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Burn It: Score the Cheapest Airline Ticket Possible

Burn It: Score the Cheapest Airline Ticket Possible

Everyone knows the sinking feeling of sitting at a computer to book that last-minute round-trip home for the holidays. Inevitably you find yourself staring at the online offerings served up by Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak, Priceline, or—each at least $500 more than you’re willing to spend visiting your grandparents or high-school buddies—and nearly banging your head against the keyboard. If only I’d booked this ticket six months ago, you curse yourself.

But you’re wrong.

Although certainly a factor in airfare pricing, the timing of your purchase is far less important than you think. What’s actually at play here is the fare-pricing model across the airlines, which is about as easy to understand as Wall Street’s most advanced high-speed trading networks.

Airline ticket prices are governed by supercomputers employing algorithms that take advantage of dynamic pricing, which means that costs are never fixed. Instead, they rise and fall in response to demand and a host of other factors. Believe it or not, the very same seat on a given flight is typically offered at around 20 different prices. On average, 92% of passengers snag their ticket at some type of discount, although rarely the same one. Why? Apparently this is the best way to maximize profit in a bankruptcy-prone industry where every cent matters—but that’s another column.

I have some good news, however. Just as IBM’s famous Jeopardy!—playing (and, eventually, losing) mainframe “Watson” illustrated a few years ago, the machines—no matter how intelligent—aren’t perfect. And they don’t always win. With a little extra knowledge and groundwork on your part, you too can outsmart the system and score rock-bottom deals on a seat, whether you’re booking it last-minute or several months in advance.

How? It’s a lot easier than you think. All you have to do is sit back, relax, and let the airfare deals come to you.

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The Internet is already doing the hard work for you. Two websites, and, scour the web every day for deals and post them to their sites and social media feeds—so pay attention. I’ve scored countless deals using the latter, which relies on a team of former travel agents who manually thumb through up to 5,000 fares each day to expose unadvertised price cuts that quietly emerge on the airlines’ inventory. You can choose your regular destinations—your hometown, vacation spots, Ibiza—and create e-mail alerts for them. But be sure to use every airport within driving distance as a possible departure point.

“It’s a myth that the best fares are from larger airports,” says Airfarewatchdog’s George Hobica. “Trenton is often cheaper than Newark or Philadelphia, for example.”

Also pay close attention to an airline’s official social media: @flyfrontier, for instance, offers daily discounts that it shares exclusively via Twitter. JetBlue even has the standalone @jetbluecheeps spreading the word on bargains. “I scan Twitter every morning looking for alerts,” says Rob Jackson, a 28-year-old real estate agent and self-proclaimed airline nerd who arguably spends more time at 30,000 feet than your typical professional pilot. “The key is that a lot of these fares are only available for a few hours until the airline’s algorithm automatically raises them.”

Jackson also advises launching a feed on Twitter for the hashtag “#fatfingerfares.” In an industry where digital and analog systems collide, airline employees who manually input the fares generated by supercomputers will often make errors—which travel nerds love to spot. Last year, United accidentally offered a first-class round trip from New York to Hong Kong for $33. If you’d booked it, you’d have saved about $10,217 on the regular fare.

Here’s one kind of deal the airlines don’t want you to know about: Frankenstein fares, or what Kayak calls “hacker fares.” These occur when you take two separate airlines and yoke them together to create a hybrid round trip called a “Franken trip.” Though it seems counterintuitive, buying two one-way tickets on different carriers—such as taking United from Chicago to Dallas, and then using American on the return—can be cheaper than a round-trip on either. These are mostly available on competitive, heavily flown routes, but it’s always worth searching for individual legs of your trip across multiple airlines and doing the math yourself.

Even if you do find a price you like, bear in mind the industry standard of code-sharing. On a given route, two separate companies might have the authority to sell the same seat on the same flight (for example, Delta, which now owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, code-shares with the British carrier). If you visit each of the airlines’ websites to perform the same search, the results may surprise you. When I checked and a few months ago for a Delta flight from New York to London, I had two browsers open simultaneously. The price difference for the exact same seat was around $200. Bizarrely, Virgin was 20% cheaper.

Even if you aren’t traveling alone, always book your seats individually. “It’s a pain in the ass, but it can lead to significant savings if you divide your group into individual tickets,” says Jeff Klee, CEO of For this you can thank a glitch in the automated fare systems.

Say you’re traveling with your girlfriend to visit her family in Arizona and start searching for two seats. Remember those 20 or so different price categories on that computer? Imagine there’s one seat left at the cheapest price, $150, but a dozen or more at the next-cheapest fare, $200. If you search for two tickets together, the computer can’t divide the query; it ignores the single bargain seat and returns a quote of $200 per person. Search individually, though, and you’ll score a $150 offer for one and $200 for the other, saving $50.

Repeat after me: “There is no best time of day or best day in the week or best week of the month to score the cheapest fares.” “There is no silver bullet,” says Klee.

According to Klee, airlines open up ticket sales around 11 months before the departure date, and the prices yo-yo unpredictably all the way until takeoff. No matter what you read or hear, the programs claiming to use historic airfare data to predict when prices will rise or fall (like the new Farescout app) are virtually worthless. There are so many variables around those prices—weather, traffic, Super Bowl location—that results will skew wildly. My bottom-line advice: The cheapest prices rarely surface around the time tickets are released; it’s best to start checking for deals between one and four months ahead of the departure date.

If something comes up and you have to book in a hurry, consider redeeming any miles you’ve earned exactly three days before a flight takes off, which is when airlines release seats they can’t sell in the form of bargain mileage tickets. If you’re buying on Priceline, where you “name your price” as a bid and risk a convoluted tangle of routes for your cheap trip, George Hobica of advises putting in a bid for 40% less than the cheapest fare you can find on that route elsewhere; it will likely be accepted.

Finally, consider a package of hotel and airfare combined. Though it defies logic, two nights in a hotel alongside a flight could go for half the price of a last-minute stand-alone flight.

But remember, it’s good practice to monitor the airfare universe and let the deals come to you. Rob Jackson didn’t plan on spending last New Year’s Eve in Paris. Then he saw an alert posted by @theflight deal on Twitter and couldn’t help himself.

“For years I’ve heard, ‘Oh, you’re traveling again,’ as if it’s an insult,” he says. “But I don’t feel guilty splurging on an expensive hotel when I paid peanuts to get there.”

Mark Ellwood is the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World.


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