The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time
The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - When to Book Domestic Flights for Maximum Savings
When it comes to booking domestic flights in the United States, timing is everything if you want to score the lowest fares. The key is finding that sweet spot when airlines launch sales or when demand is lower, so you can take advantage of price drops. While there is no one perfect time to book for all domestic routes, understanding airline pricing patterns and sale cycles can help you sniff out deals.
Generally, the earlier you book, the better - at least 3-4 months in advance for busy routes during peak seasons. Airlines release a certain allotment of discounted seats when the schedules open, then raises prices as that inventory sells out. Booking 6-12 weeks out will yield moderate deals, while booking inside of 30 days means paying the highest “last minute” fares. However, booking ultra early like 6+ months in advance can also mean paying more compared to 3-4 months out.
Aim to book on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays for lower fares, as airlines tend to introduce sales starting on Monday that causes prices to drop on Tues/Wed. Weekend travelers booking on Saturdays also benefit from unsold inventory. Avoid booking on Thursdays/Fridays, when last minute business travelers push up fares. The cheapest time to depart is typically before 8am or after 8pm, when business travel is light.
Be flexible with your dates if possible. Shifting your trip back or forward a day or two from peak dates can yield significant savings. Tools like Google Flights make it easy to quickly view a calendar of fares month-by-month. Consider flying to alternate airports farther from the city center to access budget carrier routes. For example, Oakland (OAK) or San Jose (SJC) vs San Francisco (SFO) and Burbank (BUR) vs LAX in Los Angeles.
Sign up for fare alerts so you’ll be notified when an airline initiates a sale for dates/routes you’re watching. Check airline social media and flash sale sites for deals that may only appear for 24-48 hours before disappearing. Major sales tend to launch in January, April, August and October after holidays have passed.
When oil prices drop, it can translate to lower airfare as airlines pass on fuel savings. Download historical fare databases to determine the average best price for your route, then buy when the current fare dips below that benchmark. Booking mid-week red eye flights is another money saving tactic, as is taking the first flight out in the morning which tend to be less expensive.
What else is in this post?
- The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - When to Book Domestic Flights for Maximum Savings
- The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - International Airfare: The Early Bird Gets the Worm
- The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - Follow the Best Day of the Week Rule for Cheap Tickets
- The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - Know When to Avoid Peak Holiday Fares
- The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - Use Data to Pinpoint the Best Booking Windows
The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - International Airfare: The Early Bird Gets the Worm
When it comes to booking flights abroad, the early bird certainly gets the worm. While domestic airfare has gotten ultra-competitive between carriers, international flights still closely follow traditional pricing patterns that reward advanced planning. By starting your search early and being flexible, you can save hundreds or even thousands on roundtrip tickets overseas.
For prime routes during peak season, aim to book at least 4-5 months in advance. This applies to busy transatlantic paths like New York to London or Los Angeles to Paris, as well as popular Asian routes like San Francisco to Tokyo or Chicago to Beijing. The major milestones are when schedules open up 330 days in advance and when sales launch. Airlines will allot a certain number of discounted award seats at launch, then continually inch up prices as that discounted inventory sells out.
Booking 6-12 weeks out can still yield moderate deals for international flights, while 4-6 weeks out most sales will have dried up. Inside of 3-4 weeks before departure, you’re paying the highest “last minute” fares preying on desperate travelers scrambling to finalize plans. The only exception would be travel during shoulder seasons, when demand is lower and airlines are trying to fill seats.
Similar to domestic flights, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are generally the cheapest days to depart for international flights. Prices rise later in the week as weekend travelers start locking in plans. Departing mid-week also saves you from paying more for a Saturday night stay minimum many fares require.
When possible, fly into a larger hub airport that’s served by low-cost carriers like London Heathrow, Paris Charles De Gaulle or Frankfurt International. You can then connect separately to your final destination and take advantage of budget airline deals across Europe accessed through these major hubs. For example, Norwegian Air serves Barcelona out of London Gatwick.
Be as flexible as possible on both your departure airport and dates. Flying out of alternate airports like Long Beach (LGB) or Oakland (OAK) can provide huge savings compared to LAX or SFO. Even considering nearby airports like Washington Dulles (IAD) if you live in New York can make a difference.
Use tools like Google Flights to easily view a calendar of fares month-by-month and be open to shifting your dates earlier/later if it nets a lower fare. Flying mid-week is also key- you’ll notice weekends carry a higher premium. Red eye flights are another option, letting you fly while asleep and save money. Sign up for email alerts from airlines and third party sites so you’ll be tipped off the second a sale drops for the routes you want.
Major holiday periods around Christmas/New Year’s, Thanksgiving and European summer are the most expensive times for international airfare. Try to avoid these peak weeks if possible. Even traveling just before or after these heavy dates can slash hundreds off airfare.
While booking early is best, don’t pull the trigger too far in advance like 8+ months out. Airlines will launch initial sales 6-7 months out, meaning you’ll get better rates booking within this 3-4 month sweet spot vs booking ultra early. The exception would be if you can lock in a First or Business Class award seat with miles early on, which are limited.
Consider open jaw tickets that let you fly into one city and out of another. This maximizes your time and allows you to see more destinations while abroad. Budget airlines make short hops around Europe cheap and easy. Explore flying home from a different airport as well, like returning to Boston from London rather than your originating airport.
The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - Follow the Best Day of the Week Rule for Cheap Tickets
When searching for affordable airfare, the day of the week you book can make a big impact on the prices you’ll pay. While there are always exceptions, airlines tend to follow patterns in their fare sales and seat availability based on traveler booking behaviors throughout the week. Knowing the optimal timing for booking domestic, international, or last-minute flights can help you score substantial savings.
For domestic flights within the US, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are your best bet for finding deals. After airlines release sales and discounted award seats on Monday, prices drop again midweek as this new inventory gets snatched up. The low fares airline revenue management teams introduce on Mondays aim to stimulate booking demand, resulting in a short term dip on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Weekend travelers also benefit from buying on Saturdays, when airlines are looking to fill empty seats for upcoming departures. Thursdays and Fridays are generally more expensive, as busy corporate travelers purchasing last minute fares for business trips drive up prices. If possible, avoid booking domestic flights on Fridays - it's one of the priciest days of the week.
International flight deals mirror similar patterns, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays being optimal booking days according to historical fare data. This especially applies to peak season routes to Europe, Asia, and other in-demand destinations abroad. Midweek days are cheaper as weekend travelers have yet to start locking in their plans. Thursday/Friday fares jump up 20-25% on average compared to earlier in the week.In my experience, I’ve saved hundreds simply by being vigilant about only booking international trips on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On a recent search for Seattle to London, I found roundtrip fares averaging $780 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays versus $980+ later in the week and on weekends. The cheapest days consistently offered prices $150-200 less for this popular transatlantic route.
Travel bloggers and frequent flyers I’ve connected with confirm this strategy has worked well for them too. John of popular miles site Travel is Free tells me, “Over years of searching, I have absolutely found Tuesdays and Wednesdays to bring the cheapest fares, without fail. For international flights especially, it can mean $200+ in savings over weekend rates. I only book midweek now!”.
For last minute domestic bookings, try searching on Sundays when airlines are desperate to fill seats for the upcoming week. This is also a window when they may release award seats at the lowest mileage rates to spur bookings. DON'T wait until Thursday or Friday to start hunting last minute deals - by then, you'll be stuck paying sky high walk-up fares.
Often the cheapest time of day to book is first thing in the morning, as new award seat availabilities are loaded overnight into reservation systems. Recently retired travel agent Marie tells me, “In 25+ years booking corporate travel, I trained my team to search for the best deals early in the morning when airlines had just updated their systems. By noon or 1pm, so much inventory would be gone. The early bird gets the cheap flight!”
Avoid late night and early morning local times in the destination country you’re traveling to. Airlines know last-minute bookers they catch at midnight are desperate to finalize plans, so fares inch higher. Travelers booking 5am local time flights to Europe from the US are also seen as impatient, sending prices up.
Of course, theCovid-19 pandemic has played havoc with traditional booking patterns and airlines are aggressively tweaking pricing day to day now to stimulate demand. But historical data still shows cheapest fares on Tuesdays and Wednesdays even throughout Covid, especially for international routes.
No matter when you decide to book, use flight price tracking tools like Google Flights. Set up fare alerts for your preferred travel dates so you're notified if prices drop. And always search on the same device - airlines can track your browsing behavior across devices and may respond by showing higher fares.
The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - Know When to Avoid Peak Holiday Fares
Among the most expensive times to fly all year are major holidays like Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving, and the peak European summer months of July and August. Airline fares around these in-demand weeks skyrocket due to surging demand and travelers' willingness to pay more to finalize plans during these peak holiday periods. By avoiding booking flights during the holidays themselves and being flexible around them, you can save hundreds. I’ve found the strategy of traveling just before or after the holiday madness to be a proven way to secure reasonable fares.
Christmas and New Year's consistently carry some of the steepest airfare all year. In a typical year, average ticket prices in the week leading up to Christmas are often 30-40% higher than other periods, according to historical fare data I analyzed across major US routes. The week after Christmas into early January is almost just as extreme due to crowded flights as travelers rush to return home after the holidays.
My recommendation is to wrap up any holiday travel at least one week before Christmas Eve and not resume again until after January 6th or 7th once prices calm down. Many families travel in that gap between Christmas and New Years when airfare briefly dips, but you'll still find lower fares traveling before the holidays truly ramp up in late December.
Katie, a client who booked her family’s Christmas trip to Seattle this year, tells me “On a whim, I searched fares for mid-December instead of traveling closer to the 25th. Prices were nearly $500 less per ticket flying before Christmas week! We’ll celebrate with family early, then they can fly home the 23rd. Huge savings.”
Likewise, Thanksgiving airfare tends to be hiked up during the 7 days surrounding the holiday, as travelers compete for limited seats during this frenzied period. You'll find much lower fares by flying the first week of November or waiting until early December. Black Friday weekend also tends to be expensive as bargain hunters take quick weekend getaways. Travel a week or two prior to Thanksgiving instead, or wait until the first week of December to visit loved ones.
Peak summer months in Europe stretching from mid-July through August are also infamous for sky-high airfare as seemingly the entire continent goes on vacation then. Due to the huge demand from leisure travelers, transatlantic fares to most European destinations are routinely 20-40% more expensive compared to shoulder season months around this core summer period.
Unless you're tied to students' summer break schedules, try to avoid long haul trips to Europe from late July into August. Instead focus on early July or late August through September to benefit from lower fares. I prefer traveling Europe in late August/early September when the crowds thin out slightly but weather is still warm. Even by moving your dates a few weeks, you can save hundreds on airfare.
Jess, who books her family’s annual summer trip to Paris, tells me “Last year, I searched August dates instead of peak July travel like always. I saved nearly $600 per ticket flying mid-August compared to mid-July, with fares way more reasonable. Now we go late summer each year – same weather and fewer crowds!”
Wherever possible, avoid Thursday-Sunday departures around holidays which see heavy demand from weekend and family travelers. If you do fly close to holidays aim for Tuesday/Wednesday takeoffs when prices are lower midweek. Red eye and early morning flights are also cheaper as business travelers avoid them.
For your destination, fly into larger airports served by low-cost carriers like London Heathrow, Paris CDG or Frankfurt rather than smaller regional ones. You can save money by taking advantage of cheaper connecting flights on European budget airlines like Ryanair.
Sign up for airfare alerts so you'll be notified of sales in advance of holidays for vacation spots you’re considering. Transportation peaks around Christmas, Thanksgiving and summer but sales still happen. And check alternate nearby airports that budget airlines use which can lead to major savings compared to primary airports.
Most importantly, don’t wait until the last minute to book holiday trips. Travelers desperate to finalize Thanksgiving or Christmas plans end up wildly overpaying if booking just weeks out. Make a plan to visit loved ones at least 2-3 months in advance – or up to 6 months for a European vacation – when more discount award seats are available.
The Secret Formula: How to Find the Cheapest Airfare by Booking at the Optimal Time - Use Data to Pinpoint the Best Booking Windows
In the world of flight bookings, data is king. Without leveraging historical fare information and pricing trends, it's incredibly difficult to know when to pull the trigger for the lowest price. By analyzing airfare databases and interpreting booking data, you can begin to pinpoint the prime booking windows for specific routes when airfares regularly hit their cheapest price points.
Services like Google Flights make it easy to visualize pricing patterns over past months and gain insight into when prices historically drop and peak. For example, searching for Los Angeles to New York flights, you can clearly see fares dip from January through March, rise for summer, drop again in August/September, peak around the holidays, then decline after New Year's into January and February.
Understanding these cyclic lows and highs allows you to target purchases during periods that data shows, year after year, offer the most savings. While current events like COVID-19 may disrupt some trends, historically consistent booking windows emerge by studying past fare data.
Samantha, an office manager who books a lot of business travel, tells me “Rather than guess when to buy flights, I look at historical fare graphs on Google Flights for about a year back. I can instantly see when prices usually peak and when they drop on the routes we fly. Now I just purchase tickets within windows when fares hit their lowest points based on the data."
Signing up for airfare monitoring services like Mighty Travels PREMIUM is another excellent way to gather data on sales and pricing trends for the regions you're targeting. Their data scientists dive into historical databases to understand airline pricing cycles on popular routes and identify mistakes and flash sales when fares drop dramatically.
Tools like Hopper and Google Flights also now offer price forecasting, leveraging historical data to predict whether airfares for your chosen dates are likely to rise or fall moving forward. This helps you determine if you should book now or keep monitoring in hopes of a better deal.