The Logic of Booking Air Travel Has Changed

The days of booking bare-bones fares months in advance may be gone for now.
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Written by Sam Kemmis
Senior Writer
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Edited by Meg Lee
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Let’s say you Rip-Van-Winkled through the last two years. What about the travel industry would surprise you most? The fact that travel credit cards now offer few travel benefits?

Or that the Federal Aviation Administration has developed an “Unruly Passenger Toolkit” that includes — this is real — an official suite of memes?

The meme says "The second rule of fight club is to not fight on a plane!"

A government-endorsed meme campaign isn't a pandemic byproduct we saw coming. (Image courtesy of the FAA)

Yes, the FAA providing weekly reports on the number of unruly events related to face masks would certainly puzzle a time traveler. But that same traveler might be even more surprised by how the entire logic of booking a flight has changed.

This change has gone so unnoticed that even many non-time-travelers may have missed it.

The conventional air travel booking wisdom was roughly this:

  • Book well in advance.

  • Make firm plans.

  • Book basic economy when you don’t need bells and whistles.

Now, every piece of this conventional wisdom has been turned on its head.

The rise of the last-minute traveler

In the Before Times, travelers would start booking holiday travel in the summer. That idea seems somewhat ludicrous now. The uncertainty of travel more than a few months into the future has caused a major shift in when we book.

Travelers booked flights 38 days in advance in February 2022, on average, down from 50 days in February 2019, according to data from Hopper, a travel booking app. And the change is more striking when you break it down:

The uncertainty of COVID-era travel has impacted how far out people book their trips. (Image courtesy of Hopper)

The number of travelers booking one week in advance has skyrocketed in 2021 and 2022 (the rightmost of each set of bars in the graph) compared with 2019 and 2020. And the number booking more than 16 weeks in advance has dwindled to almost nothing.

Basically, more travelers are booking closer to the date of departure. Part of this shift is due to the changing certainty of plans, but another factor is at play. Airlines now have much more flexible cancellation policies, which means that it’s easier to book a last-minute flight and cancel it if plans change.

Change and cancellation policies changed everything

Last year, airlines (mostly) removed change and cancellation fees for main cabin fares. This seemingly small adjustment had a big impact on how to think about booking airfare.

The old logic rewarded those who preferred to make firm plans. In fact, booking a flight was often the linchpin upon which all the other travel plans depended. But now that plane tickets can be changed more easily on more airlines, making firm plans is no longer necessary. In fact, it often doesn’t make sense.

For example, you might be wary about booking travel to Europe later this year. With COVID-related rules for international travel shifting constantly, making solid plans is more difficult.

But with flexible booking options, you don’t have to know exactly what will happen. You can book a flight to Europe and, if restrictions make the trip difficult or impossible, you can change or cancel your ticket for another destination. In other words, booking flights doesn’t require the same degree of certainty that it used to.

This flexibility comes with a few caveats. First, most airlines won't issue a refund for canceled tickets, but rather a voucher for future travel. This policy creates an incentive to book with an airline that will offer good backup options in case plans change. Second, making last-minute changes to a ticket could still cost money since you’ll have to cover the price difference between the original and new fare.

And finally, changes and cancellations aren't allowed for most basic economy fares.

(Almost) always avoid basic economy fares

Basic economy fares offer a way for regular airlines to compete with ultra-low-cost ones like Spirit and Frontier in search results. They're bare-bones fares that don’t include perks like seat assignments or elite qualifying miles. They used to offer a way for shoestring-budget travelers who didn’t care about these perks to score a deal.

Not so much anymore.

Because regular (nonbudget) airlines eliminated change fees on main cabin fares, basic economy tickets are now even worse. If your plans change and you hold a basic economy ticket, you’ll have to eat the entire fare and book a new ticket.

Even without the current environment of uncertainty, this wasn't a trade-off worth taking. Paying more for a main cabin seat is a no-brainer for anyone who isn’t completely confident in their travel plans (and who is?).

Rethink how you book air travel

Old habits die hard, and it’s easy to slip into the same old patterns when buying airfare. Yet the logic underpinning these habits has changed, and it’s worth setting a mental reminder for the next time you have to book a flight.

Because most main cabin fares are now highly flexible, you don’t have to think as far in advance or plan as rigidly as before. This doesn’t mean you should book a bunch of flights and take only the one you want (since you might get stuck with a bunch of expiring credits with one airline). But it does mean that you can build your flights around your travel plans, not the other way around.

And remember: These changes apply only to main cabin or regular economy seats, not basic economy. So you’d be wise to avoid those rock-bottom fares (as well as budget airlines that don’t allow free changes and cancellations) unless your plans are absolutely set.

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