When Ticket Prices Go Crazy And What You Can Do

PHOTO: Delta has initiated an airfare hike, targeted to business travelers, increasing airfare on domestic fares bought within seven days of departure.
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You go to the grocery store and pick up a loaf of your favorite bread for $2.39. You buy it week after week and the price doesn't change much, beyond a few cents for inflation.

So why are airline tickets so nutty, so wildly fluctuating? And what can you do about it?

Let's quickly dissect the most recent "airfare hike attempt" and I'll give you some answers along with six tips to help you save money on your next flight.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Last week, I reported Delta attempted an airfare hike and within a few days I knew it would succeed. Now a hike like this is different from the usual price tweaking that goes on among airlines on a day-by-day basis (and sometimes close to an hour-by-hour basis) because airlines are always testing our willingness to pay more.

You can see these normal price fluctuations anytime, just by checking out a particular fare on a Tuesday for example, then checking the price again over a weekend. Sometimes those weekend price jumps are insane! When that happens, just return again on Tuesday, the cheapest day for airfare shopping.

Hikes are a different species altogether because they're usually much broader, often affecting domestic fares across-the-board, although sometimes a hike is aimed at a specific type of passenger. That's how this latest hike played out: Delta raised fares only on tickets purchased within seven days of departure, which essentially targets the last-minute business traveler. It was nothing radical; the hike varied from just $4 to $10 round-trip (depending on the route) but these things do add up. Last year, the seven successful airfare hikes boosted overall ticket prices by about 5 percent - nearly three times the annual rate of inflation!

Still, so far this year, the airlines haven't been having a whole lot of luck with hikes. United tried a couple of broad-based price-raising attempts in January but they failed; either competing airlines refused to join in, or if they did, they soon bailed out. Delta tried to raise business fares earlier this month as well, but that first attempt in February didn't pan out. Now, they've met with success.

Fortunately, since it targeted road warriors whose bosses typically buy their tickets, most of us dodged an increase.

It could have been a broader hike; that's what JetBlue wanted. It raised fares for leisure travelers as well as business passengers but other airlines didn't match so they stand alone on certain routes at higher prices, which is a tenuous position when airlines who are even $1 more than their competitors are on page 20 of comparison shopping sites.

So why'd the business hike succeed? Because the airlines figured those travelers or their companies would pay. So many factors come into play that it's hard to say definitively why they'd pay but the price of oil hasn't gone crazy lately and the economy continues to recover and demand is steady, all of which helps. There are other intangibles, too, but face it, airlines raise prices first and foremost when they think higher prices will be accepted by consumers but they must also must drag along their competitors, however grudgingly. If the airlines are wrong, they find out real quick when reservations slack off, and discounting soon follows.

What can you do to keep costs low? Let me count the ways - but here are six we can start with (and you can see more here).

6 Quick Ways to Save on Flights

1.
Compare prices earlier

Sounds so basic, right? Yet so many travelers procrastinate and have loyalty to a single airline and the result is they often pay more. Don't be among them.

2.
Shop on Tuesdays

After analyzing my current and historical airfare pricing data, I can say Tuesday is almost always the cheapest day to shop. Optimal time is right around 3 p.m. eastern.

3.
Fly on the cheapest days

On domestic flights, that would be Tuesday or Wednesday (and Saturday is runner-up). The cheapest days to fly for international travel are usually Sunday through Wednesday.

4.
Fly to the right airport

Heading to Chicago? Look to see if Midway prices are cheaper than O'Hare. If Southern California is in your sights, LAX may be the cheapest airport, but you might want to check Long Beach and Burbank, just to be on the safe side. Bigger metropolitan areas often give you a choice, and more options generally mean better prices.

5.
Consider connecting flights vs. non-stops

If you can put up with a little inconvenience, you can save as much as 60 percent by accepting a stop or two compared to a direct flight (though I don't recommend this for families traveling with young children).

6.
Use a carry-on

Pack light and you'll save the $50 round-trip fee on all but a handful of airlines no matter what the airfare costs.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.

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