We recently released a study where we told you that, on average, the best time to buy domestic airline tickets is 47 days before your flight. Many customers have asked us, “Does the same rule apply for international flights?”
It’s a good question, so we ran some numbers and looked at fares for 1,926,320 international trips across all of 2014, covering 3,184 markets and 73 international destinations. The results were markedly different than what we found for domestic flights.
Domestic flights tend to start out on the high side and slowly drop for a while. The lowest domestic fares are typically offered between one and four months in advance. Once you get inside of that month, fares tend to climb.
In contrast, the lowest international fares are found by booking a lot earlier. On most airlines, international flights open up for sale 335 days before departure, and our study found that they don’t typically drop that much from their initial price. Instead, they stay fairly flat for a few months, then start to creep up slowly, until about 90 days before departure when the pace of increase starts to accelerate.
Whereas with domestic flights you can often get a decent deal up until about a month before departure, with international flights that is the case much less often. Three months in advance, instead of one month, marks the end of the period in which you’d generally get the best price.
Of course, there are all sorts of caveats and we are painting with a pretty broad brush here. “International” covers a lot of different countries in a lot of different regions, and to some extent every market is different. If we break our study down by region, we find that the Canadian market is almost identical to the U.S. market – 47 days in advance is best, on average. Central and South America had the best fares 96 days out; the Caribbean 144; and the rest of the world was over 7 months. This includes the Middle East (213 days); the South Pacific (244 days); Mexico (251 days); Europe (276 days); and Africa (262 days). Asia is the region where the most advance purchase is optimal – the lowest fares to Asia were found a whopping 318 days in advance!
Another dynamic in play with international flights is seasonality. Even more so than with domestic flights, demand for international flights during the peak summer season is much stronger than the rest of the year. As a result, summer flights tend to fill up more quickly. Because flights generally get more expensive as they fill, this means that you are better off booking international flights for the summer even earlier than the averages above. Conversely, if you’re travelling in the off-season there isn’t the same degree of urgency and you are more likely to be okay waiting longer.
The seasonality effect is particularly pronounced in the Europe market where, on average, the best time to buy your summer fares is right when they go on sale (11 months in advance). By seven months in advance the lowest available fare is already $100 more on average; by 60 days in advance it is $150 more.
There are a lot of numbers here, and a lot of generalizations. Similar to domestic flight data, to some extent every trip is different and circumstances vary depending on where you’re going and your exact travel dates. The key takeaway, though, is that with international flights you are much more likely to miss out on a good fare by booking too late than for domestic flights — and much less likely to regret booking too early. The majority of international routes have a relatively small number of flights and, while prices change frequently, the price fluctuations are driven more by availability changes (i.e. flights filling up and getting more expensive because of it) than by sales coming and going (which are common for domestic flights and tend to move fares both up and down). That doesn’t mean that sales and price drops never happen for international flights or that good deals can never be had at the last minute. It just means that those are both less common – especially when you’re flying in the summer.