By Adam Aurioles, Guest Author
Warning: Lengthy read ahead, but if you like saving money read through to avoid my mistakes.
Many bemoan the prices of flights without realizing that flights are actually cheaper now more than ever. According to a Compass Lexecon study, in 1941 a round-trip flight from Boston to LA was $4,539.24 per person and lasted just over 15 hours making 12 stops. Now (2015) you can make the same trip nonstop for $480.89 in 6 hours. This might seem like an absurd comparison but consider that flight prices have decreased by 36% since 1990. The rise of the budget airline also indicates that people are willing to “put up” with some discomfort for a few hours if it means they can score a good deal. If you are willing to fly on Spirit Airlines with their no-extras model, you can make that same LA to Boston trip for $187 round-trip (1 stop, 7.5 hours total flight time). If you want some more comfort, budget-plus airlines like JetBlue can make the trip with no stops in 5.5 hours for $247 round-trip. What is the point of giving you all these options? To show you that you have never had more options when it comes to flying.
I am studying in Paris next Spring and the single largest purchase I have to make is my flight. I didn’t really know where to start when it came to finding a flight for a good price with a good hard product (the seat and plane) as well as a good soft product (service, food, etc.). There was the obvious place to look, Air France, but I didn’t really like what they had to offer (granted this is all based on personal preference). I wanted comfort but I didn’t want to pay an exorbitant amount. With where I am at in my life, I don’t find it worth it to pay 4-5x the price of an economy ticket to sit in business. This isn’t to say that I don’t think business class is worth it, the modern international business seat far surpasses first class standards of the past, it just makes up too large a percentage of my income as a student to justify. However, I do value my comfort and that is where premium economy comes into play. Premium economy as a separate class (not just an economy seat with more legroom) is taking its place in more airlines than ever. Premium economy plays to the customer willing to pay a little more, usually 1.3-2x the price of a coach ticket, for more comfort. So the first thing to figure out is what class fits your value assessment most. (Keep in mind that airline classes vary wildly across airlines, so premium economy on one airline could be better than business on another)
The next thing to do is check Google Flights. This isn’t a paid advertisement, I simply think that Google Flights is an excellent example of how lucky we are to live in the digital age. Who knew you could fly from Chicago to Paris in business class for ~$2,700 (Turkish Airlines, March to May flight), roughly ~$1,200 cheaper than most other airlines in the same class with a comparable hard product. Keep in mind that you’ll have a layover in Istanbul for a few hours but it is a great option if you are flexible on time. While flight price comparison sites have existed for a long time, Google Flights (which is based on ITA Matrix [acquired by Google]) is not in the business of selling data to airlines. They are in the business of referrals by leveraging their market power. Whenever you make a search for say “flight from Chicago to Paris”, Google Flights is the first option on the page and they make money off of getting users to book directly with the airline which nets airlines more money.
Airlines also compile massive amounts of data that contribute to their dynamic pricing models and you never know if the price of your flight will go up or down. To avoid dynamic pricing the key is to start with Google Flights (and maybe go on Incognito mode just to be safe). There is no clear answer as to whether or not Google sells your data, but we know they still make their money a different way so we can be a little less suspicious. There are some key advantages to Google Flights: you can quickly toggle between seat classes, it shows you almost every flight on your given dates of travel and sorts them based on different criteria, you can set fare alerts for specific flights, and their fare calendar has superb functionalities. This should get you started on the road to finding the right flight because who knew that if you are willing to connect through Ontario, Air Canada can get you to Paris from Chicago?
Now a word from the wise. Don’t make my mistake of obsessively searching for the same flight many times a day especially through the airline’s direct website. This is by far the biggest mistake you can make in terms of contributing to dynamic pricing. No amount of cookies you can clear will erase your mistake. I found a flight I loved for $1,140 in premium economy with a hard product that was amazing and I kept searching that flight over and over again as if I was expecting it to disappear. To my surprise one day that fare did disappear, in fact, it shot up to ~$1,600. I was crushed. After weeks of researching flights I had finally found the perfect flight for the perfect price, and in a second the perfect price was gone. I had also found another flight I liked and its price shot up $500 that same day. I knew I was my own worst enemy when I went on the airline’s website and a little notification popped up saying “don’t wait, flights to Paris from Chicago are in high demand”. The airline took my constant searches and turned that into a higher price. And before someone says that maybe there actually were more tickets booked, I used Expert Flyer (I won’t go into details here) to see that there were only 5 seats sold on the entire flight both ways when I saw the price I liked and sure enough after the price shot up there were still only 5 seats sold. The only answer was my obsessive searching on the airline’s website. I even checked the flight on my father’s work computer with no association to my IP address or Chrome account, the song remained the same, if I wanted the ticket I would have to pay ~$1,600.
I was determined to cool off the dynamic pricing, I deleted my cookies for good measure and turned away from searching for flights for 5 days (like I said I’m obsessive so I couldn’t wait that long). Curiosity got the best of me and sure enough, the news was still the same, but then I tried again a couple hours later and saw the price of my second preferred flight went down to its original price ($500 less) and so I quickly put a 7 day fare lock on the flight because I wanted to wait for my new travel credit card to arrive (so I could get the travel protections and points it affords). The key is to pounce on a price you like because I had just learned the hard way that it can change at any time. To make the story even better, I looked up the price of my top choice flight and it was still ~$1,600 at the time I put the fare lock on. Then for some unknown reason, I looked up flights three hours later and to my absolute shock the flight I loved went back to its original price, the screaming deal of $1,140. It dropped roughly 30% in a matter of hours and I put another fare lock on that flight immediately for the same reason. I can’t say for certain that putting the fare lock on the first flight dropped the price of the second flight by 30% but let’s just say no one bought additional tickets (checked Expert Flyer again) and nothing really changed in those three hours.
So what is the lesson here? Flight prices are finicky and airlines are tracking your activity. They prey on people who they know want their product (I would have still been willing to pay the $1,600 price tag). In reality, I got lucky, I am losing a fare lock deposit on one flight for the peace of mind that I am getting the flight I want at the price I want. If you learn one thing from this, I hope it is that in this competitive air travel market, know your options but don’t make my mistake.
P.S. I highly recommend the blog “The Points Guy” to find solid and unbiased reviews of flight experiences with different airlines in different cabins. Seat Guru’s comparison charts make it really easy to get a quick glimpse at different airline’s hard product.
The information provided is for guidance and informational purposes only. The articles are not the opinions of ProCore Advisors, LLC.