The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts
The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Book Early for International Flights
When it comes to booking international flights, the earlier you purchase, the better. While domestic airfares tend to stay steady for a few months, international fares are known to fluctuate frequently. Airline analysts recommend booking international trips at least 3 to 6 months in advance for the lowest fares.
The main reason behind this advice is that demand for international travel is highly seasonal. School holidays, public holidays, summer vacation, and major events all impact airfare prices. Airlines know when demand will peak and price their fares accordingly. The most expensive periods are usually around Christmas, Easter, summer vacation, and other peak holiday times. Even if you’re traveling in the off-season, fewer seats equates to higher prices.
According to airfare experts, the prime booking window for international flights is 3 to 8 months before departure. This gives you the best shot at locking in a good price before the airline starts ratcheting up fares. Keep in mind that for some destinations, peak season lasts 6 months or longer. In that case, you’ll want to book as early as possible.
It’s also important to remember that many international routes are served by only a handful of airlines. This lack of competition enables the few carriers on that route to charge higher fares, especially when demand is high. With fewer airlines in the market, prices are less likely to be driven down.
Another factor that prompts airlines to maximize revenue is the fact that international flights are impacted more by oil price hikes. Long-haul flights consume exponentially more fuel. When the price of jet fuel rises, carriers pass that cost on to passengers in the form of fuel surcharges and higher base fares. Booking early locks in your fare before new surcharges are imposed.
While booking as far in advance as possible is the general rule of thumb, travel experts note a few exceptions. For example, destinations with year-round high demand often have very early purchase requirements. To get the lowest fare to London or Paris, you may need to buy your ticket 6 to 11 months out.
In contrast, flights to Asia and the South Pacific region are most expensive during cherry blossom season (late March to mid-April) and the Christmas holidays. Outside of those peak periods, fares tend to hold steady. For these destinations, 4 to 6 months out may be sufficient.
The type of destination also plays a role. Beach vacations and tours that require reservations typically book up earlier. A trip to the Caribbean or a packaged European tour may require booking 8 to 10 months before departure. More off-the-beaten path destinations have less pressure for early booking.
One strategy commonly used by experienced travelers is booking international flights when sales are offered. Many airlines run regular fare sales, especially in the off-peak season. Signing up for sale alerts will notify you when markdowns are available for your target destination. Being ready to pounce on a sale fare can result in big savings.
What else is in this post?
- The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Book Early for International Flights
- The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Domestic Tickets: 6 to 8 Weeks Out
- The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Use Flexible Dates to Find Deals
- The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Monitor Prices and Set Fare Alerts
- The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Aim for Off-Peak Travel Times
The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Domestic Tickets: 6 to 8 Weeks Out
When it comes to booking domestic flights within the US, most experts recommend doing so 6 to 8 weeks before your travel date for the lowest fares. While it's tempting to try to book a domestic flight at the last minute and score an amazing deal, the reality is that last-minute fares are rarely the cheapest. Airlines know that desperate travelers will pay higher fares at the last minute if they have to. The experts at airfare prediction app Hopper analyzed billions of flights and determined the prime booking window for domestic airfare is 6 to 8 weeks before departure. Their data scientists calculated that's when the greatest number of seats are still available and fares hit their lowest point.
Booking during this period allows you to take advantage of sales and promotions offered by airlines before the cheapest seats sell out. Airlines regularly offer fare sales up to three months prior to fill excess capacity. Signing up for airline sale alerts will notify you when discounts are offered to your destination. Being ready to pounce when a sale pops up is key to scoring deals. Outside of sales, airlines are still offering their lowest fares 6 to 8 weeks out when they have a large chunk of seats still to fill. As fewer seats remain, basic economics kicks in and prices incrementally rise.
Another factor that prompts airlines to offer better deals in this time frame is that they are trying to compete with low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue which sell most of their seats in the 6-8 week pre-travel window. Legacy carriers have to lower fares to match the LCCs during this peak booking period. They are willing to offer great deals to build their load factor - the percentage of seats sold on each flight.
Most travelers have flexibility to fly within a couple days on either side of their preferred travel date. Checking fares for departure dates a few days before and after your ideal date will often reveal a lower fare. Airlines use complex algorithms to set variable fares based on forecasted demand. Being flexible with your dates makes it easier to snag one of the cheap seats that pops up in that 6-8 week sweet spot.
Fare analysts point to another key advantage of buying in this timeframe - schedule changes by the airline will minimally impact your trip. Airlines are constantly tweaking flight times and frequencies. Grabbing your seat 6-8 weeks out reduces the chance of a nasty schedule change wreaking havoc on your itinerary. Changes do still happen, but you have more options to modify your plans if needed.
Trying to book a domestic flight 3-4 months in advance can be problematic, according to experts. At that far out horizon, airlines haven't finished adjusting their schedules and re-configuring their route networks. You may end up booking a flight that gets pushed back an hour, moved to a different terminal, or canceled altogether. Your ability to get accurate schedule information and the best fares is much stronger at 6-8 weeks pre-departure.
Hopper data shows domestic airfares start to creep up rapidly in the 4 week window prior to departure as seats fill up. Don't wait until this point to start tracking fares. The most expensive tickets are those bought within 7 days of travel - on average they are 54% more expensive than those purchased 6-8 weeks out.
Travelers report mixed success when trying to book domestic flights more than 2 months in advance. Some have scored great deals, while others ended up paying more than they would have 6-8 weeks out. With so much time before departure, airlines are less certain of demand trends. You may book an expensive seat simply because cheap seats haven't been released yet.
The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Use Flexible Dates to Find Deals
One of the best ways to score a cheap airfare is to be flexible with your travel dates. The exact date you depart and return can have a huge impact on the price you'll pay. Savvy travelers know that expanding your date range opens up chances to snag those low fares airlines release sporadically.
Hopper data analysis reveals domestic U.S. airfares fluctuate an average of 40% depending on travel dates. On some routes the difference can be as high as 90% between peak and off-peak dates. International fares are even more variable based on travel times. Being wedded to specific dates prevents you from grabbing deals when they pop up.
The experts recommend searching airfares while leaving your depart and return dates wide open. Once you've found the cheapest dates, you can lock in your plans around the discounted airfare. This strategy lets the savings dictate your schedule rather than the other way around.
Travel blogger Oneika Raymond puts this tactic to use on every trip she books. "I always search flights using an entire month window for departure and return. This allows me to score airfares that are hundreds of dollars cheaper than if I narrow it down to specific dates first." Oneika managed to save $400 on a roundtrip flight to Portugal for her husband by remaining flexible.
Johnny Jet, founder of JohnnyJet.com, agrees that the easiest way to find deals is letting the cheap flights decide your schedule. "When I'm planning a big trip, I search airfares for a whole 2-3 month period. I look for the cheapest month with the lowest fares, then pick my travel dates within that timeframe."
The fact is airlines use complex data algorithms to set variable fares each day. Demand forecasting software helps them maximize revenue by charging more when bookings are higher. Remaining flexible with your schedule makes it possible to grab cheaper seats outside of peak demand periods.
It's not uncommon for flights on a route to vary greatly in price between different days of the week. Airlines tend to offer the lowest fares on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays according to data analyzed by CheapAir.com. If your travel dates are flexible, researching airfare for departures on various days of the week can yield significant savings.
Travel blogger Nomadic Matt says, "I always search one-ways first when I'm flexible. That's how I managed to buy a $99 one-way from New York to Milan on Norwegian Air. The cheapest roundtrip ticket was $500 more!" Combining two discounted one-way fares often beats roundtrip pricing.
Expanding your origin and destination airports also opens up cheap flight possibilities. Check both the main airports and smaller secondary airports in a region when casting a wide net for deals. Secondary airports tend to have lower demand and more price competition.
Blogger and author Gary Arndt explains, "I live in Minneapolis, but I always check fares out of Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago when I have flexible dates. Adding more origin and destination options gives me more chances to grab cheap fares." Gary once scored an $800 ticket to Asia out of Chicago when the flights from Minneapolis were $200 higher.
While anywhere from 2-4 weeks of wiggle room is ideal, even adding or subtracting a couple days from your departure and return dates can make a difference. The more flexible you can keep your schedule, the easier it is to capitalize when low fare deals are released.
Travel experts note the ability to be flexible does depend on the destination and time of year. For example, Europe in the summer has very defined peak times so less date flexibility may be possible. Still, even shifting your dates by a week before or after the peak can yield major fare differences.
The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Monitor Prices and Set Fare Alerts
Monitoring airfare prices and setting up fare alerts can make a huge difference in scoring cheap flights. Travel experts consider this an essential strategy for saving money on plane tickets. By tracking price changes and pouncing when deals emerge, savvy flyers often manage to buy airfare for a fraction of the standard cost.
Hopper estimates airfares can fluctuate up to 40% depending on when you book. These price swings present opportunities for large savings if you're paying attention. Signing up for airfare alerts ensures you’re notified the moment a sale fare pops up or prices drop on your target route.
Gary Leff, author of View From the Wing travel blog, keeps continuous alerts set for destinations he wants to visit. “I use Google Flights to track fares and get email alerts when the price goes down. This allowed me to grab a $149 nonstop flight from Washington, DC to Las Vegas when the normal price was $302.”
Monitoring tools like Google Flights make it easy to set custom alerts for specific routes. You simply enter your home airport, destination, travel dates and preferred airline. Whenever the tool detects a fare decrease that matches your criteria, you'll get an email notification. This automated tracking saves travelers the hassle of manually checking prices every day.
In addition to tracking specific bookings, Leff recommends setting up expansive fare alerts across regions, like the entire western U.S. “I get notified anytime fares drop to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland or other West Coast cities from my hometown. This allows me to jump on cheap mistake fares even when I wasn’t originally planning a trip.” Casting a wide net with regional alerts opens up chances to score amazing deals to destinations you may not have originally considered.
Blogger Oneika Raymond relies on extensive airfare tracking to help plan trips for her clients. “I use alerts to monitor airfares across multiple regions and lock in deals as far in advance as possible. This strategy has helped my clients save hundreds on flights to Europe and Asia.” Oneika suggests budget-minded travelers take advantage of tools like Google Flights and Scott’s Cheap Flights to automate airfare deal hunting so they never miss a bargain.
Airfare experts emphasize the importance of tracking prices from the moment you start planning a trip, not just in the weeks before departure. Airline pricing algorithms are complex. Sales can pop up sporadically months before departure as airlines adjust supply and demand forecasts. Savvy travelers try to lock in deals as early as possible, then keep monitoring for even lower fares.
Johnny Jet routinely sets fare alerts for destinations he wants to visit 6-12 months out from the planned travel dates. “When I firstresearch a trip, I’ll check prices and set alerts for 6-12 months out. I book it as soon as I see a sale fare I’m comfortable with. But then I continue tracking prices for the next 6-8 months in case it drops lower.” This exact strategy helped Johnny save $250 per ticket on flights to Greece.
Bloggers Jeff and Kara of Vagabondish emphasize the importance of remaining vigilant and flexible when tracking fares. “Don’t just set it and forget it. Keep adjusting your travel dates and airports as you monitor fares. This allowed us to save over $350 each on tickets to Africa by tweaking our plans.” Capturing limited-time deals often involves acting quickly and altering your existing booking.
While monitoring tools do the heavy lifting of tracking prices, human intelligence is still needed to determine which deals are worth pursuing. Experienced traveler Lee Abbamonte explains his process: “When I get a fare alert email, I check whether it's on my target airline and if the flight schedule still works for me. I’ve passed on deals that dropped the price but had lousy itineraries.” Tools only notify you when prices change. You still have to evaluate if the fare makes sense for your optimal trip plan.
One mistake novice travelers often make is failing to continue monitoring after booking their flight. Just because you already paid $500 for a ticket doesn’t mean the fare can’t drop to $300 later. Hopper estimates 1 in 6 flights have their prices reduced after booking. Savvy flyers know it pays to keep alerts active post-booking so you can re-book at a lower fare and receive a refund on the difference.
Of course, prices can also go up after you book - another reason vigilance matters. Scott's Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes recommends a simple way to stay on top of post-purchase price drops. “On Google Flights, click the box after you search to 'track prices' and get email alerts. I use this for months after buying flights. If the fare drops, I rebook and cancel my original reservation.” Automated monitoring takes the work out of post-booking price tracking.
The Optimal Time to Purchase Airfare for the Best Deals, According to the Experts - Aim for Off-Peak Travel Times
One of the most impactful ways to lower your airfare is to book during off-peak travel periods. Airlines use complex algorithms to maximize revenue based on forecasted demand. When fewer people are expected to fly a route, carriers lower fares to stimulate bookings. Savvy travelers aim to fly when demand dips in order to capitalize on the cheaper airfares.
Hopper analysis reveals airfares to popular destinations fluctuate 40% on average between peak and off-peak dates. On some competitive routes, prices can swing a whopping 90% based on travel times. Being aware of high and low seasons, and the factors that drive demand, can yield huge savings.
For domestic U.S. flights, the peak travel periods mirror school holidays and popular vacation times. According to Expedia, the most expensive airfare occurs around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Spring Break. Summertime is also fairly high, with fares rising significantly in July and August.
To find deals, the experts recommend traveling in shoulder seasons. For example, the best deals on domestic flights are found from mid-January to mid-March, during the gap between the busy holiday travel season and spring break. Fares also tend to drop in mid-September through late October, after kids return to school but before Thanksgiving travel ramps up. Flying on actual holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can also mean big savings with fewer travelers.
Hopper data scientists determined that prices to Europe peak from June through August during the warm weather months Americans flock across the pond. Late March to April during Easter and spring break is another expensive period. To find deals, experts suggest traveling in the fall, winter or early spring when the weather is less ideal and demand drops.
For tropical destinations, peak times correlate with cold winter weather up north. Hopper found the Caribbean and Mexico peak for Americans between mid-December and April. To find deals, fly during late summer and fall when temperatures are still warm but kids are back in school. The exception is hurricane season, so late spring can offer an appealing balance of low crowds and nice weather.
In Asia, cherry blossom season from late March to mid-April ignites a huge boost in travel and airfares as people come to view the beautiful blooms. Lunar New Year, which falls in January or February, is also expensive as people travel home for the holidays. Travel blogger Oneika Raymond suggests targeting late summer through November for cheap fares to Asia when the weather is still favorable but the crowds have thinned.
South Pacific islands tend to be most costly for Americans during the rainy season of November through March. Hurricane season also falls in this window from November to April. Travel during the dry season between May and October for pleasant weather and lower airfare demand.
Wherever you are traveling, aiming for off-peak times centered around ideal weather, school schedules, holidays and events is key to savings. But other more localized factors also influence airfare demand.
Travel deals specialist Gary Arndt advises travelers to research major local happenings when choosing travel dates. “I once planned a trip to Germany and almost booked flights for late September. Then I realized the huge Oktoberfest beer festival fell right in that window, so I shifted to early October to avoid the spike in airfare and hotel rates.”
Knowledge of major events, festivals, conventions and conferences can help you identify periods to avoid - or target if you actually want to join the revelry. Religious pilgrimages, sporting events, art festivals and large trade shows all drive up travel costs as demand skyrockets. Planning around these peak times can save hundreds on airfare and lodging.
Political events also influence travel patterns. Oneika Raymond notes that major elections impacted flight costs on recent trips she planned to the Philippines, Ukraine and Nigeria. “Airfares always rise significantly during elections as politicians, journalists and observers flock to the country. I rescheduled departures to avoid those periods.”
School schedules are another consideration beyond just holiday breaks. When booking a trip through Europe, Gary Arndt intentionally avoids the busy month of July. “Since America’s summer break coincides with Europe’s peak summer holiday month, airfares from the U.S. are outrageous. I instead visit Europe in June or September when fares are lower.” Knowing when other countries’ school schedules create spikes in demand can lead you to cheaper travel periods.
Local weather patterns also impact pricing. Blogger Nomadic Matt found flights to Northern Europe drastically cheaper when he targeted late fall and early spring months. “By traveling during the cold and rainy off-season, I’ve bought roundtrip tickets to Amsterdam, Stockholm and London for under $350. Mid-summer trips to these cities usually cost twice as much.”
Kara and Jeff of Vacationish plan trips to sultry Southeast Asia during the hot, humid months of April and May. “We've been able to buy roundtrip flights from the U.S. for around $600 by traveling right before the start of monsoon season. This is literally half the price of winter flights when the weather is ideal.” Chasing perfect weather often means chasing higher fares.
While aiming to fly on weekdays can help find deals, Bob Atkinson of Travelzoo cautions this tactic may not work with international destinations. “For domestic U.S. flights, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are cheapest. But for Mexico and the Caribbean, weekends are actually the best booking window when hotels drop rates to attract local travelers.” Understanding day-of-week pricing nuances specific to your target location is important.