The Go List

The Ugly Truth About Airline Prices

With fares skyrocketing, you need to stop following the old rules of travel to book an affordable ticket.

The Ugly Truth About Airline Prices

With fewer airlines and more expensive fares, buying the right ticket has never been harder. Photo: Anastasia_Aleksieieva/iStock

If you heard recently that the best day to buy airline tickets is a Sunday, close to 57 days before the flight, you were misinformed. That tidbit came from an Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) study based on data from hundreds of millions of round-trip ticket purchases between January 2013 and July 2014.

What followed in the media was a series of doubtful interpretations masking an ugly truth: it keeps getting more expensive to fly, no matter when you purchase your ticket.

Notably, the statistics show the daily average price of tickets bought (Domestic: Sunday, $432; Monday, $503; Tuesday, $497; Wednesday, $498; Thursday, $501; Friday, $502; Saturday), and the changes in price over the 300 days preceding flight departure. The ACR press release underscores two conclusions from this data, echoed the same day in the Wall Street Journal: 1. “Sunday is the best day to find low fares,” and 2. “The cheapest time to buy domestic trips was 57 days—about two months—before departure.”

Commenters on the WSJ story were quick to point out the dubious logic behind the first conclusion. Weekend buyers are primarily vacationers, while weekday averages include higher-spending business travelers. In other words, the customers are different on the weekends, not the actual prices. Moreover, the Cranky Flier argues that these day-to-day differences are so miniscule, and summarize such a massive and varied set of data (think route-to-route particularities), that the averages simply aren’t helpful.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best deals arrive on Tuesdays, and the WSJ provides worthy evidence for this: Yapta Inc., a service that pings you when discounts arise, says they ping the most on Tuesdays; and airline executives say they traditionally gauge weekend sales on Monday, deciding accordingly on markdowns for Tuesday’s ads. As for the assertion that Sundays offer the cheapest flights, there’s only feeble evidence.

The ARC figures on advanced purchasing also inspired its portion of half-baked analysis. Economist Dave Dixon of the Univesity of New Mexico finds the "57-day threshold,” as the WSJ calls it, essentially arbitrary.

If you look closely at the graph created by the WSJ, you’ll see domestic prices hovering just above the $400 line for more than a month. Those little crests and troughs reflect individual days, wavering between cheaper weekend buying and more expensive workweek buying. From the graph, we see that in general prices remain pretty stagnant for several weeks—so that 57-day mark is fairly irrelevant.

In any case, these claims are just a sideshow distracting us from the bigger picture: prices keep climbing. Chuck Thackston of the ARC comments: “The lowest average ticket price was about 19 percept lower than the overall average, which is significantly more savings than the 6 percent below average ticket price that we showed in the prior study on 2011 tickets.”

What Thackston does not mention is the astounding increase in the average price of domestic flights over the same period, from $358 in 2011 to $496 this year. This can largely be attributed to the rapid consolidation of airline companies over the past few years. With diminished competition and fully loaded airplanes (check out these numbers), airlines have commanding leverage over the common flier. The ARC, an “an airline-owned company serving the travel industry,” has no reason to draw attention to this fact.

“They’re saying, ‘Look! You’re getting a bigger discount,’ Dixon remarks, “while the economics say, ‘No, they’re getting a bigger profit.’” Basically, it’s easy for airlines to offer big discounts when they’ve jacked up the prices overall. Thackston suggests there are 13% “more savings” in 2014. In context, even a 25% discount wouldn’t match prices in 2011.

Ultimately, when booking flights, follow this simple advice from the Cranky Flier: “Look for flights when you need to book them. If you’re happy with the price, buy the ticket. If not, then keep checking back later and see if the fare has gone down…. Trying to play this game of booking on a specific day to save a buck is not a reliable way to find cheap fares.”

Filed To: Air Travel

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