The Airline Fare Puzzle

I have been looking at airline fares quite a bit lately.  I have trips I’m planning, there are trips family members are taking, and I recently had a friend contact me to find the best fares.  In all my experiences in searching for the lowest fares, I have observed several things.  When trying to get the lowest fare, it is very helpful if you don’t have a specific schedule that you need.  The airlines seem to know exactly when you want to fly.  That’s where the highest priced tickets are.  For each of the itineraries I researched this past week, the desired flight times were much more expensive than picking times that were basically inconvenient.

One itinerary I looked at this week was for a family member who wants to travel back to California from New York for the Labor Day weekend.  On Friday morning, I checked flights and found a one-way, 1-stop flight from JFK to our local airport for $163.00.  A one-way flight back to New York was $347.00.  I found it interesting that traveling eastbound was more than twice the price of the westbound leg.  The total price of $510.00 seemed like a lot.  But for flights that arrived and departed 30 minutes from our home, I figured the extra cost was worth the convenience.

The price didn’t stay that way for long.  By Friday afternoon, the one-way flight from New York westbound was now showing as $263.00.  So, my question is, what changed in 12 hours that caused the airline to bump up the price by $100?  Now the best we can do for the same route is $611.00.  If only we had bought the tickets Friday morning.

It’s a little like being in Las Vegas when booking airline flights.  The gamble is do I buy now because the fares look good now, or do I wait because they might be better tomorrow?

I had an itinerary I had been watching for 2 months.  I went so far as to track fares for the itinerary during the entire year leading up to the dates I wanted to fly.  I saw what time of year the fares were low and what time of year the fares were high.  I also noted that during the last 60 days before departure, the fares could fluctuate quite a bit.  I decided the current fare for the time I wanted to fly was probably the best it was going to be without having to wait until the last minute to book the flights.  Two weeks after I booked the flights, the fare for my trip dropped by 12%.  I sure didn’t see that coming.

When I was much younger, I would occasionally travel to Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe and do a little gambling.  I would usually take about $200 to gamble.  After I had lost about $100, I would stop because I didn’t want to lose any more money.  Over time, with so few winning sessions, I decided that gambling wasn’t for me because I didn’t have enough fun to justify the money I lost.  If you’re going to gamble, you have to accept that many times you’re not going to come out ahead.

The same is true when searching for the best airfare.  All of the research in the world will not guarantee that you’re going to pay the lowest price for a particular flight itinerary.  The airlines have the deck stacked in the house’s favor.  If you get a really good deal for airline flights, consider that you had a winning session.  But if you buy non-refundable tickets one day and then find out that they are cheaper after you bought them, just consider the experience as part of the airfare puzzle.  Maybe you didn’t win today, but it’s all part of the game.

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