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.

An In Depth Look at Airfare Fluctuations

 

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.

Huh?

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.

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77 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I might be flying from SAV to LIR Costa Rica Dec 10 returning Dec 15 for a wedding. Do this route change price often? A one stop currently is priced at a minimum of $850. Is there any site where I can see how the price fluctuated last year?
    Thanks

    • Hi Greg,

      Fares fluctuate constantly. As far as pricing for your dates goes, we’re finding the cheapest flights starting from about $625 per person, not including any baggage fees that may apply. That’s actually not a bad price for your route and dates. Since you’re traveling for a wedding and the dates are not flexible, I would suggest booked early. I’d be sure to have your flights booked by the end of summer to be safe, but I suspect you’ll want to book earlier. The more specific you are with your flight times, the earlier you should book since you’re limiting your options. To view flight schedules and book, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/1ILmfSj Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  2. I was searching for a flight from NYC to moscow and found that fares were unusually high for the month of July, should I wait longer or should I buy now? Also it’s cheaper to fly in May and book today than to book in advance but in july

    • Hi Alex,

      Flights to Moscow are more expensive during the warmer summer months. It would be cheaper if you can fly sooner than later. In checking the fares, the cheapest flights are starting from just $381 and up, per person, not including any baggage fees that may apply. To locate the cheapest flights, you can use the CheapAir MapSearch: http://bit.ly/1zfNOhJ which will allow you to enter your home airport of New York City and see destinations worldwide and the cheapest fares to those destinations. If you hover over Moscow and click the price, you’ll be shown a calendar with the cheapest dates to fly.

      Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  3. I am trying to book a flight ALB-CMH Feb.13-Feb.22. Although there are plenty of seats, the price is pretty high, almost double the regular price. Do you know why? Thanks!

    • Hi Q,

      Since you’re looking at flights leaving in 1 month, fares will only continue to get more expensive as we get closer to your departure date. I’d strongly recommend booking your flights now to avoid the fares from getting more expensive. The reason that fares are so high is due to the Presidents Day holiday on February 16. If you can depart a few days earlier and return a few days earlier, then you can save almost half the costs. To view flight schedules and book for your dates, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/17Bdyu4 Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  4. Hi there,
    I’m looking into flights from NYC to Nashville Tennesee at the end of March. About a week and a half ago the flights were at $390, but now have risen to $450++. Do you think I should buy now or wait until it’s closer??

    • Hi Beth,

      Based on your approximate dates, I would suggest booking sooner than later. We’re about two and a half months out from your departure in March, so you’ll definitely want to buy as soon as you can, especially if you’re set on certain dates and flights you want. Otherwise, if you are flexible with your dates, airports, and flight times, you can go mid-week and flights are cheaper. To view flight schedules and book, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/17hjyrD Also keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  5. Hi,
    I was wondering how you get the prices data to your website and how reliable it is.
    in the blog you stated that you “we collect them from the airlines and, using our own fare searching technology”. do you get them with some web scraping machine or using the QPX or other databases.
    assuming that the data is received from one of the global databases do you know if the prices are exactly like the one i would find in that airline website at any given moment , or that they might be different?

    • Hi Mik,

      Good questions. Our airfare data comes from the GDS’s (Global Distribution Systems which airlines use to distribute their fares with.), contracted airfares from consolidators, and some direct connect airline agreements. Using our proprietary fare searching technology we are able to source airfare data to find the lowest fares.

      Ultimately, the prices come from the airlines. Before we sell a ticket, we are making a direct query into the airline system to confirm pricing. And when those queries hit the airline, they have no idea who the customer is or what they have searched for in the past. Although fares changes often, they are always consistent at any moment in time; anyone booking the same flights for the same number of passengers at the exact same second will always pay the same fare.

      It is possible that in rare situations if you make two identical searches within a short period of time the 2nd search might use “cached” results and show the same fares as the first search, even if the price had actually changed. However, before you complete your purchase we and other sites always double-check the fare, so in that scenario you would be alerted to a price change before confirming. In the end, you are always paying the correct, current fare.

  6. Hi there
    I am trying to book a Ticket to Bangkok departing charleston on the 17th of any month, December 2014 is crazy expensive so I checked July 2015 and it’s even more so. How is this possible and when is the best time to get a good rate? Return is 3 weeks later.
    Thanks!
    G

    • Hi Gala,

      In reviewing the fares for your routing, it appears that departing in February with flights starting under $1000 per person, not including any baggage fees that may apply. To view these flight schedules and book, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/1qt4OyE Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  7. Hello,

    I have already booked a one-way flight through American Airlines from O’Hare in Chicago to LAX in Los Angeles. Problem is, I realized later that the flight is too early and I won’t be able to get off from work until a bit later. There are later flights and I can still switch reservations even though AA will charge me $200 I believe to change it, however, the kicker is that before when I initially booked all flights that day were in the $100 to $200 range and now when I look the cheapest non-stop is over $500! Any chance if I just stay patient I’ll find it atleast in the $200 to $300 range in the coming weeks?

    • Hi Shaan,

      Unfortunately that would depend on when you are departing. Whenever you change your flight, the airline will charge a penalty to make the change plus any applicable difference in airfare based on the current rate for that flight. So if you’re leaving soon, then you’ll have to bit the bullet and make the change. Otherwise, if you have several months, then you could continue to monitor the fares more… but ultimately in order to make a change, you’ll have to pay the fees plus the different.

  8. I want to book a flight from either Winnipeg, MB or Fargo, ND to Dnver, CO for the end of January. Is this going to be my best time to do that? Dates are Jan 22-25. I haven’t flown in about 12 years… I have no idea what a reasonable price is.

    • Hi Stacey,

      Now’s a great time to be searching for flights. We’re about 4 months out from your departure, so I’d suggest to book your flights sooner than later. Flights from Fargo will be cheaper than Winnipeg. Flights from Fargo are starting at around $195 per person versus $476 per person from Winnipeg. To book flights from Fargo, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/1ueJugH To book flights from Winnipeg, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/1C6LIj9 Keep in mind, when you book on CheapAir.com, if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  9. I’m looking to travel from the Hollywood, fl area to Philadelphia for Christmas. Looking to travel dec. 19, and return shortly after Christmas. My dates are a little flexible, and would like the cheapest rates, but also trying to make it easier for family to pick me up at the airport, which is TNN (princeton, trenton). I’m getting nervous about rates jumping up, due to planes filling up for the holidays…should I book today? Any suggestions?

    • Hi Nicole,

      Booking flights for the holidays now would be a wise move. The holiday season is a peak time for flying and fares will be high and flights will fill up. Booking earlier is the best decision since you can ensure you’ll get what you want. However if are flexible, you can still find great deals out there. Flying from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami would be the closest airport options. If you’re adamant about flying into TNN, then I’d recommend booking now since there’s limited flight options for that route compared to PHL. Feel free to check out our Cheap Flights Holiday Index which will show you the cheapest days to travel during the peak holiday season. Keep in mind, when you book on CheapAir.com, if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  10. We are going to Alaska on May 16, Phoenix to Anchorage, Anchorage to Fairbanks on May 19, then back from Vancouver to Phx on June 1. I am seeing fares (Alaska Airlines) of about $1060. When do you recommend booking for this flight itinerary?

    • Hi,

      I’d recommend to continue to monitor the fares more. You might even want to try pricing out separate one way flights to see if than is cheaper than purchasing a multi-city flight. Either way, you still have plenty of time to continue to monitor the fares more. I’d suggest aiming to book around the New Year. Keep in mind, when you book on CheapAir.com, if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

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