The Secret to Finding Cheap Flights

We’ve all heard the supposed research, myths and even legends about when the best time is to book the cheapest flights. In fact, it’s something I’ve covered in the past - but is it actually true? Is there actually a single best time to get the absolute cheapest flights available? Here, we’ll take a deeper dive into this pressing question, and find out if you can actually save heaps of cash on your next flight, or if it’s all a load of hot air.

When’s the best time to book a flight?

There’s countless stories and research articles online offering different takes on when the best time to book is. You’ve probably heard most of them before, for example try to book on a Tuesday at midnight, around 7 weeks before you fly.

Several flight search engines like Momondo, Skyscanner and others have mined their data for the best times to book, but actually if you dig deeper, the results aren’t always conclusive.

Take research by Hopper in the US, for example. While they did find that booking earlier in the week was best, it only resulted in cheaper flights on 1.6% of flights, so it’s not a hard and fast rule. Similarly, they dispelled the “always book at midnight” myth, as they found this was only the case on Monday to Wednesday, while midnight later in the week actually made the flights more expensive.

While Hopper did find some trends, they acknowledged there appeared to be no real one-size-fits-all for getting cheaper tickets. And lets face it, the variations in prices they found were not that dramatic. Yes, you may pay 3% more if you book on a Friday, but is that really going to put you off going on a trip you’ve been planning for months? Considering you’re likely to spend quite a lot on your trip anyway, a small percentage increase doesn’t make too much of a difference.

It’s easy to get excited by this kind of research into cheap flights, which is exactly what the booking sites want. UK price comparison site kayak.co.uk published some research last year with some impressive sounding stats, such as booking at certain times could save over 60% on certain long haul flights.

Unfortunately Hopper’s research disproved this, and massive discounts like this are like finding a needle in a haystack. The real purpose of surveys like this is for travel comparison sites to get people excited about booking their next holiday and using their service. Of course they’ll be able to make their price comparison site look good if they compare the most expensive and the least expensive flight on a particular route!

So what factors affect the cost of flights?

Rather than sticking to a set of arbitrary pricing rules, airlines change their prices based on a huge variety of different factors. There’s such a wide range of reasons for prices to change, for example:

  • Major events like Christmas, Easter, the World Cup, or the Olympics
  • Local events that coincide with your travel dates
  • New airlines starting up
  • Other airlines changing their routes
  • Terror attacks or political unrest
  • The weather in your city and your destination

…and many more. Because of all these variables, you can’t even look at last year’s ticket prices to work out how much you’re likely to pay - there’s just too much going on.

Pricing policies can also vary depending on the route, according to Stuart Barwood, founder of airline consultancy Travercial. Take the London to Majorca route, which is popular with tourists, who tend to book early thinking that they’ll get the best deals that way. However, for routes like this where leisure travellers are almost guaranteed, it would make sense for airlines to start their pricing relatively high and see what the response is, then adjusting pricing later depending on sales to ensure the flight is profitable.

Meanwhile, pricing for business routes such as London to Frankfurt are very different. Airlines will likely start with low prices to ensure there’s a certain number of leisure passengers on the flight to break even, however things change the closer you get to departure due to the business travellers.

Business travellers typically have shorter notice on when they need to fly out, as meetings are rarely arranged six months in advance. As business customers have to make their meetings at all costs, this is where airlines can raise their prices in the weeks leading up to the flight, making a higher profit. After all, it’s more profitable to get ten extra people on the flight for five times the standard fare than twenty people for twice that fare.

Is there anything you can actually do?

As you’ll have gathered by now, it seems rather unlikely that you can actually do much to make major savings on airfares. But yes, there is in fact one thing you can do - be flexible with your dates.

This makes sense when you think about the real reasons why prices fluctuate. If you wanted a budget trip to Munich, for example, don’t expect to get it during Oktoberfest. Or if you wanted to visit the Mediterranean for a hot summer holiday, then consider going at the very start or the end of the season when the weather is still good but less people are travelling. Spain, for example, is still very hot in September!

Similarly, avoid travelling to cities on the dates of a major event like a festival or football match if you’re not planning to go to it. Otherwise, you’re paying extra for the privilege of being in the city for an event you’re not even attending!

As you can tell, an easier way to save money is to be flexible with your travel dates. Yes, you might save a few percent if you book on a Tuesday exactly 7 weeks before you travel, but if cost is a major factor, you could save so much more if you time your trip to avoid major events.

Wrapping up

Being flexible with your travel dates really is the best way to get the cheapest flights, along with a little research about any events that are happening at your destination that may cause extra or reduced demand. Flight search engines like Skyscanner have tools for travellers that show the cheapest days to travel in a calendar view, making it easy to plan a cheap trip. You may even find that it’s cheaper to stay in a city for an extra day if the difference in price is more than the cost of your hotel, so not only could you get a cheaper holiday, you could have a longer one too!

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