'Should I buy my flight now or wait?' - The question I get asked the most
No matter how many times I tell people that airfare prices can't be predicted, this question always comes up in some form or another, so I've decided to write an article that I can start referencing people to.
For the record, asking 'Is this a good price?' is essentially the same question, just worded differently. They both depend on what future airfare prices will be.
The truth is, even the airlines themselves don't know what fares they'll be cutting. They plan on selling X number of seats for X number of dollars, and if that doesn't happen, they may find it necessary to drop the price to fill those seats. Or it can be a result of a competitor dropping their price on a certain route, which is an unpredictable event.
The demand for those seats can be influenced by *so* many variables, from the overall health of the economy, to whether or not people feel like flying there this year, to when or where the next flu epidemic hits.
The prices are reactionary to events beyond anyone's control, which is what makes them unpredictable, by you, me, or anyone else.
That being said, there are certain generalities that can apply, depending on the destination. Just keep in mind these are simply things I've learned from obsessively watching airfares, and there's never any guarantee of anything in the world of travel prices.
Toronto to somewhere in Canada/U.S.
To get anywhere in Canada from Toronto, you have three options, Westjet, Air Canada, and Porter (for destinations out East). They tend to track each other to a tee, usually mirroring each other's airfares and promos with great precision. They really haven't offered up much of anything too exciting in a long time, just the occasional promo code here and there.
When it comes to promo codes, it's almost always Porter that puts one out first, and then Westjet and Air Canada match it, usually a few hours later (Air Canada is usually first to match, followed by Westjet). Lately, Porter has been putting out their '30% off' promo codes twice monthly, so they must be working well for them. Really though, it's often more a marketing gimmick than a truly great discount.
For starters, it's 30% off the 'base fare', not the whole price (of which taxes/fees make up a big chunk). So really, you're lucky if you save 15% off the final price. Secondly, there's nothing stopping them from raising their base fares and *then* offering a discount. A lot of times you'll see that the price after the promo discount is applied is nothing special. To truly know whether it's a deal or not, you need to educate yourself on what a good price for the route is, after all taxes and fees.
Westjet also has their Blue Tag Thursdays which are a notable exception, and kudos to them for trying something different. Sometimes the deals aren't really deals, but there have definitely been a few real gems.
I find though if the Canadian airlines are going to offer a sale or a promo code it's typically for departures up to about 2 months from the current date. So in April, you might see them offer a discount on May/June flights. It's quite rare to see them offer a true discount on departures that are 4+ months away.
Within Canada though, I really wouldn't get my hopes up for anything too exciting. True sales have been few and far between, despite what they like to have you believe with their marketing.
The '8 weeks ahead' advice
To the U.S., I'm usually comfortable watching flights up to about 8 weeks before departure in hopes of a discount. I will be applying this advice to many other destinations as well, as you will see.
Airlines aren't a whole lot different than a clothing store. At a certain point, about a season ahead, they can decide to clear their inventory and offer lower prices. They key difference is though, at a clothing store the clothes don't cost more and more as they get down to the last remaining stock. With an airline, as the plane becomes nearly full, those seats become more valuable, and the prices tend to go up and never come back down.
So the trick is waiting it out up to that point when airlines decide they need to get rid of excess stock, but not waiting too long to be forced to buy an expensive shirt. During this time, if you see a 10-20% discount, I'd probably grab it. The odds of a 30% or more discount to the exact destination you want are fairly low.
For me, just based on everything I've observed, the longest I would usually hold out is up to about 8 weeks before departure. 6 weeks if I really want to push it. If the airline hasn't decided to clear inventory by then, it's probably best to bite the bullet.
The reason being, as you get down to less than 6-8 weeks to go, you really start to run the risk that the airline will have been able to fill those seats up and that they won't see any need to sell anything but increasingly higher fares from that point forward.
Toronto to Europe
On the major airlines to Europe, my '8 weeks ahead' advice from above would apply. So if you're looking to go to anywhere but Greece, Amsterdam, the UK, Italy, Spain, or Portugal that's probably the way to go.
The exception here would be the charter airlines, ie: Air Transat and Thomas Cook, that fly into the destinations listed above. Time and time again they've been pretty consistent with significantly dropping their prices about a month (or less) before departure to fill up seats. Of course, you run the risk that they won't, but certainly in non-summer months, the odds are quite good in your favor.
Toronto to Warm & Sunny Places
Mexico, Cuba, Dominican, Jamaica - These are all places that have plenty of charter flights, and are one of the few destinations in the world where true 'last minute' fare drops exist on a consistent basis. It's not uncommon to see a significant price drop with a week or two to go before departure. Of course the problem is, it's impossible to say when or where that might be to.
That's on the charter flights though, if you're looking to get to one of the above destinations on a major carrier, you should probably follow the standard 8 weeks ahead advice.
And for everywhere else that's warm & sunny near the Caribbean that can't be reached with a charter flight, I'd probably follow the 8 weeks ahead advice as well.
Toronto to Everywhere Else
For everywhere else, South America, Australia, Asia, Africa, I'd follow the 8 weeks ahead advice.
Holiday Periods, Long Weekends
Using the clothing store analogy, airlines would be crazy to offer a discount on a shirt that *everybody* wants.
Seats are more likely to fill up faster, which means there's less of a reason to offer a sale, that's just common sense. The '8 weeks ahead' advice can become more meaningless during these holiday periods, and you may want to consider biting the bullet earlier.
Christmas is even another level beyond that. I would never like to say something's impossible in the world of travel prices, but the odds of finding a significant price drop to the exact destination you want at Christmas time are very remote.
You do see the occasional freak price drop to a destination or two over the magical December 20 to January 7 period, but again, the odds of it happening to the destination *you* want are right up there with winning the lottery. Consider yourself very lucky if it happens.
- I still get the occasional person wondering if they can find cheap flights by going 'standby'. I'm guessing the people asking this haven't been on a flight since Trudeau was Prime Minister. These days, the term standby is only used in reference to people that were bumped from a flight, or missed their connection. Show up at an airport without a ticket, and you'll have to buy a very expensive last minute one if you plan to get there.
- 'Are there last minute deals to....?' - People hear about the last minute deals that *do* exist to a few specific destinations (notably charter flights/packages to warm, tropical places) and think that last minute deals must exist to *everywhere* they want to go. Nothing could be further from the truth. If it's not Mexico, Cuba or the Dominican you can usually forget about it. Last minute flights to most destinations are extremely pricey. When there's a rare exception, you'll find that I get excited enough to blog about it.
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