But one elementary loophole of airline pricing remains, and it can still be exploited. That rule is simple because it's rooted in basic economics: Fly when fewer people want to. It's simple supply and demand, really. When flights fill, prices escalate. When seats are empty, prices stay low. If you have ever purchased holiday flights many months in advance, it's because you already live by this rule.
Now that airlines are bleeding us for every little thing from checked baggage to water, it's more important than ever that we exploit every angle in keeping our money in our wallets and out of their clutches. When you're paying for your own ticket, gone are the days when you'd blindly purchase any seat on any flight. Now, you scrutinize the schedule for the lowest airfare, because that $30 you save can now go to the cost of checking your bags.
Just think of all the reasons that flying in the off-hours makes good sense:
1. Lower prices.
Flights that leave in early morning and late evening tend to be cheaper because they take more effort to use and therefore sell more slowly than flights taken during business hours. Don't believe me? Do a search for an airfare at a big online ticket engine and sort by price. You're more likely to find cheaper rates for flights leaving at those "undesirable" times than you are during the peak hours, when business travelers tend to clog the bookings.
Still don't believe me? Check out the website Farecast, on which you can search for any route you like. It breaks down the rise and fall of airfares in three-hour chunks using its "Time Grid" tab. The prices almost always plainly spike in the middle of the day.
The timing rules don't shift that much when you're flying internationally, despite time zone changes. For example, to London, a city I fly to often, the rates for flights leaving after 5pm tend to be $50 to $140 cheaper than those flying in the middle of the day. That's because people give more thought to planning flight departures according to the local time, not the time they'll arrive in their destination.
In the case of Europe, flying off-peak, which often means leaving America in the evening, has the added benefit of saving me the price of a night's hotel. If I had arrived in the afternoon, I'd have to pay for night's stay that begins just a few hours after my arrival--a big waste. Besides, arriving in the morning after leaving America in the evening also means I'm more likely to go to bed at a reasonable hour that night so that I adjust faster to the jet lag. If I arrive at night, my clock remains out of whack.
Of course, the deals don't just follow the clock. They also follow the calendar. Flying midweek is usually cheaper than flying around the weekend, so it often pays to tell your search engine that your travel days are flexible.
2. Fewer delays.
I admit that I'm not a morning person. I'm barely a lunchtime person. While I'm intensely averse to getting up before Mother Nature to catch a flight, I can't refute the fact that it doesn't compare with the miseries that can come if I fly later in the day, when the world is awake and crowded.
As someone who lives in New York City, I learned years ago that the later in the day you do certain things, the more delays pile up. Exhibit One is the doctor's office. There's not much backlog if I book an appointment at 9 am, but if I take a 3:30 appointment, chances are I'll be waiting longer.
It's the same with flying. You're more likely to leave on time if you take off at 6 am than if you wait until the late afternoon rush. Frankly, because of the inter-connectivity of the American flight system, those delays cascade across the country, so the deterioration--let's call it the Domino Effect--holds in almost every city. When you're on the first plane to leave for the day, chances are it's been sitting on the tarmac all night, and if things were running four hours behind yesterday, it's probable that the clocks have been reset today. Grab that first flight, and you'll be riding the first domino in the chain.
And let's not forget that in the American southeast, summer and autumn storms tend to explode in the afternoons. Going in the morning means you're more likely to dodge cloudbursts.
This isn't just a hunch. It's borne out by data just released by the Department of Transportation. Flights leaving before 9am depart on time 85% of the time or better. Flights leaving between 5pm and 10pm don't score higher than 70%--in fact, they're usually worse.
3. More time in your destination.
On days when I have a big flight, I'm generally useless in the preceding hours. Even if my flight is in the late afternoon, I often have to wrap up my business by lunchtime to make the airport. It can be like the day never happened.
Morning flights, though, have me using my time more wisely because I'm moving from my first moments. Early morning domestic flights put me into my destination at an hour when there is still plenty of time left in the day. I may be a little more sleepy on my morning flight because I had to get up early to catch it, but I can simply sleep on the ride.
Actually, that's another benefit to off-peak travel. After all, what better way to endure the airlines' cattle-drive attitude and miserable atmosphere than to be unconscious for it?