The Simple Trick to Pay Less for Your Airfare

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Traveling with a few friends or family members? Here's why airfare goes up the more tickets you buy—and how to save more on your next flight.

There are all sorts of sneaky tricks out there to get you to spend more money. Luckily, there are also lots of ways to evade those tricks and save money, which is great—especially when you’re shelling out for something on the pricier side, like airfare.

Have you ever experienced this puzzling situation? You’re looking for airfare for you and your family or a group. You’ll see one ticket for a certain, manageable price. Then you add another ticket and see the same price. But when you add a third, or perhaps a fourth—the price shoots up, not just for the new ticket but for all of your tickets now. Suddenly, instead of paying $300 a head for your upcoming trip, the airline is now charging $800—the difference can be that vast.

According to Willis Orlando, Product Operations Specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights, this is a trick airlines use to try to make more money, but you can get around it. It’s one of the things airlines don’t want to tell you (but every flier should know).

What are “fare buckets?”

Before you learn how to avoid this gimmick, you need to know how and why it’s happening. “[We know] airlines break their tickets up into classes—economy, basic economy, et cetera,” says Orlando. “But within each of those, they subdivide the tickets. All the tickets within basic economy are subdivided into ‘fare buckets,'” he explains. “There’s a finite number of tickets in each fare bucket.” So even in the same boarding “class,” there will be tickets of different prices. “[Airlines] do this in an attempt to maximize revenue,” continues Orlando. “They want to push out the cheapest tickets to leisure travelers, who will walk away if they don’t get a reasonable price, while holding other tickets, in the same fare class, at higher prices for people who are traveling for business, [or] whose jobs are footing the bill, but are maybe still traveling in economy.”

So what’s happening when you notice this sudden jump is that you’ve “maxed out” the number of tickets in the less expensive fare bucket. “If there are no more tickets left in that fare bucket, most airlines will then push your entire itinerary up to the next fare bucket, instead of giving you a few in the first and a few in the next,” Orlando says. Irritating? You bet. Inevitable? Nope!

How can you avoid overpaying for airline tickets?

One of the simplest ways to avoid the trap of the fare bucket is to try another flight. Especially if you’re looking well in advance of your travel dates, or if you’re looking at a location that has many outgoing flights on a given day, you might get lucky and find a flight that still has enough tickets in the lower fare bucket.

Here’s the lesser known option: “If you’re fixed on the date and flight, just buy one ticket at a time, or buy as many as are available at the lower fare together. Then buy whatever’s left separately,” Orlando suggests. “You’ll still pay the higher price for the separate tickets, but you’ll get a savings for the first ones.” Orlando did this himself for a trip to Rome with his family—they weren’t able to get every ticket for the lower fare, but they still ended up saving $700! And it wasn’t even on the airline with the worst reputation in America.

What if you need to sit together?

Buying tickets separately can present a challenge for groups or families traveling together—especially if you’re not able to select seats. That’s part of why the trick is effective for the airlines, Orlando says. “If you’ve got a family of five and you’ve decided on this flight, this date, and the price goes up—you say, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta buy it. I’m buying it together.'” That’s part of the reason why all of the tickets you’re buying will jump up in price, rather than just the ones that have pushed you into the next fare bucket. If you need a package deal, airlines can usually count on you buying those tickets no matter what.

And that can be a caveat when buying separate batches of tickets—it can be more challenging to get seats together. But Orlando says not to let that stop you. “If you buy separate tickets, you can call the airline and link your itineraries,” Orlando says. “They’ll try to seat you together.”

There’s a financial downside if you end up having to change or cancel your flights. “If your airline has change or cancellation fees, you’ll be on the hook twice,” he warns. But he does add that change fees are one of the ways air travel is changing in the 2020s—namely, many major airlines have eliminated them for good for tickets above basic economy.

As with any flight, be as sure as possible before you purchase your tickets and know that things might not always work out exactly the way you want. Just don’t be duped into thinking across-the-board price increases are inevitable! Next, learn more travel secrets to always get the best airfare possible.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine.