Bova was feeling virtuous. It was only mid-August, but she and her
husband had already planned their annual winter trip to Florida.
condo was pre-paid for January through March, 2000. On December
27, an auto-transport company would pick up their car in New York,
truck it to West Palm Beach airport, and have it waiting for Bova
and her husband when they landed on January 6.
that was left to do was buy the airline tickets. Bova didnt
expect a problem; several of her friends booked a week earlier and
had paid $249 a person roundtrip.
when Bova called her travel agent, she was shocked to learn that
the lowest price for a roundtrip flight to West Palm Beach was $820
sorry," explained the agent, "but the $249 seats are sold
out. So are all the other discount fares. Would you like me to try
another date? Could you leave a few days earlier or later?"
no," said Bova, "it has to be January 6. What am I going
me tomorrow and well try again," said the agent.
didnt understand, but she called again the next day. The $249
seats were still sold out, her travel agent said, but now the computer
showed seats to West Palm Beach on January 6 were available for
$200.83 a person roundtrip.
was confused. "I thought you told me yesterday that all the
cheap seats were sold out."
they were. Today theyre not," replied the agent. "Thats
how it works sometimes."
tale of Theresa Bova and the "sold out" discount tickets
to Florida is not a bizarre sideshow in the increasingly convoluted
game of airline fares. Similar economic passion plays are performed
thousands of times a day, every day, around the country. Flights
that are purportedly "sold out" one day are suddenly available
just days, and sometimes only hours, later.
is a simple explanation for these peculiar occurrences.
out" doesnt mean what you think it does. In point of
actual, physical fact, airlines are rarely "sold out."
On an average day in America, three of every ten seats the airlines
fly are empty.
what do they really mean when they say "sold out?"
as it sounds, sold out usually means our computers have
decided it wont sell you a seat at the price you want pay
at the exact instant youre trying to buy one," explains
the pricing chief of a major U.S. airline. "The computer can
change its mind five second later, or five hours later,
or five days later. No human beingincluding me and the president
of the airlineknows exactly what the computer is charging
at any particular moment in time."
you are concerned because your flight plans and your travel budget
are at the mercy of a computer, youll be frightened by the
fickle nature of the digital demons. One widely accepted estimate
suggests that airline computers change prices a million times during
the course of a typical day.
know people pay $200 when they were expecting to pay $500. I know
some people end up paying $500 when they might have paid only $200,"
admits the airline pricing chief. "But, by and large, when
you consider half a billion people fly every year, the system works.
The computers do a decent job of selling travelers tickets at prices
they are willing to pay."
last point is the crux of the matter. The travel industrys
"yield-management systems"thats what experts
call the pricing computersare programmed to estimate how much
each individual traveler is willing to pay for an airline seat.
The machines are told to squeeze every last penny from every last
traveler and ensure that each customer pays every dime they are
prepared to pay.
on a series of complicated projections and historical models, the
computers constantly recalculate prices and allocate the inventory
available at each price. The computer changes its assumptions from
minute to minute, shuffling the numbers, reassessing its inventory
and changing the ratio of seats it will sell at the current prices.
this system sounds like nothing more than a computerized flea market,
youre right. Travelers and airline computers are essentially
locked in an elaborate bargaining ritual. But instead of batting
offers back and forth in the time-honored method of the souk, the
computer sets a price, sells you something if youre willing
to pay, and claims things are "sold out" if youre
youve guessed wrong, youll probably come back tomorrow
and pay what the computer demands. If the computer guessed wrongas
it did in the case of Theresa Bovayou can come back the next
day and find that the computer has lowered the price to a level
youre willing to pay.
course, its no easy task to outguess the airline computers.
For every Theresa Bova who got her discount fare by calling back
another day, there are dozens of customers who pay much more than
they should have paid. But there are some tactics to increase your
odds of beating the airline pricing computers at their own game.
starters, be flexible. The price of an airline seat can vary by
hundreds of dollars based on the time you fly and the day you travel.
If you goal is finding the absolutely cheapest seat you can buy,
ask your travel agent or the airline reservations clerk to check
for other times or other flights. Generally speaking, however, the
least expensive fares are most plentiful for flights departing after
noon on Tuesdays through Wednesday evenings, and on Saturdays. Cheap
seats tend to be scarce on Fridays, Sunday nights and Monday mornings,
the times preferred by business travelers who must fly.
also do best if you know the rules of the fare game. Booking early
is usually the best strategy, since airlines generally make the
cheapest seats available from 21 to 30 days before departure. Prices
rise when you buy within 14 days of departure and continue to increase
as you approach seven days, then three days, before flight time.
Within 24 hours of departure, there are almost never cheap fares
available because the pricing computers assume only business people
who must fly are buying seats on such short notice. The least-expensive
fares are almost always nonrefundable, require you pay within 24
hours of making a reservation, and mandate you stay over on a Saturday
also pays off. If a fare you covet is "sold out" when
you first call, try again several hours or several days later. Remember
that "sold out" isnt a statement of the physical
realities, but rather a computerized negotiating tactic. And never
assume the price youve been quoted or the price you see in
the airlines newspaper ads is actually the lowest fare available.
Never book a flight until youve asked the obvious question"Is
this the lowest price you have?"at least once.
be reasonable. Remember the value of your time. Its almost
always possible to shave $10 or $20 off the cost of an airline ticket.
But if that savings comes only after three or four hours of calling
and negotiating, have you really saved anything? Sometimes the best
strategy when bargaining for an airfare is to pre-determine the
price youre willing to pay for a seat. If you get the price
you want, book the seat and forget about whether it is the "lowest"