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When to Book Air
How far out should you book to make sure you get your customers the best airfare? Once upon a time, the farther out you booked, the better the price. No more. Today, airlines are trying to get as high a fare as possible from every seat, according to Jerry Behrens, senior vice president for the Tzell Travel Group and Travel Leaders Group.
What that means is airlines are not making lower fares available until the departure date gets closer--and even then, that is only if and when they’re pretty sure the flight won’t fill up with people paying higher fares.As airlines get better and better at managing capacity, something at which U.S. carriers now excel, that means flights are fuller and there’s far less distressed inventory.
Sure, you’ll see fares out there for next year because airlines are still posting their fares 11 months out.But if you’ve got a client planning to attend a music festival in Germany next spring, for example, the fare for that April flight to Germany is little more than a marker that they’ve put in the sand. “Airlines aren’t looking that far ahead,” says Akshay Shah, vice president of marketing for Skybird Travel and president of the U.S. Air Consolidator Association. “They’ll just throw a fare out there.” It might be based on nothing more calculated than increasing last year’s fare for that same period by 5 percent, he says.
Shah says airlines are focused on making sure that flights that are going out next week or two months out are full.They start focusing on fares more about six months out. It’s not that they’re shortsighted, it’s just the nature of their world. When you’re in an industry that is affected by so many factors--fuel prices, politics and natural disasters, to name just three--it doesn’t make sense to spend too much energy on calculating prices that far in advance.
Domestic fares are more complex than international fares. There are a lot of variables, according to Shah.These can include whether or not a low-cost carrier is one of the carriers serving a particular city pair, which has a big impact on fares. Other market factors include whether the route is strong in leisure or business passengers as well as the number of daily departures for that city pair. Then there are industry constants like soaring oil prices, scheduling challenges and labor costs.
Very generally speaking, if you’ve got an event with a fixed date--a wedding or the Super Bowl, for example--Behrens says you should book far in advance.“I don’t think you have much choice,” he says. Otherwise you risk not being able to find any seats at all. At the same time, be flexible whenever you can, whether it’s the time of day, or being able to leave a few days earlier or later. Biting the bullet and opting for a connecting flight can sometimes save your clients money as well. And on some routes, a Saturday night stay can still lower the cost of a flight.
Timing often can make a big difference. Shah did a quick check of international routes and found that a Detroit-Tokyo economy roundtrip in July would cost roughly $2,500--a base fare of just under $1,900 plus a fuel surcharge of $30 each way.But check October and that base fare drops to $1,400 (although the fuel surcharge stays the same). Taxes also can add up to hundreds of dollars in some instances. And on a recent trip to the U.K., I shifted my departure by a week and was able to get four frequent-flyer tickets to London.
Shah describes airline pricing as yield management on steroids. Election year politics can send fuel prices in any direction, according to Rick Seaney, president of FareCompare, and that has an immediate impact on airfares.Airlines keep raising fares, but they monitor the market’s response to it closely. That’s because they’ve learned that if prices go too high, people stay home.
Denise Palumbo, office manager for Travel Leaders in Palm Coast, Fla., says her office recommends buying Europe tickets at least three to six months in advance.In general, she says she tells clients to buy fares they consider affordable and then don’t look back. It may be a fare they don’t want to ever know about, especially if it’s lower!
Kate Rice covers travel agents, travel technology and airlines for TravelPulse.com.
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