Is it possible to get a good deal on a flight within Canada ?
*Spoiler Alert*: Not likely, but please don't shoot the messenger.
Here's what I can tell you about domestic airfares within Canada, from the perspective of someone who's obsessively monitored airfares around the world for a number of years...
1. It doesn't matter what website you look at, or where you try searching, at the end of the day there are only 3 possible sources of prices for airfares on flights within Canada, and they are Air Canada, Westjet, and Porter. Porter only flys routes in Eastern Canada, so if you live West of Ontario, you're stuck with just Air Canada and Westjet.
The prices they publish on their own sites (AirCanada.com, Westjet.com, and FlyPorter.com) are the same prices that get distributed on every travel website you'll ever waste your precious time searching. After using whatever method or website to find the latest prices for these three airlines, I'm sorry to say that you've exhausted your search possibilities.
Of course, every travel brand or agency in the world wants you to think otherwise, and have you believe that you'll find a better or different deal by searching through them. You won't. Time is money, so you'll actually be losing money by continuing your search.
2. Every now and then either Air Canada, Westjet, or Porter will put out a promo code to entice people to fill their planes. When either Porter or Air Canada puts out a code, Westjet will always, always match it (usually within less than a day), and vice versa.
I monitor the promo codes and post them on the forums in the 'Promo Codes & Alleged Seat Sales' thread, which you can find here:
The two biggest things to be aware of when it comes to promo codes are:
- The percentage discount the promo code advertises is only ever off the base fare (before taxes, fees, fuel surcharges) and not the total price. A decent rule of thumb is to just divide the % discount in half to figure out how much you're really saving. For example, if Air Canada is claiming to offer a '20% off promo code' it'll work out to approximately 10% off the total cost of the airfare.
- It's not uncommon for the airlines to raise their prices first before offering a discount promo code, making it a marketing gimmick rather than actual savings. But of course they rely on the fact that most people don't really know what a good price is anyways, and they know people will see 'discount' and automatically think that they're saving money.
Porter has become notorious for putting out '40% off' or '50% off' codes seemingly every week now. They're also one of the most obvious when it comes to raising prices before releasing a code. To me they're kind of becoming the boy who cried wolf, with the non-stop onslaught of codes generating less and less excitement over time, but I guess it must still be a good marketing technique for Porter, and it does help to keep our nation's other two airlines in check a little bit.
3. If I had to pick a 'good' time to buy domestic fares within Canada, I'd probably go with about a season ahead (ie: fall sales near the end of summer, or winter sales near the end of fall). Somewhere in the range of 8 weeks before departure. It's around this time that it's most common for the 3 airlines to get a little nervous about filling empty seats and *perhaps* offer a genuine sale. Don't expect miracles though, if you see a 'sale' about a 6-8 weeks before your departure dates, that's likely the best you'll do. I wouldn't hold out for much longer, because....
4. Last minute deals on flights within Canada do not exist. Period. Last minute airfares in general are usually pricey, not just within Canada. Prices can often drastically increase with under 4 weeks to go before departure if the plane becomes nearly full.
There are certain destinations in the world that *do* have good last minute airfare prices (which is probably what contributes to the urban myth of great last minute airfare deals to everywhere), but those are on charter airlines (usually to warm destinations down south or to Europe), not on domestic airfares within Canada.
5. You will never get a good deal on airfare at Christmas time, so it's a fruitless effort to keep your hopes up for one. If you absolutely have to fly during this time, you may as well just bite the bullet now.
In travel, the dreaded Christmas date range of December 22 to Jan 5th or so is in it's own little world, where prices start off high, only go higher, and never go on sale. This will never, ever change, unless the super high demand for Christmas travel suddenly disappears (ie: we all start taking our Christmas holidays at different times of the year instead of concentrating all that demand into the same 2 weeks).
Other high demand periods of the year include anything involving a long weekend, and school breaks. Price drops are not quite in the impossible category like they are with Christmas, but still far less likely than other times of the year.
6. Occasionally Westjet's Blue Tag Thursday deals will involve domestic flights within Canada. There has been the odd gem with a true discount beyond the marketing ploy.
7. Of all the thousands of great deals I've blogged about for Canadians over the years, I can count on one hand the number of times I've blogged about an actual amazing deal on a flight from a Canadian city to another Canadian city. There's a reason for that, and it's because they just don't exist (again, don't shoot the messenger). Of course, the 3 airlines will continue to try and convince you otherwise with their marketing efforts.
So why *is* flying within Canada so expensive?
Well for starters, like any product where competition is low, prices don't have an incentive to drop. We only have 2 airlines competing on East->West routes across Canada (Porter runs Eastern Canada only routes), and that could essentially be considered a duopoly.
So then I think the bigger question becomes, why *do* we only have 2 airlines competing on routes nationwide? That question is a little more difficult to answer, but a few reasons include:
- Canada has a very low population density, with major cities spread out over vast distances. I don't think we could ever be quite like Europe, where you have many large populations in a relatively small area, which makes it easier to support the abundant number of low cost airlines.
- We don't allow foreign carriers to compete on routes within Canada. Even if it would make economic sense for Delta or United to fly between Canadian cities (and I'm not 100% sure whether it would or wouldn't for them), we don't allow it. In Europe, opening up the skies to allow foreign carriers to compete on routes was one of the major contributors to the drastic drop in airfare prices. Would it work here?
As I said above, I don't think we could ever see fares like they do in Europe due to our low population density. The best example for us to look at would probably be Australia, a similarly large country in terms of area with a small number of large populations scattered throughout. Australia used to have 2 airlines, one government owned, the other a privately held company, and very high airfare prices (sound familiar?).
In the 1990's, Australia opened up their skies and stared allowing foreign carriers to compete on routes within Australia. There were failures along the way, airlines came and went, but it has seemed to eventually result in lower fares. Airfare prices are certainly nothing like what you'll find in Europe with their abundance of low cost carriers, but fares are somewhat cheaper than Canada's on a cost per mile basis.
Opening up our skies to competition from foreign countries or carriers may or may not lead to lower airfares in Canada, but one thing is for sure, as long as we have an environment where competition is stifled, it's impossible.