Secrets to Finding That Elusive Cheap Airfare Deal

Learn the best time to book a ticket and what to do when prices suddenly spike.

Feb. 20, 2008
Special to— -- 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.

Airlines tend to manage their domestic U.S. airfares in four- to five month cycles; they tend to charge non-competitive, mid-tier rates for anything outside that window. Don't shop too early; start shopping about four months out and you'll have a better chance of establishing a baseline price and catching one of the few quarterly airfare sales. Procrastinators in 2008 will not be rewarded.

Airlines have been studying your air travel buying habits for years; they know when you want to go, where you want to go and what time you want to go. Now that you know what they know, be flexible with your dates and destinations and you'll always get a better deal.

Airlines are quick to promote new international routes with super cheap introductory pricing (like Northwest's $500+ round-trip fare for June travel from Seattle to London). Keep an eye out for news of new routes.

Airfare mistakes do happen. Just Monday United was accidently selling Dallas to Honolulu for under $200 out the door roundtrip. Sign up for airfare email alerts so you can catch a few airfare mistakes during the year -- they are almost always honored by the airline.

Making good airline ticket buying decisions is all about using a combination of new technology and education; if airline ticket buying has been a source of frustration for you, then start taking advantage of both.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new generation, software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.