The best time to buy airline tickets


When are the cheapest days to fly? While flight prices are continually in flux, following a few basic strategies can help you nab the best flight deals.

Getting the right price for a flight can be tricky. Image credit: VladTeodor/iStock

Airlines use complex algorithms to determine when and whether they’re going to raise or lower their fares, in an effort to maximize their revenue. In fact, airline fares are constantly in flux, changing every day, sometimes even by a few cents.

Did you know, the average flight price changes approximately 76 times before the plane is fully booked? Keeping an eye on the larger patterns and paying attention to the following tips and strategies can help you find the best time to buy airline tickets.

The cheapest days to fly (and book tickets)

While there’s no good answer to why, it’s a fact that flying on the “right day” can indeed make a difference in your fare. According to CheapAir.com, which puts together an annual airfare study of more than 917 million airfares, the cheapest day to fly overall — especially domestic flights in the U.S. — is Tuesday. If you’re flying internationally, look for good deals on Wednesdays.

If you can fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, you’re likely to snag lower fares. These are the cheapest days to fly because they’re the days when the demand for business travel is at its lowest.

Even the time of day you book your flight can make a difference. Set your alarm and get up at 5:00 a.m. for the best chances of saving on your flight. If you’re a night owl, you can watch prices start to drop after midnight and climb back up to the normal daytime levels by 7 a.m. But stay away from travel sites between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., because that’s when fares inch upward.

The cheapest days to fly and book are affected in part, however, by your destination. If you’re headed, say, to the Caribbean, Las Vegas, or other vacation destinations, you may see higher prices on weekend flights. And some specific destinations seem to have their own fare calendars. Flights to Hawaii, for example, peak in price during December, January, and the summer months, while you’ll often find the lowest prices in April, May, September, and October.

The best time to buy flights by season

According to Cheapair.com, domestic U.S. flights hit a pricing sweet spot about 76 days before the flight; however, there’s some variation in that time frame depending on the season.

  • If you’re planning on flying in spring, book a full 84 days in advance. Because spring break spans several weeks, depending on the schools involved, you can often see price hikes throughout March and April on certain routes. That 84-day recommendation falls in a window of 119 to 47 days before your travel date. Prices can vary greatly during this season, with a gap of 285 USD between the highest and lowest prices.
  • Looking to fly in autumn? Fall tickets are at their cheapest 69 days before your flight, but you can find good deals in a window from 109 to 20 days before your actual travel date. During this time the average differential between the highest and lowest fares is only 83 USD. (Everything changes when you’re looking at flying over Thanksgiving weekend, however.)
  • Winter tickets are at their most cost-effective 94 days out from flying. But don’t worry about counting the days too closely, as you can get good deals anywhere from 116 days to 74 days before your flight. During winter, the fare differences can be significant, with a 168 USD gap between the best and worst prices. Be aware that holiday travel is always among the most expensive of the year, with special guidelines that apply.
  • And summer flights only require you to purchase 84 days in advance to get the best fares. Lots of people travel during the summer, especially during July, so finding a seat on a flight may be more an issue than getting a great price. If you have some flexibility about when you take a vacation, aim for August or September for the best rates — and be prepared for a price gap of 285 USD on average between the highest and lowest fares.

If you want to break that down a little further to see what months are the best for flight prices, you should know that January is by far the best time of year to purchase airline tickets, perhaps because everyone’s taking a break from traveling after the holidays.

August comes in next, then September, then February, then July. Prices skyrocket to their highest peak in May and June.

For summe travel, finding a seat on a flight may be more an issue than getting a great price. Image credit: sindlera/iStock
For summe travel, finding a seat on a flight may be more an issue than getting a great price. Image credit: sindlera/iStock

The best time to book holiday travel

All the rules are a bit different when you’re booking flights for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. For both domestic and international flights, try to book during October, when you’ll save about 4 percent compared to average fares. If you wait till December, you can expect a 5 percent increase over the average cost for the same flights.

If you’re planning to fly for Thanksgiving weekend, you might not want to book your flight too early. If you start making your reservations early in the summer, you’re going to pay a premium. Wait until September to book for the lowest fares. Even in early October, you won’t do too badly, but expect to pay through the nose if you wait until November to make your plans.

What about international travel?

If your flight takes you around the world, you need to plan ahead a little more to keep costs down. Aim to book your international flights a good five to six months before your actual travel dates to get the best flight deals. In general, you’ll find your lowest fares during October and April, with February coming in close behind. Try to avoid buying your tickets in December, June, and July.

How many weeks in advance should you purchase tickets?

If you’re flying domestically within the U.S., don’t count on last minute deals (even from websites with names that seem to promise those deals). Airlines rarely drop prices within the last three weeks before a flight. That’s because they’re aware that business travelers often have to book last minute, and they rely on those full fare prices to keep their bottom line healthy.

Booking within the seasonal windows listed above will get you the best possible fares, but if it makes you nervous to wait, don’t worry. Some people feel a little more peace of mind by locking in their flights and choosing their seats significantly in advance of their actual travel. Rest assured: If you buy your tickets four to six months before your flight, you’ll most likely spend only about 20 USD more per ticket to hold your spot.

Book your tickets within the best timeframe and relax. Image credit: asiseeit/iStock
Book your tickets within the best timeframe and relax. Image credit: asiseeit/iStock

What if you wait till the last minute?

The prime booking window for most airfares is between three weeks and four months before the flight date. During this window, your fares will typically hover within 5 percent of the lowest prices they’re going to reach.

However, what if you can’t buy that far in advance?

In general, last-minute fares get higher and higher the closer you get to the flight date. If you book two to three weeks before your flight, you may be able to get a fairly decent price, but you’re far less likely to get your choice of seats, especially if you’re trying to book seats together.

By the time you’re one to two weeks out from your flight, you’re very unlikely to get a good deal. However, don’t delay, because waiting even longer could cost you dearly. During the final days before your flight, you could pay 208 USD more per ticket than you would have paid if you’d booked during that three-week to four-month-window. In addition, you’re unlikely to have much choice in terms of your seat, and you may not even be able to book the flight you want at all.

Flexibility regarding your flight dates, the number of stops you’re willing to tolerate on your flight, and even the airport you fly into may help you recoup some of that price differential.

Tips for finding the best flight deals

If you’re strategic about your search for the best flight deals, you can find some decent fares. Try some of these tips to snag the flight prices you’re looking for:

  • Use search engines that let you explore dates. Many airline websites give you calendar options that show whether shifting your travel dates by a day or so might lower your fares. Google Flights also provides this information.
  • Try the airlines’ own sites. This is especially true if you’re booking flights on low-fare airlines such as Allegiant, Southwest, Spirit and Frontier. These airlines typically don’t make ticket purchases available through the big travel sites such as Expedia or Orbitz, so you’ll only find their fares by searching their proprietary websites.
  • Try forecasting tools. Some sites crunch the numbers to forecast the best dates for buying airfare on a route-by-route basis. Input your travel itinerary at Hopper.com or CheapAir.com to get their suggestions. Look as well for sites that send you price alerts to let you know when fares drop so you can take immediate advantage of the great prices.
  • Look for hidden fees. A fare that looks cheap might be burdened with all sorts of restrictions and extra fees. If you have to pay for a seat assignment or a carry-on bag, the “cheap” fare could end up comparable to another fare that seems higher but doesn’t carry all those extra fees.
  • Consider bundling your trip. If you’re going to need a hotel and a rental car, you may find a better deal by looking for a bundle that pulls all these elements together.
  • Be careful in dealing with travel websites. When you return to the same travel website repeatedly, that site attaches cookies to your computer, so it knows every time you return. In some cases, travel websites hide cheaper fares when they know you’re looking for them, or they try to pressure you to buy by telling you seats are running out. Search in incognito mode or clear your computer’s cookies to protect your search.
  • Don’t trust the seat map. Some travelers don’t choose their seats when they buy their tickets. So don’t look at a seat map and assume that because plenty of seats are unclaimed, the flight is still fairly empty (meaning fares might still drop). That flight could actually be quite full.
  • Use those frequent flyer miles. Because cashing in frequent flyer miles can be a hassle at times, you may be tempted to just let them pile up. You can save yourself quite a bit, though, but using your frequent flyer miles when you have enough saved up. Consider, as well, using a travel rewards credit card to stack up those points more quickly.
  • Buy as soon as you see an optimal fare. Do a little research and decide what you want to pay for your tickets. And then don’t hesitate when prices get into that range.

Getting a low fare by choosing the best time to buy airline tickets makes for a great start to your travel, but a lot of other pieces have to come together smoothly to guarantee a terrific trip. Book a reliable Blacklane car service to help you make your connections to and from the airport in comfort and style.