A Plane Ticket Is Not A Sweater

Like most people in my generation, I grew up with the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch. So why do I find myself getting suckered into reading social media posts and travel articles that offer to reveal the latest hack that will get me cheap travel? What is a hack if not social media’s version of a free lunch? Most recently I ran across an article titled, “The secret to cheap flights? Stalk after booking.” The words “secret” “cheap” and “stalk” are click bait red flags that I usually skip right past, but against my better judgement I found myself reading the article. In my defense, it was published in the Washington Post which gave it at least a modicum of legitimacy. Or so I thought. Silly me.

My gripe with the WAPO article, and others like it, is that they leave travelers with unrealistic expectations. The hacks, or cheat code as the WAPO author called it, rarely work. The few occasions when they might actually be useful generally involve restrictions that are impractical for anyone to benefit from, except maybe a travel writer. Hmm…

The WAPO article’s premise is straightforward…purchase a plane ticket and then watch the price like a hawk. If the cost of your flight goes down just cancel your ticket and repurchase at the lower price, putting the savings, which will be in the form of a future flight credit, toward your next trip. There’s so much wrong with that approach to booking air that I hardly know where to begin, so let me start with this….it doesn’t work.

Treating a plane ticket like a department store sweater purchase might have worked for a few minutes, at the height of the pandemic when airplanes were flying nearly empty and airlines were practically giving away tickets along with waiving their change and cancellation fee policies, but those days are gone. And with planes back to flying full, even with those ridiculously high prices, non-refundable fares are once again non-refundable. Which means the WAPO hack doesn’t work. Even if you fly Southwest where you can still cancel without penalty the hack doesn’t work…Southwest’s prices are lowest when they are first released and only go up from there.

When I purchase air I stalk prices before I buy, which is the opposite of the WAPO article’s strategy. My golden window to purchase a plane ticket is between 2-8 months in advance, and sooner rather than later if I’m traveling over a holiday or during the peak summer vacation travel season. I track the price of flights I’m interested in for several weeks and when I’m satisfied the price is stable, and that my trip is a go…very important detail since I always buy non-refundable tickets, I buy. Once I buy a plane ticket, I don’t look back. Even if I could cancel a ticket without penalty, I’ve got a much better shot at winning the lottery than I do rebooking air at a lower price. The one thing I don’t do is wait too long, hoping prices will come down. They might, but they are much more likely to go up.

Some people swear by apps that track air ticket prices and send an alert when the price of the flight being tracked goes below whatever threshold you set. I’ve tried using those and found them to be pretty worthless. They give the illusion of being helpful without actually being helpful. The times I’ve gotten a price reduction alert using one of those apps, I found the price had gone back up before I could make a purchase. It has happened often enough that I wonder if the price ever really went down.

When it comes to air travel there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You can’t even buy lunch on most domestic flights these days…you have to hit the food court before you board! All you can do is balance ticket cost and schedule risk against your risk tolerance, and once you’ve made the decision to buy, don’t look back.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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