Buying airline tickets is a lot like gambling or day-trading stocks. Fares go up and down unpredictably. As you get closer to your date of travel, it’s mostly up. But buying a ticket far in advance is not always the answer. You’re just giving the airline your money sooner than you have to, and your plans may change—or the airline might even alter the flight schedule—in the interim.
Most people buy their tickets within 90 days of their trips, so you’re not alone if you procrastinate. Of course, airlines raise fares for travel during peak holiday periods and for last-minute travel, so here are some things to keep in mind as you search for the lowest prices. Traveling on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, for instance, can save you money because business travelers are less likely to book on those days. And going to places like Las Vegas or the Caribbean will likely be most expensive on the weekends when hordes of leisure travelers are on the move.
Here are five more tips that can help you in your quest for economical travel.
Don’t trust just one website
Independent travel websites claim to find you the lowest fares, but many do not search all airlines. Southwest Airlines, for example, is often bypassed. Shop around.Google Flights and ITA Matrix include the option to perform a month-long search and show the widest array of fares and flight options. Again, many low-cost airlines such as Southwest and Allegiant may not show up in these results—you’ll have to go to their websites to check their fares.
Because these two sites are not booking engines, once you’ve found an airfare that works, you’ll have to go to the airline’s website (or another booking site) to make the reservation. But taking this extra preliminary step could uncover fares that would not appear elsewhere.
On airline websites, don’t assume that search results are sorted starting with the cheapest ticket. Delta.com, for example, may show the quickest connecting time first, and you may have to scroll down to find something more affordable or select the tab that lets you sort fares beginning with the cheapest.
Understand airline fare buckets
It’s likely that every person on a given flight has paid a different price. It’s not that airlines are trying to trick you. It’s a smart business practice known as “revenue management,” which allows the airline to get the maximum value out of each seat on the plane, and if it believes it can sell a seat for $500 instead of $200, it will. Prices are determined in part by your origin and destination, of course, but they also have to do with the type of fare you booked. Within each class of service, there are what the industry calls “fare buckets.” Each fare bucket has a set of rules for the ticket, covering cancelations, changes, and so on. The cheapest fare buckets are likely to sell out first. The closer you get to a flight’s departure, the more likely that higher-priced fare buckets will be the only ones available.