When Is a Good Time to Find Cheap Flights (Proven and Tested)
The airline industry is by far the sector with the most refined mechanisms for pricing and customer segmentation. For this reason, instead of asking yourself how to find cheap flight, you should seek when to find cheap flights, an here I will tell you why.
Companies in this market use advanced statistical tools to determine the willingness to pay from the passengers and which extras (also called ancillaries) have the best return.
Therefore, the fact that on some flights you need to pay for a glass of water and in others you have wine for “free” is probably a result of mathematical models — the precision of these models is open for debate.
Some of the greatest airlines on the planet (including the one that I worked for) sponsor a research consortium in the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). There, they develop the advanced science behind their practices. Everything aimed to help airlines survive in a hyper-competitive market while remaining profitable.
But if you — the passenger — understand their methods, you can pay less for your next flight.
Or at least have some nice perks.
4 of these hacks are below, and many others you can find in my book Budget Travelers, Digital Nomads & Expats: The Ultimate Guide.
Before starting, a quick but necessary context from the science behind airline prices, or Revenue Management.
What Does Revenue Management Mean?
Revenue Management (RM) is a set of techniques where historical data are the input on equations to forecast consumer behavior. Based on those forecasts, RM optimizes product availability and price with the ultimate goal of maximizing revenue.
TL;DR: smaller prices when the demand is low, bigger prices when the demand is high (it is not always like that, but this is a good simplification).
Revenue Management is the reason that flight prices change so frequently. How each company applies this science can be the difference between bankruptcy and profitability.
During the last forty years, RM soared in popularity among airlines. It was a matter of time until other industries adopt the same methods. Now you can find revenue management departments in sectors like:
● Hotel and Tourism
● Rail and bus transportation
● Concerts and Festivals
● Theatres, Stadiums and Sport Events
When you hear about a festival promoting cheaper early bird prices, or a cinema charging less for Wednesday tickets, this is RM. All those industries use Revenue Management because they have a limited number of seats/rooms/tables to sell, and as a result, they need to market it for the optimal price to avoid empty places. Remember what I said above, that you should not ask how to find cheap flight, but when to find cheap flights?
You will not find a paper company using RM because if they have a period with lower demand for A4 sheets, they will just make less of it, or produce more if the demand is higher.
But why all this context is necessary?
Because RM Will Tell You the Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets
And, as a rule of thumb (there are a few exceptions), RM favors anticipation.
Passengers purchasing their tickets earlier provide the company time to better plan their future moves. For this reason, they offer better prices with considerable anticipation. Airlines are often trying to stimulate early buying.
Not only airlines but any industry that uses revenue management. Here, do a test: search for train or bus tickets with DB (Germany), Amtrak (USA), or FlixBus and find out how prices probably will get more expensive if you look for a ticket for this week instead of 1 month ahead. The same happens with major hotel chains.
You may also find exceptions with touristic packages and hotels in large cities during the low season. In their cases, often prices will be better at the last minute. This provides excellent opportunities for tourists.
With airlines, events, festivals, or football games, it is a safer bet to simply buy earlier.
Besides how many days before the flight/concert/game you are buying your ticket, RM also considers the variable of from where you are buying.
Revenue Management systems will attribute to you a willingness to pay based on your place of origin. Remember: it is not bigotry, it is statistics.
So if you are buying an airline ticket from Los Angeles (USA) to La Paz (Bolivia), there is a chance that the airlines will show different prices for an IP from Bolivia and another for an IP from the USA.
With that in mind comes our first hack.
How to Use a VPN to Get Cheaper Flights
It is common for airlines to offer different prices on the same flight — all depending on where you are from.
There are a few ways for airlines to define your location:
- Credit Card
- The language that you used to navigate their page.
Years ago, a scandal erupted in Brazil when passengers realized that switching the language of an airline reservation page they could access much better prices.
Nowadays, changing the idiom will rarely work — still, it is worth a try. A better alternative is to research flight tickets as a VPN user.
What is a VPN User?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. . You can become a VPN user by purchasing a subscription from a VPN provider (there are some free providers, but their quality is not at the same level). This is a way to change your IP to another location. If you are booking a flight from Canada to Argentina, and live in Montreal, try comparing the prices while using a VPN that gives you an IP from Argentina. Always use a secure network to avoid information leaks.
Besides the IP, there is one more way for airlines to identify you and offer not-so-good prices: they send cookies that are stored by your browser.
Don’t be fooled by their tender names. Cookies, in this case, serve to sour purpose: companies can use it to check how many times you searched for the same flight. If you seek a destination often, airlines will know you need it. So, they may increase the price the next time you look for it.
But how to avoid cookies? The next hack will do it for you.
Incognito Mode Flights
To avoid cookies and not let the airlines know how badly you to fly to a specific destination during a certain period — a piece of information that they may use to give you more expensive prices — activate the incognito mode of your browser.
In Incognito, no cookies and site data are saved on your device. This will prevent their tracking. Voilà! With Incognito mode, you became invisible to them.
Now you can search for the ticket combination you want, as many times as you wish, without airlines increasing prices just because they know how badly you want to fly to that place in that week.
Why (Not Always) Are One Way Flights More Expensive — And How You Can Benefit from It
Airlines seek to stimulate clients to purchase round-trip tickets (where you travel from A to B and then back from B to A).
They do it to reduce the number of passengers flying from A to B and then take another company to fly back from B to A. Revenue Management managers call that flight imbalance, and it is very undesirable from a financial perspective. Therefore, they stimulate round-trip tickets by presenting lower prices for them in comparison with two one-way tickets.
This is not valid for most low-cost airlines, because they are not worried with flight imbalance in the same way as national carriers, such as United or British Airways. Low-cost airlines have smaller airplanes that switch between multiple destinations. For this reason, selling one-way tickets is not an issue for them.
It means a fine opportunity to enjoy a flexible itinerary by flying with one-way tickets, hopping from one destination to another. You may even find situations where two one-way tickets with low-cost airlines are cheaper than a round-trip!
Flight imbalances may also give you another benefit. Check this next tip.
How to Book Cheap Flight Tickets by Using Imbalanced Dates
This is a fascinating trick I learned during my time inside airline headquarters.
When a big event (like the Super-Bowl or the Olympics) or a holiday (like Carnival in Venice, Italy) approaches, airlines allocate extra airplanes to those cities, and tourism agencies organize charter flights. They do this because the demand is higher and passengers are willing to pay a higher price.
For anyone willing to travel on big dates, it can be expensive.
Remember about the flight imbalance? It gives to flexible travelers a significant advantage.
To explain how, first remember that every time an airplane flies, it generates expenses for the airline. Fuel, for example, may represent almost 40% of all company expenses. Therefore, an aircraft should be as full as possible to offset the flying costs — fuel, pilot and cabin crew salaries, landing and takeoff taxes, etc.
Even with expensive prices, it is easy to sell a ticket to Venice during Carnival. It is also easy to sell a flight to the host city of the Olympics. All the extra flights tend to depart full on the way to Venice or to the Olympics.
But an airplane will not stay grounded in the airport during the entire Olympics or carnival, waiting to bring back the same passengers that flew in that direction.
The airplane must return from Venice or from the Olympics to its base, and this return will also have fuel or crew salary expenses. If it departs empty, it will lose a lot of money. This is the problem generated by the Imbalance: a flight with a huge demand in one way, but minimal demand on the way back.
Since one passenger is better than zero, airlines offer promotions and special prices to anyone willing to fly in the opposite direction.
Here is where your opportunity lies. Here is when to find cheap flights.
Example: The Winter Olympics of 2022 starts in Beijing on February 04. Airlines and tourism companies will offer flights to the Chinese city departing from all over the world. You can expect a salty price to go to Beijing before or at the beginning of the games. In the other hand, a flight departing from Beijing on 04 or 05 of February probably will have very low prices, because the number of people willing to fly out of the city during the games is not even near the number of people flying into the city. To not have empty airplanes on the way back, airlines will offer great discounts. If you doubt, I am willing to make a wager.
Bottom line: If your city is hosts a large event or holiday, to travel out from there during this day (and return to your city when everyone is leaving it) may save you a significant sum of money.
Conclusion on When to Find Cheap Flights
- Be an Early-Bird with airlines, but look for last-minute packages with travel agencies.
- Use a VPN to get cheaper flights
- Research ticket prices with your browser on the Incognito mode
- Buy Imbalanced flights.
Were you familiar with any of these hacks? I prepared another article with some additional tips to save money at airports — it is worth taking a look if you would like to save some serious cash during your next holiday.