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I've flown long-distance internationally a few times. Some of those flights have been practically full, while others I've had three seats to myself to lay down and sleep throughout the journey. I've found this can be the difference between a productive day on arrival versus simply needing to sleep.

I'm interested to know whether there are any rules of thumb or tricks for picking international flights that are likely to have fewer passengers? Typically I might have time/date flexibility in choosing a flight on the order of days if day of week/time of day has a meaningful impact. I wouldn't normally have flexibility on the order of months i.e. I can't choose what time of year to travel, but if this makes a meaningful difference, I'd also be interested to know.

To be clear I'd also be interested in factors other than time - e.g. certain routes or airlines that can with some degree of confidence be predicted to have fewer passengers on a given flight. I guess what would be really great is if there is some kind of public record of airline occupancy for individual flights, which could be used to predict future flight occupancy.

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    When you shop for the cheapest price, the fights always seem to always be chock full, and also at peak periods.. At least on trans Pacific flights. They've gotten very good at manipulating prices to fill every seat. – Spehro Pefhany Mar 17 '14 at 7:38
  • Not really - don't forget that the airlines will be doing their best to make sure that flights are full, both by discounting seats or even swapping to smaller planes in extreme cases! – Gwyn Evans Mar 17 '14 at 18:48
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There's a discussion on this very topic on the Australian Frequent Flyer Forum which just confirms that it's a common question and it's very hard - there's no single 'this is best' option.

However, the Daily Telegraph attempted to answer this as well. A commonly mentioned tool in the Expert Flyer forums is the KVS Tool which will tell you the seat availability on a flight, for a fee. They also mention Flightstats and ExpertFlyer.

Note that most of these tools have a learning curve as there are many, many classes of economy/business/first/premium that all vary with different airlines and flights. But basically, yes, it is possible.

  • There is never a guarantee, as if another flight cancels, your fairly empty flight might suddenly be 100% full. – Michael Mathews Apr 1 '14 at 1:43
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As a general rule, positioning flights, which are flights an airline schedules more to get an airplane from one airport to another than because of demand, are most likely to have low loads. To identify those, you'd need to analyze an airline's schedule, but these are often domestic overnight flights. Also, domestic flights tend to have lower loads mid-week (Tuesday-Thursday), while international flights often have lower loads mid-week and Saturdays.

For a specific route, I use ExpertFlyer to see the loads for various flights and days. KVS or any other similar tool will work. It's actually pretty easy to use ExpertFlyer for this: just use the "Flight Availability" tool, enter the departure and arrival airport and the day or day range. You can enter the airlines if you care, or leave it blank. What you'll see will be a bunch of letters with numbers. Don't worry about what the letters mean, just know that the more letters that appear, and the higher the numbers, the lower the load.

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