If you’ve spent any amount of time shopping for flights, you probably know that airfares change a lot. Airlines will tell you that the price fluctuations are based on meticulous real-time calculations to match supply and demand, but to travelers the ups and downs seem random, totally unpredictable, and utterly without rhyme or reason.
Whether there is really a method to the madness or not, everyone just wants to know one simple question: when is the best time to buy an airline ticket?
To answer that question, we looked at 1,336,030,117 air fares (that’s about 1.3 billion) as part of our annual air fare study. Since “it’s complicated” doesn’t make for a very good headline, we’ll start by focusing on a bottom line number, and that number is 54 days. That was, on average, the best number of days in advance to buy a flight in 2015, for travel within the U.S.A.
The reason it’s a little more complicated than that, though, is that every trip is different. While 54 days in advance might have been the average best time to buy based on everybody’s trips last year, that doesn’t mean it will be the best time to buy for your trip this year.
In our study we looked at 2,926,668 “trips”. That’s just under 3 million. We defined a “trip” as an itinerary going from Point A to Point B on a specific date with a specific return date. For each trip we looked at the lowest fare offered for that trip every day from 320 days in advance until 1 day in advance.
If you look at all 3 million itineraries, the best times to buy were all over the map (no pun intended). For a lot of them (about 13,000 in total) 54 days out was indeed the best time to buy, but for almost as many the best time to buy was 53 days out, or 52 days, or 45 days, or 60 days. In fact, for almost 30,000 trips the best time to book was actually the day the flight first went on sale! And for a fraction of them (a tiny, tiny fraction) it was best to book at the very last minute. Looking for data on when to buy your international airline ticket? We’ve got you covered here.
The point is there is just no one magic number that you can rely on to create a calendar reminder x number of days in advance and know that that day is the best day to book. We can say, though, that there are some general rules that do usually hold up (except for super-busy holiday times where all the rules go out the window.)
As you move from the time a flight initially opens for sale, to the day the flight departs, we see a pattern of how fares change – typically starting off high, slowly coming down, and then a few weeks before flight time starting to climb, with a particularly sharp increase once you’re inside 14 days.
To make this easier to understand, we’ve divided the typical booking window of a flight into 5 booking “zones” which we are labeling “First Dibs” (6 ½ – 11 months out); “Peace of Mind” (3 ½ – 6 ½ months out); the “Prime Booking Window” (3 weeks – 3 ½ months out); the “Push Your Luck” (14 – 20 days out); and “Hail Mary” (0 – 13 days out). Here is some more information on each:
The “First Dibs” Zone
197-335 days out (approximately 6½ – 11 months)
Most airlines begin selling seats for flights 335 days out, or roughly 11 months in advance. In most cases, when flights first open for sale their fares are on the high side – and at some point in the future they are likely to come down. Still, the nice thing about buying flights early is that you have a full choice of flight options. All the flights are generally available so if you want a nonstop, or a flight at a specific time, you can usually have your pick if you book within this window. You also get first dibs on seat selection on most airlines which is important because fewer and fewer window and aisle seats are being made available without an extra charge. Early bookers have the best odds of snagging one of them.But these perks come at a cost. The lowest fares available for purchase 197-335 days out average about $50 more than those available during the “Prime Booking Window”, which is the least expensive time to buy.
The “Peace of Mind” Zone
113-196 days out (approximately 3½ – 6½ months)
If you don’t like the idea of paying a big premium to book in the “First Dibs” period, but you also want to relax and know your plans are firm well in advance of your trip, the “Peace of Mind” Zone might be for you. Travelers booking between 3 ½ and 6 ½ months in advance do pay a premium over the those buying in the “Prime Booking Window”, but it’s a modest premium, only about $20 more per ticket on average. And for that extra price you generally have more options to choose from, since by the time you get inside 3 months often the best flights are sold out at the lowest fares.
The “Prime Booking Window”
21-112 days out (approximately 3 weeks – 3 ½ – months)
If you’re a bargain hunter like most of us, your sweet spot is the “Prime Booking Window”, about 3 weeks to 3 ½ months in advance. We do a similar analysis every year and this window has been pretty consistent over time.Of course, 21 – 112 days out is a pretty big range –about 3 months. And we absolutely don’t want to suggest that there is no difference between buying your ticket 21 days in advance vs. buying it 112 days in advance vs. buying it at any other point in that window. During these 90 days, fares will likely fluctuate a lot. Don’t be surprised at all to see big swings, sometimes from day to day. Here’s the thing: we can’t promise you will necessarily get a good deal if you buy your ticket on any random day in this window. But we do suggest that you check fares frequently during this period because at some point during these 3 months the best fare is likely to pop up.
The “Push Your Luck” Zone
14-20 days out (2 – 3 weeks)
An interesting dynamic occurs right in the between the “Prime Booking Window” which ends about 3 weeks out and the “Hail Mary” Zone where you absolutely don’t want to be (inside of 14 days).
There is a week in the middle between 14 and 20 days out where circumstances can vary dramatically. There are times when you book in this window and you get hammered – flights are full and fares are through the roof. But other times you get lucky and there are actually some great fares comparable to the best fares offered months before. It really depends on how full the flights are.
If you’re thinking about chancing it, one very general rule of thumb is: the more popular your destination and the more popular your travel time, the less likely you are get lucky. Full flights are expensive flights. Going to New York for a week in the winter? You might find a great fare two weeks before. Going to Orlando for Spring Break? That’s much less likely.
The “Hail Mary” Zone
0-13 days out
Maybe you’ve heard a story of someone, somewhere who once booked a flight a day in advance and got a fantastic deal. And maybe you watched Aaron Rodgers throw that 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Jeff Janis to force overtime in the Divisional Playoff Game against the Cardinals. But just as almost all Hail Mary passes land incomplete, an overwhelming majority of last minute fare searches end in frustration.When you book your flight within 7 days of departure, you pay, on average, just under $200 more than if you booked during the “Prime Booking” window – and you’ll probably have only one flight time to choose from if you want to avoid paying even more. When you book between 7 and 13 days out, it’s a little better, but still you can expect at least a $75 premium on the cheapest flight, and often hundreds of dollars more on the best flights.
So regardless of what you may have heard about airlines having empty seats at the last minute that they practically “give away” – don’t believe it. We’ve seen a lot of people test out that theory and it just about never ends well.
It really would be nice if buying an airline ticket was like buying almost everything else: the price is the price, you buy whenever you’re ready. But unfortunately, things don’t work that way with airline tickets. It’s a unique marketplace, more like playing the stock market than anything else. We’ll keep collecting airfare data and we’ll do our best to keep finding useful information for you. But if you’re finding the process too stressful, drop us a note with your question or call our Customer Support Desk. We’ll do what we can to make it a little bit easier.
Want to do a little more research? Check out our When to Buy Flights page for thousands of cities.