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SoYouWanna Find a Cheap Plane Ticket?

So you think getting a cheap airfare is as simple as calling your favorite airline (the one with the honey-roasted peanuts) and forking over your credit card number. Unless you are traveling on someone else's dime, you couldn't be more misguided. Or perhaps you are a wishful traveler who scours the newspaper's travel section looking for the lowest fares advertised, only to find none of them are ever available on the weekends you want to go. So you stay home and play solitaire. Loser. You're a loser not because you play solitaire (it's a great game!) but because you didn't bother to try to get a cheap airline ticket.

Getting the lowest airfare from Point A to Point B can be a ridiculously frustrating experience, especially if in mid-flight you discover your neighbor paid a third what you did. (Unfortunately, murder charges still stick in federal airspace.) The way airlines work, failing to get the best fare happens more often than you would like to believe. This SYW will help guide you through airfare hell to make sure you are the one with the cheapest seat. Then you'll be the one everyone wants to kill.

1. Understand how airlines set their prices in the first place

Airline pricing is a complex, unpredictable beast driven by three ugly words: competition, demand, and inventory. Airlines call it "yield management," but we doubt if even airline CEOs fully understand it. How could they? How can any rational person explain why a one-way flight is just as expensive as a round-trip ticket? Or why the only seats from Boston to San Francisco every weekend from now until eternity cost $1,000? Well, you found us in the nick of time, because before you even attempt to buy an airline ticket, you must know the forces at work. Only when you know your enemy may you slay him violently.

All major airlines feed their available seats and prices into four central reservation systems that are owned by various airlines. The systems are Apollo, Sabre, WorldSpan and Galileo (sound like the names of American Gladiators, don't they?). Airlines then change their prices based on demand. If a certain flight is selling well, the price will increase. If another flight has no takers, the fare will drop until the airline gets some. As a result, fares and inventory are changing every minute.
 

So why is it so hard to keep track of the prices? A bunch of reasons:

  • Internet travel sites and travel agents use the central reservation systems which are updated periodically during the day. The four are not updated at the same time, which explains why different searches may yield different results.

  • The systems also may use different algorithms to search for the lowest fares, which subsequently provide varied fares.

  • Demand explains why it is cheaper to fly on a weekday (when fewer people are traveling), at odd hours, or on days other than major holidays.

  • Airlines change their prices based on competition. If one airline flying the New York-Miami route drops its rates by 20%, chances are all airlines will drop their rates, so as not to give the discounter a competitive advantage.

  • Fare differences can exist for the same route on different airlines because of other factors. For example, if one airline has the market share for that route, it may not need to lower fares to attract passengers.

  • To complicate matters, all this happens at the speed of light. Prices for a specific flight can go up or down even as your travel agent is getting your credit card information from you, so your cheap ticket can be whisked out from under you. And your fare is never guaranteed until you have paid. That's the gamble. Fortunately, it can work both for you and against you.

  • Airlines also use inventory to their advantage and to lure the unsuspecting flyer. They divide seats on each flight into several price ranges and set aside a certain number of discounted tickets. Naturally, the lowest fares draw your attention to advertisements. Of course by the time you call (unless you are quick on the draw) those seats will be gone. Inventory brings us back to demand. If there is low availability and high demand, you will have to wait for a cheap fare. But that does not mean you should give up on a trip that is very popular. Sometimes airlines will change their fares or open up more discounted seats, depending on how sales are going.

Because of all these factors (competition, inventory and demand), it is essential to look around and comparison shop. Regardless of whether you use the Internet or a travel agent, you will come up with a wide range of prices. The challenge is to know how to make the cheap fares yours.