Summer Flights That Won't Cost Your Entire Paycheck
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
One of the saddest facts of life in the American workforce is that if you really want to stick it to the man, you just need to take your vacation days. Every year, millions of Americans give their vacation days back to their employer by not taking advantage of their paid time off. If you don’t get paid time off, well, take a vacation anyway—science has shown it’s good for your health and your happiness.
But that doesn’t mean you should spend your entire paycheck just to relax. That’s where a little strategy and planning comes in to figure out how to snag the best deals.
Buying plane tickets isn’t an exact science. CheapAir.com analyzed 917 million flights listed on its site and figured out that the answer as to when to buy a plane ticket is — it depends. On average, the best time to buy an airline ticket in 2017 was 70 days in advance, a couple of weeks longer than it was in 2016 (54 days). However, the optimal time varies by season, too.
To get the cheapest flight possible this summer, Liana Corwin of ticket price-monitoring site, Hopper, suggests looking now for travel during the first week of June or after mid-August when the cheapest flight prices are available on most routes. Summer travel prices typically rise throughout the spring, hitting their peak price in June when summer arrives and everyone realizes they forgot to book tickets.
“Don't procrastinate,” she added.
"A good rule of thumb is that for customers departing out of the U.S., pricing starts to creep up once you get closer than 30 to 40 days prior to departure. So best to start shopping before you get to that date," said Keith Nowak of Travelocity, adding that "during peak travel time like summer to peak destinations, like beaches or Disney, it’s not a bad idea to look even earlier.”
Fact vs. fiction for finding cheap flights
You may have heard rumors that it’s best to buy tickets on one specific day of the week, but like Public Enemy said, don’t believe the hype. “Historically, there might have been some truth to the popular ‘buy on a Tuesday’ advice,” Corwin said, but now that airline employees no longer manage prices by hand and instead use computers to do the calculations, it no longer applies.
“We analyzed the airfare data and found that Tuesday is only the cheapest day of the week for 1.6% of domestic routes,” said Corwin. “There is simply no hard-and-fast rule regarding the best day of the week to book a flight. It’s different for every route, and even for different airlines serving that route.”
One way that does work to find out if prices are going up or down to your dream destination is to sign up for fare alerts by email on sites like Kayak, Google Flights and Momondo. Airfarewatchdog and Skyscanner offer similar services. Just do a search on the sites for your desired dates and route, then opt in for emails alerting you to price drops. Here's a example from Google Flights:
Cheapest travel destinations this summer
If you want to avoid crowds during the hot months, Corwin says that based on what flights people are looking up on Hopper, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, San Francisco, and New York City are the most popular domestic destinations this summer. There are deals to all of those destinations, too, if you know how to find them. Corwin ran the numbers for us on Hopper and found that average roundtrip tix to New York City are $309; Las Vegas will cost you about $314; Los Angeles tickets average around $283, Chicago is $281, and San Francisco is $299. Orlando is the least expensive, with average ticket prices of just $276.
There are, of course, financial considerations when it comes to making summer plans. If you’re going to splurge on plane tickets and actually use those vacation days, there’s no need to overpay for plane tickets. If you’re looking for deals, Corwin suggests a trip to Houston, Texas, where tickets roundtrip tickets typically average $210, but you can get up to 35% off if you keep an eye out for deals. Use the money you save to buy your weight in barbecue and whiskey. Another bargain is Long Beach, California, which is on the outskirts of Los Angeles, but at $166, tickets are half the price of those to LAX.
If you know you have vacation time to burn, but you don’t really know where to go because you want to see the Grand Canyon, but you also want to drink all the wine in Napa and maybe go to the Primavera Sound Festival in Spain, Nowak suggests checking out Travelocity’s last minute deals page. It’s a good option for people who love spontaneity or never quite got around to making vacation plans and then pretend to love spontaneity. (It’s more fun to be spontaneous than irresponsible, right?)