The Highs and Lows of How Flights are Priced

The Highs and Lows of How Flights are Priced

Searching for flights can be both exhausting and frustrating, but there’s a certain satisfaction in finally booking a flight - especially when you bag a great deal. That’s why our mission at Jack’s Flight Club is to share the cheapest flights out there with our members, if you aren’t already on board, you can sign up to receive our free deal alerts. But today we’re going to answer the question that makes our mission possible - why do flights fluctuate in price so much?

How airlines set their ticket prices is a source of many urban legends. We’ve heard all of the best ones, including tips about the best day of the week to buy a ticket, how to grab last-minute discounts offered by the airlines, and that airlines and flight search websites (such as Skyscanner and Kayak) use cookies to sneakily increase fares for their passengers if they see you’ve already searched for that route before. All of these tips have a nugget of truth buried deep down, but none will secure you that ultra-low fare alone - the story is much more complicated

How do airlines choose how to price tickets?

The industry insiders refer to ticket pricing as yield management and it’s big business! That’s why they hate when people manage to grab a coveted error fare.

It seems unfair that travellers are paying such a wide range of airfares for the same route and ticket, but this yield management is precisely how the airlines make money and stay in business, well that and charging you for luggage and legroom! It works because consumers have different priorities and expectations when looking for flights.  

Basically, a yield management system allocates a certain number of seats per flight at a discounted or bargain rate, while others are flagged for mileage upgrades, and some are earmarked as business travel seats. Finally, a certain number of seats are kept for last-minute travellers. That is precisely why you might have paid less than the person sitting beside you on the flight. The airline makes assumptions about what you are willing to pay for your ticket.

The airline’s per-passenger cost is the lowest when the flight is full, so carriers have the incentive to sell as many seats as possible. This is a race against time for an airline and, of course, no company wants to discount its product more than it has to. As a result, the airlines face two somewhat contradictory goals: to maximize revenue by flying full planes and selling as many full-fare seats as possible.

Pricing levels, in general, are decided using historical data, so that’s why it’s rare to find cheap flights around Christmas to all those amazing locations with Christmas markets as they know the demand is high. Very occasionally, if demand is lower than expected, you will find that coveted last-minute low price. 

Do Airlines and OTA’s track your searches?

Airlines and other flight search websites do use cookies, but time after time, they have claimed they don't manipulate fares based on search history, saying it would be unethical. This has been tested too by independent watchdogs who found cookies make no difference. It’s likely this rumour started because a few unlucky people happened to look at the flight just before and after someone else booked, triggering the airline to release the next pool of higher-priced seats as we mentioned above. If you’re still paranoid, you can always clear your cookies before searching or use your browser’s incognito mode to search. 

Best and worst days to book flights

There’s a myth floating around that the best day to book flights is the first Tuesday of the month at 12pm 6 weeks prior to your trip.

First, Tuesday’s aren’t actually the best days to find the cheapest deals. While “Travel Tuesday” used to be the case, experts say it no longer is.

This myth started when airlines used to load fares at the beginning of the week. But now airlines are much more sophisticated in the way that they price tickets, changing the price 24 hours a day, seven days a week – meaning it’s close to impossible to know when an unannounced sale might pop up.

Some research has shown prices can be higher or lower on a given day of the week – yet there is no clear consensus on which day that is. 

Skyscanner’s analysis shows that fares early in the week can be cheaper than those on the weekends, but this covers from early Monday right up till Wednesday night, rather than just Tuesday at 12pm, so don’t consider this a blanket rule as you may not find this true in every booking.

Some research has also shown that Thursdays are the worst day to book, probably because everyone is fed up with work and desperate for the weekend, so many are manically searching for last-minute deals. Sunday nights come a close second for commuter routes as airlines know they will get that disorganised business traveller booking for the start of the week.

 How far in advance will you manage to grab the best deal?

Remember those days when you fancied a weekend away to Europe and could get Ryanair flights for 99p right up till the week before? We do, that’s how most of the JFC team managed to see so much of Europe!

Those days are no longer here unfortunately, a plane ticket to Europe for under £30 is rare, and last minute deals are even rarer.

Prices are much more likely to increase over the last few weeks before the flight’s departure. The airlines prefer to wait for the last-minute business traveller who’s more likely to pay full fare rather than to sell the seat prematurely to a price-conscious customer. 

The airlines start looking at flight pricing about 6-10 months before the departure date, meaning that it generally does not pay to book more than 10 months in advance. Generally, the airline will use a higher than average price before then, based on data from previous years. Between two months and about two to three weeks before the flight date, the fare quotes remain mostly flat, with a slight upward trend. 

So, if you see a price that you are happy with, then book it! If you’re not sure what a good deal looks like, check out our article on what we consider deal worthy fares. So many people ask us if they should wait, and, while occasionally prices do drop a little further, sometimes just for peace of mind, it’s best just to get it locked down so you can start planning instead of stressing. Oh and of course join our club if you’re not already so we do all the work for you :-)

Still have questions? Feel free to drop us a message on
[email protected] and we'll be happy to help.