Ask the traveller: Tickets to Houston

Q When I first looked for tickets for my family to travel to Houston a few weeks back, they were around £1,450 for all four. However, when I kept looking over the course of the week, they crept up in price. I ended up buying in fear of them going up and up, paying £1,680. One week later I saw to my horror that they were priced at £1,350. Must I simply bite the bullet with the extra £300 I paid? Jamie Bogle, Newcastle upon Tyne

Yes, I'm afraid. Long-haul air fares track in two ways. For peak flights, eg during school holidays, and especially over Christmas, New Year and Easter, the only way is up (with very rare exceptions). The lowest fares go to those who book as soon as they go on sale, 11 months before departure. The highest fares are paid by those who book last.

For off-peak flights, it's more complex (and looking at the fares you quote, this is definitely a low-season trip). Fares fluctuate according to how close the flight is to trend – eg with two months to go, an airline might expect 55 per cent of seats to be sold. Prices are frequently cut to stimulate demand or raised to maximise earnings. The attitude of most airlines can be summed up as: "You were evidently content with the fare when you booked it."

An urban myth maintains that airline and travel-agency websites monitor your searches and respond by raising prices when they know where you want to travel. This is, however, tosh: the fare you pay is influenced by what other travellers are actually buying, not what you are thinking of buying.

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