2018 Airfare Study – The Best Time to Buy Flights, based on 917 million airfares

The most asked question we get here at CheapAir.com is “When is the best time to buy my airline ticket?” With frequent fluctuations in airfare prices, it’s no wonder that buying a reasonably priced ticket can often feel like trying to hit a moving target.

when to buy 2018

With the CheapAir.com 2018 Annual Airfare Study, we aim to provide consumers with current, straightforward information and insights so shopping for flights can be as transparent, inexpensive and painless as possible.

It all starts with analyzing airfares – this study looks at 917,000,000 of them in more than 8,000 markets. We take these airfares and break down the important data points, including:

– The “prime booking window” when flights are cheapest

– How airfares trend from the day they go on sale until the plane departs

– Worst and best days of week to fly to save money on airfare

– Seasonal airfare trends, including insights on the summer travel season

One interesting finding is that the lowest fare for any one trip changed an average of 62 times during the period that that trip was offered for sale. That’s roughly once every 5-6 days. Furthermore, each change represented an increase or drop of $36, on average.

So now you might be saying to yourself—great. How can I stay on top of all of these changes in order to get one of the lowest fares? Don’t worry! The goal of our study was to make it so that you don’t have to. We crunched a lot of numbers to reveal important insights that can save you time, spare you some work, and ultimately help you get a great deal on your next flight.

In 2017, for flights within the continental U.S., 70 days in advance was the best time to buy your airline ticket on average. This is a bit higher than last year, when the magic number was 54 days in advance.

Now before you go setting calendar alerts to remind yourself to buy all upcoming flights precisely 70 days out from your ideal travel date, keep in mind these are average numbers. And while averages can be a great guide, they should not be thought of as hard and fast rules. When you drill down into the individual trips, the best time to book varied based on markets, travel dates and the individual traveler preferences. This variation is captured by what we call the “prime booking window.”

The 6 Booking Zones – Including the Prime Booking Window

If you can imagine that there’s an optimal window for getting the lowest price, then it only stands to reason that booking at other times offers certain benefits and risks. Last year we broke the entire window of time when a flight can be booked into 5 specific booking zones. This year— we added another. Here are the booking zones:

CheapAir.com airfare booking zones 2018

First Dibs
169-319 Days in Advance
(approximately 6 – 11 months)
If being the early bird is your style, then you’re in the “First Dibs” (169-319 days before travel) zone. When you book this early you’re almost certainly going to pay a premium for airfare (about $50 more on average), and you’re going to watch people on your flight get better “deals” in the future when fare sales start to kick in. The airlines like to allow themselves the wiggle room to adjust flight price when the demand (or lack thereof) becomes apparent. But there is still a good argument for buying early. When you buy early you have a bevy of flight options that can shrink as the flight dates get closer. When you’re at the head of the line you can choose your seat (and make sure your group sits together), and fly at the time you prefer, getting the pick of the best itineraries for any given pair of cities. So you might find it worth the extra cash.

Peace of Mind
122-168 Days in Advance
(approximately 4 – 6 months)
We call this zone “Peace of Mind” (122-168 days before travel) because it alleviates travel anxiety and will cost you a bit less than “First Dibs.” If paying around $20 more for better flight options doesn’t spook you and you’re not much of a gambler, “Peace of Mind” might be just the ticket. You’ll lock in flight dates and still have a decent number of flight and seat options from which to choose.

Prime Booking Window
21-121 Days in Advance
(approximately 3 weeks – 4 months)
We now come to the “Prime Booking Window”, occurring 3 weeks to 4 months in advance, and otherwise known as the best zone to nab a bargain. Hunting for cheap airfare? Focus your efforts here. Its not as though you won’t see fares change in this zone but fares average within 5% of their lowest here, and you’re most likely to see a cheap fare pop up.

Push Your Luck
14-20 Days in Advance
(2 – 3 weeks)

Like to gamble? Miss your chance for the “Prime Booking Window?” If this is your scenario, the next option is the “Push Your Luck” zone (2 to 3 weeks before travel). This close to your travel dates, the fares usually climb and a lot of the aforementioned options are selling out. However, there are pockets of luck in this zone. We can’t make you any promises but some of those lower fares may still be available. Go into this zone with eyes open – Christmas week and popular high season destinations do not have the best odds. Less popular destinations or shoulder/low season travel might be a better risk. But be warned: even though sometimes the fare might not be that much more than if you had booked earlier, the same might not be true for seat options. Most airlines only offer a limited number of seat assignments for free; the rest of the travelers have to pay more to guarantee an aisle or window. The later you book, the less likely those free seat assignments will be available. Of course, you can always let the airline pick a seat for you for no charge, but if you care where you sit, this is something to consider.

Playing with Fire
7-13 Days in Advance
(1 to just under 2 weeks)

Some people just can’t help themselves – and like to fly a bit too close to the sun. Does this sound like you? If you’ve waited to buy your tickets so late that you’re “Playing with Fire” (1 to just under 2 weeks before travel), this zone was created for you. We added “Playing with Fire” this year, because the pricing is better than waiting until the very last minute. Booking here, you’re almost certainly going to pay more than “Prime Booking Window” shoppers and there’s going to be fewer flight options available. But if there’s good news it’s that you’re going to pay about 22% less on average than the people who wait even longer to buy in the next zone, Hail Mary.

Hail Mary
0-6 Days in Advance
(less than 1 week)
Oh dear. You waited this long to buy? We’re praying for you, dear traveler. Last-minute fares are considered the “Hail Mary” zone, so-named for obvious reasons – you’re likely to pay more (on average a whopping $208 more) than buying during the “Prime Booking” window, and you’ll surely face more limited choice in seats (oh, the dreaded center seat!).

The Days of the Week Angle
Much debate and confusion surrounds the dual topics of what day of week you should shop for flights and what day of week you should fly to get the best deals. We can break this down for you. It’s actually pretty simple.

Is there a cheapest day of the week to book flights?
Not really. The average lowest fares by purchase day of week are all within $2 of one another. That’s less than a 0.6% difference. That’s a negligible amount. Book any day of the week!

Is there a cheapest day of the week to fly?
Heck yes! Tuesday and Wednesday are the cheapest days to fly. Sunday is the most expensive. Flying on Wednesday instead of a Sunday will save you an average of $76 per airline ticket.

Seasonal Changes
Seasonality can also impact the best time to buy. Here’s the skinny on what to expect when booking flights for summer, fall, winter and spring.

how the seasons affect airfare price

When to Buy Summer Flights
Summer is the most popular season for Americans to travel. Do not wait until the last minute if you’re on a budget. In general, we recommend buying a bit earlier for the summer months, especially when traveling in July, which is the most popular air travel month of the season. August and September are where the best summer deals can be found, with late summer offering the lowest prices overall.

• The average best time to buy is 47 days, or about 1.5 months in advance.
• Prime Booking Window is 14 – 160 days (2 weeks to about 5 months) from travel.
• The difference between the best and worst priced days is $203
• Our summer airfare calendar can help make the shopping process simple and easy – showing you the cheapest and most expensive dates to fly.

When to Buy Flights in the Fall
Fall is a good value for leisure travel. It’s shoulder season for a lot of destinations, and most people have done their big trips in the summer. Therefore, you can usually find reasonably priced tickets in the fall. The one exception is Thanksgiving week, when airfares are priced at a premium and sell out quickly. You should definitely buy Thanksgiving airfare on the early side for the best prices.

• If you’re traveling in the fall (excluding Thanksgiving), you can usually wait a bit longer to book air tickets and still not miss out on the good prices. The best time to buy is 69 days out, a little over 2 months in advance.
• Prime Booking Window is 21 – 100 days from travel.
• The difference between the best and worst priced days is $83, a number that’s not nearly as painful as waiting to buy your tickets for any other season.

When to Buy Winter Flights
Christmas and New Years weeks can be a money pit, but otherwise winter is often a great time to get a good deal. For general (non-holiday) winter travel:

• 62 days from your expected travel date is the best time to buy an affordable airline ticket in the winter months.
• Prime Booking Window is 21 – 110 days from travel.
• The difference between the best and worst priced day is $260

When to Buy Spring Flights
Springtime is a bit tricky. On the one hand, there are no major travel holidays to drive up prices on specific dates. On the other hand, “spring break” dates cover March through April and inspire travel from college students and families with kids alike. So, in general, planning ahead is key for snagging better prices.

• Exactly 3 months (90 days) from your travel date on average is the optimal time to buy airfare for spring air travel.
• Prime Booking Window is 46 – 122 days from travel. Because you have a larger window to get the best fares, buying early is not a gamble.
• The difference between the best and worst priced day is $263.

Final Thoughts
If you take nothing else away from the 2018 Airfare Study, remember this: airfares change frequently. If you have an itinerary in mind, you must be ready to buy when you see a good fare. Going away to “think about it” is risky. Other travelers are also watching fares and someone else is likely to hop on a low fare while you’re mulling things over. Be decisive.

Another key finding is that purchasing during the “Prime Booking Window” can give you a clear edge and maximize your chances of scoring a cheap flight.

Check out our Best Time to Buy Flights search tool to research your destination and get custom advice from our airfare intelligence data. And if you find yourself in a bind (perhaps you need a last minute airfare, or you don’t have the budget in advance of your trip) consider our monthly payments option or what we call “Fly Now, Pay Later.” You can make installment payments for 3, 6 or 12 months – and not run the risk of losing that great fare!

Finally, if you’re thinking that this information would have been more helpful to you if we were focused on international destinations, we’ve got you covered there too! Our International When to Buy study is out and we break everything down for you international travelers!

84 Comments

  1. So are there any cheap flights coming soon lower than $305 to buy in Aug flying out of LAX to Fort Lauderdale.

    1. HI Barbara, $305 is actually a pretty solid fare! We don;t often see cross country flights for less than $300 these days.

    1. Hi Barbara, Can you share what airport you would be departing from? That will help us give you more personalized advice.

  2. I find posting my various travel destinations at Fare alert lets me know when a fare is at its lowest–of course you have to be ready to buy the ticket at that day

    1. Yes! A fare alert can be a great way to track airfares if you, like you said, are in a position to buy as soon as you see a great price! Thanks for the input!

  3. I have a big family that likes to travel together usually about 10 adults and 10 children from 4 to 19 years of age, very difficult to get tickets and more difficult to get the same rates and hotel accommodations. Can you E-mail me some suggestions? Thank you!

  4. Really loved the article on best time to buy airline tickets-any chance you could do a similar article for overseas travel!

    Best, Chris

    1. Hi Chris, You’re reading our airfare-loving mind! We have an international version coming out next week! Check back with us.

  5. Appreciate the info on this article. I live in Chile and am planning a trip to the US to visit family. From there would like to go to Europe. Really looking forward to the international version!

  6. Appreciate the information shared in this article because fare alerts (specially which is the best time to buy flight tickets at the lowest price) are very useful for a person like me who travels a lot for business purpose

  7. I would love to have more information in addition to just average price. For instance if the question is how many days out should you look for the cheapest price, I would like to see the value of the cheapest ticket available. I think there could be a lot of information hiding in the average. The price of the most expensive tickets could be falling while the price of the ticket I am likely to buy is staying the same or even going up.

    1. Hi Cory, Your concern is valid – of course we are working with averages over all, and your specific itinerary may or may not adhere to the dataset presented. We’re confident that our study gives travelers a good feel for when they should buy, based on the millions of airfares analyzed.

  8. US-centric as usual, this the world-wide web, what about the southern hemisphere (NZ and OZ)? Seasons are different down here, y’now? And is the international version just booking *from* N America?

    1. Hi Michael – you are correct sir. Unfortunately – we are a U.S.-based company and about 90+ percent of our bookings come from Canada and the United States. For that reason, to date our airfare study has been for outbound U.S. travelers only. In the future, we may try to change that up, especially if our customers start to book from other parts of the world.

  9. I wanted to know do you have any cheaper flights going to Birmingham Alabama? In July! July the 26th to July 29th

    1. Hi Charmeal, can you share what city you would be flying from? July is the most expensive month to fly in the summer (and often the most expensive month overall – excluding Christmas – so we usually counsel people to be prepared a bit more straight out of the gate. Let me know what city you are flying from and I will let you know what’s out there that might be more affordable.

  10. Awesome analysis!! Helps to make our plans by season n days. Thanks for all the hard work. Thats why I like Cheap Flights! Always looking out for us.

  11. Hi,
    I wanted to know when is the best time to buy an airfare ticket going to Honolulu Hawaii from Vancouver airport,. We are planning to go this coming August 2018..
    Thank you…

    1. Hi Rhoda, Hawaii is popular year round (as you know – it’s that temperate year-round weather, I guess). Your dates are in the summer which tends to mean higher fares, but August seems to be holding pretty strong at right around $500 (in the latter part of the month) right now. If you’re flying in early August, you can expect to pay a bit more ($600 a ticket). It’s probably a good idea to be watching the fares closely right now – conservative advice would be to buy at the rate you see. The airfare to Hawaii are not very likely to go on sale and the longer you wait the more incremental increases in fares you’ll see (the lowest fares on any one flight will start to sell out).

    1. Hi Sheryl, Unfortunately we do not. Our report does include data from Canadian customers, but we do not break this down by country. The data is for outbound travel from North America.

    1. Hi David, I’m not sure that it is. Can you give us a bit more information on the itinerary you’re looking at and the dates involved?

  12. I’m looking for the best time to travel to Paris direct from Miami flexible dates end of December/first week of January total 6-7 days what day would you suggest departing flight times are all flexible as are departing cities fll and PBi would be fine also
    Thanks!!

    1. Kym, fares right now are priced very well from Miami. I wouldn’t wait too long – these won’t last – especially for the holiday week. The best flight right now is on Aer Lingus which does have a 3 hour stop in Dublin for $647. That’s nearly the best price I’ve seen out of Miami. Of course, most people prefer nonstops and American has one right now for just $732. This is for a Friday, Dec 28 departure returning on Wednesday, the 2nd.

      1. Hi Bec, You are traveling during a pretty popular time (summer, July) so we have to recommend you start the search now. We’re basically in the prime booking window (which stretches from about 3 weeks to 4 months out). Don’t delay!

  13. I am looking for the best time to purchase flights from Phoenix, AZ to New Orleans. We are planning to travel July 5th through the 9th.

    Thanks!

  14. We are flying from Detroit to Punta Cana 12/20 -01/04. Should we wait until June to book our flights? Do you know if Southwest will begin offering flights to Punta Cana?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Mary Kay, Unfortunately Southwest keeps things very close to the vest. They do have flights to Punta Cana through October. It’s anyone’s guess if they continue (though I’d say it’s likely). Most airlines publish their fares about 11 months out but Southwest doesn’t do so. The fact that you can’t see the fares for December doesn’t mean that they won’t be flying there in December. Check back in June.

  15. We are also looking to fly to Hawaii, specifically to Lihue at the end of September, returning to Charleston SC two weeks later. Our only concern would be leg room as I’m 6 foot 9 inches tall. We have booked already but can cancel. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Rick, The best leg room on any flight is not going to be in Economy. For your height, it’s going to be tricky to find super comfortable seating. Premium Economy or even Business Class is probably going to be a better fit for you.

  16. We are a family of 4 flying out of San Diego to Kona (Big Island) in September after Labor Day. With the recent earthquakes and lava flows, do you suspect fares will go down? Right now they are about $500 pp. Thanks!

    1. Hi Dori, It’s hard to say. If there’s a lot of damage and/or people get spooked, there is a good chance fares will go down. However, Hawaii is such a popular destination it may not go down too much. Also, $500 from San Diego is still a pretty good price to Hawaii. We generally advise that anywhere in the $500 to $600 range is a good fare.

  17. This information is super helpful, thank you! We are planning a trip from PDX to LIH next March. Prices are currently REALLY high. Based on your information above, I should hold off until Thanksgiving (or so). Any other advice that you would recommend? Thanks again!

    1. Hi Christi, Hawaii is a bit of an outlier in the leisure flight game, mainly because (because of the generally amazing year-round weather), there really is no low season. And not to put a kink in your plans (admittedly based on our advice), you might want to start looking slightly earlier. Hawaii isn’t super popular for college spring breakers (because of the distance and general expense), but it is quite popular for family spring break. Our best advice might be to start a preliminary search in late September right after summer ends. Coming from Portland, you may also see some deals (west coast originating cities sometimes have them) AND you could also consider flying mid-week if it’s a possibility. Those mid-week flights are often the best value.

  18. Thank you for this helpful article! We are planning a family trip from Reno to Orlando in early December. I know that is a popular destination. According to what you have written, September looks like the ideal time to buy. Is this still true for popular tourist destinations like Orlando?

    1. Hi Michaela, that’s a good point. Orlando is sort of an evergreen destination without much of a low season (great weather will make that happen). Having said that, early December is probably as close as you’re going to get to a low season in Orlando. Plan to start a search now – and keep your eyes peeled for any good deals.

    1. Hi Homer, September 5 is still considered summer. We follow the regular calendar for seasonality in North America, though prices do tend to drop after Labor Day.

  19. Just the other day my ticket from St Louis to Bozeman was around $442, now it’s $512 – I’m not sure if I should grab the 512 or wait for a drop? We fly out in mid July.

    1. Beth you’re right on to be conservative. This is a busy time of year for Montana. Book soon. The fares may continue to climb.

    1. Hi Anne, Thank you for the kind words. You should be able to print this from your browser. We don’t make PDFs of these posts.

  20. Looking to fly from Dallas, Tx to Oakland Ca on October 22nd. I have been watching Southwests ticket prices go up and down for weeks. When do you suggest is the best time to book?

    1. Hi Jen, It’s hard to say exactly when might be the best time to buy for specific itineraries. Watching the fares bounce up and down is a good indication that fares have not stabilized yet so I might hold off a little bit longer. Having said that, if a lower fare pops up, I would hop on it – since you’ve been watching you know what a “good” fare looks like. Once the airline hits the point where people start to buy, the fares will start to rise incrementally and will continue to rise as the lowest fares sell out.

  21. Why is it difficult to get cheap air fare from three major airports (IAD, BWI and DCA) to Seattle. I was told to wait at least 21 days before traveling. But I noticed it is difficult to get early morning flight out on the 18th of July and limited flight back on Saturday, July 28th and we cannot use morning flight due to cruise ship arrives back at 8 am and not everyone gets off the ship that quick. My husband will be using scooter and that means we may be the last group to get off the ship.
    Thanks.

    1. Hi Anne, Your problem is definitely the cruise schedule. Coordinating flights with cruise schedules can be a bear. I might not wait too long – typically there are limited flights for each cruise so that can mean you need to buy earlier.

  22. Im looking for cheap summer flights to Toronto from London (July 26/27/28 to Aug 5/6/7) but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere, why is this?

    1. Hi Jae, It’s hard to say for sure. If you just started looking, that might be the main reason. It’s a little bit late to be finding the best fares. It does look like the best fare available for your dates is going to be on KLM departing on Thursday, the 26th and returning on Tuesday, August 7th. The fare is just under $1000 USD but it does have a 10 hour layover in Amsterdam. Otherwise there are nonstop options on Air Canada for around $1,100.

  23. Traveling from Mci to Fll on 12/21 return 12/30. Family of 4. So I should buy sometime in October? Right now over $600 RT. One airline already shows a fare sold out. What about one what fares?

    1. Hi Veronica, Christmas week travel is a bit of an outlier in terms of our airfare study. It might already be too late to get the best fares for your dates. There are a lot of people looking to fly during Christmas week, and it is always a week that sells out flights. I would definitely start as serious search as soon as you can. Waiting until October is not advised for your itinerary.

  24. This information is so helpful, especially for a non-American looking to book domestic flights in the US for the first time! I’m currently planning my first trip and have no clue what a good fare typically is for the routes I need to book. I’m looking at LAX-MCO flights in the first week of Dec, is $112 (one-way) an okay fare? Or should I wait for it to go lower?
    Thanks!

    1. Hi there, That’s actually not bad. On popular routes like LAX to MCO or LAX to New York, anything in the $400-450 range return is a pretty decent fare. You can find $300-400 fares, but they are harder to snag and the time of year you’re traveling (holiday season) might make anything that low a little hard to find.

  25. Hello,
    I am looking to travel mid-May in the US — would you categorize that as Spring or Summer? How many days ahead would you recommended booking a flight?
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Alexis, mid-May is technically spring, but prices do tend to skew more “summer” since this is a busy time for Americans to take vacations. What are the city pairs you are traveling so we can give you more personalized advice?

      1. Hello, just wondering if you are going to get back me? I am curious to know how soon ahead of time I should try to book in mid-May.

        1. Hi Alexis, if you are going to Seattle in mid-May, you should probably look at booking within the prime booking window. Seattle is a popular summer month, but it isn;t Orlando or Los Angeles, for example. Hope this helps!

  26. Hi there. Traveling to from Pittsburgh to Exuma end of January beginning of February. Prices please and best time to book. THANKS

    1. Prices for Exuma from Pittsburgh do not look like they have a lot of volatility, with most airfares between now and February hovering in the $500-550 range. It;s probably a good idea to start shopping now, but you may not need to decide exactly when to buy for a few more weeks. If the fares don’t start to increase incrementally, it might be worth waiting a bit. Sometimes when the fares do not sell down, you can catch a deal.

  27. My family is looking to travel to Vietnam this spring, March or April. When is a good time to purchase our tickets?

    1. Hi Jennifer, It’s definitely not too early to be beginning your search. What city is your travel originating from and to what city in Vietnam are you planning to fly in and out of? We can offer you more personalized advice if you can answer these questions.

  28. Looking for a round trip flight Friday March 22 in the early evening from Chicago to New Orleans
    and returning after 12noon on Sunday March 31. The best I’ve found is $550-600 per person. Yikes!

    1. Hi Sue, That does seem steep, though the problem is likely not to get better as we get closer to your dates. New Orleans is just a popular destination any time of the year, and can be quite possible for spring break in the month of March. I do see nonstop flights for your dates that are half of the price you’re showing on American but the times of the flights are not as specific as you need (the main major difference is that the return is in the morning on the 31st). If you need the specific times you mentioned, our best advice is to book now.

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