Book Flights Early If You Want to Take Advantage of Schedule Changes (And Show Airlines How Much You Hate Them)

You probably think you know the right time of day, day of week, time of year, etc in order to get the lowest fare out there, right? While there are some (very few) strategies that do make sense, I say you throw them out the window. Thanks to the ever-increasing frequency of airline schedule changes, I’ve come to think differently about booking flights lately. In many cases, I suggest booking very early. Why? First, you’ll increase your chances of getting a better flight when schedule changes occur. Second, you’ll send a message to the airlines to stop with all those obnoxious schedule changes.

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Do you think booking tickets on a Wednesday in the middle of the night is the best? You’re wrong. Most of those tips and tricks aren’t real. If there’s one I’d generally pay attention to, it’s the amount of time you book in advance of travel. For domestic flying, they say booking a couple of months out is the sweet spot, and I generally agree. Chances are if you book a couple days out, it’s going to be expensive. And if you book 11 months out, you might miss out on sales that bring the fare down closer to departure.

That being said, you should still think about booking 11 months in advance. I know this sounds silly. Why would you want to pay more? The reason is that you’re going to end up with tremendous flexibility when you book that far out. American, Delta, and United (Southwest is not a part of this) put schedules out there nearly a year in advance (330 days). Those schedules, however, are mere drafts of what they think they’ll actually operate. You’ll see a bunch of schedule changes roll through long before you ever get the chance to fly. Sometimes that’s good; sometimes that’s bad.

I’ve written about this before and explained why airlines do what they do. In a vacuum, the airlines think they can move flights around however they see fit and not care about passenger inconvenience at all. If passengers aren’t happy, they can switch to another flight or they can get a refund. That’s it. I don’t know this for sure, but I’d imagine that the airlines don’t include negative passenger costs when evaluating the positive impact on the bottom line of schedule changes. The algorithms don’t really factor in anger and inconvenience.

If the airlines are going to act like this, then passengers should do everything they can to take advantage of the situation while simultaneously sending a message. Turn the tables on the airlines and start booking early. As soon as there’s a schedule change that triggers the airline rebooking rules, you then have carte blanche to switch to a flight you like more, regardless of how much it’s selling for.

My family inadvertently ran into this a year ago when we booked travel to Indiana for the holidays. We booked the nonstop on American from LA to Indy on a day that was cheaper but not ideal. That flight was canceled, and American allowed us to rebook for the day prior. The new flight was far more expensive, but we didn’t have to pay a dime.

More recently, we had a great example with a Cranky Concierge client. Our client had purchased six tickets to go First Class from JFK to Maui via Seattle. This option had a longish layover of 4.5 hours, but it was far cheaper than flying through LA. They were willing to make the trade-off. Sure enough, Delta decided for some reason to switch the JFK to Seattle flight to operate three hours earlier. That turned the long layover into an all day adventure. Fortunately, they didn’t have to live with it.

We put them on the flight via LA. That meant they now had fully flat beds from JFK to LA (versus standard domestic seats to Seattle) and a mere 2.5 hour layover in LA. At the time we made the change, Delta wanted $2,000 more per person for someone who was buying a new ticket. But since Delta had made this inconvenient schedule change, we were able to move them for free.

This isn’t limited to Delta, though Delta does seem to have the loosest policy. American is pretty generous itself. If the flight time moves less than 90 minutes, then changes can still be made as long as the same fare class is available on the new flights. (They can even change to other airports in the metro area if they want.) If it’s more than 90 minutes? Pretty much anything goes. At that point you can also change to the day before or after. And sometimes, you’ll even be able to change to another airport within 300 miles if the schedule change is particularly cruel. You can read through that doc linked above if you’d like to see all the details that are provided to travel agents. United, meanwhile, requires that there be at least a one hour change in arrival time, but at that point travelers can change even if the same fare class isn’t available.

The point is this. Airlines make schedule changes without any indication that they place value on traveler inconvenience. You can complain but airlines won’t care. What they care about is when they start losing money because of their behavior. While it’s possible that you could book early and not have a schedule change, that has become increasingly unlikely. So book early and change liberally until you end up with something worth far more than what you paid originally. You’ll often find yourself with a better flight and you’ll get to send a message to the airlines to stop the shenanigans.

[Original bullhorn photo via Shutterstock]

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