Travel Agent Tip: How to get Cheap Flights

Welcome to my new series: Travel Agent Tips. In the last eight months I’ve learned a lot about the travel industry and travel in general, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned with you, my lovely readers.
First up, I’d like to address some of the many myths and misconceptions around finding a cheap flight. It can be stressful and time-consuming trying to find a cheap flight, and no one wants to board a plane knowing that they probably paid twice or even three times more than the dude sitting next to them.

Today I’m addressing a question from Tom Bourlet who blogs at His question is one I get almost every day.


Is it better to book way in advance or wait for a late deal?


This depends on whether you are talking about flights or accommodation and tours. For today’s tip, I’m going to focus on flights.

Every time I read an article about how the prime time to book a flight is 4-6 weeks or 8-10 weeks in advance (or whatever number seems legit)  I roll my eyes. Because like many things in this world, getting a cheap fare is usually just a case of the early bird getting the nice cheap worm.

Let me start by giving you a quick lesson about they way that fares work. Please excuse my awful pictures as I was taking photos of my screen at work.

Looking at Availability

Each flight has a number of booking classes. When I’m talking about booking classes I’m not talking about economy, business and first class, but the actual price of each fare.

When I look at a flight it will look similar to this.

A0 B0 C0 D2 E4 F4 G5 H6 I8 J9 K9 L9 M9 N9 O9 P9

Let’s say that Alpha class (A) is the cheapest fare available on this flight, O is business, and P is first class. For this flight A class has no fares left at that cheap price. Airlines usually release fares around 11 months in advance (although some low-cost airlines will typically release them around six months in advance).

Let’s also say that all those cheap $100 A class fares sold out between 10 and 11 months in advance, the $125 B class fares sold out 9 months in advance, and the $150 C class fares sold out 7 months in advance.

It’s now six months before you’ll be flying, and there are two seats left in D class at $200 each. The cheaper the booking class, the earlier it is sold out.

This is hugely dependent on how many flights are going to and from your origin and destination e.g if I’m flying from New Zealand to LA I’m more likely to need to book further in advance than if I was flying from New York to London.

Here’s a better example of how it works:

Let’s say you’re looking at booking a flight from New York to London and you’d like to go on the 9th of October. Here’s what the search will look like:


How fares work
A flight from New York to London on the 9th of October 2013

Let’s take a closer look at the availability and those booking classes:

Finding cheap flights
As you can see there are at least 9 seats available in each booking class, so you’ll be able to get a pretty cheap fare.


Tons of availability, and there’s at least 9 seats available in the cheaper booking classes which is great.

Now let’s pretend it’s the 2nd of June and you’d like to take the same flight on the 10th:

Cheap flights from New York

Here’s a closer look:

Cheap flights to London

Huge difference. As you can see, most of the booking classes are either grayed out or have a 0 next to them, meaning only the highest booking classes are left, and the fare will be much more expensive.

This is what’s called an air availability search, and it’s just one of the many searches that travel agents use to find cheaper flights, and to check on how heavily booked a flight is.

So basically, the idea of waiting for a last-minute “cheap deal” is largely a myth. When an airline is advertising a low price last-minute it means that the flight is not very full and there are still cheap booking classes available.

Low-cost airlines are also more likely to have last-minute deals, but if you’re looking for a cheap flight the general rule of thumb is the further in advance you book the better.


I hope I’ve at least helped a few people out with this post, if you have any questions please ask them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

If you have a question about travel that you’d like answered, either leave me a comment or email me at, and I’ll do my best to answer it in one of my travel tip posts.


15 comments on “Travel Agent Tip: How to get Cheap Flights

  1. budget jan June 19, 2013 @ 4:37 am

    Thanks for this inside look at a Travel Agents Screen, and explaining why it is better to book in advance. I can see this will be a very enlightening series.
    budget jan recently posted..Our Airbnb Experiences

  2. DJ Yabis | Dream Euro Trip June 19, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    Awesome! Which screen are you looking at by the way? Is that a private screen only travel agents can see?
    DJ Yabis | Dream Euro Trip recently posted..5 Best and Essential Things to Do in Barcelona: A Glomad Guide

    • Stacey June 20, 2013 @ 4:53 am

      Yup. There’s a global system that all travel agents use and it communicates with all the airlines. This is a system that has been developed for the company I work for and it sits over the global system and talks to it-it’s way easier than the other one although I still have to use that sometimes too.
      Stacey recently posted..Travel Agent Tip: How to get Cheap Flights

  3. santafetraveler June 19, 2013 @ 5:57 pm

    Besides the cheaper fares going to the early bird- book accommodations at the last minute in a busy place may be costly. If you have a last minute fare deal- before you book it get yourself a place to stay. Nothing worse than arriving somewhere with no place to stay and no room at the inn.
    santafetraveler recently posted..Meet the Travel Bloggers: Travel For Wildlife

    • Stacey June 22, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

      Agreed. Often sites like will have good deals when hotels are trying to fill rooms, but when traveling during school holidays and peak seasons like Christmas/New Years it’s definitely best to make sure you’ve organized accommodation.

  4. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family June 19, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

    Very interesting Stacey!!!
    Bethaney – Flashpacker Family recently posted..“Sell your crap. Pay off your debt. Do what you love.”

  5. Izy Berry June 19, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

    Haha, I am a last minute flight booker… sometimes it works in my favor though. For me flexibility is more valuable as I change my mind so often…
    Izy Berry recently posted..How to Find a Good Couchsurfing host

    • Stacey June 20, 2013 @ 4:58 am

      Haha yeah I’m pretty awful at booking flights for myself well in advance!

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  7. Marah Howles November 10, 2014 @ 11:51 pm

    This is really informative. No matter what, I always believe of the general rule of thumb which is the advance booking to get cheaper air tickets.

    • Stacey November 12, 2014 @ 1:19 am

      I agree, especially if your dates are set in stone. Why wait? There’s nothing worse than that feeling when you realise your flights have increased and you could have gotten them much cheaper if you’d just booked earlier.

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