director of the travel website Frommers.com, noted, “We’re living in an age of monopolies in the travel industry.”

“Domestically, we have four airlines with 80 percent of all domestic routes,” she said. “There’s a lot more competition in Europe.”

Research bears out the disparity. In a 2015 white paper, the travel website Expedia reported that global airfare declined on average about 8 percent between October 2014 and October 2015 from the same timeframe one year earlier.

Weekend shopping

While prices fluctuate based on when you fly, the Expedia study also found that what day of the week you buy your ticket impacts the cost of airfare.

Taking in data from some 14 billion transactions, the report found weekends to be the optimal time to shop for airfares. More specifically, the study pinpointed an average domestic economy airfare of $451 on Sunday and $457 on Saturdays, versus a high of $507 for tickets bought on a Friday. The difference was even greater for premium seats — $983 for Sunday shoppers versus $1,257 for tickets bought on a Friday.

The same pattern held true for global travel — $543 for budget seats bought on a Sunday as opposed to $612 for Friday; $1,805 for premium seats bought on a Sunday and $3,181 for Friday purchases.

The primary reason for the difference has to do with demographics of the buyers. “Corporate travel happens during the week, but leisure travelers book on the weekends,” said Frommer.

Advance timing

Consider also buying well in advance to land the best deals. The Expedia study found the lowest prices for economy domestic travel for tickets were those available 57 days in advance of planned travel dates. For international travel from North America to Europe, the optimal advance time was a good deal longer — 176 days.

“Airlines use a stochastic modeling process to set, raise or, on rare occasions, decrease airfares in an expedient manner,” explained Frye. “This system is referred to as dynamic pricing. Dynamic pricing means that the fewer seats that remain for a flight, the more an airline will charge. The last few seats will always be sold at the highest price possible.”

Although skeptical of strategies that focus on particular days on which to score the best buys, Elliott agreed that buying tickets well in advance was solid advice.

“Research suggests that if you buy your ticket when most people do — between one and four months before you fly — you’re likely to find the lowest price,” he said. “Don’t push the button too early or too late, because fares tend to rise, especially as you close in on your departure date.”

Shopping Tips

Armed with information about prime shopping days and timeframes, here are some other tips to score those bargain tickets:

No matter where you shop among the dozens of travel websites offering discount airfare, it pays to know a technical trick or two to ensure you’re reviewing the very best deals possible.

“When you’re searching, make sure to clear your browser history before searching the flight again,” said travel blogger Nicole Ballantine. “If you don't, you may notice the flights have gone up in price. That’s because the cookies on the page know your search history.”

Another option are services that, in effect, do the legwork for you. For instance, Hitlist alerts users when particular ticket prices drop, allowing them to lock in low airfares. Another choice is “guaranteed” low-fare deals. Several carriers such as Alaska and American offer to reimburse the difference if a ticket holder finds a better deal — the rub is that the flight needs to be identical and, for cash back, the claim filed within a fairly tight timeframe.

Opinions of traditional travel agents are mixed. Frommer said working with a travel agent can be advantageous if they happen to specialize in a particular overseas destination: “Anywhere domestic, you can do just as well yourself.”

Travel writer Alexander Bachuwa was far more dismissive. Given the availability of information and data via the Internet, “Travel agents are only good if you're in a remote country like Burma,” he said.

Jeff Wuorio lives in Southern Maine, where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at jwuorio@yahoo.com and his website is at jeffwuorio.com.

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