Early or late – when is the best time to book 2014 flights? If you ask an airline, you will invariably get the same robotic reply: “To get the best fares, book as early as possible.”
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? How else would they be able to persuade us to pay for something in full up to a year in advance?
But are they telling the truth? Should you book flights as soon as they appear, or can it be worth holding out for sales or last minute discounts?
The golden rule
In most instances, the golden rule applies – book early. Over the past decade the majority of scheduled airlines have adopted the no-frills pricing model pioneered by no-frills carriers such as Easyjet and Ryanair. The idea is simple: on any given flight there will be batches of seats in different price bands (for instance, £19, £29, £39, £59). Once the cheapest seats are sold, the price creeps up into the next band.
As departure date approaches, fares sometimes increase dramatically. This is because airlines know that late bookers – business travelers, for instance – are often prepared to pay high prices.
Therefore, if you have fixed travel dates or you plan to fly at peak times, it really is best to book as soon as possible.
Though airlines don’t like to admit it, there are exceptions to the rule. If a particular route isn’t selling well, the airline may cut its prices by releasing “promotional fares”.
Earlier this year, Thomsonfly slashed prices of selected flights between Birmingham and Cancun. Normally, you would expect to pay around £400 return. But during April the fare was down to £325 and we found one as low as £279 – available eight days before departure. When we extended the booking period to eight weeks the price rose to £600.
Such price reductions are relatively rare. They tend to occur when business is slow – in January or February, at the beginning of September or after Easter. Because the business is so cut-throat, airlines usually release discounted fares with little warning.
Most airline fares are now set by computer. If a computer sees a certain flight selling quickly, it may jack up the price of the remaining seats. Occasionally the computer misjudges and has to bring fares back down. Easyjet says this can occur when a large group books, causing prices to spike, then fall back down. The airline says this happens “very rarely”.
Both Easyjet and Ryanair advertise price promises. Easyjet says it will refund the difference if customers find the same flight subsequently selling at a lower price. But there’s a catch: it will not pay out if the new fare is part of a “promotional offer”.
Ryanair says it will pay out “double the difference” but only if passengers find a cheaper fare on a different airline. And they must submit their claim within an hour of making the booking. Cynics might argue that these guarantees aren’t worth the web pages they’re written on.
Whatever happened to late deals?
Before the no-frills revolution, travel agents filled their windows with last minute bargains on charter flights. It was easy to pick up a £49 return to Malaga or a £59 deal to Corfu.
Because many charter airlines have remodeled themselves as no-frills carriers, these deals are now harder to find. They still exist, but rarely during peak periods.
However, if you’re flying to the Mediterranean during the shoulder seasons (May, June, September, October) and you’re flexible on dates and destinations, you may get lucky.
If you know the flights you want, book early. Conventional scheduled airlines like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will sell you a ticket up to a year in advance. No-frills carriers launch their schedules twice a year. Easyjet, for instance, releases its winter fares in late June or early July, and its summer fares in November. Easyjet's summer 2014 fares will be released in October 2013.
When we asked Ryanair when they plan to release their summer 2014 fares, they declined to tell us.
To learn exactly when fares become available, sign up to each airline’s email newsletter. These will also alert you of promotional fares.
If you’re booking late, use a meta search engine such as Travelsupermarket.com, which trawls through charter flight specialists such as Avro and Airflights.co.uk, as well as online agents, no-frills airlines and other scheduled carriers. Or try a travel agent.