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The Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets

By Ramsey Qubein

Jan 18, 2019

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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.

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

Finding the cheapest plane tickets takes a bit of smart planning. These strategies will help make sure you don’t lose out on the best deals.

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The best time to book a flight is an age-old travel question, because figuring out how to actually find the lowest fare is complicated. Airlines employ sophisticated revenue management tools and analytical teams to study historical patterns on routes, which determine when they raise or lower ticket prices. The ability to predict and adjust fares allows companies to maximize revenue all the way until the departure. An airline seat is a perishable product—when the plane door closes, any empty seat is a lost sales opportunity.

While there are different rules for the best time to book holiday travel due to strong demand, there are some best practices to get the lowest price when booking flights during the rest of the year.

How many weeks in advance should I buy airline tickets?

For international flights, the sweet spot can be a few months before departure. Travel within the United States affords a bit more flexibility, but once you get within three weeks of travel, chances of a price drop are slim. Business travelers often book last-minute travel at higher prices (likely on the company dime), which is an outsized portion of airline profit.

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But there are ways to look more specifically for flight deals, too. Start by using an airline website or search engine with calendar options, like Google Flights or ITA Matrix, to see if shifting your travel dates could lower the price. These sites also show patterns in airfare, such as whether the price jumps up two weeks before departure. Watch for other potential price hikes that could kick in at 21-day, seven-day, and three-day advance windows before travel.

Some pundits tout the idea that certain days of the week are better for finding a good deal. The reality is that airfares are always being adjusted based on competitive reasons.

Founder of Atmosphere Research Group Henry Harteveldt says that an airline can make thousands of changes to its fares in the course of a day, sometimes by pennies or by ten or more dollars at a time. Generally, airlines pay the most attention to a flight’s booking activities 90 to 120 days before departure. This is when you are most likely to see adjustments made to fares, so monitor carefully in this time.

Where should I go to find the cheapest airfares?

Sites like CheapAir.com and Hopper.com have farecasting tools that use historical data to recommend the best date for finding the lowest airfare. CheapAir.com’s own study recommends booking between 40 and 60 days before departure. 

Orbitz.com and Expedia.com are also good for comparing various fares. But one thing to remember when using these third-party sites is that not every airline is listed there. Low-fare airlines save on costs by only offering flights through their own channels, so make sure to check the websites for Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest, and Spirit.

Once you’re within three weeks of a flight taking off, the price is much less likely to go down.

How do I find the best airfare deals available?

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Airlines know they need to push harder to get reservations during slower periods of travel, such as after the holidays. This is why January is often one of the cheapest months for travel—keep an eye on fares late in the year for good deals on flights in the new year. Be sure to peruse the many websites that post discount airfares.

Although some flights may seem especially cheap, these may be “basic economy” fares with hefty restrictions on carry-on bags or seat assignments. Read the fine print first: Once you pay for bags and seats, the price may be comparable to other fares that come with more perks.

If you want the cheapest fares throughout the year, consider flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, when business travel demand is low. This factor can be destination specific, however, as leisure destinations like the Caribbean or Las Vegas may see higher fares on weekends.

Sometimes you can save a ton of cash by purchasing a bundled trip. Websites like Upside.com package airfare with hotels, rental cars, and even Uber credits to help you save, and will also make suggestions for cheaper travel times. On top of that, the site refunds a small portion of every trip in gift cards, which can make it even more rewarding than booking packages through traditional travel sites.

Should I buy flight tickets now or keep waiting for a better deal?

This question might be the most consistent source of travel planning anxiety. Beware of some of these common pitfalls when booking flights: If you search the same site often, clear your computer’s cookies first or try searching in incognito mode. Some websites are designed to increase your likelihood of purchasing by burying cheaper fares or using language like “last seat available.”

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Never judge how full a flight is by the seat map; many travelers opt not to pay for advance seat assignments, meaning the flight may be full without really showing it. This is not a good indicator that fares may drop, and even if a website shows you the seat map, many seats are blocked by airlines for the airport to release.

Flights might look empty on a seat map, but that’s not always the best indication of how many tickets are left.
One piece of advice for booking group travel is to begin the search by checking the price for one person and increasing the count one by one. Sometimes it can be cheaper to book one or two passengers at a time rather than the whole group. If there are not enough tickets to sell in one of the discounted fare categories (airlines have more than a dozen “fare buckets” on each flight), some websites will switch the entire group to a higher fare category despite a few discounted tickets still being available. Try to get as many people as you can at the lower fare bucket to save money.

If you book seven days or more before departure, the Department of Transportation requires that airlines flying in or out of the United States allow you to cancel your airfare booking with no penalty within 24 hours. So as a last resort, you can always hold a fare for 24 hours if you want to search around one last time.

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