Save Money by Searching for Fewer Seats Than You Need

Aug 23, 2017

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Booking flights these days can be an expensive endeavor. Consolidation in the industry and reduced capacity has caused airfares to rise, and we’ve also seen a reduction in the number of seats made available for award tickets. However, there are still some ways to overcome these challenges, and today I want to highlight one in particular: searching for fewer seats than you need.

The premise to this strategy is simple. Airlines often limit the number of seats they sell in a given fare class. If you’re searching for a flight and the number of tickets you want exceeds that which is available in the lowest fare class, most airlines will automatically bump you into the next class for all of the tickets you’re trying to purchase. Even if the difference is just $20, that can add up for a large party.

The Inspiration for This Post

While this strategy has been highlighted in a previous reader success story, I actually just encountered this very phenomenon recently when booking an intra-South Africa flight on South African Airways. My wife, daughter and I are heading on a safari after a friend’s wedding next March and needed to fly from Cape Town (CPT) to Port Elizabeth (PLZ). I pulled up Travelocity to get an idea of flight options and prices, and this was the itinerary that worked best for us:

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However, I wasn’t thrilled about paying that amount for a short, one-way flight in coach. I thought about holding off to see if the flight would eventually drop, but I also wanted to avoid the price climbing even higher. I decided to log in to my ExpertFlyer account to check the overall availability on the flight (a nice feature in addition to the award inventory alerts you can set). After all, if there were only three or four seats left in V class, I could wind up paying even more if I waited!

Here’s what I found for the three South African Airways flights from CPT to PLZ on our day of departure:

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As you can see, there were still 6 seats left in V class on the 3pm departure. However, even more intriguing was the fact that there were two seats available in the lower S, L, W and G fare classes. Since I was searching for three seats, I was being “forced” into the higher V class for all of the tickets.

I quickly went back to Travelocity, adjusted my search criteria to one adult and one child and got the following result:

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Score! I could book my wife and daughter together for just $95.95 apiece (in G class) and then go back and book me for $140.57 (in V class). This simple trick would thus save me $89.24.

As it turned out, I wound up booking this flight using Citi ThankYou points earned from my Citi Prestige Card (which I will be canceling when the annual fee hits this month). Before July 23, these points gave me 1.33 cents of value per point, so booking all three of us at the higher rate would’ve cost me 10,569 points apiece (or 31,707 in total). However, when I searched for just two seats for my wife and daughter, here was the result:

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When I then redeemed 10,569 points for my own one-way ticket, my total expense was 24,997 points, a savings of 6,710 ThankYou points. All of this was possible because I was lucky enough to identify that my search was shielding the lower fare class tickets, simply because I was searching for more than were available at that level.

Should you always do this?

On the surface, this may seem like a no-brainer. Saving money simply by splitting your traveling party up into two separate groups? Sounds easy enough! However, there are some important situations where you may want to think twice before following the strategy I outline above:

  1. If you have elite status: If you’re traveling with one or more companions and happen to have elite status on the carrier you’re flying, you may want to book together. Many elite status perks only extend to companions on the same reservation, though I have (in the past) been able to enjoy them on separate reservations by calling the airline and asking to “link” the two. If you want to ensure that your travel companion(s) can take advantage of all of your perks, booking on the same reservation makes the most sense.
  2. If you have an airline co-branded credit card: A similar rationale applies if you carry a co-branded credit card from the airline with whom you’re traveling. Once again, many of the published perks of these cards (especially waived checked bag fees) only extend to companions on the same reservation. No sense in saving $20 when your friend or family member then has to spend $25 to check a bag! You could have luck linking separate reservations, as mentioned above, but to guarantee these perks, booking together is the best option.
  3. If you absolutely have to travel together: A third situation that could lead you to shy away from this strategy is if you’re nervous about separating from your companion(s) if your original flight is delayed or canceled. In the event of these irregular operations, airlines tend to rebook passengers in any way they can, and if you’re on a single reservation, you will almost certainly be rebooked together. However, if you’re on separate reservations, there’s no guarantee you’ll stay together, even if you’ve called to link them.

While saving money on flights is definitely appealing, missing out on elite or credit card perks or (even worse) being separated may not be worth those savings.

What about award tickets?

American business 777-300ER
Airlines are very restrictive with premium cabin award inventory these days, but you may be able to use this strategy if your plans are flexible at all.

You can apply a similar strategy to award tickets, especially on carriers like Southwest or JetBlue that follow a revenue-based redemption scheme. Since award rates on these airlines are directly tied to the price of a ticket, you should always try to search for fewer seats than you need. If there’s a single ticket left at a lower price, you’ll redeem fewer points for that flight and can then book the remaining passengers at the higher award amount.

For carriers that follow a standard award chart, the process is a bit more challenging but can still yield results. On these airlines (including American, Delta and United), most travelers try searching for so-called “Saver” level inventory, especially since this is typically the only way to redeem miles on partner airlines. Unfortunately, most carriers are very restrictive with these seats, so finding two or more open on any given flight is a bit challenging. However, if you’re willing to split up your traveling party on different itineraries, spread the party across different travel classes or even splurge for one or two non-saver awards, you may be in luck by searching for fewer seats than you need.

Here’s a quick example. Let’s say that you were looking to fly from Miami (MIA) to Zurich (ZRH) next year, and your desired day of departure is Monday March 12. Since you’re traveling with two friends, you pull up United.com (one of our recommended sites for searching Star Alliance award availability) and put in three adults, hoping that one of Swiss’ two daily flights has award inventory in business class. No such luck:

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However, when you reduce the search to two adults, you now see two seats in Swiss’ very solid business class:

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In this case, you could book two passengers into business and the other into economy, or you could book two business-class award tickets on the 6pm nonstop flight and then book the third passenger in business class on a connecting flight via Lisbon:

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You could also grab those two award seats on the nonstop and hold off on booking the third passenger, just to see if a better option opens up as the departure date approaches. In all of these cases, you identified “hidden” award inventory that wasn’t available when searching for all three tickets at the same time.

Bottom Line

Airline pricing for both paid and award tickets can be very convoluted, with rates and award availability varying not just day by day but even minute by minute. If you’re looking for two or more tickets, you may be unknowingly pushed into a higher fare class simply because most airlines structure their search results in that fashion. One of my favorite strategies for overcoming this discrepancy is to search for fewer seats than you need, and I’ve saved hundreds of dollars and thousands of points over the years by doing just that. Hopefully this post has inspired you to do the same!

Have you ever made separate reservations to save money and/or points?

Featured image courtesy of Mischa Keijser via Getty Images.

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