Monday, July 07, 2008

When to Buy?

It used to be that buying airplane tickets was a little bit of a gamble. You never knew if you were buying at the right time. You might commit to buying a ticket and the next day the price might drop significantly. Or it might go up. It all seemed very random and it was hard to decide when to make the purchase.

Lately all the advice I’ve been getting says to buy now, because prices will only go up. And over the weekend, I had an experience that suggested very dramatically that this is true.

My family is planning a getaway to a lake near Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the end of July. On Saturday, my sister and I had a pow-wow on the phone, each of us in front of our own computer, in order to book plane tickets to Milwaukee. We looked at airfares for various dates and times on several different web sites. Finally, we decided on a particular American Airlines itinerary, which Hilary found on Orbitz and I saw on Travelocity for exactly the same price. We went through the booking process together, picking seats that were next to each other.

When we got to the end of the process, we double-checked with each other and then we both clicked our purchase buttons at what must have been almost exactly the same time.

I instantly got a confirmation that my purchase had gone through. Hilary, though, got a message saying that one or more of her flights was no longer available. When we tried to start the booking over again, neither site offered that exact itinerary as an option. After a few minutes, the flights reappeared—for several hundred dollars more than I had just paid. We hoped this was a fluke, and that prices would come back down after a few hours, but so far, no luck.

I am aware that two people sitting next to each other on a plane can pay wildly different prices for those two seats, but I never realized this could happen when they’re booked seconds apart. In retrospect, I see now that we should have been using one computer to purchase both the tickets at once. But if we’d taken the extra time for one of us to drive to the other’s house, who knows what would have happened to prices during that hour?

Like I said, it’s a gamble.

No comments: