The Art of Finding the Cheapest Airfare

PRACTICAL TRAVELER

When to Buy That Plane Ticket
(Click for Original Link here)

Leo Acadia
By 
Published: April 11, 2012

Recent fare analysis by the Airlines Reporting Corporation seems to challenge the conventional wisdom that the earlier you book, the less expensive your fare will be. In January, the corporation, which processes ticket transactions for airlines and travel agencies, reported that over the past four years passengers paid the lowest price for domestic flights when buying just about six weeks in advance.

To determine if that six-week sweet spot would hold true for international routes, I asked the company to analyze fares for several trips, like a summer vacation to Europe and a winter escape in the Caribbean.

Not only did the six-week period fail to stand up, but the findings indicate that the window for booking the cheapest ticket for these trips has increased over the past three years; in some cases it’s up to 24 weeks.

“Consumers have been getting the best prices a bit further out year over year,” said Chuck Thackston, managing director of data and analytics at the Airlines Reporting Corporation.

Sure, it’s possible that if travelers pull back on spending, airlines will be forced to cut prices, allowing travelers to nab a cheap summer flight to, say, Barcelona, as little as three weeks out.

“If they don’t see bookings materialize the way they’d like, they will put the route on sale,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst.

But Mr. Harteveldt and other travel watchers agree that booking well in advance is a safe bet. So far this year, airlines have raised rates three times, said Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com, which tracks ticket prices. “I think pricing is going to be crazy,” particularly this summer, he said.

So if you place stock in historical trends, the message is clear: act now.

For guidance, here are the booking windows during which passengers paid the lowest price for flights to popular vacation destinations last year, based on data from the Airlines Reporting Corporation.

Europe in Summer

LAST YEAR’S SWEET SPOT: 21 TO 22 WEEKS IN ADVANCE You may already be too late to score a cheap flight to Europe this summer. The booking window for the cheapest tickets has moved further out, from 11 or 12 weeks in advance in 2009 to 21 or 22 weeks in 2011. (Average round-trip fares rose to about $1,500 last year from $1,100 in 2009; this year’s outlook is no better.)

To boost your savings, take the least expensive route to Europe you can find. Then concentrate on getting to your ultimate stop cheaply.

“I look into the cheapest fare into a hub like Berlin,” said George Hobica, founder ofAirfarewatchdog.com, which scours the Web for bargains. “Then I figure it out from there.”

He said this may involve taking the train or flying a budget carrier like easyJet or Ryanair to the final destination. Spanish airports like Madrid tend to be cheaper than London or Paris, he said. Dublin and Shannon also tend to be cheaper jumping-off points.

Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute. Last year, average fares for tickets purchased less than a week before travel were about $2,600, almost double the price of those bought at least 28 days in advance. And if you’re visiting London during the Olympic Games, July 27 through Aug. 12, expect to pay a premium.

Caribbean in Winter

LAST YEAR’S SWEET SPOT: 11 OR 12 WEEKS In 2009 and 2010, the cheapest airfares went to procrastinators who purchased tickets just two weeks in advance at a saving of about 8 percent. But last year, the pattern took a sudden shift, with the cheapest tickets bought much further ahead.

“Certainly you’ll want to start shopping plenty early to get a gauge on pricing,” said Mr. Seaney of FareCompare, who recommended hunting for airfare as early as three months in advance, especially for hot spots like Costa Rica and out-of-the-way islands, which lack the airline competition that tends to keep prices in check.

Business or First Class to Asia or Europe

LAST YEAR’S SWEET SPOT: 23 TO 24 WEEKS While the majority of premium travel is purchased by business travelers booking within six weeks of departure, leisure travelers with the flexibility to buy well in advance have been able to find bargains. Travelers paid about $3,113, or about 20 percent less than average, when buying premium tickets to Asia or Europe 23 or 24 weeks ahead last year.

A good time to take advantage of low business-class rates is during peak vacation times like summer or the winter holidays. While coach class quickly fills up with leisure travelers, the cushy seats at the front of the plane can be empty. Rather than give those seats away as upgrades, airlines often try to fill them with sales, according to Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the travel Web site JoeSentMe.com, which alerts members to such sales.

For travel to Europe in summer, for example, “it looks like all gateways and all destinations between the United States and Europe are on sale,” he stated in a recent newsletter, with round-trip business class prices as low as $2,327 from Newark to Brusselsand $2,359 from New York to Frankfurt, if booked by May 31. But, he warned, “Fares seem to be higher in August than in July, and there are some days when prices soar above $4,000 round trip from the East Coast.”

General Tips

Beyond historical trends, there are also some useful online tools that can help you evaluate fares. For example, Bing.com offers a Price Predictor that uses algorithms to determine how likely a fare is to rise or fall during the next seven days. It applies to flights from more than 250 cities in the United States and to top domestic destinations and major hubs in Europe.

If you decide to wait in the hopes of a price drop, sign up for fare alerts offered by practically every travel site, from American Airlines to Travelzoo. Yapta.com, another price-tracking service, alerts travelers when the price of their plane tickets drop after purchase, allowing travelers to request an airline voucher for the price difference.

For the cheapest dates to fly, go to Itasoftware.com, which allows you to scan an entire month’s worth of fares. To buy, you must go to the airline’s Web site or online agencies like Travelocity.

Finally, buying two one-way fares on separate airlines can be cheaper than the best round-trip price. Kayak.com calls such tickets “hacker fares.” A recent search on the site for a flight from Boston to San Juan, P.R., turned up a fare of $313 on Delta to San Juan, returning on US Airways, compared with $349 round trip on US Airways alone.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 15, 2012, on page TR3 of the New York edition with the headline: When to Buy That Plane Ticket.
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Airfare Expert: Use airline ‘Dead Zones’ to find cheap flights

Airfare Expert: Use airline ‘Dead Zones’ to find cheap flights

By Rick Seaney, special for USA Today
Looking for a cheap vacation? With a nod to Stephen King, why not fly in a “Dead Zone?” That’s my name for those times when nobody seems to want to fly, and the airlines reduce their prices in order to get you to do just that. In fact, we’re in a dead zone right now.

  • Tourists shopping for a cheap flight to Europe should consider the 'dead zone' after the holiday season and before Spring Break.By Yoan Valat, APTourists shopping for a cheap flight to Europe should consider the ‘dead zone’ after the holiday season and before Spring Break.
    By Yoan Valat, AP

Tourists shopping for a cheap flight to Europe should consider the ‘dead zone’ after the holiday season and before Spring Break.

So when do dead zones occur?
The simplest way to determine a dead zone is to figure out when everyone wants to fly, and then travel in the opposite season. For example, summer is popular therefore winter is a dead zone. But not all winter long; you have to remove the peak holiday periods from that equation.
Here are some tried-and-true dead zones, when you will save money:

• First two weeks of November

• First two weeks of December

• The month of January, beginning about Jan. 3

• Most of February, excluding Valentine’s Day weekend and the Super Bowl

• Late August through September, excluding the Labor Day holiday

To a lesser extent, you can usually count on reduced fares in October, as well as May, and this is a good time to travel to Europe as well. As a rule, though, the best dead zone travel prices occur in the ‘dead’ of winter.

When’s the best time to shop for dead zone travel? 

Look for dead zone deals at least three weeks before you travel since some sales for these periods require a 21-day advance purchase. When you’re ready to buy, shop the cheapest day and time: Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET, when you’ll have the most discounted fares at your disposal. In fact, follow this tip any time of year you want to fly.

What are the exceptions to the winter dead zone rule?
As you might expect, popular ski resort destinations can be pricey in the winter, but even there prices drop if you’re willing to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and sometimes on Saturday.

Also, this is the time of year when a lot of snowbirds seek to escape the cold, so you will see some fairly expensive ticket prices to Hawaii and the Caribbean. However, airlines know a lot of us are ‘traveled out’ from the holidays so you will see sales and specials to lure more of us to the islands.

What time of year do the dead zones disappear altogether?
These are the three periods of the year with no dead zones:

1. Summer from mid-June through late August

2. Spring Break – which can vary widely from mid-February through mid-April

3. Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel periods

You might still find some deals during these periods, especially if you’re willing to fly overnight and/or fly a route with multiple stops and/or fly in the middle of the week, but you cannot count on it.

FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney is an airline industry insider and top media air-travel resource. Follow Rick (@rickseaney) and never overpay for airfare again.