Why waiting to book your flights could save you money

Simon Calder

Two weeks ago I wrote about how difficult it is, in the world of fluid pricing, to predict the best time to buy a plane ticket.

I wrote that the standard model for air fares involves pricing starting relatively low and gradually increasing towards the departure date.

But a respected former colleague of mine contacted me to provide an example of the worst time to book a plane ticket.

He is heading for Preveza in northwest Greece later this month, and in January booked a return flight from Gatwick.

“I have always made my bookings for summer holidays several months in advance,” he writes. He is fully aware that this strategy buys the confidence that a seat is secured, but involves the risk of paying more than necessary.

Airlines sometimes take advantage of this, selling early on at a high price to people who need to lock in to specific dates.

The fare he paid to easyJet was over £700 per person return.

Last week, however, a friend decided to join the party and made bookings for the same flights. Their fare was less than £220.

He is understandably furious. He has paid more than the cost of a flight from London to Sydney and back for a three-hour round trip to Greece.

Until a few years ago, easyJet maintained a “price promise” which allowed passengers to recover the difference (in the shape of a credit for future travel) when fares fell between the time of booking and departure. In my limited experience, it worked well – even though it did not apply to “seat sales”, when the airline deepened its discount.

The airline dropped the option for everyone else, presumably because extracting profit is more important to it than the risk of impairing customer relations.

The price promise still prevails for members of its invitation-only Flight Club and paid-for easyJet Plus scheme. The latter, costing £215 for a year, would certainly have been a worthwhile investment – and if you are facing high fares that you suspect will fall, you might want to sign up.

Even if the fare doesn’t fall, easyJet Plus brings added benefits: dedicated desks and fast-track security at some airports, free allocated seating, an extra carry-on bag. In addition, there is another perk that used to be given for free to everyone: the right to take an earlier return flight on the same day if space is available.

But infrequent easyJet passengers will regard paying an additional £215 as an expensive form of insurance against steep price drops.

So what is the best alternative strategy for the many people who find themselves in the same position: wanting certainty that the flights are booked, but being understandably concerned that they will pay too much?

It involves easing that red line on needing certainty. If the fare looks uncomfortably high, be prepared to tolerate some risk that you may have a longer journey to reach your final destination. Then just wait, with the help of an easy-to-set-up Skyscanner price alert, until the fare falls to a more acceptable level.

Airline vs passenger is a game of cat and mouse. Just don’t blink.

And if it doesn’t work out? With a month to go, opt for plan B. As a last resort you know you will be able to travel to Athens, Corfu or Thessaloniki at more agreeable fare. Flights are much more plentiful and therefore not subject to wild swings in price, and competition keeps a lid on extremely high fares.

Travel terrestrially from wherever you touch down. Buses, trains and ferries in Greece are all part of the adventure. And as you gaze out across the scenery of northern Greece, be comforted that you are conserving cash for the important business of indulgent travel.