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The Best Time to Book a Cheap Flight

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Airline prices change all the time—here’s how to figure out the best times to buy tickets for your next trip.

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Airline prices change all the time—here’s how to figure out the best times to buy tickets for your next trip.

Insider tips and tricks for how to improve your chances of getting the best airfare deals.

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As a travel editor, one of the questions I get asked the most when friends or family are booking flights is: “If I wait, will the price go up or down?”

Although the best time to book a flight is generally one to two months out for domestic trips and eight months out for international, there are many factors that can increase (or decrease) the price of an airline ticket.

These include: the route (are there are a lot of planes flying between the selected airports, or is service rather limited?), the time of year (is there a special event taking place? is it a holiday season? the prices likely won’t come down the closer you get to the travel date), and how far out it is from the time of travel.

Airline tickets typically go on sale up to a year out from the departure date, so that’s when the pricing rollercoaster begins. The pandemic, however, has dramatically changed our travel habits and with them, airfares have changed, too.

“Providers have been trying to keep prices low to win back vacationers in a very competitive travel marketplace,” says Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert with flight tracking and booking tool Skyscanner. “We are seeing this continue with extraordinarily low prices across the board, so knowing how to shop around will mean you get the best value possible for your next trip.” 

The lower pricing environment isn’t expected to last much longer. With the U.S. loosening entry restrictions for vaccinated foreign visitors starting on November 8—and European nations having opened up to American travelers this past summer—travelers on both sides of the pond are now chasing the same airline seats.

Our Guide to Last-Minute Holiday 2021 Travel

“We expect that both airfare to and from Europe will increase,” as travelers grow more confident in traveling abroad, Adit Damodaran, an economist at travel booking app Hopper, recently told AFAR for a story about Europe airfares. Even so, he says, transatlantic fares are currently still at “historic lows,” averaging $570 roundtrip, the cheapest average in five years of data gathering.

If you have your heart set on a specific destination or time frame, start tracking flights early to get a sense of the standard range. That way you’ll know a good deal when you see one—and can pounce when an attractive airfare pops up, advises Scott’s Cheap Flights, a flight deal newsletter.

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The best time to buy airline tickets in 2021 is ultimately a combination of luck and strategy. While we can’t help too much with the luck part, we can at least try to help with the strategizing. Thankfully, there are some ways to improve your chances of finding cheaper flights, according to experts who spend a lot of time analyzing flight data. Here’s what they recommend.

How far in advance should you book a flight to get the best deal?

The best time to book a flight is one to three months before your departure for domestic airline tickets, and two to eight months prior for international, according to Scott’s Cheap Flights. But if you want to travel during the holidays, over spring break, during peak summer travel periods, or for a popular event such as Mardi Gras or a big music festival, you should start looking and booking even earlier than that for affordable fares.

If you have some flexibility and are up for last-minute travel planning, Skyscanner has observed that international airfare deals can crop up within two weeks of departure, but these last-minute international flight deals are not common and not something that travelers should count on.

When it comes to how long before traveling you should book your airfare, there is no single perfect moment (i.e., exactly 60 days before your flight), but more of an ideal window or timeframe, as mentioned above, during which you should be researching flights and ultimately committing to them before prices start to rise.

What day of the week is the best time to buy airline tickets?

Although you may have heard that flight prices are lower on Tuesdays, the general consensus these days is that there is no single day of the week to score good deals on airfares. Deals get doled out every day of the week.

What is the best day of the week to fly for a cheap flight?

According to travel booking site Hopper, flying mid-week will score you the best prices, with Tuesday and Wednesday typically being the cheapest days to fly domestically. For international travel, mid-week is still best—Hopper recommends departing earlier in the week (between Monday and Wednesday) and returning later in the week (between Tuesday and Thursday) for international flights.

How to find the best airfare deals

When searching for airfares, there are ways to fiddle with your dates, filters, and other search tools that could help you land on a more attractive flight price.

Explore different dates with a flight search tool

There are plenty of flight search tools out there, but the one that’s the most comprehensive (by our estimation) is Google Flights. Its best feature is the Calendar tool, which allows travelers to see the full range of airfares over the course of each month. Google Flights is a search tool—not a booking tool—so travelers use it to find the flights and airfares that work for them, but then book directly with the airline.

As great as Google Flights is, it never hurts to cross-check against other sites like Kayak, Skyscanner, or Momondo.

If there’s a particular airline you know you want to book—say,  because of a loyalty membership or because of preferred routes and service—you can also just search directly with that carrier to get the full spread of options straight from the airline’s inventory. 

Set an alert to track prices

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Flight search sites like Google Flights and Kayak have a price-tracking tool, which allows users to set an alert for when the price changes on a route of interest. This is a great option for stalking your flight for the best price.

Lock in a flight deal for 24 hours

For flights booked at least seven days or more prior to departure, the Department of Transportation requires that airlines flying within, into, or out of the United States allow customers to cancel without penalty within 24 hours. So, if you see a good airfare, you can always hold it for 24 hours while you look around a bit more or make a final decision on your travel plans.

Filter the search based on travel interests and needs

If you know you’re going to travel with checked luggage or only want to fly nonstop, you can filter your search so you’re only comparing flights relevant to your needs.

Filter your search by the number of stops, flight duration, by airlines (great for eliminating carriers you definitely do not want to fly with), and by departure and arrival times. You can also filter by the number of bags you want to check, all of which helps travelers find the best deals that meet their specific needs. (For instance, I am often traveling with two small kids, so shorter flight times and fewer stops is more important to me than the absolute rock-bottom prices.) You can search more than one origin or destination airport as well to expand your options.

Explore cheap fares by destination

On Google Flights, there is also a fun Explore tool, which allows users to enter their origin city and explore destinations within a given timeframe, for example a “one-week trip within the next six months.” This is great for just planting some idea seeds for upcoming travel. You can do the same with the destination, and enter a broader region such as Hawaii or Europe to get larger snapshots of the airfares available across several cities and airports.

Sign up for an airfare deal newsletter, like Scott’s Cheap Flights

Another great way to find an airfare deal is to sign up for a deal newsletter such as Scott’s Cheap Flights. Scott’s is constantly looking for amazing flight offers and informs its members as soon as great prices pop up. We love this service for when you are still in the inspiration phase of trip planning.

Do flight prices go down at the last minute?

While there can be a fair amount of price fluctuation several months before travel, once you get within a few weeks of your flight, that airfare is very unlikely to come down, according to Scott’s Cheap Flights.

The reality is that last-minute offers just don’t come around as often as travelers may think. “Generally speaking, waiting until the 11th hour to book airfare isn’t going to save you money. After about the three-week mark, prices rise significantly, no matter the route,” Scott’s Cheap Flights concludes.

Barbara Peterson and Ramsey Qubein contributed reporting.

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