How and When to Buy Airplane Tickets – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Kate K. she asks,

Q. “When is the best time to buy plane tickets? Are the rumors on when to buy true?”

A. – The simple answer concerning many of the rumors tied to airfare is yes, they still hold true. Despite significant disruption within the industry and major consolidation over the last decade the actual dynamics of pricing and booking flights for more traditional airlines haven’t changed much. For the cheapest tickets, you should plan on flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. If you don’t have time to hunt aggressively for airfare, watch for airfare specials, or to fiddle with your departure dates, the conventional wisdom that booking 1-2 months ahead of time is also likely your best bet.

However, as with most travel related questions there are a number of exceptions. When booking airfare you need to differentiate between budget airlines and traditional airlines. While booking several months in advance with a traditional airline is likely to give you a middle-range/better than average price there’s no such guarantee with a budget airline. This is because budget airlines tend not to be that cheap on a standard flight basis. If we use industry leader RyanAir as an example their generic sticker price is often fairly comparable (and sometimes more expensive) when compared to a traditional airline. Users booking with a budget airline should always book at least 1 week in advance, but also need to monitor the company’s website regularly looking for one of their specials or sales. These sales are often held several times a month and will drastically alter the cost of your ticket turning $150 tickets into $10 tickets, etc. In these cases individuals booking ahead of time without doing their research are almost guaranteed to get an inferior price.

When booking with more traditional airlines it’s important to keep in mind that the airlines have a variety of tiers set up for seats on each flight. While the seats themselves are identical, the airline only offers a certain number of seats in each price range. The more demand, the fewer budget seats available and the higher the price. In the past when airlines were more inclined to under-book aircraft you’d see prices fall closer to departure as the companies rushed to fill empty seats. Now, with most flights overbooked you’ll find this happens far less often making last minute ticket purchases far more risky (and expensive!). This approach to pricing seats is why you’ll see significant fluctuations in pricing from day to day. The advantage of booking early is that it locks you into one of the cheaper ticket tiers. The challenge can be that it also means you may miss airfare specials, or price drops intended to help fill a flight that isn’t experiencing the same demand the airline expected. It’s also worth noting that in my experience airfare prices tend to be pretty stable 3+ months out. While prices vary somewhat, it’s really only in the three months before a flight that you’ll see prices start to shift radically from day to day.

If you know you’ll need to fly on a Friday, Sunday, Monday or close to a major event or holiday your best bet is likely to book as far in advance as you can. The same goes if you’re not able or willing to dedicate the time to monitoring and hunting for airfare. On the other hand, if you’ve got a little time to dedicate to the search, and are traveling on an off-peak period I’d suggest giving yourself a month or two to watch fares before eventually deciding to book. If you have a fairly inflexible schedule and are set on a specific destination, I usually recommend that people book airfare with a traditional airline at least 25 days before their flight. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at a budget airline I’d aim to have your ticket purchased at least a week before the flight.

More/specific questions about airfare? Let me know in a question and I’m happy to do my best to respond to them! You can also visit my Travel Resource List site for a selection of useful airfare search tools.

Kate, thanks for a great question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

This post was brought to you in part by Waikiki hotels.

Renting A Rowboat and Expecting a Luxury Cruise Ship – Let’s Talk Budget Airlines

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

It happened again, I posted an update about an upcoming flight with a budget airline and before long had messages from several friends and readers telling me to be careful or suggesting I book with a traditional airline. I ignored their warnings and happily booked with EasyJet. Why? Not only because they were the cheapest option but because I genuinely like budget airlines.

Wait….what?  Those of you who have been reading for a while will no doubt recall that I have a long history of being disappointed by airline customer service and transparency. From being charged for water by US Airways on a ticket between AZ and Europe to being lied to by British Airways I always groan a little when the time comes to deal with airlines.

I should be the last person ready to sing budget airline’s prices, right? Not exactly. My upbeat opinion seems to lay in managed expectations. When I book with a budget airline I’m not expecting traditional “airline” quality service. I’m booking a ticket on an air-bus. An air-bus that is usually only slightly above the quality of a city bus, lacks the crazy people and has slightly more comfortable seating (though RyanAir is working on “fixing” this). The ticket is cheap, the perks are non-existent, the rules are firm, and it gets me where I want to go. In effect, I book a rowboat to get me where I’m going and expect a rowboat when I arrive. The big problem, and source of endless frustration, complaining, and agitation among travelers seems to stem largely from occasions where people book a rowboat usually knowing it’s a rowboat and then show up expecting a luxury liner.

To be fair, budget airlines don’t make a major effort to differentiate themselves from traditional airlines. Let’s face it, “service for a premium, shitty seats, cramped planes and ridiculous fees but GREAT prices!” isn’t exactly marketing gold. For those who assume most airlines are the same, this can be a massive shock. Especially if they’ve paid sticker price for their ticket and failed to anticipate and incorporate the secondary fees and rules designed to generate the airline significant secondary income.

When I book a budget airline, I book differently.

I do my research on the front end and make sure that I know what the rules are – especially for luggage and check in – and then make sure that I’m well within a safety buffer. If I think there’s a chance I’ll go over weight or that my bag is over sized I don’t assume they’ll overlook it, or that I can just risk it. I incorporate the $10-$20 extra for a checked bag into my fare cost.

I’m also not put off by the $5 credit card fee, the $5 nonsense fee, the $5 made up just because fee or the $7 mickeymouse convenience charge. Again, these are all expenses that I’ve already incorporated into my cost when analyzing which airline I choose to book with. It’s an annoying game and involves some added mickey mouse, but if I can play the game and get a a fare at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of a conventional carrier then so be it. Bring it on!

Additionally, I almost never book a standard or last minute ticket with a budget airline. Budget airlines are cheap within a certain structure. That does not mean, however, that they’re always going to be the cheapest option. In many ways I view them in the same way as department stores – if you’re paying sticker price and it’s not on sale, you’re tossing money away.

At the end of the day I weigh the actual cost of the fare with a budget airline, the length of the flight, the airports I’m flying between, and the cost of more traditional airlines before booking. The end result? I book about 40%/60% on traditional/budget airlines.  There are also a number of budget airlines I just won’t fly.  Groups like Spirit Airlines have chosen fee structures which I find defeat the purpose of flying on a budget airline entirely.  Others have reliability or safety issues which leave me uncomfortable.

For many of you this may be nothing new. For some of you, hopefully it serves as an invitation to re-frame your personal perspective and approach to engaging with budget airlines. Still not convinced? Share your piece in a comment – I always value your feedback!