Why Cheap Flight Booking Hacks Might Not Be Worth Your Time

For years, people have been led to believe there are ways to secure the best airline ticket price if you are savvy with the tricks to do it. However, a new report published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics debunks everything many thought was true.

Day of the week no longer matters

When airlines first began selling tickets online, they would publish fares on a predetermined day of the week. Using numbers they already had on the number of seats sold on a flight, they would often discount tickets to help fill a plane. As such, a trend emerged for booking travel on a Tuesday, which tended to be the day when airlines would have the most discounted or sale fare tickets available.

Two American Airlines ticket agents working at the desk.

Photo: American Airlines

These days, airlines instead use complex algorithms that constantly change airfares. Taking into account things like demand, already sold seats, and how many spaces remain on the flight, prices are updated every day of the week as airlines strive to maximize profits while also still filling their planes. The consequence of this is that the Tuesday rule no longer applies, as airlines can release sale fares on any day of the week now.

The people over at Google Flight studied five years worth of ticket pricing and concluded that it didn’t matter which day you buy the ticket. Buying a ticket on a Tuesday or Wednesday was only 1.9% cheaper than purchasing it on the weekend.

Rather than restricting travel to particular days of the week, a better strategy is to sign up for sale notifications from your favorite airlines to get early notice of planned sales. Using price comparison sites also helps, particularly those that allow you to search for flights within a window of dates to compare how different departure days might influence the cost of your ticket.

Should you clear your cookies?

For many years, it has been widely considered that airline fares may vary if the booking platform sees you’ve been searching for a particular journey multiple times. The theory is that airline and online travel agent websites will place a cookie on your browser when you first visit, and if you go back again, it will raise the price to make you feel more pressured to make a booking before they go any higher.

However, modern air fare planning doesn’t support this being true, if it ever was. Indeed, Katy Maclure, newsletter editor at flight deal subscription site Jack’s Flight Club, told i Newspaper that,

“We can categorically say this isn’t the case. As flight-finding experts, we spend all day, every day looking at flights. If airlines and comparison sites adjusted the fares based on our search history, we’d never find the great deals that we do.”

Someone holding a credit card in front of a computer, with a carry on bag and various travel items nearby.

Photo: Stokkete | Shutterstock

Other booking hacks claim that using a VPN or searching for airfares in ‘incognito’ mode may unlock further savings, but this no longer appears to be true either. Google Flights group product manager James Byers told the Washington Post that the site doesn’t decide flight prices, so your browsing history, device, or private searches won’t affect fares. Google Flights, and other aggregators like it, use complex systems to evaluate travel options from point A to point B, drawing down the latest fare data to present you with the results. However, fares can change even second by second, so a refresh or new search will sometimes throw up different results.

But this is not a symptom of your repeated searching. It is, rather, a consequence of the incredibly volatile price market for airlines, and just how much fares fluctuate on a day by day, hour by hour and even minute by minute basis.

When asked about this by the Washington Post, Alex Da Silva, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Airlines, said:

“It is understandable when faced with a change in pricing that our customers might attribute the change to their individual actions, but that is not the case.”

The truth is that prices go up when there is an increase in demand, as the day of departure approaches, or in response to other airline ticket pricing.

Read more: How airline ticket pricing works

Buy your ticket a month before you travel

One of the strangest things researchers discovered when examining how airlines price their tickets was the process used to determine the cost per seat. When speaking about what they found, assistant professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business Olivia Natan said,

“We talked to all these managers who said the pricing team doesn’t know what it’s doing. The pricing team’s work is made more difficult in part by the set of discrete prices they have to work with, but we found they could make more money today by selling fewer tickets at higher prices and not foreclose future opportunities. In practice, they seem to be choosing the menu of prices somewhat arbitrarily.”

Two American Airlines Boeing 737s taxiing to the runway.

Photo: American Airlines

Natan also said that airlines may start to adopt more dynamic pricing, which travelers could benefit from, but for now, trying to hunt for the best possible fare is fruitless. In their research, Natan added that airfares increased airfares 21 days, 14 days, and seven days before a flight, so if you want the best fare, always buy your ticket at least a month before departing.

Why do airline ticket prices fluctuate?

While airlines try to keep their ticket pricing within a set range when you search for a flight, several factors can determine the final price:

  • The popularity of the destination can vary from country to country due to its geographical location, culture, and political situation. The more popular it is, the more you will have to pay.
  • The ticket can vary depending on where you are buying the ticket, with airlines able to charge higher prices in wealthier countries.
  • The airline’s home country can also make a difference, with many offering discounted prices in their local marketplace.
  • If you have repeatedly searched for a ticket online, the cookies on your browser show this, which is why the price may be more each time you look.
  • The season and holidays affect the price of airline tickets. Flights to winter sun destinations increase dramatically depending on the time of year. During the peak summer months, you can also expect to pay more. If you can avoid it, never plan to go away during school vacations and holidays like Christmas and Easter, as the airlines know they have a captive audience and raise prices.

The research suggests that some of the best travel hacks are useless and do not save you any money. However, there are plenty of people making travel videos full-time on YouTube who claim that the hacks still exist, and rely on them to book cheaper airfares.

What do you think – can you still bag a bargain by searching at specific times or in specific ways, or is it all pot-luck these days? Let us know in the comments.

Source: phys.org, i Newspaper, Washington Post, The Quarterly Journal of Economics