5 ways to book travel on an empty flight, according to airline experts

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By Dan Sears

Space on a plane? Now there’s a sight for soar eyes.

After COVID-era schedule shrinkage and a post-pandemic revenge travel boom left us with perennially-packed planes for what seemed like forever, frequent flyers are starting to find themselves breathing easier on occasion — sometimes even enjoying complete solitude — in midair.

And while having an entire Emirates cabin to yourself during the Christmas rush or enough space to throw yourself a “private party” — as one passenger did on a vacant flight last year — is in no danger of becoming the new normal, some expert jetsetters say that it could absolutely happen to you.

Furthermore, travelers wishing for more than a little wriggle room can take a few key steps in hopes that it does.

Here are a few tips on how to book flights that will have a high probability of being more sparsely populated, or perhaps even empty — a true luxury, no matter which cabin you booked.

The later, the better

Airline experts shared out the best tricks to get a flight to yourself. roibu – stock.adobe.com

“There’s no way to ‘ensure’ you end up on an empty flight, but you can certainly place good bets,” travel blogger Gilbert Ott told The Telegraph.

Ott explained that end-of-the-night flights are typically the least crowded.

“Between New York and London, for example, the last flight of the day [in both directions] will typically be the most quiet, as business travellers prefer earlier flights. There’s often a lot of space in all cabins on the [Virgin’s 8.25 p.m. departure] and [British Airways’ 7 p.m. departure] going to New York.”

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Airlines typically run empty flights regardless of the low passenger load factor (PLF), in order to keep quality plane placements at airports, according to the outlet.

Though, aviation consultant John Strickland warns that seeing an empty flight deboard before it’s your turn to get on the same plane is usually a very bad sign.

 “If an aircraft is operating almost empty on a particular flight, it is likely that it will be pretty full in the other direction,” he said.

Fly during the winter

A mom and daughter who flew on Christmas had a flight to themselves. Zoe Doyle / SWNS

Statistics from the International Air Transport Association show that the average PLF in Europe drops substantially in the cold weather months as opposed to summer. The average load in July was 87% as opposed to 73% in February.

And, despite the travel craze that comes with holiday travel, aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt said, “I have seen a number of people posting how they’re the only passenger, or one of very few, on flights on major holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving in the US, and New Year’s morning.”

Such was the case for the lucky mom and daughter onboard the empty Emirates plane.

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Fly somewhere obscure

One lucky passenger named Phil Stringer celebrated having a flight all to himself recently. TikTok /Phil.Stringer

Harteveldt also explained that some airlines have so-called lesser-known and unusual “tag” routes that continue a lengthy flight from an airline’s main hub.

“There aren’t too many of these left, since aircraft now have better range, and it’s expensive to operate these flights,” he said.

“Sydney-Christchurch, offered by Emirates, is one example, likely a tag on Dubai-Sydney. A friend of mine just flew this service and was the only passenger in the premium cabin.”

He also referenced KLM Royal Dutch Airlines having an obscure route between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile along with an Amsterdam to Singapore flight with a continuation in Bali.

Air France has a special Los Angeles to Tahiti flight that stems from a Paris to LA journey.

Keep up with the industry

These are the tips to know so that you can fly alone on an empty plane. Vajirawich – stock.adobe.com

Even if it’s not the most profitable, Ott said airlines will run extra flights to places simply as a “defense tactic” against competitors.

“There are many times a year when airlines will run multiple daily flights to, say, Santorini, just to offer more choice, even though they can’t actually really sell all the available seats,” he said.

“Being able to offer that choice is designed to capture more bookings and win across the entire day. This is common on routes like London-Dubai, where frequency is important.”

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How to know before you go

There’s a few subtle hints that your flight will be empty, here they are. Photofex – stock.adobe.com

This one isn’t so easy to do, Harteveldt warns.

“You can’t really go by the seat map for your flight, because seat maps don’t reflect the number of reservations, only the number of people who have selected a seat at that moment,” he said.

“Remember that airlines may charge to reserve a seat before flight check-in opens. As a result, passengers may wait to select their seats when check-in opens and they can choose their seat for free.”

However, Ott recommends the website ExpertFlyer to look up live seat maps to “outfox” less savvy passengers.

He also shared the golden words to ask a crew member while still on the ground.

“The better hack now is to be among the last to board and to ask the gate agent if there’s any gaps in seating you can take advantage of.”

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