With airlines boosting fares, adding summer surcharges and packing planes, is it still possible to have a deal fall in your lap?
Websites offer an array of online tools aimed at taking the guesswork out of finding the lowest airfares, but sometimes it simply comes down to being in the right place at the right time, ready to pounce without procrastinating.
That's what happened to me while I was doing some casual shopping for a flight from Seattle to Cincinnati between Christmas and New Year's. I wasn't planning on buying an airline ticket this far ahead. I knew better (or at least thought I did). There were no sales, and airlines rarely release their cheapest domestic-flight seats more than three months out.
But I was curious to see what was happening. So with some dates in mind, I did a search on Kayak.com, the website that scans various airline and third-party ticket sellers such as Orbitz and Cheaptickets.
Up popped a $318 round-trip fare on Delta Air Lines available for purchase from Alaska Airlines through its code-share agreement with Delta.
This was a rock-bottom fare. What was more startling was that Kayak showed Delta selling the same ticket on its website for $579.
There's no way, I thought, that Alaska would sell a Delta ticket for less than Delta itself was charging. I checked Alaska's website and the $318 fare was real. I immediately bought two tickets.
The next day, Delta showed a fare of $729 for the round-trip ticket. Alaska's price had jumped to $1,261.
A code-share alliance allows one airline — in this case, Alaska — to market and sell another carrier's flights and share in the revenue. Airlines have dozens of fares in place for the same flight. Outside of a sale, they usually allocate just a few seats at the lowest price.
"Essentially the way it's supposed to work is that the prices are identical," says Delta's Trebor Banstetter. "However, sometimes there will be a slight difference in inventory (seats) that both airlines are selling.
"Delta might have sold all the lowest-tier seats, and Alaska might have one or two left (or visa versa). Normally what happens is that kind of thing is flagged, and the airlines will basically coordinate to make sure their prices are aligned, but occasionally you get the situation where for some period of time, there are price disparities."
And why did Alaska's price suddenly jump to $1,261 the next day?
The airline's Bobbie Egan said it was likely "a technical issue that should not have happened."
Perhaps not, but neither was it a one-time fluke.
Testing the system again, I randomly picked dates for another Seattle-Cincinnati round trip, this time for October travel.
Once again, I came across Delta flights priced at $303.90 if purchased through Alaska as well as from Cheaptickets.com and Orbitz, while the price on Delta's website for the same flights was $377.90.
Checking back a week later, the price on Delta, Orbitz and Cheaptickets had dropped to $297.90 while Alaska showed a fare of $496.
Part of the explanation likely has to do with what the airlines call "yield management," says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, an airfare-search site filled with technology tools Seaney says were designed to "take the hunting and pecking out of shopping experience."
Tinkering with dozens of "fare classes" (ticket prices set according to advance purchase requirements, minimum stays, flexibility to change or cancel etc.), computers make a final decision on the seat price based on supply, demand and predicted trends.
"These models can and do change their minds at any time, which is one reason why you may get a different quote for the same flight at different times during the day."
By now, you might be thinking there's no strategy for taking advantage of (or avoiding) price fluctuations as wild as these.
Partly true. Shopping for airline tickets can be like rolling the dice, but there are ways to improve the odds.
—Shop often and compare prices. Don't assume because you found the best deal one place that you'll find it there the next time. There is no one "best" place to buy.
—Do your homework. Know what's a good price, either by relying on past experience or by tracking historical airfare data, using tools available on various websites.
FareCompare offers tips for deciding when and where to buy. Bing.com/travel uses technology developed by Seattle's Farecast to predict which way fares will go in the next three months, with "buy" or "wait" recommendations.
—Sign up for e-mail fare alerts on sites such as Kayak, FareCompare or AirfareWatchdog for notices of price changes for flights on routes and dates you have in mind.
—Be ready to move fast to grab a good fare. If need be, coordinate with your traveling companion ahead of time on dates and other logistics, so you can be ready to buy.
—Know when not to buy. The general rule for domestic flights (international can be different), says Seaney, is that if you buy tickets more than three months out, you'll probably pay too much. But, as my experience showed, there certainly are exceptions.