Shopping for airfare can feel like a game of cat and mouse. One minute you’re mulling a $200 flight to your cousin’s wedding in Tampa, and a few days, hours or mere moments later, the price jumps to $317. Was it just supply and demand, or something more nefarious at play?
Airlines won’t spill the secret sauce behind their pricing strategy. We reached out to most of the major U.S. carriers about their sales strategies and didn’t get much to solve our sneaking suspicions.
American Airlines spokesperson Andrea Koos said they don’t talk about their fares or revenue management strategy. In an email, Delta Air Lines spokesperson Morgan Durrant said “what’s no myth is the demand for Delta’s product and hundreds of destinations in our network that are generally made available for sale up to 330 days prior to departure.”
And so we’re left with flight-booking myths and booking techniques that rival baseball players’ superstitions. Like only searching for flights in “incognito mode” (a.k.a. private browsing modes that are supposed to block websites from tracking user activity). Or only booking on certain days of the week, or using PCs to shop instead of Macs.
Industry experts say price fluctuation isn’t as sinister, or personal, as we may believe.
“I don’t blame people for having conspiratorial beliefs about airlines,” said Scott Keyes, founder of the travel membership program Going. “But that it’s because of you - almost like a ‘Truman Show’ explanation - is just not the actual reason flights change.”
Then what is it? We went searching for explanations for your airfare questions and conspiracy theories.
1. Myth: You should book in ‘incognito’ mode
Reality: Airfare can change frequently regardless of your paper trail.
Yes, booking sites track your behavior. Seth Miller, an airline analyst and editor of industry news site PaxEx.aero, notes the time he searched for a flight to Vegas and, “72 hours later, I got an email saying, ‘Hey, are you still interested in going to Las Vegas?’” But even so, Miller doesn’t believe they’re using that information to manipulate your airfare.
“It is understandable when faced with a change in pricing that our customers might attribute the change to their individual actions, but that is not the case,” Hawaiian Airlines spokesperson Alex Da Silva said in an email. He explained that prices for available seats generally go up as more are sold, as the date of departure approaches or in response to pricing changes by competitors.
Google Flights group product manager James Byers also said the site doesn’t decide flight prices. So your browsing history, device or private searches won’t impact fares. Every day, Google Flights systems compute an enormous number of possible ticket combinations for trips, and ticket prices from the their different data providers are constantly changing “even from second to second,” Byers said in an email.
“For example, there could be billions of potential ticket combinations for trips between Los Angeles and London when you factor in variables like connecting flights and the different prices available from different booking sites,” which is why prices can change simply by refreshing the page or switching from one device to another.
Aiste Matuleviciute, a spokesperson for the travel-tech start-up RatePunk, agrees that while flight-booking sites do have access to your IP address, it’s not so they can tinker with your fares. Collecting data on your location allows airlines and booking sites to give you more relevant search results (like the currency and language you use). Any fare differences you find with incognito mode are coincidental.
Keyes chalks our fears up to logical fallacy. We’ve all been taught that correlation does not imply causation, “and yet we seem to throw that out the window when it comes to airlines,” Keyes said. Just because you see a price jump from one search to the next doesn’t mean fares are changing based on your activity.
The same goes for airlines changing rates on your phone versus your laptop. “I’ve never seen any evidence or proof that this exists,” Keyes added.
2. Myth: Airlines charge couples more
Reality: Different seat types come with different prices.
You see there are plenty of open seats available on a flight; why can’t you get two at the same price? The answer is a little inside baseball.
Airlines don’t price every seat on a plane the same, even ones in the same category (economy, business, etc.). Instead, seats are divided into different reservation booking designators (RBDs), or “fare buckets.”
“Each bucket denotes what specific privileges or perks are associated with that ticket,” Keyes said. A flight will have a bucket with the most expensive but fully refundable seats, one for deeply discounted but nonrefundable ones, or nonrefundable but changeable economy seats, for example.
“Many times what’s happening is that the last ticket in the cheapest fare bucket just got sold,” Keyes said. “So now the new cheapest ticket is in a higher fare bucket, which might be $50 or $100 more expensive.”
3. Myth: ‘Two seats left’ is a lie
Reality: Airlines mean “two seats left” at that price.
Creating a sense of scarcity can light a fire under customers to buy before it’s too late, so it is a marketing tool. But those supply indicators are likely not made up out of thin air. It’s another fare buckets issue, says Ed Silver, chief information officer at iSeatz, a loyalty technology company.
“If a customer is using a travel site and sees a message ‘2 seats left at this price,’ in most cases it really does mean there are only 2 seats left at that price,” he said in an email.
What makes it confusing is that airlines don’t always spell it out clearly. For example, when Southwest Airlines and American say “2 left” or “2 seats left,” it sounds more dire than Delta and Spirit Airlines’ messaging of “2 left at this price” and “Only 2 seats left at this price.”
Matuleviciute says it’s a helpful tool because it can alert you of a coming price increase. Once those two cheapest seats sell, you can expect to pay more. If you see that message and need to buy three tickets, she recommends buying them separately: Get those two at the cheapest rate, and buy the third on its own for the next best fare.
4. Myth: It’s cheaper to book on weekdays
Reality: There is often a price difference, but it’s minuscule.
Google Flights crunched price data over the past five years and found that it’s just 1.9 percent cheaper on average to buy tickets on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday than over the weekend. So that $196 flight on Wednesday might be $200 on the weekend.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find the cheapest deal on a weekend, or that a fare that increases over the weekend can’t come back down. If you’ve set up price alerts, you’ll see that airfares rise and fall all the time.
Your best bet: “buy the ticket when you see the right price,” says John Rose, chief risk and security officer of the travel agency Altour. Once you book a flight, you can keep an eye on fares for price dips until your departure. If you’ve booked with miles or a changeable or refundable ticket, you can cancel your higher-priced ticket and rebook at the lower rate.
In general, Lindsay says Skyscanner data from millions of flight bookings in the last year show the overall best time to book flights from the U.S. is on average 23 weeks before departure, and the cheapest day of the week to travel (not book, but actually fly) is Tuesday.
That’s still merely an average. “Not only do these hacks change depending on the destination, but also, travelers will find differing results for the same destination but a different month,” Lindsay said. For example, she says the best time to book a flight from Washington to London in September is 35 weeks ahead, while the best time for Reykjavik is 24 weeks.
5. Myth: Google Flights has the cheapest fares
Reality: Aggregator sites don’t set prices.
Ticket pricing does vary by website. On aggregator sites - like Google Flights or Skyscanner, which show flights from suppliers that set their own prices - you’ll see fares set by the airline, as well as ones from third parties like Orbitz or CheapOair. The aggregator sites don’t adjust fares, but they do have the biggest selection.
“Skyscanner can only show prices being shown on other sites, it doesn’t have an effect on them going up or down,” Lindsay said.
Some perks of shopping on aggregator sites like Google Flights is that they can show you the route’s price history, to give you context on whether the fares you’re seeing are typical, high or a good deal. They also offer price alerts that notify you of changes.
Some disadvantages: They don’t include every airline (like Southwest, which only sells tickets on its website). If you use an aggregator to book through a third-party site, you’re in the hands of that third party, not the airline. So even if you scored a cheaper fare, you could have more hoops to jump through if something goes wrong on your travel day.