Purchasing airline tickets can be a complex and frustrating process. Prices can change quickly and without warning. And especially for longer itineraries or multiple sector trips, there can be big variations in price for different routes, airlines, or stopover choices. Better search and booking tools have made this much easier, but there are still several things to be aware of when searching. The following are a few of the main factors that affect flight prices.
Prices change with availability
It will be no surprise that availability is at the heart of airline ticket pricing. Airlines want to maximize the revenue from any given flight and have decades of experience doing just that. At its most simple, an airline will likely sell tickets cheaper on an empty flight and will want to demand much higher prices when there are only a few seats left.
This is the main reason why you see a flight jump in price quickly – often while you are still considering a purchase. Airlines have long used a system of “booking classes” to manage this availability. These represent differing pricing levels within each cabin, and as lower booking classes sell out, prices will generally rise. There are variations between airlines (and certainly with low-cost airlines). With full-service airlines, you will see some similarities – such as Y for full-fare economy and J for full-fare business class.
Ticket prices tend to rise closer to departure – but there is much more to it than that. Photo: Getty Images
Prices within these buckets are set by airlines based on expected demand and historical experience. Revenue management is a major area for airlines, and historical data and artificial intelligence algorithms are typically adopted to aid pricing. This has been a challenge throughout and after the pandemic, of course, with travel patterns and ticket purchasing trends very different from those of the past years.
Buying tickets in advance
There are frequent debates about whether it is better to purchase tickets early or late. In general, earlier purchases are better value – although you need to consider the limited and likely expensive change policies. Some of these have been waived during COVID, but they are quickly returning.
Airlines will often offer reduced fares during sales for advance purchases of several months – there can be considerable savings here for long-haul business class travel.
Prices do not usually drop very close to departure. Although this might sound like a good idea to fill seats and generate revenue, it would undermine pricing strategies if passengers just waited to do this. There are differences, though, between airlines and between routes. Leisure and business travel is one prime example. On some typical leisure or holiday routes, prices may drop closer to departure to attract passengers. On typical business routes or between key city pairs, prices can rise very high at the last minute.
Tools such as Google Flight can help you track price changes. Image: Google
Flying midweek and off peak
Peak travel dates will always have higher prices – both due to current seat availability and airlines setting higher base prices for dates they expect to be popular. School holidays and bank holidays are obvious examples, but remember to check peak dates at your destination, too, as these can be very different. A period like Chinese New Year, for example, may not be so evident in Europe, but it will usually heavily impact flights to Asia.
The day of the week matters too. Flights are generally cheaper mid-week than at the end or over the weekend. There are exceptions for peak travel times and short business trips, but this is a well-observed trend. Tuesday to Thursday is usually lower.
Day of making booking matters too. The flight booking website Skyscanner, for example, reports from its analysis of flight prices that fares are typically lowest when booking on a Tuesday – up to 15 to 25% lower. It notes that airlines often launch new fares on a Monday, impacting pricing.
Stopovers and different routings
Another way to find lower prices is to consider the route you are flying. While this won’t help a short regional flight or travel with low-cost carriers, there is plenty of flexibility for longer routes.
Adding a stop is one simple consideration. Airlines often price direct flights higher. A direct flight with British Airways from London to Hong Kong may, for example, be more than one with KLM stopping in Amsterdam. A stop will lengthen the journey, but it could lower the price, and many passengers prefer to break up the journey and have shorter individual flights. Stops in the Middle East are a good case here.
Adding a stopover or indirect flight can save money. Photo: Getty Images
Origin and destination are essential in pricing too. Again, on longer flights, you are likely to have more flexibility with this. Airlines price flights based on the route, and changing origin or destination can significantly affect the flight. Flying into a different airport in the same country can make a difference (even if you connect via the same airport). As can departing from another location. This is particularly the case in Europe, where fares are set for local markets and can vary significantly if you cross to another country to start the journey.
Unbundled airfares and comparison
As a final thought, when looking at different airlines’ fares, make sure you consider the total price. Although most countries now include all taxes in the prices shown, not all fares include the same extras. Seats, baggage, meals, and ticket changes are all essential to look at. Airlines make a lot of money out of ancillary charges, and more and more are adding these.
Low cost airlines really started the unbundled fare concept, but others have followed. Photo: Getty Images
Even in business class these days, some airlines are excluding baggage and lounge access from the lowest fares. Especially on longer flights with connections, make sure you check this. Not including baggage, when it is charged per flight sector, can be an expensive mistake.
Changing flight prices can be frustrating, but with some knowledge of how and when prices change you can plan better. You can also monitor prices – many booking websites (including Skyscanner and Google Flights) will let to track and monitor prices. Feel free to share more tips and ideas in the comments.
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