When’s the Cheapest Time to Book a Flight?

Decoding the tangled web of fluctuating airfare prices, and figuring out how to grab the best deal.

by Becky Ferreira
23 March 2018, 7:11pm

This article originally appeared on FREE.

Traveling is one of the most enriching experiences in life, but as frequent fliers are well aware, it doesn’t come cheap. Domestic round trips typically cost several hundred dollars, and international flights can soar well over $1,000 USD. Plus, because airline prices are constantly fluctuating due to customer demand, seat class, lengths of layovers, and a host of other factors, it can be daunting to figure out when is the exact right time to grab the best deal.

“If you walked onto a plane and asked everybody to raise their hand and say what price they paid, you’d get 10 to 12 groups of people,” Rick Seaney, CEO and co-founder of the travel planning site FareCompare, told me over the phone. “Some of them bought early, some of them bought late. Two people could be sitting next to each other, and one paid $150 USD and the other paid $900 USD essentially for the same product.”

Naturally, we’d all prefer to be the passenger that got the sweet $150 USD deal in this scenario, but how? It mostly comes down to timing. Here are some simple tips that can help you secure the best bargain for your trip, no matter where in the world you’re headed.

Don’t Book Too Late

You might respond to this advice with “duh,” but customers still commonly make this mistake.

“People tend to procrastinate because they think they can outgame the airlines, and almost two thirds of tickets are sold inside of 30 days, which is not the sweet spot,” Seaney said. “For domestic travel, you want to start shopping about three months before departure, and you never ever want to buy inside of 30 days before departure. Once you’re inside of 30 days, you’re playing right into the airline’s hands.”

Don’t Book Too Early

Yup, this is also a common mistake. Conventional wisdom about “early birds” does not apply to airfares, because airlines tend to wait until a few months before a flight’s departure date to start rolling out sales and deals. If you book a flight eight months ahead of time, you’ll probably end up paying a higher price than if you waited until the competition heats up three months or so in advance of the departure date.

“Airlines don’t start to manage the cheaper inventory until about three months before departure,” Seaney told me. “The systems will sell the fifth or sixth cheapest price point six months out.”

The overall upshot is that domestic flights should be booked between one to three months before departure, while international flights should be locked down two to five months before the flight date.

Book Your Flight on Tuesday Afternoon

There is a weekly rhythm to airfare sales that customers can use to find the best deals. The marketing teams at airlines usually kick off their work week by figuring out which fares to put on sale, and they release those selections late Monday, or early Tuesday. Airlines then spend Tuesday coming up with deals that match the sales announced by their competitors.

The result is that “you have the maximum number of cheap seats around 3pm Eastern time, Tuesday,” Seaney said.

Book Flights That Depart on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday

One of the most influential drivers of airfare is customer demand, and certain days of the week are much more attractive to fliers than others. Business travelers often fly home for the weekends on Thursdays and Fridays, and return to their jobs on Sunday evenings or Monday mornings. Thursdays and Fridays are also popular as departure days for weekend getaways, with travelers normally returning on Sundays.

As a result, flights that leave on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays tend to be cheaper than busier times of the week, so it pays to fly out on those days.

Book Flights Offseason

Just as certain days of the week tend to offer cheaper fares, so do certain months of the year. In the US, the summer months of June, July, and August are peak travel times, along with the holiday season in late November and December. Airlines capitalize on this with more expensive rates at those times. If you have an option to book a vacation or business trip in a relatively languid month for air travel, like January, you will likely find a better deal.

When in a Crunch, Use Miles and Points

Even if you follow all of the above suggestions for getting cheaper flights, situations sometimes arise that require getting a flight within a few days or a week before departure. Seaney said he calls this a time to look for “a better bad deal.” Airlines will charge a lot for these short-notice tickets, but you can mitigate some of the damage to your wallet.

“The strategies that I think are best in that particular situation is that anytime your ticket is over $450, you can consider using your miles and points,” Seaney said. “Your miles or points are worth two and a half cents or more and that’s a pretty good currency conversion on that virtual currency of points.”

If you’re not currently part of a frequent flier or credit card miles program, it’s worth looking into joining one (Alaska, United, Delta, and American Airlines all have highly rated rewards plans). In addition to building up miles when you fly, you can earn them with cross-promotions at retail stores and restaurants.

Do a Convenience/Cost Analysis

Nonstop flights tend to be more expensive than flights with connections and long layovers, but most passengers consider them to be more comfortable and convenient. If you want to shave down a ticket price, it’s worth evaluating how much saved money would be worth the lost time and general nuisance of layovers. Of course, if you don’t mind chilling at airports, opting for a flight with one or more stops is a reliable way to reduce airfare.

If you keep these tips in mind, you should be able to stretch your travel budget a little farther on your future excursions. That’s not only good news for your wallet, it’s good for your peace of mind, because few things are more satisfying than knowing you got a great deal on your trip.

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.

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