Plane Ticket Costs Are More Arbitrary Than You Think, And This Study Explains Why

A new study has confirmed all our suspicions: plane tickets can vary drastically in cost, and there's little rhyme or reason to it. If you fly semi-regularly, then chances are you've overpaid for a plane ticket, but there's an equally likely chance you've scored some pretty great deals too. This seemingly arbitrary price determination system creates a significant disparity in ticket costs, and it's not uncommon for someone to pay over $1,000 on the same coach flight that another passenger paid $200 for. Frustrating yes, but completely random? No. The study helped clarify how these prices are determined (and how you can avoid overpaying ever again!).

The study conducted its research through travel site, which helps customers find the best deals for flights and the best times to buy tickets. Hopper writes in its About section:

Flight pricing is highly complex and opaque, so travelers often don't have the information they need to get the best deals on flights. Hopper provides insightful, data-driven research to help travelers make better decisions about where to go, and when to fly and buy.

Hopper is a bit like a travel site you're probably more familiar with,, which aggregates every possible flight for your desired route, but unlike Kaya, it's not a booking site. Rather, Hopper is an extremely helpful guide for booking. After entering a route (i.e., JFK, New York City, to LAX, LA), Hopper determines for you the lowest possible ticket prices, which airlines offer those fares, the cheapest time of year to buy tickets for the particular trip, and even what day of the week will result in the lowest prices.

For the report on the NYC-to-LA trip, Hopper states that the data was based on "86,141,313 round-trip flight prices from crowd-sourced airfare searches made between July 13, 2014 and August 10, 2014." Hopper's Flight Explorer tool monitors and analyzes more than 32 million real-time online flight searches daily, and labels each flight with a ranking to let travelers know which flights are in the lowest-priced 10 percent.

The study also found that prices varied the least on Spirit Airlines (5 percent) and Virgin America (15 percent) and that the cities with the widest price gap are routine business destinations like Chicago and Washington, D.C. because employees have to make those trips regardless of the cost. On the contrary, vacation destinations had less variability because travelers are more likely to pick a flight based on price.

According to Hopper's chief data scientist, Patrick Surry, the study is a work in progress and the company hopes to find more data that reveals why prices can vary so widely for flights. But one thing Hopper advises you in the meantime: make sure to book your ticket at least 30 days in advance.