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Airfare 101: How Do I Get the Best Airfare?

Such a simple question; such a complicated answer. We prepared a brief list of best-fare points for sister site Booking Buddy, but the question really deserves a more complete and systematic examination. We’ll try to do that—summarize what we and others seem to know about finding low fares and recap it in this “Airfares 101” series. Many of you probably already know much of the stuff here, but I’ll try to pull together what is generally known and available. This week, we look at the start of the trip planning process—when and where to fly for the best deals. Follow-up reports will zero in on the buying process.

Throughout this analysis, the relevant airfare metric for any consumer is the lowest coach/economy fare generally available to the public, not the average fare you sometimes see in government tabulations. Any time anyone starts talking to you about average fares, remind him or her of the old definition of a statistician: “Someone who drowns wading a river that averages three feet deep.” Average fare figures combine the low fares most leisure travelers pay with the high fares most business travelers pay into meaningless midpoints that neither group actually pays. Those average numbers may intrigue financial analysts, but for consumers, they’re useless. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}When to Fly—Season

Presumably, not all you decide the time of year to travel based on travel costs, but many do. And unlike day-to-day price changes, airfare seasonality is fairly predictable.

Within North America—domestic U.S., Canada, and the nearby Caribbean/Mexico/Bahamas areas—your main objective is to avoid times when fares peak. And those times are about what you’d expect:

  • Airfares from northern areas to sun-sand-surf destinations generally peak from January through March, with lowest available levels at somewhere around 50% higher than at other times. You find good deals just about any other times.
  • Lowest available fares on these and most other routes show a somewhat less pronounced summer-season peak in June-July-August.
  • Lowest fares to “family” destinations are generally when schools are in session. To Orlando, for example, you find peaks up to 100% higher at winter break, spring break, and year-end holiday periods, with relatively even fares the rest of the year.
  • Available fares just about everywhere peak sharply—often around double—surrounding the Christmas-New Year-Hanukkah holiday season. You find similar peaking on many routes around Thanksgiving. Lowest available fares are generally good for travel on the days of major holidays and for intermediate days of three-day weekends and week-long holiday periods. Of course, there’s a reason: Not many of you want to fly the Friday after Thanksgiving or on Christmas Day.

At other times, fares seem to fluctuate more randomly, although fares in the fourth quarter—Labor Day through mid-December, except for the Thanksgiving peak—are usually the year’s lowest.

For transatlantic travel, lowest available fares have always been highly seasonal. Winter, early spring, and late fall fares are usually about half of what you pay if you travel during the summer peak, from mid-May through mid-August. Those variations are enough—and the base figures are high enough—to warrant your careful attention to off-season visits to Europe, if you can possibly arrange them. Of course, you see the usual year-end holiday peak, too, but it hasn’t been as pronounced as the summer peak.

To the Southern hemisphere, Southern South America and Australia, the summer and year-end holiday peak periods coincide, so fares are generally lower during the May-August period—somewhat lower to South America, a lot lower to Australia and New Zealand.

Fares to East Asia show comparatively little seasonality.

Researching seasonal fare variations has never been easier. Hotwire’s TripStarter feature displays a day-by-day graph of lowest generally available airfares on hundreds of popular domestic and international routes (actual prices travelers paid through Hotwire) for the entire calendar year 2009 plus 2010 up to the current date. If you can’t find the route you’re considering, look at nearby major airports.

Hotwire’s data are unique and uniquely valuable. Lots of government and trade sources track average airfares, but as noted above, those data are of limited use, if any. Hotwire is the only source I know for historical lowest-generally-available fare data: Some of my industry analyst friends would kill for a 10- or 20-year tabulation of these series.

Hotwire also tabulates average hotel prices for major destination cities in a similar way, and the site allows you to determine the best (or at least lowest-cost) times to visit. For example, from New York to Orlando, TripStarter says the lowest airfares are in January, September, and October; the lowest hotel rates in Orlando are in August, September, and November, so a visit in September gives you the best of both worlds.

Keep in mind that destination costs do not always parallel airfare costs. Don’t schedule a vacation for minimum airfare if that means paying top dollar when you arrive.

Even more important, the offseason destination “product” may be very different: Scottsdale and Cancun are a lot more appealing in the middle of a tough northern winter than in midsummer, and Vail is more attractive in February than in November.

When to Fly—Day of Week; Hour of Day

The consensus among travel writers and self-appointed mavens seems to be that the best days for domestic travel are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Similarly, the conventional wisdom about times to fly says that you find the lowest fares on early morning, overnight red-eye, late evening, and mid-day flights.

But day-of-week and time-of-day decisions needn’t be a guessing game. Many big online sites display lowest available fares for as much as plus or minus a full month around the dates you initially specify, and you can sometimes knock hundreds of dollars off by switching travel a day or two. Similarly, most sites display all the fares for all feasible itineraries during a day, so you can easily spot those that combine low fares cost with reasonable schedules.

Long Term

Just about everybody in the industry agrees that airfares almost everywhere are in a period of sustained increase. The big “legacy” airlines, say the mavens, are finally achieving discipline on “excess capacity,” which means they will stop overproducing seat-miles and thus face less pressure to sell off that excess at below-cost prices.

I tend to agree with that conclusion, although competition from low-cost lines and the inevitable new startups will keep a lid on what might otherwise be a major overall price increase. And, discipline or no, you’ll continue to see short-term sales at unpredictable times. More about that next time.

Your Turn

What are your tips for finding the best airfares? Share your thoughts and advice by submitting a comment below!

(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.)

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