Book Earlier for Cheaper Ticket? Not So in China

Yangle asked:

Alright folks?

There’s been some really awesome and helpful stuff here – thanks! :)

I have a question that is probably quite obvious – if I were to book an internal flight in the UK (where I’m from) then I would book it really really early – possibly months in advance if I could – so I could get the cheapest fare possible. Is this the same rule for Chinese domestic flights? Or can you book them just a month or two in advance and get the cheapest fares? I’m wanting a round-trip from BeiJing to GuiLin end of June, beginning of July time.

Looking forward to your invaluable help!

Posted by: YangLe on January 7, 2010 5:48 PM

The China is just the opposite. The later you book the ticket, the cheaper. This may over simplify the situation, but one thing is for sure – it is NOT that the earlier you book, the cheaper the ticket is.

Chinese Price System

If you book months in advance, chances are, you can only get the full price tickets with no discount. The airline business in China is highly regulated. Most of the ticket price is fixed for all the airlines by the CAAC. Basically, the price is proportional to the distance of the two airport – the same way as the fixed price for railway system in China.

However, most airlines will give discount based on the fixed price. They can determine the price table only several months before the travel time. That is, if you book far before that date, say, 6 months before you travel, it is for sure that you can only get the list price – the highest possible price, because they have no idea of what the price in the future will be.

Why?

If you book just few days or few hours before you travel, you are very likely to get the cheapest price, because most of Chinese airlines are not full in most of the case. They will offer some really cheap price before the seats become empty. Another factor is the agents. Most of the airlines rely heavily on agents – tourism industry, and ticket dealer. The way to operate it is, to ask the agents to book a range of the seats. If no one buys the ticket, the agents still need to pay the fixed amount. This causes the agents to be really worry about having empty seats, and willing to sell it out at much lower price at the last minute.

However, the risk to book at the last minute is, you may not be able to get a ticket.

Deeper Reasons

I have to go further to guess the deeper reasons why China is just the opposite of US, UK, and many other countries. Why in other countries, the earlier you book, the cheaper the price will be, and in China, it is the opposite.

Here is my guess.

1. Occupation Rate. The occupation rate of Chinese airlines are always not high. Most of them are just 70%-80% on average. (Spring Airlines (My review) is an exception with amazing 98% historical occupation rate.) For most airlines, the days of fully booked flights are limited, so passengers can leverage that.

2. In China, people still plan things in the last minutes. I have seldom know any of my friends who book tickets, or holiday more than 1 year in advance. That was something I was consistently amazed by my foreigner readers who started the question like: “I am going to China in July of 2013. Can you help me on ….” What? 2013?

Any other reasons?

12 thoughts on “Book Earlier for Cheaper Ticket? Not So in China

  1. TW

    Based on my personal experience, booking very late or close to the departure date can have two extreme airfares depending on the loading factor. If a flight is very full, then of course the fare would be close to 100% of the listed fare; on the flip side, if there are still plenty of seats available, there could be deep discounts…something like 10-20% of the listed fares. Bottom line : the airlines want to fill the seats as much as possible. Low fared seats beats empty seats. In Yangle’s case, since he’ll be traveling in late June and early July, I would think that’s a high travel season: #1, summer has started, #2, many school children starts their summer vacations. Therefore, waiting toward the end may not be a good idea. Well, just my 2 cents of opinion.

  2. TW

    After posting my previous post, I realized anther important factor to consider: Do not use the travel agents in your country to book your China domestic fare for you especially the business travelers who use their company contractor travel agents for they know the fare are paid by the passengers’ companies and so may charge full fares. Last Sept. my girl friend and her husband came to China. They arrived in Shanghai first, then the husband went to Jinan for business. The wife joined him later. Then they came bac to Shanghai again. The husband’s airfare was booked through his company travel agents. The fare from SH to JN back to SH was full fare. I booked the wife’s ticket from SH to JN round trip at 35% of the full fare. For those who live overseas, if you need to travel within China, see if you have friends who live in China to book for you, or simply go to some Chinese travel booksites such as Ctrip, Qunar.com or E-long. You can enter your travel date, and destinations and see what comes up, change dates by a few days and see if there’s lower fares.

  3. Anna

    In my experience if I book only a few days in advance the ticket is always 100%, no discounts. If I just show up at the airport and by the ticket for like 1 or 2 hours later is also always full price.

    Maybe this is because the routes I take are popular and always quite full (Shanghai to Guangzhou or Shenzhen and back).

    But it seems to me that Beijing to Guilin is also a popular route so I would definitely not wait until last minute to book.

    Most of the times the tickets are cheapest about 3-4 weeks before departure. start checking ctrip.com or elong.net around that time and when you see a ticket with 40% discount, book it.

  4. kB

    That’s always a problem of planning vacation with friends who live in China, thay always want to wait until the last day before travel to book the flight!

  5. DC

    You can check from the airline’s website such as Spring Airline, China Southern, etc. Sometime they have early bird promotion too. Lately, I just bought a cheap international air ticket.

  6. b. cheng

    This is COMPLETELY WRONG! Jianshuo, I love your blog, but you should have done a little research instead of misleading your readers. Typically booking at least a month and up to two months in advance will guarantee you the best price, as those prices will be well discounted. If you wait for a week or even a day or two in advance, the price will often be higher than if you booked 1-2 months in advance and, if not higher, will typically be the same or only slightly cheaper.

    The system of last minute booking worked well and usually saved a lot of money up to 2 or 3 years ago, but there has been a subtle change in recent years toward the system used overseas where the highest discounts are offered earliest and once those seats are booked, the discounts slowly reduce, leaving you often paying full price if you book only a week in advance.

  7. Anna

    I agree; your post is completely wrong. I am flying once per week between Beijing and Shanghai; the price I pay when I buy 1-4 days in advance or even at the airport (which happens 25% of the time) is always the most expensive; almost always at full fare of 1300rmb one way. If I happen to book 7 days or more in advance it can be drastically cheaper and nearly 50% off. The nice part is that airfare prices are predictable in China… probably because there are so many hourly flights.

    Back in the US it was a total pain because prices fluctuates like crazy and you never know what’s a “good deal”. And almost always anywhere less than 3 weeks in advance you are paying full fare… whatever the heck full fare even is in the US cause it can be insane.

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