The prevailing wisdom is that the earlier you buy airline tickets, the cheaper you can get them. But is that true?
“It’s true—to a point,” says travel blogger Scott Mackenzie, of Travel Codex. “Airlines publish fares about 11 months before the departure date, and for the first few months not much changes. Then fares start to gradually drop as sales and other promotions lead to lower prices. You might save 10 percent if you time it right.”
Travel blogger Gary Lef, co-founder of View From the Wing, explains how airfare is calculated: "Airfares are a combination of fare rules and prices for a given city pair. These change but largely tell you if you have to buy seven or 14 or 21 days before departure, have a Saturday stay, or are restricted to travel on certain days of the week. If you meet those rules, you need the specific flight you’re looking at to be available with inventory that matches the fare. Airlines want to sell each seat for as much as possible but not have seats go out empty because then they get nothing for the seat."
Below are some tips from the bloggers and AAA on when to book your flight for the cheapest airfare.
Buy Domestic Airfare 1 to 4 Months Before Departure
Start to look at leisure travel about three months out, Lef says. A recent cheapair.com study says there is a window between one and four months out where prices are the lowest for domestic airfares, but it’s not one single day all of the time. The survey from Cheapair finds that peak holiday travel is cheapest even earlier than that, and international trips are, too.
Mackenzie breaks it down even further: Domestic fares can be booked closer to the flight, sometimes even two to three weeks before departure. International fares are best booked earlier. Sales are unpredictable and advance purchase periods are longer.
Don’t Buy Too Far Out ...
“Buying a year out is usually expensive,” Lef says.
Airlines don’t know what seats will go empty, and consumers insisting on buying then are probably not that price-sensitive. It is often the cruise crowd wanting to lock in their plans.
... But Plan Holiday and International Travel Far In Advance
Peak holidays sell cheap seats earlier largely because those flights sell out. Lef says to start looking five months out.
International tickets are generally cheaper further out than domestic. Mackenzie says, “My recommendation for international flights is to search very early to get a sense of the average price. Then wait. Keep an eye out for sales and be ready to book. It may help to travel to an alternate destination and book a connecting trip. For example, I have seen many cheap fares to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong recently. From there it is not too difficult to reach the rest of Asia (and you might have to stop there anyway).”
Avoid Waiting Until the Last Minute
“The only time that it helps to book at the last minute is when using frequent flyer miles,” Mackenzie says. Most airlines don’t have advance booking requirements for award travel (or there might be a fee, which is waived for frequent flyers). Close to departure, many airlines will make more award seats available, but it can be uncomfortable for many travelers to plan a vacation without firm dates, he said.
Lef also says that waiting until close to departure is a bad idea, but sometimes there are deals, especially on travel-package sites. Look for bundles with rental cars. Still, though, they are usually not as good as what you could have done with a proper advance purchase.
There used to be plenty of flights with empty seats, Lef says, and those might get dumped cheap at the last minute. But flights now are running full so you might not see last-minute sales.
Mackenzie says fares increase sharply close to departure. “Fares usually go up for one of two reasons: There are only so many seats for sale at that particular price or the rules require a certain advance-purchase period. Most of the time, the issue is the advance-purchase period. When that fare is no longer available, the same empty seat now has to be booked with a different fare that can cost much more. Prices can climb 10 percent or more overnight.”
Use Different Carriers
According to Mackenzie: For domestic flights, booking two one-way flights on different carriers is sometimes cheaper. Booking connections and inconvenient departure times also tend to lower the price.
When—And How—to Book a Flight
AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins says, “Flight pricing is based on supply and demand. So the price often depends on the time of year you are flying. Holidays being especially popular tend to see higher pricing, especially as flights become fully booked. My best advice is to book as early as possible."
Beyond that, Jenkins says the way you book your flight can save you money:
- For cheapest flights and best availability, book between 1 am and 5 am. Any ticket that was on hold or not paid in full is released at midnight. Meaning more supply, less demand, therefore travelers will find better deals.
- When shopping for tickets, delete your computer’s cookies after you shop for airline tickets, because if you go back to the same site later in the day, the site will remember and might reflect higher prices than if you went there for the first time.
- The best days to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Flights are the cheapest and airports are the least crowded.
- If you need a hotel and rental car, it’s most cost-effective to book them as a package instead of individually.
- Check to see if you have points on a credit card you can redeem for travel savings.
- Only pack what you need and wear/take the heaviest items on the plane to allow more space in checked luggage.
- Use a travel agent. They will save you time and money than booking yourself because of the partners, abilities and knowledge of the industry.