So you wanted to go to Florida last August? You freed up your calendar, blocked your dates, and made the commitment to take a family vacation. You decided that you would leave from New York August 11, fly to Miami, and spend seven nights there before coming home.
The lowest cost flight for your trip would have been $197 per ticket. That is, unless you bought on March 31 when it would have been $247. Or on April 3rd when it would have been $298. Or on April 19 when the lowest fare was $332. Or maybe you waited until May 12; then, the fare would have been $241.
In other words, who the heck knows what your air fare would have been? It would have varied quite a bit depending on the exact date you decided to buy. In fact, over the period between 320 days out and 1 day out, there were 135 different price changes for this trip! That’s one every 2.4 days.
Your best bet would have been to book on December 26, seven and a half months before your trip. That was the date when the $197 fare was available. Your worst move would have been to book the day before; the lowest option then was $479. But even throughout the most popular booking periods of one to three months in advance, there were significant fluctuations, with plenty of days where fares were in the $200 range, and plenty of days when fares were in the $300 range.
What may seem like a fluky example is actually very typical. For the average trip in 2013, the lowest available fare changed 92 times. The average difference between the lowest fare, if you bought on the best day, and the highest fare, if you bought on the worst day, was a whopping $312! So timing really is everything, when it comes to buying flights.
We can write a book on why fares change so much (and we actually wrote a pretty long blog piece, if you’re interested.) But here is a quick explanation. As you might expect, fares can change because airlines purposefully raise or lower them, or start or end fare sales. That’s only part of the story, though. There is another reason why the lowest available fares fluctuate. It is because various fare categories are constantly becoming sold out or getting re-opened as other travelers buy or cancel seats.
We know, this is where it tends to get confusing.
Airlines will generally offer at least 10 or 15 different prices on every flight that they operate. Delta, for instance, offers 18 different fares in the New York to Miami market, ranging from $113 one way to $723 one way (before taxes)! They have a $113 fare, a $123 fare, a $128 fare, and so on. The other airlines who fly that route offer similar menus of fares, meaning at any point in time there are well over 100 possible prices.
Here’s the important part: the price for a flight at any given moment will vary depending, at least partially, on how booked the flight is. For instance, Delta might say that they will sell the first 20 seats at the $113 fare, the next 20 seats at $123, the next 20 at $128, etc. So as each of these fare “buckets” get filled up, the effective price for another seat on the flight increases. Because there are hundreds of travel sites (not to mention the airlines’ own sites) which all offer the same seats for sale at the same time, at any given moment there are thousands of seats being purchased and each purchase might bump up the fare for the next purchase on the same flight. Although the general trend is for flights to get more expensive as time goes by and more seats are sold, from time to time the airlines will make adjustments and release more seats at the lower buckets. This is why fares sometimes move down, as well as up, even without an explicit fare decrease by the airline.
What does it all mean? Last year we looked at a ton of data and concluded that, on average, the cheapest point in time to buy a domestic flight was 49 days in advance. We’ll be updating that study shortly with more current numbers. But the larger point is the market for airfares is unusual and the prices are extremely volatile. At CheapAir, we don’t set prices; we collect them from the airlines and, using our own fare searching technology, present you with the best available deals at whatever point in time you are searching. To help you save the most, we urge you to start checking fares early for any potential trips you are planning, and check often. Don’t necessarily buy right away, but get familiar with the market – learn what’s a good deal and what’s not. And when you do find a good fare, be ready to buy. As the New York to Miami example above illustrates, those good deals don’t last for very long.