jet-lag 101: a crash course in the economics of flights

Posted: February 13, 2011 in travel, travel tips and preperation

I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to finding flights.

Often, I’ll see small patterns emerge from airline to airline, like the price “wave” that occurs as you near the departure date — a sudden increase in cost, then a lull, starting about 5 weeks out and hitting bottom about 10 days out.  These can be unpredictable and sometimes ass-backwards, and as I took something like sixteen flights last year, I probably spent more time than I should have finding most of them… but these days, I find myself trying to search a little smarter, and spending a little time learning the trends has wound up saving me a lot of time staring at prices.

Recently, another of my favorite blogs, Chart Porn, graced my inbox with a nice piece on flight pricing and decoding the seemingly arbitrary way in which it changes day to day. Chart Porn is pretty aptly named; it basically showcases online examples of data, with more of a focus on the design aspect than on the data itself, but with so much data out there, the posts from day to day can range quite a bit, making it a particularly fun blog to be signed up for — you never know what you might learn.

hmm... to buy, or wait?

Anyway, this post includes some great information and tools to help us understand what’s really going on with flight pricing… and, as we might have suspected, it’s at least a little arbitrary. This WSJ Article is an eye-opener into how airlines will change ticket prices throughout the days of the week to promote deals, or, just as often, to match their competitors. It’s interesting to note that a 7% difference in price from Friday to Saturday is, in fact, quite a lot. This farecompare page has a collection of articles that are even more in depth, offering some insights into individual airlines and their respective behavioral patterns.

This got me thinking a bit, about how I use the sites I use, and when. I usually scan the same three or four sites together to look for flights, although sometimes I’ll buy from the airline directly even after finding a deal, as they’ll commonly give you more leeway and flexibility than if you buy from an agent, which can make a small price hike worth it.   Still, for starters, it’s nice to check the major airfare search engines first… so where to start?

1) Kayak
Still the king, in my opinion, though it has some faults to work through. I really like that you can search for a week spread at a time, which will give you an idea of what day of the week to shoot for in your particular journey — and contrary to what we were all taught, it’s often not Wednesday at all. Also, the interface is really lovely for doing matrix-searches — in addition to searching within a whole week, you can specify multiple airports for To and From by simple adding commas between airport codes — so instead of having to search once for LAX to ICN, once for SFO to ICN, and once for SAN to ICN, you can simply enter LAX,SFO,SAN to ICN and see a complete search for

options: you have some

each. You can do this for both the To and From airports in the same search, so if you’re apathetic about your point of departure and relative destination (as I often am), it can save you a ton of time. I give it bonus points for accuracy too, as I’ve rarely hit dead-ends on the deals it finds, which can be common (and horrendously annoying) in the big-box search engines.

And for brownie points, they also have this incredibly bad-ass tool, which will let you literally search the entire earth for flights in a map view, and lets you narrow destinations based on price, temperature, duration, date of travel, etc… so if you REALLY want to do the whole “put on a blindfold and throw the dart at the wall” thing, it might be right up your alley… though I really don’t recommend throwing a dart at your monitor.  If you do, at least videotape the results and email it to me…

2) Skyscanner

This one can be a mixed bag too, although I’ve found some really stellar deals on it, particularly around Asia. It’s also a really fun one to use, as it lets you search entire countries at once, as well as scanning whole months, or even a whole year. It is the only site (that even remotely works, anyway) that I’ve found that will give you this option, to be absolutely as vague as possible in your search. The flip side to this feature is that the wider your search is, the less scrutinizing it seems to be in regards to cost, which would at least partly explain why I’ve had good luck with it in Asia, in smaller countries with fewer international airports. In any case, it’s a fun tool, and one that has saved me a lot of dough in getting from country to country.

3) Graphical Madman Award: Hipmunk

This one seems to show VERY similar results to Kayak, but the interface is, in a word, brilliant. Instead of little boxes showing each flight’s vital stats, you get a lovely graph that indicates each flight by its take-off and landing duration, sorted however you like, including an option called “Agony”, a matrix of price, duration and stop-overs. It also has a nifty “tabbed” system, that lets you have multiple searches open in one window/tab, and shows each search in individual tabs within the site, freeing up your browser’s tabs (and, presumably, your machine’s processing/memory consumption). Very handy if your parameters (dates, destinations) are pretty concrete anyway, and you just want to see everything in a clearer light.

4) Price is Right Showcase Award: Travelzoo

This site basically showcases airline-direct specials, as well as cruise, hotel, and all-inclusive deals (although I can’t really comment on the latter offers). I generally scan it every few weeks to get an idea of the deals that are available, and since for flights, they’re usually airline-direct, the round-trip deals can be amazing: Asia for >$800, Costa Rica for $200ish, New Zealand for $860 — stuff like that. Highly recommended for finding R/T deals that the bigger search engines won’t show you.

5) Eyebrow-Raising-to-Savings Ratio Award: ASAPtickets

These guys are sort of like the red-headed cousins of the guys who run Travelzoo, if those cousins wound up skipping school, joining the mafia, and opening a travel agency in an alley around the corner. Sometimes they can find great deals, though, so they’re worth mentioning. Basically, the site shows all-inclusive prices for R/T or one-way tickets, based on deals that are sometimes pretty specific and sometimes strict in terms of exact dates. You have to call them first (there is no option to book online) and give them your parameters, then they’ll call or email you back with the skinny on what they can do. I’ve never purchased through them before, but one of my traveling friends swears by them, and the prices I’ve heard her quote are usually ridiculously low… so if you’re in a pinch, need the ticket for a departure that’s less than a week out, or just have some extra time, give them a shout and see what they say. Also, of the three times I’ve called them, the name of the guy on the other end of the line is usually something like “Boris” or “Mario”, although they usually sound Latin rather than Eastern European. Who knows…

6) Honorable Mention: Orbitz

Okay, so everyone already knows about Orbitz, and Kayak searches it for you when you use it, but I have a crush on them, so I’m dropping their name anyway. I used to use Priceline almost exclusively for domestic flights, but in the last year I had some major customer service woes with them, one of which almost culminated in me throwing a Molotov Cocktail at a Days Inn in Alameda, so for now they’re on my shit-list…

Orbitz has some pretty nice features to it, the best of which is a service called Courtesy Cancel. Basically, if you want to cancel a flight you’ve purchased within 24-hours of buying it, you press a button on their website, and bam, you just canceled your flight, with no penalty. This is not available on all flights they sell, but I’ve done it twice before, and if you buy a ticket, then find a better deal (on a different flight) the next day, this feature is priceless. Also, if you book a flight and the price goes down on that exact flight, they refund you the difference, automatically. This has saved me probably $300 since I almost burned down that hotel in Alameda.

Alright then! Now you too can spend hours of your time scouring the internet, taking notes, and daydreaming… happy hunting, and please post any tips I might have missed!

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Comments
  1. A.G. Sterling, U.S.A. says:

    Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been suckered into an article or post about “Budget Travel” tips — only to find the authors budget is subsidized by a news agency, an 80k a year job, or the good fortune to be born into a family with no greater desire than to spoil the common sense out of their children!
    (…’Cause, no, Mr. Editor, a $190. a night hotel room is NOT a bargain for someone trying to live on $30. usd a day!) Lower flight cost ALWAYS equals a longer stay for me –no matter where I lay my head.
    Finally some REAL travel information I can USE.
    Thanks for doing the heavy lifting for us. Bravo!

  2. Jack Fox-Powell says:

    this is awesome. thanks nich

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