It’s rare that I post something on a Friday, but sometimes there’s a topic that gets my blood boiling and a story just can’t wait until Monday. Today is one of those days.
You might have heard about a report put out by the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) saying that plane tickets are cheapest when you buy them on Sunday. There’s nothing wrong with this study (except for some confusing phrasing toward the end), and I have no doubt that this is correct. The problem, however, is that reporters are completely misinterpreting what this means. In short, you’re NOT going to save money by booking on a Sunday. I’ll explain why that’s the case below.
ARC’s study looked at roundtrip tickets sold by US-based travel agents from January 2013 to July 2014. Here’s how average fare and ticket volume broke down by day of week.
Most media outlets apparently looked at this and got lazy. Even the Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney fell into this trap. His article, “The Best Day to Buy Airline Tickets,” claims “A new deep dive into airline fares suggests Sunday is the best day to find low fares. This is a departure from the conventional wisdom of recent years, when Tuesday was considered the best bet.”
No. No. No. No.
Just dig a little deeper and you’ll see what’s going on here. We’re looking at sales through travel agents. That can mean traditional travel agents or online travel agents, so it’s a pretty big sample. But you’ll notice in the chart that volume tanks on the weekend. Why is that?
The answer is straightforward, and the report even says it straight up. Most business gets done during the week. When are business travelers going through their corporate agencies to buy their expensive plane tickets? Monday through Friday. How many of you like to waste your weekends booking business travel? That’s what I thought.
So who is booking on the weekends? These are people who are booking leisure travel. They sit with their families and have time to hash out plans. By nature, these tickets are going to cost less than the last minute business travel purchases that are happening during the week. If fares didn’t show up as being lower on the weekend, then I’d be shocked.
Does this mean that if you look to buy a ticket on Sunday, it’s going to be cheaper than if you looked at the same thing on Monday? No. All it means is that there’s a higher percentage of naturally more expensive business travel tickets being purchased during the week and a higher percentage of naturally less expensive leisure travel tickets being purchased on the weekend. In other words, it tells us nothing about when to buy a ticket to save money.
If that’s true, then what is the cheapest day to buy plane tickets? I hate that question, and I get asked it a lot. Forget about the skewed weekend dates and look during the week. The range is $497 to $503 for a ticket. Are you going to tell me that Tuesday is cheaper because it averages $497 yet Monday is horrible because the average is $503? If it makes you happy to believe that, go for it, but it makes you sound crazy. This is a huge aggregation of data with tiny differences between days. On any given route and any give day, the fare will vary.
Here’s the advice we give to Cranky Concierge clients. Look for flights when you need to book them. If you’re happy with the price, buy the ticket. If not, then keep checking back later and see if the fare has gone down. There’s always a risk it will go up, and that’s a risk you might decide to take. But trying to play this game of booking on a specific day to save a buck is not a reliable way to find cheap fares.
Unfortunately, poorly written articles like the ones covering this ARC study are not helping get this point across.
Thanks for this one. Had not seen the media go stupid on that release until you pointed it out. Amazing how much they misinform the public.
The missing piece from the ARC report which would be nice to see is the volume of ticket sales by days before departure.
“Lies, damned lies, and statistics” …
This famous quote by Mark Twain was going to be my comment, but you beat me to it.
Don’t blame statistics here! The numbers are what they are, it’s the interpretation and implication of cause and effect that’s found wanting.
That was Twain’s point. Statistics can be manipulated.
If you want to fly when no one else wants to fly, the fare is likely going to be cheaper. If you want to fly when everyone and their mothers are flying, pay up. The day before Thanksgiving-Sunday is going to be expensive; Thanksgiving evening-Tuesday afternoon, not so much. Same goes for nonreving. You won’t need any further studies:-).
Trent880 – Very true, but that’s a different issue. That’s an issue around the travel date, not the booking date.
On a somewhat related note. The latest ‘successful’ fare raise attempt got me to thinking about where the industry is and where it may go. Specifically, I noted how southwest went along with the raise in light of lower fuel prices—it just seems greedy and another sign to me that it has lost its identity. Back to all domestic carriers, seems to me that this move in light of lower fuel prices will not end well. I do not mean that traffic will completely dry-up or suddenly drop from ~80s to ~60s load. I mean that people, like myself, notice the disconnect between fares, fees, surcharges etc., and wonder how this can be. I know we live in a capitalistic country and companies can and do try to raise prices. I’m not arguing that they can and do/did. I argue that they will pay for it in the end. I for one are less likely to travel and in fact have not travelled in a long time. I know there are a lot of arguments that, on the surface and as I call it ‘our flesh’, will support these moves in the short-term, but I don’t see them panning out well in the long-term. its just my sense and opinion and always welcome supporting and/or dissenting opinions–to be honest, not so much foolish ones.
” I for one are less likely to travel and in fact have not travelled in a long time.”…. you end your own discussion. The airlines don’t care how price-sensitive you are because you’re not buying tickets anyway.
Frequent business travelers are still flying.
Folks like me, somewhat-frequent business travelers and frequent leisure travelers, are still flying.
Leisure travelers might travel a little less, but the profits will go up anyway.
At the end of the day, that’s what they care about.
i agree with your response on the leisure and business traveler. thanks for clarifying my thinking.
IO – The airlines don’t do cost-based pricing and that’s smart. You price what the market can bear. The problem is that if fares get too high and costs drop, then it opens up a huge opportunity for new entrants to come in. Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant are already killing it right now. The bigger the fare disparity, the more opportunity there is. That’s what airlines should be thinking about when they raise fares. They shouldn’t be worrying about if their costs reflect pricing. (The other piece, of course, is that oil prices are fickle.)
In this day and age of instant news media, facts have nothing to do with news. It’s just put anything out there on the internet that will get people to ‘click’ on it.
The worst part about the reporting of this study is that news outlets do not give enough information about the data or analysis (or lack thereof) for anybody to realize that they are wrong.
Also, notice that the range on the graph shown here is $380 to $520, which is also quite misleading. At a quick glance, without reading the scale on the y-axis, you might think that the weekend flights are half the cost of the weekday flights!
But if you take the time to read closely and do the math (and how many people are going to do that?) you see that the weekend flights are only about 12% cheaper!
Or I should clarify… the amount that people pay for the flights they happen to be choosing :)
I believe the bar graph was produced by Cranky himself — the ARC report gives the data in tables. So they shouldn’t be blamed for the misleading y-axis in Cranky’s post.
While the information is useless for travelers, it could be useful for travel agents: if I sell tickets and need to choose a day to close shop, then it’s better to close on weekends. Though even this conclusion needs to be qualified — it would make sense to close on weekends only if I can attract the high-fare high-profit customers on weekdays.
Looking at the ARC report, I agree that using mean fares makes sense from a seller’s point (just multiply by volume and you get total revenue), but for the consumer, median prices are probably more interesting. Mean advance purchase time, however, is almost useless, and is skewed by the small number of tickets that are purchased far in advance. For domestic, they report both the mean advance purchase (32 days) and the median (20); for international they only report the mean (59). The only use I can think of for the mean advance purchase is to calclate cashflows — how long you have the money in the bank (or out of your hand, if you’re the consumner). Is this relevant to travel agents, or only to airlines? That is, with an advance purchase ticket, how long does a travel agent get to hold on to the money before they need to pass it to the airline?
Ron – The travel agents never see the money. The run the card in their systems and the money goes for settlement. So there isn’t any float there. (The only way to avoid this is to pay for it yourself and then charge the client directly, but that doesn’t usually make much sense.)
Here’s another weird thing, comparing the graphs in the ARC report and the WSJ article: the ARC graphs are fairly smooth, while the WSJ graphs shows strong fluctuations starting about 80 days before purchase, on what appears to be a weekly cycle (this is more prominent in the international fares). Why would such fluctuations make sense? Assuming business fares are bought Monday-Friday for travel Monday-Friday, we shouldn’t see such peaks and troughs at exatly 7, 14, 21 etc days before travel. I’m guessing WSJ took the raw ARC data and redrew the graphs, but they must have interpreted the raw data differently, since I don’t see how the graphs make sense given the labels on the x axis.
Ron – I asked ARC for the raw data this afternoon but haven’t heard back. So I don’t know what to say on that yet. (I’m writing more about this on Monday though. The advance purchase bit is more interesting and nobody is talking about that!)
I think the price you pay has nothing to do with WHEN you book it, but for WHAT DAY OF THE WEEK you book it. I have noticed that fares tend to be lower and chances of either an award ticket or an upgrade higher when:
(a) you fly Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, sometimes weekends (depends on the destination)
(b) you fly outside of rush hour
I can book any of these on whatever day and it almost always applies. I have adjusted my travel accordingly when possible.
Great post! Everyone wants to believe that there is some “magic formula” to buying airfares, so we will continue to see articles like this. You have said it perfectly: If you’re happy with the price, buy it. But you must realize that the price may go up if you don’t.
Multiple people pointed out this complete misinterpretation of the data in the comments section of the Web article and the author seemed to not be interested in responding. Odd and perhaps telling?
Oliver – That might just be the way they do things at the WSJ. At most big papers, there are a lot of crazies in the comment section. That might open up a can of worms. Though I would like to see some kind of clarification or retraction. Somehow I doubt we will.
I expect the percentage of paid business and first-class fares booked during the week is higher than on weekends which adds a little more tilt to the average price bias.
I always try to book well a ahead I did make the mistake this year of looking at work before booking it cost me about $150 on a $1400 flight beacause I couldn’t clear tracking cookies at work. Next time I do it at home and careful clear all tracking cookies first.
Clearing cookies is another common myth surrounding airline pricing. When you search for a ticket online, you are literally querying the availability in the airlines reservation system. You have zero impact on availability until you actually take a seat out of inventory – meaning you could search a hundred times and as long as a seat doesn’t get booked, you’ll see the same price every time.
This is what I posted on the WSJ website when I saw Scott McCartney’s story about this. It’s the basically the same observation your making. Scott did not reply to my post:
“I honestly don’t understand the continued fascination of trying to figure out the “best day of the week” to buy airline tickets. There is no best day to buy an airline ticket — buy it when it’s on sale, and that day can be any day of the week. BTW, the methodology of this study strikes me as completely flawed: average ticket price is lower on the weekend than during the week because there aren’t many business-oriented airfares sold on the weekends. Businesses tend to buy more close-in and refundable tickets — which are more expensive any day of the week you buy them! So this data says NOTHING on an apples-to-apples basis: like if you were shopping a month in advance, whether the tickets are cheaper on Saturdays or Mondays.”
Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.
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