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. We are trying to book a disney trip from vancouver to lax. Flights last night were about $350 today they went up by $75! Is this normal? It seems like an awfully big increase over night. Should we expect them to go up from here on in or will they go back down? Is there any reason for a temporary flight increase?

    • Hi Cheryl, The airlines have a finite number of tickets available at a certain fare. Once those seats sell out, they bump you up to the next tier of fares. I’m not sure the dates you are searching, but a jump of $75 is not a huge amount (and could very well be reflecting an increase in available fares). If your trip is planned for 9 to 12 months out, I would say you can probably relax and assume that the airlines are playing with fares (they might go back down). If you are planning to visit in the next 1-4 months (or around the holidays), it’s not a good gamble to wait. Very likely the fares will continue to climb.

  2. We are looking to fly 8 of us from Philadelphia to London 3/17/2016 to 3/28/2016 and rent a car (8 passenger). Do you suggest trying to get a package with flight and car or just book flight and car separately? Is now a good time to book both? Thanks!

    • Hi Denise,

      Booking a package can be a cheaper way, but not always. I’d suggest pricing out your flights early to get a sense of the costs. Then I’d compare those with packages to see which is best for you. When it comes to your flights, I’d recommend booking earlier than later since you’re traveling with a large group. The way to save here on flights would be to try and break up your group search into smaller groups. This one sounds counter-intuitive – the more people that go, the better the rate should be, right? That’s rarely true with the airlines; “group discounts” are few and far between. Because airlines will typically limit the number of seats per flight they sell at their lowest rate, sometimes you can actually price yourself right out of a good deal simply by having too many passengers. If, for instance, Airline X has two seats remaining on a flight at $100 and a bunch of other seats available for $150, if you do a search for a group of 4, the price that will come back will be $150. But if you search for two seats at a time you can buy two for $100 and only have to pay the extra $50 for the second two. How do you know when to do this? Always search first for your whole group at once to make sure that the flight has enough seats to accommodate everyone. Then try the same search for a smaller group. If the price comes out lower for the smaller group, buy the seats for the smaller group, and then do a subsequent search for the rest of your party. It can be a lot of work but, hey, if it saves money…

  3. We are traveling from Detroit to Ft. Myers in December. We want to leave on Friday the 18th and return on January 2nd or 3rd. The flights right now are running around $1000 on Delta. This seems high. Am I simply too early to get a better fare? What would be the best time to book for the Christmas holiday? We are always so worried about not getting on the flights because they book up.

    • Hi Eileen, it’s likely a combination of factors that are returning high rates for you. If it was not the busy holiday season you were booking, I would say you have plenty of time to research and book your flights (and that the prices could go down). Our historical data shows that late summer is the best time to book holiday travel, but that most people tend to book very late (October and even November seems to be the norm). Don’t wait that long. If you wait, I can almost guarantee that the $1000 fare that looked high in early summer, will seem like a bargain. Also, I noticed you’re flying on the weekend. You would likely shave some additional cost off the ticket price if you were able to avoid those busiest days of the week. You might take a look at the data from last year’s Flight Index https://10.185.58.36/blog/holiday-flights/ (our new index should be up and running in a few weeks). In any event, because you’re looking to fly at a very busy time – you’re right to be looking now.

  4. Hello. I am watching for the flight fares from DEL to DTW after July 28’2015. Flight fares during 3rd week are cheaper than July end or Aug. What is the best time to book the tickets. Now or keep watching and book later when I find the best deal. Please suggest.

    • Hi Vicky,

      For your routing and dates, you’ll want to book sooner than later. Summer in the U.S. is a peak season for traveling. It’s wise to book international flights about 3 months or more in advance of your departure date. With that said, it’s not likely the fares will decrease within the next month, so I’d buy now if you can. 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. What’s a good price for a flight from Denver to Washington (Reagan) June 10 to about the 15th. Thanks!

    • Hi Gloria,

      A good price for that route would be around $250 or under. In checking the fares for your dates, it appears the cheapest flights are starting from about $365 and up, not including any baggage fees that may apply. Based on that, I would recommend booking now or sooner than later as fares are likely to only continue to increase being that we’re about month out from your departure in June. To view flight schedules and book, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/1ElHZwX 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.

  6. We are traveling from Philadelphia to Orlando from 10/1-10/7. The flights have been consistently going up, since I first checked a few weeks ago. We are still about 5 months out. Is it likely that fares will dip again or keep rising? Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Jessica,

      In reviewing the fares for your route and dates, we’re finding flights starting from $187 per person, not including any baggage fees that may apply. That’s not a bad price, but the best deals from Philadelphia to Orlando are below $139. I’d suggest to continue to monitor the fares a little more. It’s common for the fares the fluctuate up and down like this, so you can keep an eye on it… but you can also buy now and take advantage of our Price Drop Payback program. With Price Drop Payback, 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! To view flight schedules and book, you can use this link: http://bit.ly/1cj5aC1 Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  7. Hi,
    I’m looking to book a last minute flight to Las Vegas either on May 7 or May 8 and fly back May 10. I keep seeing Spirit Airlines fluctuate a ton. Today it was at 166 and now it’s at 286 round trip. Will it drop if I wait a few more days or do you recommend I book now?

    • Hi Colin,

      Airfares fluctuate a lot and especially increase within 10 – 12 weeks prior to your departure. Since you’re looking to travel in a week, you’ll definitely want to buy now. Flights will only keep getting more expensive as we get closer to your departure date. 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.

  8. Hi, I am also needing to book a round trip flight to Athens, Greece towards the end of 08/15. When is the best time to look for a flight, buy, depart, and return based on your guidelines? I want to be there for about two weeks. Thank you!

    • Hi Ali,

      For flights to Europe during the peak summer season, it is best to book way in advance. In fact, I’d probably have booked earlier than now. For your flights, you should definitely check the fares now and consider booking soon.

  9. Hi there, I need to buy tickets to Seattle, Washington for a wedding that is on 07/25/15. I live in the central valley and can leave either on 07/24/15, or early morning 07/25/15 in order to make it to the wedding at 3pm. Any suggestions when I should buy the tickets? So far right now, Delta has a flight for $166 round trip per person out of San Jose, but I am not sure if I should wait for the 54 days before to look? Thank you so much for your help!

    • Hi Ali,

      Due to the fact that you’re traveling for a wedding, I would recommend booking earlier than normal. Fares from SJC will be cheapest from the central CA, but there are also flights from Fresno or Bakersfield. Those airports are going to be more expensive than San Jose, but can give you more flight options. 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.

  10. Hi I am looking to book a flight from LA to Houston. We will be getting on a cruise out of Galveston–so we have some flexibility on airports. It will be late August. Any suggestions on which airports to watch? Looking at John Wayne and Burbank– but they seem to have higher prices. In Houston it looks like there are more options out of IAH but it is farther away. I’ve never flown into Texas before–do you think the prices will change much or stay the same?

    • Hi Ashley,

      Houston Hobby will be your best airport option if you’re planning to head straight to the cruise port from the airport. Since you’re traveling for a cruise and you’re set with the dates, you’ll want to book early to get the flights you want. You’ll especially want to book even earlier if you’re eying Burbank or John Wayne which have less flight options, but are more desirable due to the less hassle of traveling through a smaller airport. LAX to HOU will likely be the most inexpensive route. 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.

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