When Airfares Vary Wildly, Where Are The Deals?

Originally published on June 21, 2011 5:36 am

Climbing oil prices have led to higher airfares this summer. But not all passengers pay the same rate, says Scott Mayerowitz, airlines reporter for The Associated Press.

For a recent story, Mayerowitz and his colleague Samantha Bomkamp visited the airport and asked passengers what they had paid for their flight. "We found some incredible differences out there," he says.

For instance, fares for a New York to Fort Lauderdale trip "ranged from $169 to $360," he says. "And that was just a leisure flight. When you start to look at some of these business routes, like New York to Chicago, or New York to Los Angeles, you could have someone paying four or five times as much as the cheapest passenger on that airplane."

Fliers can use some tricks to find the best fares, Mayerowitz tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne.

First, he says, don't shop for flights on weekends. "The best deals out there are for people who are booking their tickets on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays," he says.

And you should buy the ticket between four and six weeks in advance — what Mayerowitz calls a "sweet spot" between the early birds and the last-minute planners.

While there are some dirt-cheap deals out there, customers should be prepared to act fast. Airlines are using social media like Twitter and Facebook as part of a strategy "to find new customers," Mayerowitz says. "There are deals out there, but they go so quickly."

That's because the airlines are hoping that by slashing prices on a handful of seats, they'll earn some goodwill — and some free word-of-mouth advertising, Mayerowitz says.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Thanks for joining us.

MONTAGNE: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: We've heard, for years, about people sitting in the same row of a flight who have paid, you know, vastly different sums for the same ticket and they're just one seat apart. Is that still going on?

MONTAGNE: For instance, we were looking at a flight between New York and Fort Lauderdale. And the prices there ranged from $169 to $360, and that was just a leisure flight. When you start looking at some of these business routes like a New York to Chicago or New York to Los Angeles, you could have someone paying four or five times as much as the cheapest passenger on that plane.

MONTAGNE: What are your tips on how to get the best airfare?

MONTAGNE: The next thing is there's sort of the sweet spot about four to six weeks in advance of your trip. That's the best time to buy. If you buy further out, the prices could be higher and if you get within that three-four week window of your trip, the prices can be significantly higher.

MONTAGNE: Well, so that old-fashioned idea - and this is quite old-fashioned - that booking oh, I don't know, a couple months in advance is really going to help you out, not really.

MONTAGNE: There are some deals way in advance. But from speaking with experts and doing our own research, we found that four to six weeks is sort of that sweet spot where the best prices are.

MONTAGNE: How helpful are Internet sources like Yapta or Kayak, where you put in the route that you want and they'll alert you that the fare has gone down?

MONTAGNE: Some of these services are really helpful tools for travelers. You're able to check multiple airline sites at once, see what the best deals are, and they do send you a notifications when something changes. The key with these is you have to be able to jump on them within a few hours. Airfares will change overnight. So when you do get these alerts you've got about an hour, maybe two, a little more, to go ahead and book that flight.

MONTAGNE: And then I gather that some of these deals, the really great ones, can sometimes last just a couple of minutes.

MONTAGNE: Airlines are now using social media to find new customers. And there are deals out there but they go so quickly. They're just a few seats and the airlines really want to have someone say look; I found this amazing $29 flight on JetBlue. You should fly them too. Well, it's very unlikely that someone else is going to find that great deal. But the public relations and advertising benefit is tremendous for the airlines.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

MONTAGNE: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Scott Mayerowitz is airlines reporter for the Associated Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.