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

Delta, Schedule Changes

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

  1. Sometimes I feel like Athens and sometimes I feel like Buenos Aires, but when I can’t make up my mind I book both and let the schedule changes sort them out.

  2. As mentioned before, DL seems the most likely to move flights around. Last trip to PHX booked in Oct for early Dec trip, DL moved the CVG-DET-PHX around a few times. The on,y negative was the return booked a little earlier than I wanted, but sleep is overrated.

    When we did our epic Europe vacation last year and booked 6 months out, it seemed we had a dozen different changes. Lucky for us we planned ahead and spent an extra day in Amsterdam before we boarded our cruise.

    I would recommend keeping a record of all your changes in case an airline gives you grief. At least you can point back to the original itinerary and all the changes they made. I have no idea if the airline keeps the original flight info once they make multiple changes.

  3. U.S. carriers do seem to like doing schedule changes more then other carriers in the world.

  4. Booking early works particularly well for award flights. I booked last May for a flight to Super Bowl in February. The only saver availability on DL was an evening flight into SJC, but I took it. I waited for a schedule change, however, there wasn’t one until November, at which time I switched to a morning flight into SFO.

  5. Cranky – if they start losing (too much) money, couldn’t they say: “Message received. We now only allow refunds when the schedule change doesn’t work for you…” ?

    1. Oliver – I can’t imagine they’d do that. In general, the airlines want to keep you on their flights. So pushing people to refunds will not help their cause.

  6. Cranky, does this also work for award tickets booked? I have one with AA that the change meant getting back about 6 hours later after midnight but the agent said the best they could do was change it to “only” getting back 3 hours later than originally scheduled.

    1. Buddy M – Yes and no. If you’re on an award ticket, then the airline with which you used miles can open up seats on their own flights. But they can’t open up partner seats. So it just depends.

  7. I had this happen a few years ago we were coming back from Hawaii routing HNL-MSP-MSN. That’s when Delta cut that route in half sending the other days through DTW. So they routed me HNL-LAX-MSP-MKE I think we would of been back home by 3pm. I called and they switched me on the HNL-DTW-MSN and was back by 9am because of the inconvent connections, and it was a lot more in price.

  8. A corollary is that when booking in advance you should trade convenience for price, because you’re not guaranteed to get the convenience anyway. A couple of years ago I booked LAX–JFK on Delta; I chose a more expensive nonstop over a cheaper connection via Salt Lake. Then Delta canceled my nonstop and the timing of other nonstops was no good, so they put me on the Salt Lake connection, which by that point was more expensive. As far as Delta were concerned they did fine, but from my perspective, given the options at the time of booking, I didn’t pay $300 (or whatever it was) for basic transportation from LAX to JFK, but rather $250 for basic transportation plus a $50 premium for a nonstop product. Then I lost the nonstop but wasn’t able to recover the premium. The rational behavior, then, is to always book the cheapest fare. If airlines want to sell up, they need to find ways of protecting the products we pay for.

  9. I fully appreciate this article and wanted to share my personal story. About 2 years ago I went through a similar process with delta. I booked a flight with miles from jfk-cdg-jnb-cdg-jfk in business class for about 90,000 miles per person for 4 people. The flight was booked about 300 days in advance. The day after booking there was a schedule change that caused a close connection in cdg and I immediately called delta and got them to rebook us onto the direct jnb-atl flight free of charge, a flight which was charging 240,000 miles one way. Book early and book often!

  10. I literally just had this happen. I booked flights for next summer on BA from LHR-ORD-SEA, operated by American. A couple weeks later, american canceled the original flight and put us on a new one literally TEN minutes later. So I called BA and got us on the direct BA flight to SEA. Success!

  11. a rhetorical question. why would “rational” legacy airlines publish a schedule almost a year in advance knowing it is highly likely a good % won’t be flown, so “rational” people can game it and airlines be on the “losing” end of the “rational” market?

    CF – by the way, do you know the % of flights changed from their original publish (cancelled, moved, downgauged etc.)?

  12. Oh dear! Did Cranky have a little PMS while writing this post?
    I must agree that 99% is spot-on; policies vary a lot and sadly, sometimes a little hollering is necessary. We know that the carriers do NOT give a twit and will fix major screw-ups only when pushed. For them, it is feet utilization and nothing else matters.
    Here? I try to be loyal, using the same supporting agent, follower and interface person for almost 10 years. If/when I ever have cause to drop them, the notoriously cranky folks at C.C. will be my next choice. Happy holidays to all, -C.

  13. But what happens if you then decide you want to cancel the itinerary or change dates? In my life I can’t plan a year out so easily.

    1. Southflniceguy – If you don’t want to take the trip on those days, then it’s best not to book that far in advance. Though honestly, schedule changes have become so common that you would likely have the chance for a refund anyway.

  14. I experienced this with my one (and only) use of Expedia… booked SFO-LHR-FCO & return. Then Alitalia cancelled the FCO-LHR flight for my return & I was rebooked on a flight the afternoon prior… which didn’t work as I had Saturday night plans in Rome! Orbitz was a pain, and took many calls to try to sort out….. finally got a great person who was able to finally tell me that there was no way I could rebook on anything else, even via another city, but they would fully refund my $$$. I took the refund (took too long by the way) and booked direct with Lufthansa. More expensive…. but lesson learned! No Alitalia, no Orbitz!

  15. I experienced this schedule shuffle on delta. I booked a trip to Fairbanks in April, the original routing being JFK-SLC-SEA-FAI-SEA-SLC-JFK. They made the departure from FAI to SEA later, meaning I’d miss the connection to SLC, so they put me through MSP, connecting to JFK, in a middle seat in the back of a 737-900 and CR9. I had booked economy comfort, and saw that I could also go through LAX instead of MSP. I called them up in the middle of January, and they were able to rebook me on a return going FAI-SEA-LAX-JFK, all in economy plus. It was really no questions asked. Delta truly is good about doing this.

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