For years, airline travellers have had a standard strategy for planned travel. Buy tickets months in advance, and especially during sale season and get the best rate. In fact, some would simply buy tickets during the sale season even if they had no concrete plan to travel. They could, of course, cancel it later.
Entry of a number of new players and the need to hold on to market shares for existing players has queered the pitch for consumers. And, things are no longer so simple. Now, there’s a possibility that you might get a cheaper ticket 20 days or, sometimes even a week before your travel, instead of two-three months before it.
The launch of new airlines
and stable oil prices have changed the way airlines
sell tickets. Explains John Nair, head, business travel, Cox & Kings: “In the past two years, airlines
such as AirAsia, Vistara, Tru Jet and Air Costa have come into the market. Earlier, there were limited players. With the exit of Kingfisher, only a few airlines
remained, and there was stability. To corner market share, the new entrants introduced predatory pricing and forced established players to follow suit. All this has led to volatility in fares even for last-minute travel.”
The government has also taken initiatives to bring air connectivity to tier-II cities, resulting in reduction of passenger traffic on busy routes, as they can now travel directly to their destination. “Previously, multi-stop was the norm to reach most tier-II cities. Now with ‘Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik’ (UDAN) scheme and an addition of fleet, many airlines
have started direct routes to these cities,” says Bernard Corraya, general manager, Wego India. It means that airlines
have more seats available on busy routes than before.
But, getting the best rates depends on multiple factors. Fliers need to consider whether they are flying on busy routes, thin routes, to an international destination, and whether the dates coincide with any major festival.
Use price alerts, fare prediction: Since fares have been volatile, online travel agents or OTAs (like Yatra, MakeMyTrip and Cleartrip) and their aggregators (like Ixigo, Wego and Google Flights) have started offering price alerts. You can set up an alert for price movements for select dates on a route. Whenever the ticket price moves lower, you receive an email informing you about the drop in fare. On some of these websites, you can also see how the fares have changed in the past month.
You can also visit websites such as Unfare.in, started by Berty Thomas, a business analyst with a multinational bank. The website uses historical data to predict price movement. On the selected routes, it tells you the best price on the selected dates, the airline that have the price volatility, informs about ongoing sales and also suggests if you should book the tickets now or wait. Ixigo offers a similar service for popular routes in its app.
Take advantage of sale season: Booking three weeks prior to the travel date works if you are not travelling during the busy holiday season. During major festivals such as Holi, Diwali and Christmas/New Year and for long weekends, fare movement has been unpredictable. The best time to book during such period is at least six weeks in advance.
But, sales are the best time to get tickets at the lowest cost. As the competition has intensified, so has the frequency of sales from airline companies. Usually, airlines
allow fliers to book tickets one to six months in advance during sales. Experts say they haven’t seen prices ever going lower than those offered during a sale.
The best time to book: For the top 20 domestic routes by air traffic, the best time to book is 18-24 days in advance. “The chances of over-paying are limited in such cases,” says Aloke Bajpai, CEO and co-founder, Ixigo.com. If you look at the fares between Mumbai and Delhi for August, the fares between 18-24 days — Rs 2,011 to Rs 2,329 — are nearly the same or cheaper than fares in September. Same is the case with other top routes by passenger traffic, including Mumbai-Chennai, Delhi-Chennai, Mumbai-Bengaluru, Delhi-Bengaluru and Mumbai-Goa.
A few airlines
have also started offering discounts for last-minute tickets. Things changed drastically last year after Air India started selling tickets at prices comparable to Rajdhani Express’ two-tier fares on select routes from Delhi. These could be booked only within the last four hours. Airlines
generally believe customers are least sensitive to price when booking fares a few hours before departure, according to industry experts. Prices, therefore, were the highest 48-72 hours before departure. If you are travelling on thin routes (beyond the top 20) the old strategy of booking in advance still holds true. That’s because such routes are traditionally dominated by one or two airlines.
Due to lower competition, the volatility is lower.
Strategy for international flights: Booking in advance is recommended. If travelling on a long-haul sector, book 45-60 days in advance. For medium- or short-haul sectors, 30-45 days is good.
One of the best cost saving strategies for international travel is to consider other airports close to you. Flying from Jaipur to Singapore, for example, is much cheaper than travelling to Singapore from Delhi (see box). Flying to Singapore via Pune can be cheaper than flying from Mumbai. Consider the same strategy for the destination. There are times when flying to Abu Dhabi is cheaper than going to Dubai from Mumbai. “If you are flying to Australia and New Zealand, such a combination can help you save 20-25 per cent,” says Bajpai.
Some international airline companies have started offering lower fares on their websites. When you go to an OTA, you might not see the lowest prices. Instead, do your query on airfare aggregators like Skyscanner, Kayak, Wego or Ixigo. Such websites not only compare prices from OTAs but also from individual airline websites. Aggregators also provide you the option of low-cost international carriers, which many OTAs don’t.