Wealth

Why flights are often cheaper at the last minute

There’s a widely held belief that if you want to go overseas on holiday over the Christmas break you have to book in January or February to get the cheapest flights. But is it right?

Airlines generally offer a set number of cheap seats on each flight, and once these seats sell the price rises. Airlines know that business travellers tend to book their seats at the last minute and are willing to pay a premium for their flights. The logic follows that the earlier you book, the cheaper your seat will be

But it’s not always the case. You could save hundreds of pounds on long-haul flights by booking just weeks before you travel, even in peak periods such as Christmas or Easter

Fares are generally 8pc cheaper three weeks before departure than fares booked six months in advance, according to research by travel comparison website Kayak.co.uk

But you might have to suffer some nail-biting moments as you wait for the prices to fall. The cost of flights can fluctuate daily or even hourly in some cases. Airlines vary the price of their flights for a number of reasons, but it is mainly due to passenger demand

The fact that many airlines cover the same routes often departing at more or less the same time, especially for long-haul, overnight flights also has an impact on pricing. If one carrier changes price or reduces capacity, others are likely to respond by cutting or raising their fares

Cheapair.com said fares on a particular flight will generally increase as the flight becomes more heavily booked but at certain points, fares may fall dramatically if a fare sale is launched or an airline determines that booking levels are below where they should be for a given departure date

A good way to monitor prices without spending all day glued to your computer screen is to sign up for alerts from comparison websites such as Kayak.co.uk or Skyscanner.net. They’ll notify you via email when prices change

Kayak.co.uk also has a price forecast tool that predicts whether the price of a specific flight is likely to rise or fall within the next seven days. This can be a good guide if you are unsure whether to book at today’s price

Securing a last-minute bargain is much easier if you’re flexible with your departure and return dates, and if you aren’t fussy about which airline you fly with. There are no guarantees that prices will fall in the weeks leading up to a flight but when they do, the savings can be substantia

Five tips for cutting flight costs

1. Fly for free

Some airlines such as Ryanair and Flybe, and credit card companies such as Amex, offer free return trips as an incentive to sign up for a card. To qualify, you must spend a set minimum amount which varies from card to card but can be as little as 1p. To get the free flight you simply have to spend the minimum. Make sure you pay off the balance in full, however, to avoid paying interest charges. Once you have used your free flight you can cancel the card if you don’t want to keep using it

2. Clear your ‘cookies’

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest companies keep a record of your flight searches and push up prices the more you search to pressure you into buying before prices ‘rise’ further. So if you search for a flight more than a couple of times in a week you could be targeted. To avoid this, clear your browser cookies after each search or turn on anonymous browsing

3. Buy in bulk

Some carriers and airline alliances offer air passes, which are great for round-the-world trips. They allow you to create your own itinerary and book a number of flights for a discounted rate. These are most common for travel in Europe, North and South America and south-east Asia

4. Choose your days wisely

Business travellers love to fly on Monday mornings and return on Thursday or Friday evenings. Avoid these times - travelling midweek is usually cheaper

5. Don’t be afraid to haggle

If you would prefer to book your flights through a travel agent always ask them for a better deal. Agents have a lot of flexibility around pricing and are all too aware that savvy travellers can usually get cheaper flights online. Doing your research before you visit an agent could pay off they are often prepared to beat or match an online price that is available at the time

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