How to Tell if a Flight Cost is Reasonable

Every single time you buy a plane ticket you’re likely wondering if your flight cost is reasonable, and you’re asking a familiar series of questions:

How do i know if this flight cost is reasonable? 

Will airline prices go down soon?

Is this the best time to buy my ticket?

When is the cheapest time of year to fly?

Many travelers spend a considerable amount of time try to find those hacked fares or search for guides about how to game the system. In reality, unless you enjoy 12 hour layovers, most of those tactics are just as they’re described–hacks. This post isn’t about how to find the lowest fare, but rather how to build confidence in the fare that you’ve found. In other words, how to determine if your flight cost is reasonable.

Understand where you are in the cycle

Probably the most important aspect of deciding when to buy is how far out you are from your travel date. The further out you are, the more time the price has to move up or down. Many of the large travel sites like Kayak and even (my personal favorite) Google Flights will try to predict the future price of the specific route you’re flying. Although their predictions are a decent gauge, keep in mind that their definition of a fare drop is going down $1. If it goes down $1 for a day and then up $50, you’re screwed.

Because flight prices are demand driven you want to book far enough out that there is still a healthy supply of seats, but not so far out that competitors haven’t released their routes yet. A lot of research has been done around the perfect time to book a flight and the current thinking is 6 weeks out from your travel date. That is good information to have, but it really depends on what route you’re flying. It will hold true for hub to hub flights like JFK to LAX, but does it work the same way for flights to Omaha, Nebraska? The answer is no.

To understand what averages look like for you’re route, try Hopper’s when to fly tool. You can get an idea for the range for you’re route, the best time of the year to buy, and the best days of the week to depart.

Understanding if a flight cost is reasonable

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You should also take a look at how many seats are available on the flights your considering. Most airlines will let you take a look at the seat map before booking. If most of the plane is empty, don’t be the sucker the books first. Let it fill up just enough for them to make their margins before you grab your seat. That being said, if you’re trying to book an upgrade using points this rule does not apply. Grab those upgradable seats as soon as you can.

Understand average airfare costs

A big part of know if your flight cost is reasonable is understanding what the average price for your route is. If you’re flying somewhere for the first time and the ticket seems outrageously expensive, that may just be a factor of your destination. Some airport, specifically smaller ones, are much more expensive to fly in and out of.

Flights within the US

If you’re flying within the domestic United States an excellent tool to understand average flight costs for individual airports is actually the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Their average flight cost tool identifies the average cost of plane tickets into most non-regional airports in the US. The information they provide is useful because, when flying domestically, the correlation between flight distance and cost is significantly less than what it is internationally.

In fact, fuel costs consist of between 20% and 30% of your airfare, and this percentage is consistently going down as jets continue to get more fuel efficient. The rest of the fare goes towards fees for taking off, landing, and maintaining gates at airports, operational costs, and the actual cost of the plane itself. If you’re an airline geek like me, there was a great article in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago breaking down the cost of a flight.

International Flights

If you’re flying internationally the correlation between distance and cost becomes much higher. Fuel efficiency is an important factor on long-haul flights. So much so that they actually pump fuel between the six to eight tanks on a wide-body jet to maintain an optimum center of gravity throughout the flight. For the geeks among us, here is an awesome breakdown of the fuel systems for wide-body jets (with cool pictures too!!).

At any rate, given that the flight distance and cost are highly correlated it starts to become easier to derive a marginal cost per distance for longer flights. According to airfare cost research performed by Rom2Rio back in 2013, the global average flight cost was about $50 + $0.11 per mile flown. Although the research is a little dated, slight adjustments for inflation would suggest that around $0.10 to $0.12 per mile would be suggest a flight cost is reasonable.

Know your fare drop rules

Know your what? Airline fare drop refunds?

Yes, you read that correctly. Some airlines will offer refunds if the cost of a flight goes down. The trick here is to simply pay attention. Each leg of your itinerary is priced at a different rate, and some times one leg of a trip can drop considerably. They only way you’ll reliably be ably to tell if your fare drops is by using a tool like Yapta or Tripit. These tools will check your itinerary daily and alert you if the cost for your flights goes down.

From there, it depends on what airline you’re flying. Some, like Alaska Airlines and JetBlue (to a lesser extent), have generous fare drop policies and will give you a credit if they’re selling your flight for less. Others, like United and Delta, are spinning their fare drop rules behind their change fee. Essentially, if the fair drops more than the change fee you get the new price, less the change fee.

Either way, Yapta or Tripit will factor in each airlines policy and only send you an alert when it is in your favor. I’ve saved quite a few dollars using this approach.

Pulling the trigger

Hopefully some of the tools I’ve include will help provide prospective and confidence in your next flight purchase. But remember, at the end of the day, sometimes you just need to go ahead and book. Remember that getting out and seeing the world, wherever you may be going, is far more important than saving $20. In this instance, the journey is a means to an end, an investment in your soul. The destination is the true reward.

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