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Great airfare deals, but when to buy?

These days, most travelers know that airfares rise and fall as frequently—if not quite as predictably—as the tide. Given that rise and fall, travelers are obviously interested in buying at low tide rather than high. Although “when to buy” questions arise constantly, I received a handful of them last week.

A typical one: “I am planning a trip to Italy from the Midwest for next September. The airfares have just become available for review and are running over $1,000. On a historical basis, when can I expect the airlines to start offering discounts for this time period?”

Obviously, the pat answer to a question such as this is “buy tickets when they’re on sale.” However, by itself that isn’t very helpful. The problem, of course, is finding out when they are on sale and making sure you get the sale price. Still, history provides a few clues about how, why, and when airfares rise and fall.

Some background on airfare sales

A quick review of the basics of airfare sales helps understand the process.

It takes only one to cut

The first rule about fare cuts is it takes only one good-size airline to start a fare sale. Any airline can decide to launch an airfare “sale” at any time and for any reason. Antitrust rules prevent any advance warning to or collusion with competitors.

Nobody can predict when

Since it takes only one big line to kick off a sale, nobody can predict when a particular set of circumstances—a period of “soft” forward reservations, the need for immediate cash, Jupiter in the house of Mars—will lead some airline to the conclusion that a fare war is just what it needs.

Ground rules vary

The random nature of fare sale timings is matched by the random nature of the major conditions—how deep the cuts, how long the purchase “window” will remain open, and the maximum period of travel allowed. The purchase window for a fare sale in October lasted several weeks. Lufthansa’s early-November sale lasted just one day, while Delta’s lasted 10 days. About the only sure prediction is that the sale fares will be restricted, with the usual advance-purchase and minimum-stay requirements. The travel window is usually much longer—often up to four months—but you sometimes see them as short as the one month Delta recently allowed.

Others usually match

When one airline institutes a sale, competitors generally rush, lemming-like, to match. Usually, the matching lines establish the same ground rules as the originating line: fares, purchase dates, travel dates, and such. If they can, the matching lines confine their cuts to routes where they compete directly with the original price cutter.

It’s not just the fare

Finding the low fares isn’t the complete answer. You also have to find seats available at those low fares. In any fare sale, airlines severely limit the number of seats on each flight—and in total—they allocate to the sale fares. Once the sale begins, those seats can sell out quickly. You might think that an airfare sale would be a good opportunity for an airline to run a “bait and switch” campaign—and they probably would, absent government oversight. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires that airlines advertising special low fares within or from the U.S. make an adequate number of seats available at those advertised fares. Although the regulation never defines exactly what an adequate number should be, it’s somewhere near 10 percent. But that 10 percent doesn’t have to be spread evenly among all flights. Instead, the sale seats can be mostly allocated to flights at unpopular times and days.

Even sale fares follow seasonality

Regular fares rise in peak seasons and drop in low seasons, and sale fares track the same patterns. In February, you might see a sale fare from New York to London for around $250, but the best deal for summer travel is likely to be about double.

Long-term trend is up

Surely everyone on the planet knows by now that big airlines have been posting world-class losses, and fuel costs are not likely to drop to 2003 or 2004 levels any time soon. As a result, the long-term trend of airfares is up, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Catching the sale

Given the unpredictability of airfare sales, the overriding requirement for seeking good deals is to watch the airfare market like a hawk and, also like a hawk, be prepared to pounce as soon as you see something you like.

  • Start looking about four or five months ahead. Although airlines announce fares almost a year in advance, you seldom see sale actions that cover travel more than three or four months in advance—five, tops.
  • Sign up for alerts. Airlines, online agents, information services, travel agents—all sorts of folks are eager to send you email messages about fare sales and other goodies. Start right here with’s weekly [% 105146 | | Deal Alert %] newsletter. Sign up for Travelocity’s Fare Watcher. Sign up for bulletins from any airline you’re likely to fly. I would never have known about Lufthansa’s one-day sale had I not been signed up for its bulletin. Southwest even has a “Ding” program that literally dings your computer to announce a good deal from your home airport.
  • Be prepared. No, you don’t have to join the Boy Scouts. But to focus your attention, you should have a pretty good idea of where and when you’d like your next trip to take you. Have a clear budget in mind, and buy as soon as you see the right deal.
  • Check the alternatives. As soon as one airline announces a deal, assume the competitors will match within 24 hours. You may find it easier to catch a seat through a competitor’s unannounced matching than through the original airline’s advertised sale. Also, if you have a problem, check the usual options of different airports, days of the week, and such.
  • “Good enough” may beat “best.”Overall, I favor buying the first “good enough” sale fare you find for your trip over waiting for a possible better deal that may or may not materialize.

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