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Myth of the Lowest Air Fare
All too often, the lowest air fare refers to that low fare you learned about but not to the lower airfare that was held privately buy an airline consolidator and that cheapest of all seats could even have gone unsold for the day of your flight. Airlines themselves often run a quick sale to fill seats on select flights, itineraries and dates. They sometimes offer prices that are lower than any consolidator or ticket discounter. Miss the sale, miss the travel date, miss the departure airport, miss the departure time, miss the cheapest seat.
On a given flight from city A to city B, on a given date, on a given day, during a given season, preset portions of the total number of seats on that aircraft are assigned different prices according to class of service and ticket type. On a large plane able to carry 150 passengers or more, those differing assigned prices could already number over two dozen. Add to that a subportion of seats for each class and ticket type that can be assigned for sale to major agencies, ticket brokers, and airline consolidators. Each of those companies will have their own prices so when that plane takes off, it could be difficult to find two people sitting next to each other who paid the same price for their seat. That example is incomplete but sufficient to make the important point that the number of seats on that aircraft is finite. Ergo so the number of seats at each price. On every aircraft, there is, in fact, someone, and likely just one person, who paid the lowest fare for their seat. That person won the lottery.
Lottery is appropo. Given the number of agencies, brokers, and consolidators eligible to sell tickets for that flight, the chances of getting a seat at the lowest price are similar to the chance for winning most lotteries. And while the lowest seat price lottery winner can feel good, even that person may have missed what was actually the lowest price for a seat on that flight. No single database and no centralized system will ever hold the best itinerary or the lowest price all of the time. Airline seat availability and prices are in constant flux from hour to hour. Discount seats are offered and sold out, promotions begin and end, air routes change, flights are added and discontinued, independent companies make their prices available and their seat allotment becomes sold out, airlines alter their base prices, a regulatory body adds or removes a fee, a government adds or removes a tax, operating costs change, and airlines sometimes engage in pricing contests; all of these and other influences mean that prices are constantly in flux and that the impact upon one database of fares will not be the same as upon another. The lowest price of all may have been held by a consolidator that the winner did not shop or offered on a sale that the winner missed.
So the lowest air fare, like many myths, has a grain of reality to it but is rarely experienced. Airlines have every incentive to keep it that way. This explains why many airlines are not named until after you make a purchase at a consolidator or auction or reverse auction website. If the airline is named up front, too many people would see it and pressure the airline to sell more tickets at those lower prices. Airlines use these discounters for a hedge against slow sales. They set the number of seats allotted to discounters at a very low number. If the plane fills up nicely, the number stays low. If seat sales are slow by a certain date, they increase the allotment to discounters or put the itinerary on sale until the filled seat target is met.
That sets up the second part of the myth. What was the lowest price a few minutes ago is no longer available. The allottment to discounters has been sold out. The new lowest price is higher, sometimes painfully higher than it was. So now we see a second lottery comprised of timing and shopping. Are you paying the old lowest price or the new lowest price and are you shopping a discounter who has seats left in their lowest priced tier allotment or their middle priced tier allotment? Is the airline sale price still up, or taken down because their own allotment has sold out? Has the airline met its targeted number of sold seats today or will they accept one more sale from a discounter?
Ah, the joy of airfare lottery shopping. Sadly, for many of us, we have to shop when we do and travel when we must. The lottery has to run its own course as we run ours. Sometimes though, we can up the odds in our favor. We can shop at least a week or two or three weeks before departure and take time to learn which airlines and discounters have more and-or better inventory for the destination of interest. We can think outside the booking engine and shop creatively with strategy. It is not likely that we can actually bust the low fare myth or win the lowest price seat lottery with any consistency. What we can do, given time to study and to shop, is pay an affordable price for a seat on a flight we want to take.