Secrets to Finding That Elusive Cheap Airfare Deal

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Does the promise of a few precious days of rest and relaxation have you waking up and checking airline ticket Web sites morning, noon, and night? And then checking them some more? Market research shows this is exactly what you do, and that most of us shop four to six Web sites over several days before we buy. All in the search for that increasingly elusive super-cheap airfare deal.

The reason? Trust. Wait … maybe I should say, lack of trust.

You see, shoppers have noticed that price quotes don't always match what is actually available, even on the same airline site, on the same day; so it's hard to trust that the price you've been quoted is the best deal. Your instincts say, if you buy now you might be sorry later (trust them).

Who's looking out for you? Not the airlines. Selling airline tickets is a big and very complex business and — like any business — it's all about maximizing profit.

How do they do this? The airlines put you through a purchasing cycle I'll call the airline ticket stock market. The more you know about the market, the easier it is to find those deals.

Every day, millions of airline seats are sold. Sound like a lot? Well, know that as you read this there are three-quarters of a million people about 30,000 feet above your head.

The core of the market is a clearinghouse called ATPCO (Airline Tariff Publishing Company). ATPCO was a federal agency until the airline deregulation of 1978. It is now owned by a couple dozen airlines. And it is through this exchange that more than 500 airlines worldwide file hundreds of thousands of airfare prices throughout the day.

Airfare prices — new and changed — are filed throughout the day and subsequently sent out to online travel agencies and the airlines themselves. The following chart shows you when the fares are loaded into the system and when those new fares show up on the online travel sites.

Your instincts that tell you to shop morning, noon and night are almost right; now you know when to shop to save time and maximize your chance at getting a better deal.

But please note: airline pricing systems are programmed to stay on par with the competition. The airlines are constantly monitoring competitors and changing their prices to make sure they are not one dollar above or below the competition. That is, unless they know they can charge a premium because of lack of competition in a market, or for travelers' favorite days to fly (Monday, Friday, Sunday), favorite times to fly (morning and afternoon) and favorite routes to fly (non-stops).

Other Key Tips

After looking at airfare every day for over five years, here are some insider tips and info I would like to share that can save you time and money:

Airlines almost always initiate system-wide price increases Thursday evening at 8 p.m. In 2007 this happened 23 times, and it has happened four times so far this year. This gives other airlines the weekend to match the price, so a decision to continue the increase or rollback occurs usually Monday evening.

Airlines almost always file airfare sales on Sunday evening or Monday during the day. The airlines know that the busiest airline ticket shopping days are Monday through Wednesday during daytime hours, which allows them to maximize the marketing impact of their sales.

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