A Plane Ticket Is Not A Sweater
Like most people in my generation, I grew up with the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch. That is a lesson yet to be learned for many Gen-X, Gen-Y (aka Millennial), and Gen Z types. That's why they are so quick to embrace the "hacks" that get freely shared on social media...it's their generation's version of a free lunch. Normally I skip right past articles and posts that promise the latest travel "hack" but occasionally I get suckered in. I ran across one recently that caught my attention with a headline that read “The secret to cheap flights? Stalk after booking.” The words "cheap" and "stalk" are click bait red flags that I usually skip right past, but this article was published in the Washington Post and that gave it at least a modicum of legitimacy. So I read it. Silly me.
My gripe with the WAPO article, and others like it, is that they leave travelers who haven't yet learned there's no such thing as a free lunch with unrealistic expectations. The hacks, or cheat code as the WAPO author called it, rarely work. And when they do the circumstances are so restrictive as to be impractical for anyone to benefit from, except maybe a travel writer. The proverbial self-licking ice cream cone.
The WAPO article’s premise is straightforward...purchase a plane ticket and then watch the price like a hawk. If the cost of your flight goes down, immediately cancel your ticket and repurchase at the lower price, putting the savings toward future travel.
There's so much wrong with that approach to booking air that I hardly know where to start, so let me start with this....it doesn't work. That approach might work when it comes to buying a sweater from Macy’s, as the WAPO article alludes to, but it ain’t that easy when it comes to buying an airplane ticket. Maybe it did for a few minutes back in the height of the pandemic, when airlines were practically giving tickets away, waiving their cancellation policies, and still flying mostly empty, but not now.
Most people have put COVID in the rear view mirror and planes are flying full, even with ridiculously high prices. Airlines have gone back to their more restrictive ticketing policies where non-refundable means non-refundable, and that means the WAPO hack doesn't work. It doesn't even work for Southwest...even though they still allow free cancellations, their prices are lowest when they are first released.
When I purchase air I stalk prices before I buy, which is the opposite of the WAPO article's strategy. Once I'm satisfied the price has been stable for several weeks at the same level and that my trip is a go, I buy, and once I buy I don't look back. Even if I could cancel a ticket without penalty, as is the case when I fly Southwest, I've got a much better shot at winning the lottery than I do getting any money back from cancelling and rebooking. I know this because I've tried. Tried and failed often enough that I no longer bother.
When I need to fly to get to my destination, I start by considering what airline offers me the best combination of lowest fare for the best routing and the least amount of risk. Southwest offers the most transparent ticket pricing of all the airlines. They offer the lowest price when flights are first released, which is about 6-7 months prior to departure. They allocate a certain number of seats at the lowest price point for each flight, and once those seats are gone the price goes up in fixed increments. Once it goes up, it almost never comes down so there is no point in waiting, even though they offer free cancellation.
Most commercial airlines release their schedules 11 months in advance, but unlike Southwest their prices are higher for the first few months after release. They drop to a stable baseline about 2-3 months after release and stay there as long as demand follows the airline's predicted sales models. If seats book up faster than expected, prices go up until the demand trend falls back to the baseline predicted by the airline's pricing model and then they go back down.
Prices may go through several increase/decrease cycles but usually return to the same baseline up until about 2 months before departure. At that point enough seats have generally been sold that prices go up and tend to stay up. That gives me a window of about 6 months to decide when to book, and the deciding factor for me is knowing for sure that I'll be taking the trip. My problem with that approach is there is no transparency with the airlines' pricing algorithms so you are left guessing if the price is going to go up or down. And since most people purchase non-refundable tickets you are locked into the price you pay.
There are no guarantees when it comes to predicting airline prices, so if I miss the optimal pricing window I'll look at alternate routing that offers a lower price. It usually means more schedule risk, but that's the trade-off you have to make. If I can't absorb more schedule risk, then I kick myself for waiting too long and pay more for the lower risk routing.
When it comes to air travel there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You can't even buy lunch on most domestic flights these days…you have to hit the food court before you board! All you can do is balance ticket cost and schedule risk against your risk tolerance, and once you've made the decision to buy, don't look back.
And that's all I have to say about that.
(Originally posted on 2 Jan 2023)