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Sunday, March 3rd 2024

"I'm a travel junkie who's hooked on deals from YYC." - Chris Myden

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 2 possible sources of prices for airfares on flights within Canada from Calgary, and they are Air Canada and Westjet.

The prices they publish on their own sites (AirCanada.com and Westjet.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 two 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 or Westjet will put out a promo code to entice people to fill their planes. When 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.

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 Air Canada or Westjet 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, Air Canada and Westjet 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 within Canada? 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.

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8 Responses to "Is it possible to get a good deal on a flight within Canada ?"

    Has Michelle been here?
       Michelle on August 31st, 2012

    This is great information... the point you make about airlines raising their prices first before discounting them shouldn't be a surprise, but I've never really thought about it till now. Very interesting... thanks for the insight as usual!

    Has Laurie been here?
       Laurie on September 5th, 2012

    Thanks for this well-written article, Chris. I got duped by Westjet the other week on a promo code.

    Has Don been here?
       Don on September 6th, 2012

    Chris, you didn't speak much about it but it's really all of the taxes and extra fees that really make any "Hot deal" turn cold really quick! For example, I think a lot of people would think that a $99 one way fare price from Calgary to Vancouver is quite reasonable and if all that was added was the 5% GST, then people would think that is a good deal. With today's pricing structure, there is at least $50 worth of bloat that gets added. I'm not sure if the airlines are really to blame for this since from the consumer perspective, I don't think they get any of this amount as it goes to gov't and airport authorities and such. We can't really blame the airlines for not lowering their portion to extreme levels when the other hands in the pot do not do so. I have noticed that there's like very little GST that is collected on the flights. We obviously have a fee and pricing structure that does not favor the consumer and there's really nothing any of us can do about it other than get a job at the airlines and utilize their employee discount benefits!

    Has Chris_Myden been here?
       Chris_Myden on September 6th, 2012

    It's a good point Don, do you think Canada's higher taxes & airport improvement fees are the biggest barrier to entry for more competition in Canada?

    Has Ray been here?
       Ray on September 6th, 2012

    I learned a long time ago, that a mini-vacation in Washington state prior to a longer vacation involving air-travel, enabled me to get a much, much cheaper air-fare flying a U.S. carrier. The only drawback is the drive home.

    Has Chris_Myden been here?
       Chris_Myden on September 6th, 2012

    Ray: I'm assuming you're referring to driving from Vancouver? It would have to be a heck of a deal to be worth the 13 hour drive from Calgary to Seattle or Bellingham! :)

    Has Don been here?
       Don on September 11th, 2012

    I don't think I would attribute those factors as barriers to entry for more competition in Canada. To answer your question, I would actually say it's our vast geographical area and low population density that to me makes it not very appealing to come north of the border. With that being said though, I think we need more regional airports that will service close to major centers. For example, I wouldn't mind seeing an airport in like Red Deer that will service to like Abbotsford or other non-international airports. Now I don't know what the rules and regulations of the industry are so I don't really know if this is actually feasible but I'm just thinking in terms of what the states have in terms of carriers like Allegiant Air or in Europe like Ryanair.

    Has roger been here?
       roger on September 23rd, 2012

    While the comment about every website and agency having the exact same prices that WJ and AC post on their own sites is valid, its not always true.

    People come to me to book WJ flights because they don't have a credit card. Now if I book directly with WestJet then yes its the same as online. BUT, I can also go through a consolidator and get a net price which is cheaper than WJ own website. But of course this only works with cash/debit payments...

    But I do love this post Chris! Really helps explain why YYC - YUL is sometimes more expensive than YYC - LHR

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