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Online airfare pricing porkies

CHOICE says airlines are trying to dupe consumers into urgently purchasing premium tickets

4 June 2014

Have you ever felt under pressure when booking a flight online? A CHOICE review of the online booking processes on Virgin, Qantas and Expedia found consumers are fed dubious messages about available seats to encourage them to purchase tickets. 

“We found prices can change dramatically in a short period of time with the airlines appearing to create an illusion of urgency to get you to the point of purchase on what you believe is a cheap ticket,” says CHOICE Head of Media Tom Godfrey.

The CHOICE review found notices posted next to airfares such as “two seats left” and “five or fewer seats” shouldn’t be taken literally. One airline CHOICE spoke with acknowledged that cheaper seats on the same flight in the same class could become available five minutes later. 

“We found you could save $975 on the same Sydney-LA return flight if you booked at 2:33pm instead of 11:41am the same day on Virgin Australia’s website.”

Time-of-day pricing has long been applied to services like electricity and road tolls, but in these cases you generally know what the price is going to be at a given time. 

“Pricing airfares appears to be somewhat of a dark art with fares changing at any time according to a formula known only to the airline.”

“If you perform multiple searches on the same flight it’s not outside the realm of possibility that an airline could track you and increase the price of the airfare because it knows you would like to fly at that time.” 


  • Clear cookies before making a ticket purchase so no-one can track your searches
  • Don’t be fooled by sales messages such as “two seats left” and “five or fewer seats”
  • Booking at least 15 days before your flight can save you 10-15%
  • Avoid peak travel days such as Sunday night, Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.
  • Avoid peak traveller hours, generally between 6:30 and 9:30am and 4-7pm
  • Avoid surcharges by paying with a fee-free method like BPay or POLi
  • Check prices on both comparison sites and the airline, if the price is the same, go where the booking fee is less

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