If you stumble upon a good fare, book it. That is the best and simplest piece of advice I can give you. If you have to co-ordinate the trip with others, get them on the phone right now, book it and move on. Especially if it’s a price that you know is good. If you don’t know it’s good, check www.farecast.com or www.kayak.com for a good idea. Oftentimes people know they have a good fare but think that price will last – it won’t.
Domestic airfare is especially vulnerable to price fluctuations.
International consolidator fares may give you a guaranteed price with a few days to decide before you have to pay. Unless the travel agency guarantees the price and the seat, book fast.
Putting flights on hold: if you have to put a flight on hold, check to see if the availability of the seat and price is guaranteed. The availability is usually not the problem. Nowadays even the most basic online travel agency can put a seat on hold. Availability is useless unless the price of the ticket is fixed along with it. If not, you have a seat but you’ll be playing Russian Roulette with the price.
Unless the site or travel agency says otherwise, the fare is not guaranteed from one minute over the other. If it says ‘Fare is not guaranteed until ticketed’, this means until it’s been ticketed, the price is subject to change.
Just because the fare is $300 now does not mean it’ll be the same even 5 minutes from now. Just because you have a seat on hold when the price was $300 does not mean the price is locked in unless you’re explicitly told otherwise. This is another reason to buy as quickly as possible so you lock in that price.
From the perspective of the traveler, don’t try to outguess the pricing system. Domestic airfare prices are cheaper 7 days in advance, 14 days in advance and sometimes 21 days in advance. For international airfare, you should buy ‘consolidator’ or ‘bulk fares’ which have their own rules and advance purchases.
If you’re going to some out of the way place in low season you can feel only marginally better of the seats selling out than a high traffic route in high season. Given airlines are cutting routes and equipment, seats are harder to come by. The best case scenario for you would be a site or travel agency that guarantees the seat and the price in which you’re fine until the reservation expires.
Why do seats and pricing change so much?
1) Airlines have complex software that change availability and pricing in REAL TIME. This software scours all the flights the airline has and makes upward or downward revisions to the availability and price across all their flights. Price changes can happen anytime for any reason. So the airline computer may automatically decide the flight from Los Angeles to London is filling up and the $300 fare price is no longer valid and the lowest price will now be $500.
2) Also keep in mind that seats can be purchased by any travel agency anywhere in the world – that’s a lot of travel agencies that can put that seat on hold or purchase that ticket. Think of the tens of thousands of agencies just in the United States alone that have access to that seat. I’ve seen seats sell out within minutes.
3) Keep in mind all the connecting and code-share flights that take up seats. Somebody in Australia may purchase a seat on your Los Angeles to New York United Flight on their way to London.
4) Last but not least, airlines have staff dedicated to adjusting pricing who’s whole job is to monitor pricing and change pricing accordingly.
Will the fare drop? I like to say it could happen but it’s very unlikely. I try to book in advance as much as possible. Seats generally go up in price. I have heard the occasional story of a price dropping but 9 times out of 10, I get a client or a friend complaining how the price went up.
Waiting to the last minute is not advised unless you’re fine with the possibility of not going on the trip.
Buy 3 to 5 months in advance for international trips or you can buy a consolidator fare at the last minute and hope there are seats.
If it’s a domestic trip, 1 to 2 months in advance is a good rule of thumb.
How long can I put an itinerary on hold: Given the number of airlines and the types of fares, there is no set time for how long a ticket can be placed on hold – check each site or ask your travel agent. General rule is, the deeper the discount, the faster you need to buy it. That makes sense. What you’re paying a high price for is the flexibility to book late and to change the itinerary at their discretion. This is why business travelers buy higher cost fares that allow for free changes because they never know if their 2 day business trip may turn into a 5 day marathon or if they’re going on the trip at all.
If you’re flight is tomorrow and you’re buying a deep discount fare, the itinerary won’t be on hold for very long – you may only have a few hours or at best by the end of the day. If you’re paying full fare ($2800 to London from Los Angeles in Economy Class), you can put the flight on hold up until ½ hour before departure –what you’re paying for is the flexibility to decide at the last minute in return for paying a higher fare.
If you’re flight is 9 months from now, you may get longer hold times varying from 24 hours to a few days depending on the type of fare you purchase. I’ve had some deep discount international fares put on hold in January for a November trip sit there for months before the airline forces us to ticket the reservation. The travel agent or the site will tell you how much time you have.
Let me take the subject of reservation hold times one step further. Sometimes, the travel agent may not even know. For international consolidator fares (deep discount bulk fares), some airlines take 4 to 24 hours to put a note in the reservation telling the travel agent that a ticket is needed in _____ hour(s)/day(s) and until the airline puts that note in the reservation, the travel agent doesn’t know. They’ll often quote a generic “This ticket needs to be booked in 24 hours” but if you want the exact time then ask the travel agent when your reservation expires – or to be fancy ask ‘when does this PNR expire’ and how much time do you need for ticketing? This is especially handy if you need a lit bit more time than the generic ’24 hour’ window the travel agent quoted for your international trip.
Let’s assume you have a good fare on hold and the price is fixed. Keep in mind how much time it takes for ticketing especially for international flights. If you’re buying from a website, this is not a concern. Ticketing is usually done in an hour. Ticketing timeslines really come into play when buying from a traditional storefront travel agency who may not process tickets as fast as an online agency. Some storefront agencies are very fast and others are not.
Ticketing is the process of charging your credit card and converting the reservation from being ‘on hold’ to a confirmed ‘purchased’ ticket. Most travel agencies, and I’m making a generalization here, ticket on weekdays during business hours. Some online travel agencies ticket 24 hours a day.
Check the specifics or read their online support section for ticketing timelines. Some travel agencies need 15 minutes, others may take days. I can’t see why an agency would take more than 1 day unless they’re really backed up in ticketing and understaffed. Obviously you want to have your reservation ticketed before it expires. Some of the reason why travel agencies quote a generic “this reservation will expire in 24 hours” period is to give them more time to ticket your reservation. If you’re buying from an airline, ticketing is usually highly automated and very fast. I booked my wife to South Africa and paid 4 hours before the flight. Anybody who has booked on American or United knows you’ll get an ‘E-ticket confirmation number’ in an hour if that.
You can feel at ease only after your reservation has been ticketed. Until then, it’s just on hold waiting to expire or waiting to be converted to a purchase. If your reservation expires at 6pm and its 4pm and you haven’t gotten an e-ticket confirmation, be concerned.
Most agencies will send an email, an ‘Electronic Ticket’ Notification of some type, that tells you your reservation has been ticketed.
It is good practice to locate the ticket number(s) on the itinerary and bring the e-mail/document with the ticket numbers with you to the airport especially for an international flight.
Last but not least, with new security rules, for some international itineraries, the travel agency can rightfully ask you detailed information about your passport number, passport expiration date and so on. Don’t be alarmed. This is in response to information the US Government asks of travel agencies as a pre-requisite to ticketing.