NEW YORK (MainStreet) Flying is about the worst fun thing a person can do. On the one hand, boarding planes generally means adventure. They could take you on vacation, home for the holidays, off to meet a long lost lover or even just out of the office for a few days. Personally, whenever I step on a plane I imagine disembarking to some lonely bar with fans slowly rotating overhead, wearing a Panama hat and carrying all my worldly belongings in one battered, leather satchel.
In this scenario I am, of course, a cross between Indiana Jones and the Dos Equis man.
Of course the reality is far less romantic. In my informal survey of one, flying rates just below getting audited by a bitter ex. Nothing about the experience really counts as fun, but there are ways to make it all a little bit better or worse.
Still one surefire way to make buying and using those tickets more painful is going in blind. Too many myths circulate about the airline industry, and marching into an airport confident that you can game the system will only leave you grumbling at the gate agent as they reassign you to a seat right next to the bathroom. Don't believe me? Here are eight:
#1. Last Minute Fares
This may be the single biggest myth about the airline industry: hours before a flight airlines will sell tickets for a song.
"First is this myth that never seems to go away," said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, "that if you wait until the last minute the airlines will have all these empty seats that they will practically give away. It's absolutely not true. In fact...the worst day to buy your flight [is] the day before."
This myth has become pervasive enough to take over TV shows and even entire ad campaigns, but it's as wrong as it is popular. The truth is that the airline industry has gotten incredibly good at predicting demand. These days most flights run either full or oversold, and if a few seats remain open, they cost an arm and a leg. Want a good deal in the air? Plan ahead.
#2. Planning Too Far Ahead
Don't plan too far ahead though, because here's our second myth: you can never buy tickets too far in advance.
As a general rule, tickets get more expensive the closer you get to a flight, so it seems intuitive that earlier is always better. Unfortunately, in this case, intuition will steer you wrong.
"It's kind of the opposite of the first one," Klee said, "that the earlier you buy your tickets the better, because that's not true either in most cases. It's more true than that waiting until the last minute can be good... but if the worst thing you can do is buy too late, the second worst thing you can do is buy too early."
The truth is that too far in advance airlines don't have a fix on their prices yet, and they know people booking a year ahead will need that flight no matter what. Airfare moves in a cycle, and the best time to buy is usually a couple months in advance.
#3. Hidden Fares
Everyone knows someone who considers himself a travel ninja and promises that he knows just where to look to find the best prices online. Well, that's a lie because: there's no such thing as finding just the right site to get amazing, hidden deals.
The good news about this myth is that we can all stop searching. Like everyone else, I reflexively tend to double check any airline prices against two or three other websites just to make sure I got the best price. The problem is, that's a slippery slope, and before you know it you've spent hours looking up every website that's ever sold a ticket from Bratislava into Moldova just to make sure there aren't hidden savings.
Save yourself the time. The truth is that all of the airfare booking sites actually get their prices from the same database. You'll find some variation, because different sites will put together slightly different routes, and once in a blue moon that might make a meaningful difference. As a general rule though, rest easy. There's no secret site out there just waiting to cut your ticket price in half.
#4. Talking Your Way Into an Upgrade
This myth also comes to us courtesy of pop culture: if you dress nicely and charm the gate agent, you can talk your way right into first class.
Think again, Danny Ocean. Like the myth of last minute fares, charming your way into first class has been effectively killed by a modern, efficient industry. Airlines know those seats up front don't always sell, so they take advantage of the empty space in a dozen other ways. They hand out first class seats as rewards to huge customers or let frequent fliers upgrade with points. Recently, more and more airlines have started offering customers a chance to buy upgrades at check in (in the one exception to our first myth).
The truth is, airlines know how to make the most of every inch of space on their planes, and they do so ruthlessly. I'm not saying getting bumped up at the jetway never happens, but almost always that seat you're trying to schmooze for has already been taken.
#5. There's a Right Day to Buy
Like all good stories, myth number five starts with a kernel of truth. Price-wise, there are absolutely better days to fly than others. That, however, has led to the myth: it's cheaper to buy your plane ticket on some days than others.
"That's been a very common myth," Klee said, "and you see it all the time on sites saying, 'Oh, book your tickets on Tuesday.' Some of them even have an exact time... However we found when we looked this past year, we looked at hundreds of millions [of bookings], and it literally made no significant difference. All seven days of the week were within a couple of dollars in terms of the average fares that were available to people."
Klee said that the myth makes some sense, because airlines do sometimes publish a lot of deals on Tuesdays, but that makes no difference in standard prices. The truth is, day of the week doesn't matter. It's certainly cheaper to fly on a Tuesday vs. a Saturday, but as far as buying the ticket goes, there's just no impact.
#6. Airlines Run Great Online Deals
Speaking of those Tuesday deals, they're not all they're cracked up to be -- leading to our sixth myth: you can get reliable savings through online deals.
This myth is a little different from our others, because once upon a time it actually used to be true. In the early days of web browsing, airlines began running online deals to try and get customers used to booking on their websites. Today people overwhelmingly book online, so the industry needs fewer incentives.
The result? Those once useful web fares have been increasingly cut back. The truth behind this myth is that while there are lots of special offers, they are generally so specific and limited as to be functionally useless. Every now and again, your plans might line up with the airline's exacting specifications, but for the most part, they're an advertising gimmick and nothing more.
Death of a loved one is one of the few personal reasons to fly last minute these days. This rare need to get on a plane tomorrow at all costs led to the myth of bereavement: airlines will give you a break to fly home for a funeral. The truth is, bereavement exists as a policy, but it has never meant particularly good prices.
"[Bereavement fares] do exist," Klee said, "but they're kind of like a holdover from when it used to be that when you bought at the last minute it was absurdly expensive. So the airlines would offer these bereavement fares that were some percentage off the full fare."
As expensive as it is to buy last minute now, it used to be frighteningly more so. Trying to fly cross country on a moment's notice could cost thousands of dollars, so even at half price that ticket still cost a lot of money. Today last minute fares cost much less than they used to (although still considerably more than buying in advance), so the airlines don't need to cut as much of a break. They also have less room to do so, since everyone's ticket runs on razor thin margins.
"Most of the airlines still have these fares," Klee added, "but they're almost never a good deal."
#8. The Saturday Night Stay
This longstanding myth was once a staple of the business community: in order to get the best deals on a round trip flight, you need to stay overnight on a Saturday.
Now, this myth wasn't invented whole cloth. After airline deregulation some companies did start charging more to come back at the end of the week. The rule was aimed at shaking down business travelers who wanted to get home for the weekend and would pay extra to do so. The practice never really took though, and with increasing competition in the marketplace even the companies which did impose the Saturday rule have largely dropped it.
The truth is, although a few companies once did this on some routes, it was never really a major factor in prices to begin with and competition has largely killed it off. Flying back on a Friday or Saturday might sometimes cost more, but only because those are two of the most popular days to fly. Anything else is just a myth.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.