It’s no secret that flight prices fluctuate constantly. Have you ever found a great deal on Google Flights just to go back a few hours later to find that the price doubled? I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been in that sad situation.
But a fair question is: why? If you decide not to buy dessert at the store but later change your mind and go back for it, you probably won’t pay a premium or get a discount.
So what affects flight prices to cause such dramatic variation? Most airlines use a pricing system called dynamic pricing. This is why the price moves up and down at any given time rather than remaining constant like a product at the store.
Several factors go into the equation, some of which might seem obvious but others that might surprise you. Here, we’ll take a look at these price-influencing factors. We’ll also look at some of the secret weapons of frequent travelers to find the best prices, such as Scott’s Cheap Flights, Skyscanner, and more.
What Affects Flight Prices?
1. Ticket Prices Change With the Season
Let’s start with an easy one that shouldn’t surprise any traveler: seasonality has a huge impact on the price of your flight. Airlines price tickets accordingly when there will be more people traveling, such as during the holidays.
Charging a higher price during the high season is natural. It allows the airline to maximize profits based on the limited seat availability on their airplanes.
Therefore, you should be prepared to pay a premium if you want to travel during the holidays or around the new year, to leisure destinations during spring break weeks or summer months, or to winter destinations in the snowy months.
It doesn’t have to be all bad news for us deal-seekers, though – you can use the opposing low season to find the lowest prices.
If you are just interested in the ancient Greek ruins and volcanic activity and don’t need to be on the beach under the summer sun, consider a winter trip to Santorini instead of joining the crazy crowds of August. You’ll get a great deal and probably have a better time.
A great tool to clearly visualize where the high seasons and low seasons are at your destination is Skyscanner.
It is one of the best search engines to find lower fares on flexible dates and to see the different airlines that can offer them, among other things.
2. Airlines Price Tickets Based on Oil Prices
I’m sorry to remind you of something you probably can’t escape from on the news and on your daily commute. Unfortunately, the price of fuel is high and going up.
Sadly (if understandably), airlines need to adjust prices to account for that expense. Fuel is one of the biggest costs of operating a flight and even the most modern aircraft burn several hundred liters per minute.
When geopolitical events, wars, or other economic conditions cause a change in oil prices, you will feel that change in your ticket prices.
But this doesn’t mean that you can simply give up hope on finding a good deal. Even during tough times, you can still find airlines offering rock-bottom fares in hopes of winning you over from their competitors.
Although there is nothing you can do about high jet fuel prices, you can sign up for services like Scott’s Cheap Flights or Dollar Flight Club to be ready the moment one of those rock-bottom fares hits the market. They will keep you informed about deals that are too good to pass up.
3. Airline Tickets Follow the Laws of Demand
This pricing factor shouldn’t be surprising either. Just like nearly every product, supply and demand have a huge impact on how much you pay for your ticket.
This factor is closely connected to the seasonality aspect but goes a bit further than just the season. You can imagine that there are a ton of things that determine the demand for tickets to a particular destination.
Is there some big event there, like the Superbowl or a convention? Has it just re-opened to tourism following pandemic closures, as Australia did recently? Or could something be causing unusually low demand, like a recent natural disaster or proximity to a conflict zone?
Your best tools here are search engines like Skyscanner, to be sure that you aren’t missing out on a big discount to fly the day before or after; and alert services like Thrifty Traveler Premium to keep track of unusually low fares during a given period.
4. Flight Prices Drop When There’s More Competition
You can find the best prices when multiple airlines are competing on a particular route. This factor is closely connected to the one on-demand, only now we are looking at it from the supply side.
When other airlines start operating the same route as a carrier already in the market, everyone has to lower their prices to stay competitive and win over the customer. Certain routes are heavily served and therefore often cheap ones.
One example is Los Angeles to Honolulu, which nearly every major US carrier serves and is usually easy to find a deal on. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Honolulu to Guam flights served only by United Airlines; on which you will rarely find a deal.
You can use flight search engines to see how much competition there is on a route, and you can stay on top of travel news for new route announcements.
If you must take an expensive flight on an airline with a monopoly on the route, ensure you insure your trip with a provider like World Nomads to at least protect that investment.
See Related: How Early Should I Arrive at the Airport?
5. Longer Distances Lead to Higher Airline Fares
Of course, a longer flight will usually end up costing you more. You might think we already covered that in the oil prices section, but adding flight time costs much more than that: paying the crew, overflight fees, extra food, and drinks onboard…
A recent example that you may have even seen on the news is Japan Airlines’ service from Tokyo to London. Up until early March, that route flew north and west out of Tokyo to overfly Russia for the vast majority of the flight until reaching Europe.
But due to the diplomatic crisis that resulted from the war in Ukraine, the airline is no longer authorized to overfly Russia.
Now, they go “the other way”; eastbound over the Pacific, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and finally the Atlantic. The result is a flight time over 3 hours longer on the outbound and over 4 hours longer on the return.
Unfortunately, such a change will cost the airline and therefore cost the passengers. Such a difference in flight time might even necessitate adding an extra pilot or set of flight attendants on board, which can get expensive.
See Related: Best Gadgets for Long Flights & Travel
6. Business Travelers Affect Ticket Prices
Have you ever spent your flight in a lie-flat pod or mini-suite that you can now find in the front of the plane?
First and business class are super-cool, and might even be a factor in the price we pay in economy.
Business travelers impact air travel even when they aren’t in business class and instead choose to fly premium economy. They are often the ones who buy a higher booking class and are therefore more valuable to an airline.
Business travelers are also far less sensitive to prices as they need to get to a specific place, on a specific date, and usually on a specific airline.
Leisure travelers tend not to share these qualities but unfortunately must suffer the consequences on business-heavy routes.
Therefore, use caution if your points A and B are typical business traveler cities. Use tools like Skyscanner to search all airlines that can offer you that connection, even if it involves making a stop or two. A simple plane change can save you hundreds, or thousands, of dollars.
See Related: Why So Many Flight Cancellations? Here’s What You Need to Know
7. The Timing of the Flight Affects the Ticket Price
We’ve covered seasonality and times of high demand, but we can get even more specific in this sense. Airlines price their tickets very particularly, even considering the day and time of the flight.
While you might have thought it was insignificant, the day of the week of your flight is one of the considerations many airlines make in pricing.
Mid-week flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, along with flights on Saturdays, are the cheapest. Other days of the week coincide with weekends when a lot of people are traveling and therefore have the highest prices.
Even the hour can make a difference, especially on routes with a lot of competition. British Airways, for example, offers flights from New York to London nearly every hour in the afternoon and evening.
However, they are not priced equally, and analysts are constantly determining what times on each day are the most valuable.
Once again, a good travel search engine like Kayak can be your solution to find the best fares. It makes a big difference to see all of your options in one search.
See Related: Best Skyscanner Alternatives
8. Low-Cost Airlines vs. Full-Service Carriers
You’ll most often find low-cost carriers offering lower fares than their legacy airline counterparts, which isn’t surprising. But you might be surprised why that cheap fare might have pulled you into spending even more than usual at the end of the day.
Airlines are required by law to advertise their fares with all taxes and fees included. But, those taxes and fees do not include everything you might want to buy, such as a full-sized carry-on, a checked bag, drinks on the plane, or even a printed boarding pass.
This is the essence of profit for low-cost airlines. They sell obscenely low-priced tickets only to charge a premium for basically anything else they can.
If you aren’t too familiar with which airlines are budget carriers and which are full-service, be sure to check on the inclusions in any results returned by Skyscanner or Google Flights.
Often, these “budget” flight deals add up to cost the same or more than a standard ticket once you add it all up. Have a look at flights out of Dallas Fort Worth, a hub for both Spirit Airlines and American Airlines, and add up the costs to get the same flight inclusions.
Do you actually save any money on Spirit?
9. Flight Fares Depend on the Timing of Your Purchase
This factor goes beyond the old myth that flights may or may not be the cheapest to book on Tuesdays. As you may have noticed, airlines are happy to research when exactly the seats on their planes are most valuable to travelers, so that they can be sure to charge the right price at the right time.
Booking with only short notice before a trip is usually a bad idea. You might be surprised to know that booking too far in advance isn’t the best choice either, as airlines will take advantage of serial planners to get a higher price.
Your best bet is to book 3-5 months in advance when the airline is really ready to start filling seats before it’s too late. You can even go as far as selecting the day of the week to check for the best deal, as tickets are often the cheapest mid-week.
Scott’s Cheap Flights, Thrifty Traveler Premium, and Dollar Flight Club are your keys to mastering the timing of your purchase as they’ll let you know just when the moment is right.
See Related: Must-Know Pieces of Advice for Booking Flights Online
10. Airlines Factor Taxes & Fees Into Prices
While airline pricing might be a mystery to anyone not behind the scenes and making those decisions, there are two easy factors that we can always be certain of; taxes and fees.
These aren’t the ones for luggage or extra legroom, but instead the money the airport and government collect from the airline. Bigger airports are more likely to have higher taxes and fees.
London Heathrow has long been at the center of a big complaint from both airlines and passengers for having some of the most ridiculous fees in the industry, explaining why alternatives like Gatwick, Stansted, and Heathrow are becoming so popular.
International flights collect their own special taxes, such as customs and border patrol fees. Finally, believe it or not, larger planes cost more to land on the runway; so taking a smaller aircraft could be the cheaper choice even by just a tiny bit.
How To Save Money on Flights
While we’ve touched briefly on how you can use certain tools to find the best deals, let’s take a look at them to see exactly how they work and what they can do for you.
Skyscanner is your go-to website for searching out all possible options for your flights. You will see all airlines, all connecting and direct flights, and all their prices, among much more.
This will help you overcome seasonality, the timing of your purchase, and other factors that can cause higher prices.
Alert services such as Scott’s Cheap Flights, Dollar Flight Club, and Thrifty Traveler Premium are some of our favorites to keep us informed of good deals. Sign up, plug in your departure airport, and wait for their teams to do the hard work. You’ll get notified the moment a great deal pops up.
Finally, sometimes you can’t avoid spending more on a ticket than you’d like to. But even when that’s not the case, you should really insure your trip. Providers like World Nomads and InsureMyTrip are reputable and affordable and can make sure your costly trip doesn’t get more costly if things go wrong.
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Find Cheap Flights
Use Skyscanner to find flight deals. As my personal favorite flight search engine, Skyscanner scours websites and airlines across the globe, leaving no stone unturned to help you find the best deal possible. And if you really want to take your savings to new heights, pair Skyscanner with Going (Formerly Scott's Cheap Flights). With access to exclusive mistake fares delivered straight to your inbox, you'll be packing your bags and jetting off on your next adventure before you know it.
Travel insurance is a low cost way to ensure your travel plans go smooth no matter what's thrown at it. Cover yourself against illness, injury and theft, and protect the arrangements you've made with our flexible travel cancellation insurance. My favorite options for travel insurance are:
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