The Best Time to Book a Vacation
One of the top questions travelers ask us about vacations revolves around timing. “When is the best time for me to book a flight? How long should I stay for? How do I get the best price?” and more. In this episode of Out Travel The System, our guests and experts, Chuck Thackston of the Airlines Reporting Corporation and Julie Kyse, VP of Global Air Platform at Expedia, join host Nisreene Atassi to answer your most important questions when it comes to booking a vacation.
Chuck’s company partnered with Expedia for an in-depth study of worldwide travel trends earlier this year to look at everything from when air tickets were purchased to when tickets are at their lowest price. Julie’s team at Expedia works with airlines to handle all the behind-the-scenes magic that happens after a customer purchases a flight on Expedia.com. Together, they’re pinpointing the best timeframe and even day of the week to book a flight.
Nisreene Atassi: You asked for it and we’ve delivered. When we first started planning for the podcast we reached out to all of our fans on social media and we asked them what are the things that you want to hear from us on. If we were going to give you a sneak peek under the hood, bust any myths about the travel industry, what are the things that you would love to hear from us about and the best time to book came back as the ultimate winner. When is the best time for me to book a flight? How long should I stay for? How do I get the best price? How do I find the cheapest flights? When do I book my vacation? All of these types of things came back and that’s why we really wanted to put together this episode to solve those problems for you and to help deliver the tips and give you all the information that you need on the best time to book. I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel The System.
Taking us behind the curtain for the best times to book travel are two guests. We’ve got Chuck Thackston, he’s the Managing Director of Data Science and Research for ARC, which stands for the Airlines Reporting Corporation.
Earlier this year ARC actually partnered with Expedia for an in-depth study of worldwide travel trends. The study looked at everything from when air tickets were purchased and for how much to how timing makes for less expensive hotel bookings.
Chuck, you’re coming to us live from Louisville, Kentucky is that correct? How’s the weather over there in Louisville? It’s a little bit hot and muggy I’m gonna guess.
Chuck Thackston: Yeah it’s a beautiful summer in Louisville!
Nisreene Atassi: We’ve also got Julie Kyse, who’s the Vice President of Global Air for Expedia. Julie’s calling in from Miami, another steamy destination.
Julie Kyse: Hi, it’s very steamy here.
Nisreene Atassi: So basically Julie and her team work with airlines and do all of the behind the scenes magic that happens once travelers buy their tickets through Expedia. Between the two, both of them really have the inside scoop on what’s happening from pricing and a flight perspective. So I’m really excited to have you both on the show and for you guys to give all of your knowledge and tips and share it with our listeners. So let’s go ahead and get right to it.
Chuck the first question is for you, you have access to a global database of information of over two billion flights. What does the data tell you about the best time to book flights?
Chuck Thackston: The data that we’ve got is a very very extensive set of data. We cover all markets and all channels and all regions of the world. So the good thing about it is we can really drill in and find the true answers to what’s going on out there. Now to be clear every airline is going to set their own airfares. We don’t influence that at all, but we do have a really good picture of what has happened and some of the trends that will give you the best airfares and the easiest one is the sweet spot for advance purchase is about 21 days or about three weeks out from departure. That’s the time when fares historically have been at their low point to purchase from the average standpoint. Now there will be deals out there all the time and if you find a good travel deal you should take it.
About 21 days out is when we’ve seen the airfares kind of at their low point and that’s when people should really start planning their travel if they’re looking to save some money.
Nisreene Atassi: So when you were sort of crunching out the data and looking at the numbers and we were putting together the travel outlook report obviously the 21-day window was a really big key finding for us. What were some of the other valuable pieces of information that you were able to uncover when you are mining through these data points?
Chuck Thackston: One of the other interesting things that we uncovered is should you purchase your ticket on a particular day of the week. Historically what we found was Sundays tended to be the lowest average ticket price for a couple of reasons. There’s less business travel that’s purchased on a Sunday so you’re gonna get a lot more leisure purchases on Sunday. And because of that, leisure demand airlines may tend to want to stimulate that demand and look at Sunday as an opportunity for high-value fares to sort of balance that out a little bit we also looked at when is the best time or the lowest average ticket price if you’re going to travel on a particular day or start your journey. Thursday or Friday to start your trip is historically the lowest average ticket price that we saw. And again that’ll vary a little bit across markets but in general if you’re going to travel by buying a ticket on Sunday and departing on a Thursday or Friday you’ve historically seen the lowest average ticket price.
Nisreene Atassi: Interesting, I think a lot of people probably assume if you’re going to fly out on a Thursday or a Friday it’s going to be super expensive so you’re better off flying at a random time on like a Tuesday morning or Tuesday in the middle of the afternoon. So what you’re saying is the data is actually not showing that that’s necessarily the case.
Chuck Thackston: Yeah it was clear that Thursday and Friday is the best day to start your trip which is good for a lot of people from a leisure perspective because that’s obviously when the weekend starts here. So I think that’s probably music to a lot of people’s ears. Julie for you and your team, how do you use this kind of data to help sort of really benefit the customer?
Julie Kyse: So we use this kind of data to help the customer by sharing this information with them through the podcast and through other resources as well. The other thing that we do is we have a number of pricing loops that we have with our airline partners where we share with them information about how people are booking within the Expedia stores and then that way they can lower their prices to be more competitive.
Nisreene Atassi: So do you find that that happens pretty regularly where airlines compete with each other for the lowest airfare?
Julie Kyse: Well absolutely. I mean that is kind of the name of the game. A lot of airlines these days have introduced really low fares. Sometimes they’re called basic economy or economy light fares and they tend to be very very cheap fares but they also have a lot of value stripped out of them. So some of them don’t allow you to get frequent flyer miles or seat assignments or in some cases, you can’t bring a carry on bag. There are really great fares to be had there because the airlines want to compete aggressively with each other. One of the things we’ve committed to on the Expedia sites is making sure you know what you’re buying and so one of the things we see in our lab is that sometimes consumers don’t always read about all the benefits that come with each of the fares. I would just encourage you to slow down, take a minute, read through it and then take another minute and think about your own specific trip that you’re taking. Are you traveling with your children? Are you as somebody who really loves frequent flyer miles? Do you think that you’re going to have a checked bag? Based on those kinds of questions that will guide you to make the choice that’s right for you. Sometimes the cheapest fare isn’t necessarily the fare that provides the most value for you. So make an informed decision but it’s important that you pick something that really makes sense for the trip that you’re taking.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah I think that’s a really good point because I think four or five years ago you could just probably search and sort by price and that was basically all you had to really do. But now if you do that you have to really start reading the fine print because now you’ve got basic economy fares or these low-cost carriers that let you bring one carry on and that’s maybe just your purse and there’s no checked baggage and things like that. And I think that catches people off guard at times like I personally don’t like to book basic economy fares because I always like to have a carry on with me or I want more flexibility. I also am obsessed with collecting miles from partners so I don’t want any of those restrictions on my ticket, but I know that for a lot of people they’re just looking to be price-conscious, but there is definitely a tradeoff.
Julie Kyse: But we try to make it so that it’s pretty clear what you’re getting so it’s not like reading a whole contract and scrolling down and then agreeing at the bottom of it. We’re striving to make it even more straightforward and make it real clear for customers. There are other ways that people can save as well. And I actually came to Expedia after working for an airline for 16 years and so when I came to Expedia I didn’t really know that much about airline pricing aside from my own airline because us airline people we fly standby we don’t really understand the dynamics of all the marketplace. So one of the things that really surprised me when I joined Expedia was the amount that you can save when you purchase a package. A lot of people think about packages as being just to places like Mexico beaches or Hawaii or Las Vegas. But the reality is if you’re taking your kid to a soccer tournament in Columbus or you’re going to a concert in Charleston, you can save by buying a package and bundling your hotel and your flight together. Another type of fare is the Expedia bargain fare and Expedia bargain fares are for the slightly more adventurous traveler. Typically they’re available more towards the last minute. If you see one of those when you do a search on Expedia, if you choose it you won’t know the schedule and you won’t know the airline until you pay. So it could be a little bit of a surprise but you can get amazing savings there.
Chuck Thackston: Yeah, Julie that’s a good point I’m sort of looking at those packages and looking at a whole trip. One of the things that we looked at in the data that we did for Expedia was looking specifically at a Saturday night stay. Basically we found out that if you do stay over a Saturday night historically those average ticket prices have been quite a bit lower. So looking at a full trip and if you want to do part of your trip as leisure and part of it is business, you can still save quite a bit of money historically on the average ticket price. And that’s one of those myths that we’ve sort of confirmed that yes staying over Saturday night actually is good and it’s not just one destination. A friend of mine that I was speaking with last week that that actually has gone to Rome many times but he didn’t want to really stay in Rome, but you know he could take the train to Florence and that’s what he did. So he took the train to Florence spent an hour on the train there and back and spent the day in Florence. So it’s not just necessarily one destination. Look around the destination and I know Expedia has some good opportunities with tours and packages and those kinds of things as well.
Nisreene Atassi: Another myth that I’ve heard is that direct flights are always more expensive than flights with a layover or a stopover. Did you guys find that that was accurate at all?
Chuck Thackston: We did not find that a connection is, in general, cheaper than a direct flight. It really just depends on what you’re looking for in the product and what’s available on things like time of day departure or things like that. Interesting that you bring up the myths. We also looked at this a little bit differently in a myth of is it actually cheaper to buy through a travel agency. There really isn’t a pattern there. Sometimes it’s cheaper, sometimes it’s not so cheap. So there is no general advantage to trying to go to an airline direct site versus a travel agency. Those are two myths that we said you know these simply are not true based on a historical database and average ticket prices.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s really interesting. I mean Julie hearing this type of information does this sort of echo the trends that you guys have seen on your side or some of the data on the Expedia site?
Julie Kyse: Yeah I mean I think when I talk to my airline partners I’m hearing more and more about new point to point service that are brand new that airlines are launching every day. And then you know the fact that you get great prices whether you book direct or whether you book on our site that’s one of the things that my team and I work hard to do is to make sure that customers coming to Expedia have access to great fares.
Nisreene Atassi: You both actually mentioned the time of day that you’re flying. Would you say that’s a pretty big variable to look at when you’re just comparing prices? How big of a difference can that really make?
Chuck Thackston: Honestly, we’re just in the process of doing some of that research on time of day. So I really don’t have a good answer for that yet.
Nisreene Atassi: Well I guess that means we’ll have to have you back on the show then Chuck once you’ve got all that information handy.
Julie Kyse: There’s lots of good reasons to choose different times of day for flying as well. I mean I live in Miami we have afternoon thunderstorms. So I try to avoid those flights. You know that kind of thing makes a lot of sense. You know at the beginning of the morning you won’t have as much disruption because they’re starting the day you can have a better chance of having on-time arrival and departures. And it’s really down to what the individual customer’s needs are. If you’re traveling with your kids maybe the red-eye is not for you, but for me traveling back from the west coast I like to take the red-eye so I don’t waste the day off on an airplane and I get a fresh start the next day. We’re just trying to give them the right information so that they can make good choices.
Nisreene Atassi: I think that’s actually a really good point about the delays because I’m originally from Chicago and I know that whenever I was flying out of O’Hare that was like just like a known thing as Chicagoans would sort of talk about was the last thing you want to do is be at O’Hare for like an early evening flight because the odds of you getting a delay or something like that are super high. So it was sort of this thing where you always tried to get out in the morning and whether or not that’s proven or just some sort of a Chicago Urban Legend, those types of things just end up sort of sticking with you which I think is really funny. You both also talked about mixing business and leisure travel so you both obviously fly a ton I’m sure for your work. How often do you guys add on a pleasure trip and do you feel like that helps to offset costs and what are the best ways for people to sort of navigate that?
Chuck Thackston: One of the things that we found when we did our Saturday night stay analysis is we also talk to travelers about their holiday patterns and that sort of thing. And also that they want to spend another couple of days at a destination just to experience the culture and that sort of thing is a very important part and the average ticket price for a Saturday night stay can be up to 50% savings versus just traveling midweek. That can offset quite a bit of costs at the destination. So those are things that we’ve seen a lot of trends toward people liking to do that sort of “bleisure” mixture of business and leisure.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah I like that bleisure travel. Julie do you do a lot of bleisure travel?
Julie Kyse: The word bleisure makes me laugh. I do it all the time. I have a meeting coming up in Singapore and I’m not flying all the way to Singapore to not see the rest of Asia. So I’m going to go on a short, long weekend to Hanoi while I’m there because it’s one of the privileges of getting to travel for businesses, being able to add on and to expand your horizons a bit. So I love doing it. And I think the trends that we’re seeing are that a lot of people are doing it.
Chuck Thackston: And it could be just something very simple. Nissy, you mentioned Chicago I was recently at a conference in Chicago and there was a local music festival which shall be nameless. Well it’s one of those things where you know I can go in the morning instead of waiting for the evening and then go to the park and listen to some music and that sort of thing. So it could be something that’s simple but it still is a good opportunity to extend your trip a little bit and take advantage of travel.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah definitely, I try to do that when I can. I head over to London pretty regularly so I’m always trying to take a quick flight to another European destination. So I think it’s an amazing strategy. So both of you are armed with all of this data constantly. What are some of the key things that you always do personally when you’re booking family vacations?
Chuck Thackston: By using some of these tips and some of the things we’ve talked about here on the 21-day advance purchase and shopping for your travel on a Sunday that sort of thing, don’t assume you have to fly economy. Premium economy or even first and business class may not be out of reach if you use some of these techniques to actually move into those premium cabins versus just flying economy. So personally I’ll look for those opportunities for high-value fares in the premium cabin and that’s not a bad thing at all when you can take especially longer trips in those premium cabins.
Julie Kyse: I like though you’re thinking Chuck I really do. So for me the way I really approach it is I book when I know that I need to take a trip and I’m satisfied that the price is within my budget and that it’s probably a pretty good price. I think Nissy you’ve done this on Expedia where you can have the company notify you if the price goes down. Didn’t you do that recently?
Nisreene Atassi: I did the price match promise. I was actually on my way to Chicago. At checkout, there was a little pop-up box and it was $10 and it basically said that for $10, anytime the ticket or the price of my ticket drops I will get refunded for that amount every time the price went down, I got a little email and then literally like the second the doors closed on my flight when I was departing Seattle, I got a text message and an email that said you’ve been refunded $77, my flight was $77 cheaper than when I booked it. By the time I got back from my trip, it had been like five days later the refund was back on my credit card so it was definitely an easy way to safeguard my trip if you will.
Julie Kyse: Which is way better than the way I used to do it which is I would book it and then I would not, I would refuse to look at it again in before the trip because I didn’t want to torture myself with the thought that I could have gotten a better price. So this is a really good way to make sure that you’re satisfied that you’re getting the best possible price.
Chuck Thackston: The other thing that we found in our research that was a little bit surprising was we actually looked and said “Do the average ticket prices go up when you see the price at the pump going up?” and the short answer is no they really don’t. Jet fuel and the way airlines buy their fuel is very different. So if you start to see a spike at your gas pump that doesn’t necessarily mean that the average ticket price is going up, in fact in some cases if there’s a big jump in the price at the pump it may actually make airfare much more feasible versus driving a shorter medium distance. So looking at all your options when you travel is a good thing and don’t feel that you always have to drive a particular distance or can’t afford the flight or that sort of thing. It’s important to keep your options open and look for opportunities.
Nisreene Atassi: So what are some of the reasons why one might see airfare jump in price?
Chuck Thackston: The airlines are all going to set their own prices. It is a highly competitive industry and sometimes it can be just as simple that.
Julie Kyse: It’s basic supply and demand. The plane is getting full, they’ve sold as many tickets as they think they need to sell at that point. So they raise the prices.
Nisreene Atassi: Thank you both for this. I think this has been super helpful. Thank you so much for sharing your insider tips and tricks.
To catch all the tips shared in this episode, be sure to visit us on social media at Expedia on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Thanks for listening to Out Travel The System. I’m your host, Nisreene Atasssi, we’d love to hear your tips tricks and stories too. Email us at podcast@ expedia.com and be sure to subscribe to the podcast for more secrets to help you out travel the system.