4 hacks to become an airline comparison site guru this holiday season

Dec 09, 2016 08.00PM |

by Ryan Ong

AIRLINE ticket prices work like a Singaporean driver’s turn signals: random, or based on rules that only make sense to them. That explains the rise of airline ticket comparison sites. But before you start booking that trip to Syria (or whatever’s a popular holiday destination these days; I don’t keep up with tourism trends), you should know a few things about how flight comparison websites work.


Why are airline ticket prices so crazy anyway?

You’ve probably heard that no two people on the plane paid the same airfare. That’s never been verified, largely because walking around the plane and asking everyone how much they paid makes you look like an ass. But if you’ve flown before, you know that just because your cousin paid $1,700 for a return ticket to London doesn’t mean you’ll get the same price next week, or even tomorrow.

The reason is an algorithm called Expected Marginal Seat Revenue (EMSR). This is an automated system that attempts to get the possible prices, whilst still keeping seats filled (for those of you who are into maths, the equations are widely available).

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To simplify though, airlines divide seats into different groups (called buckets). For example: Say you have a tiny plane, with maybe 50 seats. The first bucket could be the first 10 seats, for which you charge $500 per ticket. The next bucket (11th person to 20th person) would be $700 per ticket. The third bucket could be $900 per ticket, and so on.

The reason it goes from lowest to highest is simple: If you book a trip at the last minute (like say, tonight) it’s probably for an urgent reason. Maybe a childhood friend is ill and holding on just to see you one last time, or you made the ill-advised decision to be a freelance writer who takes on some real nutcase clients. Whatever the case, it’s people with urgent business who book last minute flights; and they will usually be willing to get ripped off on higher prices tickets.

Of course, all of this is also affected by other considerations. There are airport taxes, changing fuel costs, different classes (economy, business, or first class), and sometimes lower prices just because an airline wants more market share. Once you factor in all the variables, airline prices become so convoluted that even their staff might not understand why you’re charged twice that the guy next to you is.

Enter airline comparison sites: These scan various airfares, and give you the cheapest. It’s generally an effective way to book, but here’s what you should know:


1. No single comparison site is scanning the entire market

In order to demonstrate this, I used three comparison sites to find the cheapest tickets to London in January, because that’s the best time to get stabbed by a chav in a McDonald’s parking lot. Check out the results, all from searches made more or less simultaneously:






As you can see, the cheapest airline on one comparison site may not be the cheapest airline all around. The reason is that no single comparison site scans the entire airline industry. Most of them only scan a portion of the industry (a given range of airlines), due to business reasons.

Some airlines may not want to share data with them. They may have a special deal with some airlines (in which case, they could promote those airlines aggressively by hiding cheaper options). Or maybe they just shouldn’t have hired their lead programmer off Fiverr.com.

Whatever the case, this means you need to…uh…compare the comparison sites. Yeah, it’s pretty stupid, but if you really want the cheapest ticket you’re going to have to use multiple searches.


2. The degree of cohesion between the website and the actual airline differs

Have you ever tried to change your flight timings, after booking on a comparison site? If you haven’t, you may not realise it’s a big, steaming mess.

Some comparison sites tell you to contact the airline on your own, and that airline could charge you an insane price for switching the dates by two or three days (so much for the cheap option). In some cases, the airline may not even be able to find your booking, because you went through an agent (the comparison site).

Speaking from personal experience, Priceline is the only comparison site I’ve used that doesn’t have an issue with this (they don’t make you call the airline and re-organise things yourself). There may be others out there. But if there’s a chance the dates could change, you may want to either:

  1. Check the procedure for changing flight times with the comparison site (if they don’t handle everything on their own, then find a site that’s more convenient), or…
  2. Skip the comparison site and book with the airline directly. It’s usually more expensive, but it’s much easy to change flight timings.


3. Cookie clearing: It may be a myth, but do it anyway

There are allegations that airline websites use cookies to track your behaviour. The theory is that, the more you check a particular flight, the more the price of that flight will go up (because they know you are going to buy).

Actual evidence of this is hard to find – yes, you could check the price in an hour or a day later, and find that it’s gone up; but you can’t tell if that’s because a cookie tracked your behaviour, or because buckets have been filled and the revenue management system is pricing seats higher. Nonetheless, it’s an easy thing to do; so just clear your cookies anyway.

Alternatively, you can use an incognito mode on your browser (if you have one) when visiting the sites.


4. Buy on Monday or Tuesday, and avoid Friday

When comparing prices, try to buy the ticket on Monday or Tuesday. The allegation that airline tickets are priciest on Friday has been confirmed by no less than the Wall Street Journal. It seems that most discounts (tickets that are 15 to 25 per cent cheaper) are launched on Mondays. Over the next 24 hours, airlines monitoring their competitors cut prices to match, so that by Tuesday there is a wider range of deals in the market.

The lower prices mean sales come in fast, and by Friday most of the good deals have expired. Also, you are likely to be in a higher priced “bucket”, given that seats fill fast during the low-cost periods.


One last bonus tip: Your credit card concierge can sometimes beat the comparison sites

If you have one of those credit cards with a concierge service, then try calling them and demanding the cheapest possible ticket. Airline companies (along with hotels and restaurants) take the concierge seriously, due to its ability to bring in customers. Sometimes, the concierge service can pull strings, and get you a deal that’s even cheaper than what a comparison site can manage.

Good luck, and remember to tell the passenger next to you about any health problems you have, or interesting foods you’ve eaten. They enjoy it!



Featured image by Sean Chong.

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