If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you may have seen thrilling stories about domestic airlines slashing prices and offering rock bottom prices. While it is true that competition is causing the airlines to offer some pretty sweet deals right now, they are not in every market. However, if you know how to look for cheap airfares there are savings to be had. The first and most important rule when shopping for flights is to search early and often. We cannot stress this enough. By checking often enough, you are likely to see both the ups and the downs as fares fluctuate– and you’ll be able to tell the difference and recognize a good deal. Waiting until the last minute in the hopes of scoring a deal is a little like consulting a crystal ball (and is about as accurate). Here are a few more techniques to swing the cost-saving odds in your favor.
1. When You Buy Matters
We do a popular study every year to show people the best time to buy domestic airfare. This year our data shows that “on average” the best time to by is 47 days from your travel date. You’re not likely to get the absolute lowest price ticket because the lowest possible prices change on average 70 times or once every 4 ½ days! Try not to get too caught up in squeezing a few extra dollars off your ticket price. When you see a good deal you should grab it since any good fare is much more likely to go up than down.
There are times when you should consider booking much earlier than the 47 days in advance. 1) If you are traveling for a holiday; 2) If you are traveling during the summer; 3) If you are traveling with a family or more than 3 people; or 4) if you are particular about your airline, number of stops, travel times, or seat assignments and you see only a few flights offered that you’d be happy with. Flexibility is key in getting the best price, so if you’re not so flexible give yourself the best case scenario and book early.
2. Gambling on Last Minute Deals is not a Great Plan
Fares are almost always more expensive at the last minute. In 2014, for example, tickets purchased within 14 days were $111 more, on average, than those purchased further in advance; tickets purchased within seven days were $174 more. Please don’t fall for the compelling myth that airlines give away their unsold seats at rock bottom prices the day before departure. As much as we love the sound of that one – the data just doesn’t prove this out. Give yourself 14 days advance purchase at the very least; or better yet, 21 if you can swing it.
3. But Don’t Book Too Early Either
Airlines historically come out with really high fares when flights first go on sale, let them sit for a while, and then introduce various sales a few months before flight time in a mad scramble to fill all the empty seats. As we mentioned earlier, we’re in an unusual situation right now because the low cost airlines are causing some of the more established airlines to have to lower their prices to compete. Fares do tend to be lower a few months before travel than they are 11 months before travel, but that difference is not as pronounced as it used to be. On average, domestic flights open up for sale about $50 higher than their ultimate lowest price – and they typically stay that way for many months.
4. One to Four Months Out is the Sweet Spot
The general pattern is that from the time a flight opens for sale, fares will drop slowly but steadily until reaching a low point somewhere between 27 days and 114 days out. That three month window, which is essentially between one and four months in advance, is what we call the “prime booking window”. Much more often than not, the best fare for a domestic trip will be offered at some point during that window.
5. For Summer and Holiday Travel, Toss Out the Rule Book
There are important exceptions to these patterns, mostly for very popular routes during very popular times where flights tend to fill up quickly and the most optimal time to buy tends to be earlier than the normal one to four months. Flights around Christmas and Thanksgiving, and warm weather trips for Spring Break, have a different dynamic and you’re generally better off booking sooner rather than later.
People agonize over when the best time is to pull the trigger and book that flight. So we’ve instituted a cool little feature to help you feel confident about your purchase. CheapAir’s unique Price Drop Payback lessens the stress for you. If you purchase with CheapAir.com we provide price protection for free – if you see a fare drop after your purchase you can get a travel credit back for the difference, up to $100 per passenger. No other online travel agency provides this show of good faith. Happy (and confident) travels!