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When to buy airfare

If someone asked you, “When is the best time to buy a refrigerator?” you’d have an easy answer: “When they’re on sale.” For some reason, however, lots of travelers do not believe that such a simple answer could apply to airfares. Every day or two, I get a question like, “When is the best time to buy a ticket to Las Vegas?” or some other popular destination. As with a refrigerator—or almost any other retail item—the short answer remains, “when it’s on sale.” But lots of details lie behind that answer.

How airlines set fares

Knowledge of how airlines set fares helps in understanding your best buying strategies, so let’s start there.

Yield management

I know of no airline that doesn’t practice some form of “yield management,” a fancy name for strategies to sell identical seats in the same coach cabin at different prices. On each flight, an airline allocates seats to different fare “buckets,” with prices varying by as much as three-to-one, and occasionally more.

  • Capacity control. Many small, low-fare lines employ the simplest form of yield management: capacity control. An airline sets, say, four fare buckets for its coach cabin on each flight. It starts selling seats from the lowest fare bucket; when that bucket is empty, seats start coming out of the next highest bucket, and the last seats come out of the most expensive bucket. Usually, the closer to departure you buy, the more you pay, but if seats aren’t selling at high-bucket prices, an airline can reclassify some seats to a lower bucket.
  • Complex yield management. Most large airlines use a more complicated scheme, with as many as two dozen different coach fare buckets on each flight. The lower-end buckets are burdened by various restrictions, such as nonrefundability, Saturday-night-stay requirement, advance purchase, a requirement for an accompanying land package, or sale through discounters and “opaque” online sites. Seats get reassigned among buckets on almost a real-time basis, depending on sales history and the airline’s forecast. Theoretically, some seats in even the lowest bucket might be available right up to the time limit for advance purchase.

Yield management allows an airline to increase its revenues without raising fares—instead, just by adjusting fare buckets. In an oversimplified case, say an airline starts out a flight with 100 coach seats in two fare buckets—50 seats at $100 and 50 at $200. At a full load, the airline would gross $15,000. If the airline reallocates 25 seats from the low bucket to the high one, the take increases to $17,500, without changing either of the fares.


Domestic airfares are generally not seasonal. U.S. airlines adjust to seasonal imbalances in demand by shifting fare-bucket allocations rather than raising and lowering fares.

Airfares on many important overseas routes, however, do change seasonally—especially fares in the lowest buckets. From the U.S. to Europe, for example, the lowest peak summer economy round-trips are often double or more the lowest winter-season levels. Economy fares on most other intercontinental routes also vary by season.


Airlines periodically cut fares, through “sales” or promotions, to jump-start lagging advance loads. Hardly a month goes by without a big airline starting a sale, and whenever one big line starts a sale, competitors almost always follow, at least on routes where they compete with the first fare-cutter.

Typically, airfare sales apply to travel for several months in advance. But the purchase “window” when you can buy at the sale prices is usually only a few weeks—sometimes only a few days.

Buying strategies

Given the way the airlines set fares, you can easily develop a few basic rules for timing your buys:

When you buy your ticket is more important than where you buy it. Unless you need something special—a one-way ticket or a round-trip with less than the usual minimum stay—the so-called “discount” outlets seldom undercut the best deals you can get on published fares.

Catch the sales. To buy at the lowest fares, you must hit a promotional “window” when prices are below the usual list prices. You usually don’t find sales that cover travel more than six months ahead, and most of them don’t cover that much. Unless you’re buying for a very popular holiday time, don’t start serious shopping until about six months before you plan to travel, then keep a sharp eye out for the next sale.

Catch the low bucket. Even within a sale time—and certainly in the absence of a sale—you need to find your seats from the lowest fare bucket. That may mean the flexibility to travel at off-peak times or on off-peak days. Since airlines often start sales over a weekend, late Sunday night or early Monday morning is a good time to look.

Check the competition. When one big line announces a sale, most competitors follow. Don’t buy from the line that starts a sale without also checking its competitors.

Keeping tabs

Unlike January “white sales,” airline sales do not conform to any established pattern. Nobody can predict when any individual airline might launch a sale, so you have to keep on top of the marketplace. Your best approach is to sign up for one or more of the online services that alert travelers to hot fare deals:

  • Sign up for’s free [% 313111 | | Last-Minute Airfares %] weekly email newsletter.
  • Check out Fare Alert on Expedia, Deal Detector on Orbitz, and Fare Watcher on Travelocity. If you prefer, you can ask for the information by RSS as well as by email.
  • Sign up for the daily travel bulletin from It covers all of travel, not just airfares, but it’s good at air promotions.
  • Southwest’s Ding feature sends messages directly to your computer whenever it offers a quick promotion.
  • Other online travel sites provide fare alerts: Check some of your preferred online sources.

If you aren’t comfortable buying online, your best bet is to find and work with a full-service travel agent. Tell the agent where and when you’d like to travel, and ask someone there to alert you whenever an airfare sale covers the places you want to visit and your proposed travel dates.

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