It’s no secret that flight prices fluctuate constantly. Have you ever found a great deal on Google Flights just to return a few hours later to find that the price has 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 Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), Skyscanner, and more.
What We Cover
- What Affects Flight Prices?
- 1. Ticket Prices Change With the Season
- 2. Airlines Price Tickets Based on Oil Prices
- 3. Airline Tickets Follow the Laws of Demand
- 4. Flight Prices Drop When There’s More Competition
- 5. Longer Distances Lead to Higher Airline Fares
- 6. Business Travelers Affect Ticket Prices
- 7. The Timing of the Flight Affects the Ticket Price
- 8. Low-Cost Airlines vs. Full-Service Carriers
- 9. Flight Fares Depend on the Timing of Your Purchase
- 10. Airlines Factor Taxes & Fees Into Prices
- How To Save Money on Flights
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 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 beyond 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 ensure 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, VisitorsCoverage travel insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, with coverage for more than 150 activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation, and more.
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 you may have 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.
However, 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 of over 3 hours longer on the outbound and over 4 hours longer on the return.
Unfortunately, such a change will cost the airline and 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 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 the 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, 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 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.
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 many people travel and therefore have the highest prices.
However, they are not priced equally, and analysts are constantly determining what times 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 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, 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. 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 that booking too far in advance isn’t the best choice, as airlines will use serial planners to get a higher price.
Your best bet is to book 3-5 months in advance when the airline is ready to fill 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.
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 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 to use certain tools to find the best deals, let’s 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 Going.com (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), Dollar Flight Club, and Thrifty Traveler Premium are some of our favorites to inform us 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 true, you should insure your trip. Providers like VisitorsCoverage and InsureMyTrip are reputable and affordable and can ensure your costly trip doesn’t get more costly if things go wrong.