The Changing Nature of Flight Prices: A Brief Guide

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Purchasing airline tickets can be a complex and frustrating process. Prices may change quickly and without notice. And especially for longer itineraries or multi-sector journeys, there can be wide variations in price for different routes, airlines or choice of stopovers. Better search and booking tools have made this much easier, but there are still a few things to know when searching. Here are some of the main factors that affect flight prices.

Prices change according to availability

It will come as no surprise that availability is at the heart of airline ticket pricing. Airlines want to maximize revenue from a given flight and have decades of experience in this area. In its simplest form, an airline will likely sell cheaper tickets on an empty flight and want to charge much higher prices when there are only a few seats left.

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This is the main reason why the price of a flight increases rapidly – often while you are still considering a purchase. Airlines have long used a system of “booking classes” to manage this availability. These represent different price points in each cabin, and as lower booking classes sell out, prices generally increase. There are variations between airlines (and certainly with low-cost airlines). With full-service airlines, you will see some similarities – such as Y for full-fare economy class and J for full-fare business class.

Ticket prices tend to increase closer to departure – but there’s a whole lot more to it. Photo: Getty Images

Prices within these bands are set by the airlines based on expected demand and historical experience. Revenue management is a major area for airlines, and historical data and artificial intelligence algorithms are commonly adopted to aid pricing. It’s been a challenge throughout and after the pandemic, of course, with travel habits and ticket buying trends very different than in recent years.

Buy tickets in advance

There are frequent debates about whether it is better to buy the tickets sooner or later. In general, earlier purchases offer better value – although you should take into account the limited and likely expensive change policies. Some of them were removed during COVID, but they’re coming back fast.

Airlines often offer discounted fares during sales for advance purchases of several months – there can be considerable savings here for long-haul business class travel.

Prices usually don’t drop very close to the start. While this might sound like a good idea to fill seats and generate revenue, it would undermine pricing strategies if passengers were just waiting to do so. However, there are differences between airlines and between routes. Leisure and business travel are a prime example. On some typical leisure or vacation routes, prices may drop closer to departure to attract passengers. On typical trade routes or between key city pairs, prices can rise very high at the last minute.

Tools like Google Flight can help you track price changes. Image: Google

Fly midweek and off-peak

Peak travel dates will always have higher prices – both due to current seat availability and airlines setting higher base prices for dates they expect to be popular. School holidays and public holidays are obvious examples, but don’t forget to check the peak dates at your destination as well, as they can be very different. A period like Chinese New Year, for example, may not be so obvious in Europe, but it will usually have a big impact on flights to Asia.

The day of the week matters too. Flights are generally cheaper in the middle of the week than at the end or during the weekend. There are exceptions for peak hours and short business trips, but this is a well-observed trend. Tuesday to Thursday is generally lower.

The day of the reservation is also important. The flight booking site Skyscanner, for example, reports from its analysis of flight prices that fares are typically lowest when booking on a Tuesday – up to 15-25% less. He notes that airlines often launch new fares on Mondays, which has an impact on prices.

Stopovers and different routes

Another way to find lower prices is to consider the route you are traveling. While it doesn’t help a short regional flight or traveling with low cost carriers, there is plenty of flexibility for longer routes.

Adding a stop is a simple consideration. Airlines often charge higher direct flights. A direct flight with British Airways from London to Hong Kong may, for example, be more than one with KLM stopping in Amsterdam. A stop will lengthen the journey, but it could lower the price, and many passengers prefer to break the journey and take shorter individual flights. Stopovers in the Middle East are a good case here.


Adding a layover or indirect flight can save money. Photo: Getty Images

Origin and destination are also essential in pricing. Again, on longer flights you’ll likely have more flexibility with this. Airlines price flights according to the route and changing origin or destination can significantly affect the flight. Flying to a different airport in the same country can make a difference (even if you’re connecting through the same airport). As can from another place. This is especially the case in Europe, where fares are set for local markets and can vary significantly if you are crossing into another country to begin the journey.

Unbundled air fares and comparison

Finally, when looking at different airline fares, be sure to consider the total price. Although most countries now include all taxes in the prices listed, not all fares include the same extras. Seats, baggage, meals and ticket changes are all essential to look at. Airlines make a lot of money from ancillary fees, and more and more are adding more.

Budget airlines really pioneered the concept of unbundled fares, but others followed suit. Photo: Getty Images

Even in business class these days, some airlines exclude baggage and lounge access from the lowest fares. Especially on longer flights with connections, be sure to check this. Not including baggage, when billed by flight sector, can be a costly mistake.

Changing flight prices can be frustrating, but with some knowledge of how and when prices change, you can plan better. You can also monitor prices – many booking sites (including Skyscanner and Google Flights) will allow you to track and monitor prices. Feel free to share more tips and ideas in the comments.


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