[Rick Seaney is the CEO and cofounder of FareCompare, and columnist for Investopedia. The views expressed by columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Investopedia.]
If tranquil flights bore you, do this next time you get on a plane: Ask your seatmate how much he or she paid for their ticket. The answer answer may delight you or leave you screaming in outrage. Let’s face it, ticket prices are all over the map these days depending on a host of variables starting with our old friend, supply and demand. Welcome to the wonderful world of airline ticket pricing.
What to Know About Airline Ticket Prices
The number-one thing to remember as far as pricing goes is that air travel is a business like any other. Therefore, airlines price each and every ticket to maximize profits. If you think that means there are just three ticket prices per plane – first class, business and economy – you would be wrong. There are typically ten price points per plane. What you pay depends on when you buy, when you fly and more. Some examples:
- Buy late, pay more: Generally speaking, if you wait until the last minute to buy a ticket, you pay the expensive last-minute fares that business travelers are almost always hit with (but they don’t mind since the boss is paying). However, purchase tickets at least two weeks in advance on large airlines (or seven days in advance on ultra-discount carriers like Spirit), and you will almost always get a good deal.
- Seat supply, seat demand: Airlines have become sticklers when it comes to capacity-controlling seats. Sometimes, though, stuff happens that changes a flight and opens up more seats. Example: A small plane is replaced by a bigger one, which means there are suddenly more seats available for that flight. To sell them, the airline may have to lower prices – at least initially – to spur demand. Once that happens, prices will rise again. In this scenario, the early-bird shoppers may have paid more than those who waited. Of course, such things are impossible to foresee.
- Competition: Maybe you bought a ticket to a lesser-known Caribbean island. It cost you a bundle, but you expected that since few airlines fly there and less competition usually means higher fares. A few weeks later, JetBlue or Southwest began flying to your island. The sudden increase in competition could make ticket prices drop (at least a little, at least in the short term). We’ve seen this happen in the past, and it will no doubt happen again.
How to Pay Less than Your Seatmate
You already know not to buy too late – and it never hurts to keep an eye out on news stories about airline routes – but there are three other simple ways to cut costs almost every time you shop.
- Do your comparisons: Do go to Southwest’s site to check out those prices*, but also visit an all-encompassing search site with other fares because there is no way of knowing which airline will have the best price on any given flight on any given day.
*Southwest is the only U.S. airline that does not share airfare data.
- Don’t do convenience: You’ll pay more for popular times to fly, especially Fridays or Sundays. If you can stand to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday (and, often, a Saturday), you’ll usually pay less for tickets. Another inconvenient way to save is by eschewing the nonstop in favor of a connecting flight. Wait, does anyone really want to do this? Of course not, but since you can save as much as 50% on the fare, it’s at least worth a look. For more, see These Travel Days Get You the Cheapest Flights.
- Don't Forget the fees: If you are packing a ton of stuff on vacation, that somewhat pricey Southwest fare may look really good once you factor in the two free bags (which would cost $120 roundtrip on a lot of other airlines). Or, if all you need is a carry-on, see which airlines offer this for free. Read Airline Baggage Policies, What's New, How to Save for further tips.
Unless you want to pay for a travel agent (if you can find one), getting the best airfare deal these days is all on you. Yes, it takes a little more time than clicking a price and dinging your card, but the savings can be worth it. For more, see How to Save Up to 50% on Airfare (Sometimes Even More).