It feels like everyone has a “flight hack” they use for cheaper airfare, and preach that hack like the gospel to anyone who will listen. Maybe it’s using flight tracking apps like Hopper, or buying plane tickets on a specific day of the week. Evidence that these hacks actually work is anecdotal at best, but using them makes us feel empowered, like we have a little agency in a world that’s often out of our control. Well, not to burst anyone’s bubble, but a new study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that “cheap flight hacks” aren’t getting you the bargains you think they are.
Olivia Natan, assistant professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, conducted a deep dive into airfare and how ticket prices are set. She discovered that many of our preconceptions about airfare are wrong, and therefore, hacks to get cheaper tickets are also based in fallacy.
“Airline tickets are sold through global distribution systems,” Natan told Phys.org, “that make sure a travel agent in Wichita or Miami sees the same price as you do on your computer at home.”
That means airline ticket prices don’t respond to real-time changes in supply and demand – only demand forecasts made before the tickets even go on sale. Indeed, airlines have a fixed and limited number of prices for their tickets on each flight, which aren’t adjusted and changed in real time like they might in retail and other consumer sectors. This means airline prices don’t fluctuate all that much, and certainly don’t jump or decline as tickets become less available. Any “hack” claiming to identify the cheapest date or time to buy, or which tells you to change your VPN or browse in Incognito mode, is based on loose economic footing.
Prices do, however, tend to rise in the last 20 days before the flight, so it’s wise to buy earlier rather than later. “What I can say,” Nathan says, “is that prices do go up significantly 21, 14, and seven days before a flight. Just buy your ticket before then.”
While changes in how airlines set their prices might eventually be on the horizon, for now, “the hunt for an undiscovered trick to find lower fares is largely futile.”