Science behind airline ticket pricing: Tips and tricks for the cheapest seat

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Thursday, December 8, 2016
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Do you know what day to buy tickets? When to buy? Here are some tips.

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Ever feel like there's no rhyme or reason for the price of your airline ticket? Is there anything more infuriating than finding out the person sitting right next to you paid much less for their seat?

If pricing a flight feels like rocket science, it practically is. While you are sitting at your computer crunching numbers, airlines are monitoring flights, booking patterns and seat availability all in real time.

"They comes up with algebraic formula, a big algorithm that helps them determine that and then they try to get as much money as possible for each seat," said Billy Sanez, Vice President of Communications for the website

The idea is to pit availability against demand --and the travelers who need to fly no matter the price versus those of us who will buy only if the price is right. Fares are then adjusted accordingly.

"On one flight you could see sometimes up to 30 different fares and they're called fare buckets," said of the reason why different passengers may have paid vastly different prices for a ticket on the same flight.

When ABC13 tracked down fellow passengers on a last minute, round-trip flight to Dallas, our $362 ticket ended up in the middle of the pack, with some flyers paying less, while others paid more, even if they booked early.

Sanez says to get the cheapest ticket there are a few rules to follow:

-Purchase a ticket about 21 days before your trip, no earlier and no later in order to get the best price

-Shop all airlines, not just the so-called "cheap" carriers; sometimes a discount carrier will charge extra fees for expected conveniences, making some fares more expensive than those of traditional carriers

-Not all days are created equal; fly when business travelers aren't flying, on days like Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday -and at times when most people don't want to fly like early in the morning, late in the afternoon or at lunch time

-Fly on the morning of a holiday

-Book two, one-way flights instead of a round-trip ticket

-Set up a fare alert using a website like to keep track of changes in price

-Flying internationally? Try using the website built for the airline's home country to get what they call "regional pricing" which can be cheaper, avoiding some taxes

If you are looking for a last-minute getaway this holiday season, Sanez says it will likely be cheaper to fly internationally than domestically the last few weeks of the year.

"So, if you have family in Europe or want to spend Christmas or New Years away from the family, Europe is a great destination and you can probably get down there for less than $600 round-trip if you plan it out right," said Sanez.

Yet, no matter where you're headed as the year comes to a close, there is some good news, "On average, fares are going to be about 21-percent less than they were last year," Sanez said.

With competition from both major domestic and international carriers along with discount airlines, Sanez says there are always plenty of deals flying in and out of Houston.

"There's always great opportunities to fly into Houston if you have family coming in to visit you, but also flying out --look at last minute fares especially from Southwest Airlines that are known to sometimes do very last minute fare sales," Sanez said.

The bottom line? "If you see a good fare, go ahead and buy it, especially for the holidays because it's going to go away the next person who see it and just puts their credit card down."

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