Wanna cheap plane ticket? Buy really early.

I've had my problems with United Airlines, but I just got a deal I couldn't pass up.

I’ve had my problems with United Airlines, but I just got a deal I couldn’t pass up.

Give your head a shake if you think plane tickets get cheaper in the weeks leading up to a flight.

Scheduled flights are packed. Always. Even the detested middle seats are taken. Airlines have figured out there’s money in offering fewer flights on smaller, more fuel-efficient planes, with rows of seats jammed ever closer together. (I write this sitting onboard a full flight to Montreal.) More flights being cancelled add to the already crammed conditions.

Won’t blind you with too much science, but this is how it works in economy. Airlines sell seats by what they call ‘buckets’. Each bucket contains a certain number of seats at a set price. When one bucket sells out, seats in the next bucket go on sale. The seats get progressively more expensive with each new bucket.

Last week, I scored a HEAVILY discounted return ticket from Vancouver to Cozumel, Mexico for travel this December. With United Airlines. (Yeah, I know. I hate United. But, this deal was too good to ignore.)

I’m paying $501 Canadian. Of that, $160 is taxes and airport, security and departure fees. I’ll have to pay $20 dollars on one leg to check a suitcase and overnight in Houston one way (<$100 U.S.), but it will still be cheaper than the non-layover alternatives.

I’ve flown WestJet in the past. When I checked, before booking with United, the cheapest flight from Vancouver to Cancun was about $600, plus I’d need to hop a connection to Cozumel for about $150. So, United won. (I’ll also collect Aeroplan miles towards my trip to Malaysia on points next year.)

I’m pretty sure I got the first bucket. Here’s why. The week prior to booking, I checked United for Cozumel flights. What was on offer was in the $970 dollar range with unappealing connections and lengthy layovers. When I checked three days later, things had changed.

For this to work for you:

• You have to plan your travel MANY months in advance and be prepared to travel mid-week.

• You have to check airline websites every few days because things change rapidly.

• You have to book the ticket as soon as you find it. No waiting a few days. The discounted seat will likely be gone.

Some ‘experts’ say the optimal time to buy a plane ticket on a scheduled flight is about six weeks in advance. Not so during the busy holiday season. Often, vacation packages, offering flights, transfers and hotel accommodation, will be discounted closer to departure time. But, usually only in the low or shoulder seasons.

This early bird got a very juicy worm.

UPDATE: On May 9, I noticed my flights had been changed and were no longer do-able. Long story short, United accommodated my schedule and sorted out the matter over the phone. Means two fewer days in Cozumel, but NO layover in Houston. More money saving. One more brownie point for United.

Here are some pics from my trip to Cozumel in December 2013.

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