August 20, 2009

Getting to the Race: Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare and Custom Itineraries

Recently, I posted about the financial implications of running marathons in each of the fifty states. At the same time, there were several bloggers who posted questions about how to save while traveling. There are a LOT of misconceptions out there about airlines and pricing, and since airline pricing is the one area where I’m “kind of a big deal” (ha), I thought I’d write a post clearing some things up. Some of this is taken from comments I posted on other people’s blogs, and other parts are new content, but either way, it can hopefully help.

First of all, there is absolutely no truth to the myth that booking at certain times of the day or week will allow you to book higher or lower fares. Revenue management is largely controlled by automated systems, along with some analyst input (like mine!), and the analyst is just as likely to lower a fare as to raise it, so really, time of day doesn’t matter for booking. Fares are no different on Tuesdays or Wednesdays than on weekends – it’s not like we do some kind of magical price drop just because it’s a Wednesday πŸ™‚ This myth gets passed around a lot, and I’m not sure where it comes from – maybe even just something as silly as the fact that Travelzoo and Shermans Travel happen to send out their fares midweek.

The best site for finding plane tickets (and the industry standard for checking prices) is ITA Matrix. You can go in as a guest and it will work just fine – you don’t need to have an account. One of the big benefits of ITA is that it’s really flexible, which is especially helpful if you’re going to a marathon in the middle of nowhere and need to know what airports are close by – just put in the city that you want to go to, select a radius from the city that you’re willing to travel to get to an airport, and all airports in that range will be included. I consider Kayak to be the second best search engine for flights, and it’s this factor (as well as one or two other minor ones) that puts it second to ITA: Kayak has a preset range for alternate airports, and their range may be different than what you consider acceptable. However, the Kayak interface is a bit more user-friendly, so if you’re not very computer-savvy, you may consider sacrificing the extra options for the ease of use.

One tricky part about ITA is that unlike Kayak, it won’t let you book or link to a place where you can book. ITA just pulls the fares from a database that the major airlines submit to, and then you have to go find the fares and book on your own. 95% of the time, it’s best to book with the carriers directly in order to get the best price. Once you use ITA to find the flights you want, just go directly to the carrier’s website and you should be able to pull the fare. If you can’t find it on the carrier’s website, try using ITA to find the fare, then look it up in Kayak and they’ll have a link to show you where to book it (this is helpful if you’re trying something like a multi-airline itinerary). Whatever you do, I would strongly advise against booking on third party sellers like Orbitz. I know these are popular with a lot of novice travelers, but those can be trouble if there are any problems with the flight (i.e. delays, cancellations, changes, etc) as the airline then has no responsibility to you, and you need to go through Orbitz to get issues resolved. These days, their fares are usually no less than the fares offered by the airlines themselves, so it really has little to no benefit to you to use those sites anyway.

As far as how far out to book, there is another big myth here: that booking early will get you the best price. Actually, booking really early will probably give you a more expensive fare than you want. When flights are really far out, the fares are often held up to higher levels. When an analyst or revenue management system is uncertain about what price point to offer, it’s less risky to start at a higher price point and then drop it down as needed to fill the plane.

While there isn’t any magical time to book, you should almost definitely not wait until 30 days or fewer before your domestic trip, as that’s when advanced purchase rules start to kick in. (For international flights, it’s even sooner than that, with 90 days being one of the big AP gates.) This means the range of fares is limited (usually to higher fares), so even if a flight isn’t full, the AP requirements mean we can’t offer really low prices without adding a special sale fare. Sites like Farecast can give you some idea of whether your fare is likely to go up or down with time (though it only works with major market flights). Just remember not to assume that prices are only likely to rise with time – in this economy where we’re getting lower average fares than years past and aren’t sure what to expect, prices typically fall with time (with the exception of the last 30 days when most advanced purchase requirements kick in).

Feel free to post more questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to either answer them there or do a follow up post to this one. Happy flying!


16 thoughts on “Getting to the Race: Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare and Custom Itineraries”

  1. This is very very useful information. It’s like getting tips from an insider!

    Do you have any thoughts on hotels? Sometimes the “race affiliated hotels” have some really good perks listed, but prices at other hotels can be cheaper.

  2. Thanks for the tips. Love the ITA site. You should have a way for us to add this to our facebook or twitter pages. Check out, it’s free and I have it at the bottom of each of my posts.

  3. Wow, i’m crazy behind on the posts…..

    This was really cool. I am for sure going to be using that in the future. Of course, if you are feeling saucy on discounting some of your airline’s flights to somewhere fun (read: warm) give us a shout!

  4. Not to knock the rest of your writing (it’s great stuff, that’s why I keep coming back), but this is an extremely helpful post!

    My one question to you (not sure if you have an answer): how do travel agents stay employed?

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