It’s the age-old question that bedevils airline travelers: Is this a good fare? The Internet is rife with advice on when to buy and when to fly, a mix of maxims that frequently serves to confuse fare shoppers more than they enlighten: Buy on Tuesdays! Avoid Friday flights!
We have another. (You knew this was coming.) The latest fare study, by a Boston-area travel-tech startup called Hopper, found that Thursday is the cheapest day to purchase a ticket, with weekends the worst. The best fares were found for Wednesday departures, while returns were cheapest on Tuesday for domestic flights and on Wednesday for international trips. Friday was the most expensive day to fly home both domestically and abroad, likely because Friday and Sunday are two of the heaviest traffic days for airlines worldwide.
The results are based on fare data from January 2013 to this month, drawn from 11,000 markets with U.S. departures and at least 1,000 weekly searches through travel agents. The biggest difference in methodology was that Hopper looked at the days when airlines offered the most of their lowest fares on these routes, not just average fares.
Still, as airlines become ever-more sophisticated at pricing—and keep tight checks on seat capacity—savings are relatively narrow. The difference between the “worst” and “best” purchase days was $10 for domestic flights and $25 internationally. Fare differences in departure and return days topped out at $60 for international flights, and even less domestically, according to Hopper. “I think the airlines have just become a lot better at the yield management piece so there’s no longer this predictable way you can outwit them,” says Patrick Surry, Hopper’s data scientist, calling the days of frequent consumer “big wins” largely over.
Thus, Hopper’s data suggest that fare bargains don’t arise from trying to play the best-time-to-buy game, but in better consumer education about what constitutes a good fare on a particular route. Fly to San Francisco every week or month and it’s not long before the atrocious and decent fares become apparent to you. But plan a trip to Croatia or Santa Fe or Shanghai and you may have zero idea whether the fares around your travel dates are any good from your city. What’s more, your vacation or business trip has specific dates—most travelers do not know how to consider seasonal price fluctuations, or whether a new airline competitor will have an effect, or what happens if you leave two days earlier.
Upstarts such as Hopper are trying to build new online tools that reduce the information vacuum that often leaves consumers paying more. “It’s really hard to get any kind of big picture,” Surry says. “So I think there’s a lot of power that the airlines exploit in that space.”