Find Cheap(er) Airfares by Searching for One Ticket at a Time

by Michael on Oct 4, 2013 · 5 comments

Photo of Man at the Airport

This is just a quick tip for those of you who are starting to think about booking flights for the upcoming holiday travel season…

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time making travel arrangements. Our nearest airport is ATL, so that means we fly Delta almost exclusively.

Well, while searching for airfares, I noticed something interesting that could’ve wound up being quite costly…

Recall that we have four kids. Thus, when we travel by air, we book multiple tickets. This time, I nabbed two seats using the “free companion” certificate that comes with my Amex Delta Reserve card. I then went back in to buy four more.

The problem

When I originally priced the flight, it came up as $349/seat for a roundtrip fare. But when I went to book it a few seconds later, the price had climbed to $398/seat.

While it’s possible that someone had just bought the last seat(s) in the cheaper fare class, I wasn’t about to pay another $49/seat without some investigation.

Here’s the deal: When I searched for one passenger, it was $349/seat. When I searched for two, they were $349/seat. When I searched for three, they were $349/seat. But when I searched for four, the price of all four was $398/seat.

In other words…

If you need a certain number of seats and they don’t have that many available in a given fare class, they’ll bump all of your seats up into the next higher fare class. And this practice is, apparently, quite common across airlines.

The solution

The solution to this problem is to always start by searching for a single passenger. Make a note of the fare and then scale up to your whole party. Hopefully, the price won’t have changed and you can simply book your tickets.

If the price does increase, then go back and search for progressively more tickets (two, three, four, and so on). In doing so, you’ll learn the maximum number of seats that you can get at the lower price tier.

Once you know the cutoff, go ahead and book the cheaper subset on one reservation. You can then book the balance of your seats at the higher rate.

Protip: Rumor has it that this also works for award tickets. I haven’t experienced this myself, but you may be able to get a subset of your tickets at a lower redemption rate (i.e., fewer miles) by booking on multiple reservations.

Finally, once you’ve purchased all of your tickets, you can call the airline and ask them to link the reservations together.

While this is a pain in the butt, the savings can be substantial. In our case, we saved ca. $150 for a few minutes of extra work. Well worth it. And the savings could be even larger on more expensive routes.

The downside

Note that there are some downsides to this procedure. Aside for the (minor) inconvenience, you might also lose out on some perks for a portion of you party by splitting up the reservations.

The details likely vary by airline, but here’s our story:

I have Platinum Medallion status on Delta. Thus, I get (amongst other things) free access to Economy Comfort seating. And so does anyone with tickets booked as part of the same reservation.

Unfortunately, simply linking your reservations after the fact doesn’t provide the others with this privilege. Thus, by splitting our tickets into multiple reservations (i.e., record locators), only some of us have free access to the better seats.

This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s a bit annoying.

The good news is that, according to Delta, everyone with a reservation linked to mine should still be able to use the shorter “SkyPriority” security line, and should also get to board the plane early.

1 Money Beagle October 4, 2013 at 11:29 am

Wow, I had never heard of this trick. It could be a big money saver. Thanks for the info!

2 Edward Antrobus October 4, 2013 at 12:34 pm

It is worth a shot, but there are only two of us so I doubt we would save that much.
I do know that often airfare is cheaper if you fly to a smaller airport near your destination. We saved a substantial amount last month by flying to Wilmington instead of Philadelphia. Next time, however we will spend the extra to fly back from Philly because that Wilmington airport is simply too small to handle the number of people on a typical commuter flight.

3 Michael October 4, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Yes, the savings would be smaller, but it could still happen. Consider if we had booked two seats instead of four. All would have been well for us, but if you had come along after that, both of your tickets would’ve been kicked up into the next fare class when you should’ve been able to buy one at the lower price.

4 Steve October 8, 2013 at 5:54 pm

I have used this trick with just two people. Like Michael, I only became aware of the situation when I changed the number of passengers traveling (going from a “lets check prices” to “lets buy the tickets” search). IIRC we saved $80 by booking the two tickets separately. Amusingly, since one of our tickets was a higher fare class, we got a free upgrade to first class on one of the legs.

I did not know until reading this article that the disparate reservations could be linked. I often travel half an itinerary with my spouse, so I’ll see if I can use that in the future to prevent the airline from munging our seat choices.

5 SuburbanFinance October 5, 2013 at 11:51 pm

That’s interesting, I’d never thought to look at air fare that way. I don’t pay for more than 1-2 ever anyway, but this would be helpful for my cousins who travel all together (8 of them)

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