Should I wait to book my flight? 5 things you need to know now about booking last minute airfare

The number one question we get from airline ticket customers is “when should I buy my airline ticket?” We spend a ton of time every year analyzing the data to show you the best time to buy both domestic and international airline tickets.

last minute flights

Once people read what we’ve got to say on this subject, the follow-up question is invariably, “Ok. I read what you guys said and I’ve done my research. I found a good fare. But should I wait to buy?” Our advice is always to buy when you think you’ve got a good fare. Not the BEST fare. Buying an airline ticket can be confusing and stressful in and of itself. No one wants to feel like they’re buying too early or missing out on a deal that is going to be coming around the corner if they just wait a little bit longer. Here’s the nitty gritty, to help you navigate these treacherous airfare waters:

  1. The numbers of fares that are lowest just before the travel date are tiny. Like, a fraction of a fraction kind of tiny. We analyzed close to 3 million travel itineraries last year and found that 54 days out was about the best time to buy for domestic tickets. But 53, 52, 45 and 60 days also were pretty good times to get deals. There were quite a few itineraries that were never better priced than the very first day they went on sale (11 months out) from travel. So the absolutely best time to buy is a real mixed bag. The one constant is that waiting too long will almost always mean you pay more. The data doesn’t lie.
  2. Ok. So, maybe I’ll pay a little more you might be saying. But how much more? Our data shows on average customers who book their ticket 0-7 days from their travel date pay $200 more than if you booked during the best time to buy – what we call the “prime booking window.” Ouch! The prime booking window is approximately 3 weeks to 3.5 months from your travel dates and why wouldn’t you take advantage of saving $200 bucks?
  3. There is a value in choice which gets more limited when you wait until the last minute to purchase. Not only does waiting mean you pay an average of $200 more per ticket, but you’re also virtually guaranteed to be stuck with less attractive flight times and less convenient schedules (long connections) at those prices. The better flights (if they are still available) can be expected to have much higher price tags, often hundreds of dollars more than the “ugly” flights. Ugh.
  4. Are you waiting for a last minute sale to save you some cash? Don’t bet on it. What you think of as a sale airfare and what the airlines do is a very different thing. Algorithms generally set airline pricing these days and this science is very specific. Sadly for us, it doesn’t include flash sales and bargain basement prices for waiting. You see, plenty of people will pony up for a last minute fare (usually business travelers less constrained by budgets), so those last minute fire sales are largely a fiction. A hopeful story we like to tell ourselves, but not based in reality. Usually, sale airfares are restricted to specific dates (and almost always including black out dates for major holiday travel seasons).
  5. Still not convinced? The best airfares are only available until they are sold out. So if you have a plane that is half empty a week before departure, there could conceivably be a sale. But you have to use common sense when shopping. If you’re going to North Dakota in January, you might see some good fares close to your travel dates. If you’re flying to Miami in the height of cruise season, London in July or to southern California in the summertime you’re going to want to buy early. Those popular times and destinations mean that demand will be high and prices will not be low the later you wait.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Last minute airfares are simply not a good gamble. We always recommend searching early and often and booking (so you get a sense of price fluctuations) and then booking as soon as you see a good fare. Aiming for the BEST fare is just going to be frustrating and frankly, it’s impossible. In the airfare shopping game aim for peace of mind – knowing that you got a fare that is attractive, will afford you a good itinerary with comfortable connection and flight times. If you wait, know that someone else is going to scoot in and nab that fare you passed over. And it might never reappear. We like to suggest the conservative/early bird approach when airline ticket shopping for maximum satisfaction and savings. Good luck and happy travels!

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68 Comments

  1. Hello, I’m looking to book 2 business class seats from Toronto to Lyon in August 2016. I’ve found fares on BA (C$2100/seat) and Lufthansa (C$2500/seat), which both seem like good deals to me depending on which airline I end up choosing. Should I be waiting until the new year to book or should I pull the trigger now? Thanks.

    1. Hi Naz, The good news for you is that there is much less volatility in Business Class fares, but there are much more limited number of tickets available for any one flight. It’s probably a good idea to buy sooner rather than later, though you do probably have ample time to wait if you’d like to do so…summertime in Europe is high season for North American travelers so don’t wait too long (January might be about as late as you should wait).

    2. I am planning two trips, one is for a party of 12 (10 adults, 2 children) to Cozumel from June 15-22. We can fly out of EVV, SDF, or BNA, in that order of preference. We do not want to fly into CUN. We prefer CZM. Apps I have say to wait, but I don’t feel as though it is taking into account the large party! Do you have any advice on what I should do to be most cost efficient, yet get decent flight times with minimal layovers and minimal stops due to traveling with small children? We have been to many countries together, and I am still trying to figure out the best way to keep myself sane, and be as kind to my pocketbook as possible!
      That second trip will be two adults and two children (3 and 5) to PUJ from EVV preferably, but will consider SDF. We are traveling March 25-April 1, and again, would prefer flights without long layovers nor with multiple stops. Thank you so much, I don’t even know if this thread is closed, but am hopeful someone can help. Thank you.

      1. Hi Paige, If you have 10+ seats to buy on a particular flight ALWAYS go straight to the airline. They will beat any pricing out there (because theu can sell you a group ticket). Your best best for the Punta Cana trip is to check out Delta’s flights. There are no nonstops, but they do have the best connections and least convoluted itineraries. I see flights for $650-750 on Delta. We’re getting very close to your travel dates and the fares reflect spring break business – don’t wait!

    1. Hi there Mels, We are recommending booking about 2.5 months out for Mexican destinations in 2016, but the short answer is “we can’t say for sure where the fares will go.” Mexico is another big country so it maters what destinations you’re targeting (is it something traditionally thought of as a leisure destination or something less impacted by things like high and low seasonality and holidays. History tells us that fares tend to inch higher year over year, but when you’re going, what day of the week you plan to travel (mid-week is better than weekends, for example) and how flexible you are about things like connecting flights versus nonstops (nonstops will be more expensive), will impact the price you pay. Good luck to you.

    1. Hello, Our airfare intelligence is for the outbound North American traveler (most of our customers are from the U.S. and Canada) and we do not track data for any other outbound countries, unfortunately. Google flights may have information that can help you with trip planning, as they tend to track much more data than we do. Good luck to you!

  2. Would you recommend booking now in Dec 2016 for a trip to New York in May 2017? Can prices still go lower? The price I’m looking at for a MNL/NYC – LAX/MNL trip is USD 720. Is this a good deal? Should I book now?

    1. Hi Kristine, That does sound like quite a good deal. It is hard to say 100% (only because we are based in the United States so are most equipped to answer outbound travel questions). But a round trip flight from new York to Manila at that cost would be considered a good fare.

  3. Should I book my flight now in dec 2016 for travel in may 2017 to San juan, puerto rico or should I wait until January 2017 to book?

    1. Hi Mary, You can probably wait until January unless you’re seeing excellent fares right now. We always offer conservative advice and getting a “good” fare is a better than waiting for some ephemeral “best fare” that may never reveal itself. Puerto Rico is considered part of our “domestic” fare study and so this year there’s a typical range of 2 weeks to 4 months where you can usually find the best fares to any domestic city.

  4. Six of us are going from Buffalo to Vegas in May, do you think the price of airfare will go down? It has gone up $30 this week from about $460 to $490 roundtrip.

    1. Hi Mike, I wish we could use a crystal ball and tell you for sure. here are a couple of things you might explore to help you answer this question. Vegas flights are very reasonable much of the time. Since you mentioned May, I would look to make sure that you’re not flying in during a big event in Vegas (a flight or comic convention, for example). Otherwise, Memorial Day weekend will probably be expensive. Other than that, it’s reasonable to expect flights might dip back down a bit (maybe even a lot) as we get closer to your dates of travel. But if you see a slow and steady climb, I’d buy sooner rather than later.

    1. Hi Steve, If you’re flying domestically and not anytime during Thanksgiving week, you probably can afford to wait 3-4 months out. If you’re making Thanksgiving plans, you ought to start the search now.

  5. Booking Columbus Oh to either Fort Lauderdale or Miami for a trip to the Keys for July. I have a family of 6 we need flights for. When is the best time to book? Allegiant is showing $222 but after carry on at $36 each the total $1500. Other airlines are showing $284 but carry on is free. I’m hoping the tickets will go down but scared to wait. Allegiant has bounced back and forth $200 a couple times already. Would prefer to fly another airline but need the best rate with a family of 6.

    1. Hi Heidi, Yes you are in a bit of a bind because of the number of tickets required. Quite honestly, I would not wait. You need 6 tickets and it will be tough to get all 6 the longer you wait. July is a very popular travel month and because of this, pricing is at premium levels. The likelihood of fares going down is not great – it’s a gamble to wait.

  6. Booking a trip from EWR to SFO June 30 to July 5 2017. Fares are up and down and with the United incident they appear the least expensive. Fare we are looking at is $490. Do we book or do we wait?

    1. Hi Karen, If you were not looking to travel over for the 4th of July, I might tell you to wait. You can sometimes get fares for under $400 from EWR to SFO. Because you are looking at one of the busiest travel weeks of the summer, I might not gamble on the fares going down. As a side note, should you book through our site and the fare does go down, we do offer a feature called “price drop payback” that offers a credit for future travel up to $100 per ticket. Good luck to you!

  7. Going to St. Thomas may 31. Lots of seats available. Should I wait. Will the rate drop if they don’t sell some seats?

    1. Hi Chris, It’s a good question but not one I can answer easily. Generally speaking, the airlines are extremely good at predicting flight loads and how many people will bite at each fare level. It is definitely possible that fares will go down, but it’s almost unheard of inside of 2 weeks. I might watch those flights VERY CAREFULLY for the next week or so and plan to buy as SOON as you see a dip in fare. Remember, this is a numbers game and there are doubtless many others watching for a deal as well (especially if this flight has a favorable itinerary). It may be that the fare you’re seeing will seem inexpensive to a number of last minute buyers (and there may be other, even more expensive tickets on this same flight). If you are vigilant about keeping your eyes peeled, you might catch some incremental savings. On the other hand, if the fare is generally in the “good” range already, we wouldn’t advise you tempt fate.

  8. Hi,

    Looking at flying Toronto to Cancun in October 2017. When would be the best time to book? Rate at $481(CAD) round trip at the moment. Do you think it’ll drop as we get a little closer?

    1. Hi Scott,

      Depending on when you go in October can impact pricing, with early October being more expensive. With that said, a good price for a flight from Toronto to Cancun would be around $350 USD, and you’re pretty close to that. Based on this, we’d recommend booking sooner than later. Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir.com if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  9. Hello,
    I will like to travel to Ghana, West Africa in December for 30days. When is the best time to purchase a ticket? Thanks

    1. Hi John,

      Being that you’re looking for December, we’d recommend checking flights now to get a good sense of the costs. Depending on your departure and exact travel dates, you may want to book sooner than later… especially if you’re traveling during the peak holiday season. Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir.com if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  10. Whoops-inadvertent send! For a price of $573 from Chicago ORD to Belize City BZA in January 2018, would you wait for a better price or bite the bullet and purchase now? Thanks!

    1. Hi Abby, After doing a careful search of the available fares it seems that the $573 fare is a pretty great rate for your dates. I see a smattering of cheaper fares (one set of dates in September dip below $500), but by and large $573 is about the lowest fare out there for a wide range of dates. That usually means it’s the sweet spot. You could wait until we get closer to travel dates, but, in general, fares go up the closer you get to travel dates.

  11. I am planning to go to Chicago from Baltimore, then Chicago to Phoenix, and back to Baltimore in October.
    I was getting ready to purchase my tickets when I see a news report that says: Tickets go down substantially if you wait til August 22. Now articles on the internet say wait til August 23. Am I better off purchasing now or waiting til August 22 or 23?

    1. Hi Adrienne,

      It is true that fares for fall and winter can drop towards the end of summer, but when that exactly will be isn’t a set date. Due to this we would recommend checking the fares now to get a good sense of the costs. If you can somewhat flexible with your travel dates in October, you can find the best deals for your routes. Typically traveling on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Saturday tend to be cheaper than flying on the more popular days Friday, Sunday, and Monday. Definitely keep in mind that some airlines will appear cheap, but take into account bag fees too. And if you’re worried about booking too early, when you purchase flights with CheapAir.com if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

    1. Hi Jessica,

      Travel to Hawaii during the summer is considered peak season, so it would be smart to plan ahead and book well in advance. Depending on where you’re departing from, you can sign up for our FareTracker alerts to get notified when the fares change for your route. This is a good tip to stay on top of the fare changes. We’d recommend checking the fares often to get a good sense of the costs. Since you’re traveling for a wedding and have fixed dates, booking early in 2018 would be wise. Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir.com if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

  12. We’re traveling to Belize at the end of January and it looks like I may get a lower fare by waiting until November to book. My only concern is, will we definitely be able to get seats on our required dates? The rest of the trip is fully reserved as it requires advance booking and would not be fully refundable 60 days out. We are flying out of a small airport (San Luis Obispo, CA) transferring at LAX. I’d hate to be pennywise and pound foolish by waiting to reserve flights and find that we can’t find what we need.

    1. Hi Holly, I wish we had a 100% foolproof strategy for you. The concerning part of your message is the fact that the rest of your trip is already locked down. I’m not sure the gamble is worth waiting… fares tend to go up the closer we get to travel dates not down. i’m not sure of the specifics that make you think you will get a lower fare by waiting until November – I would recommend buying sooner. It’s not worth the gamble to save a few extra dollars if the seats might be gone. It’s probably worth a call to the airline to see how the specific flight you’re looking at is selling – sometimes agents will offer advice.

  13. so glad i found this website! Was wondering if I could get some advice on a trip i’m planning from San Jose, CA to Pensacola, FL. I plan to leave March 23, 2017 and come back April 1st, right now the cheapest tickets are from $700-800+, should I wait to get tickets or purchase now?? Thank you!

    1. Hi Lillian, Those fares sound very high. I see a fare on Delta for your dates at just under $600. I’m not sure if the fares will go lower than this – I think the best strategy for you would be to watch and wait – if the fares start to go up, you will want to buy quickly.

    1. In 2017, we recommend about 3 months out as being the optimal time to buy flights to destinations in Asia: https://www.cheapair.com/blog/travel-tips/when-should-you-book-an-international-flight/. Next year the recommendation could be different. We will be coming out with our “When to Buy” study in the early part of 2018. lease check back for updates after the first of the year. Until then, we always recommend tracking fares early and often to assure a good price.

  14. Do you think it is possible that air companies add more flights for the Christmas holidays season, which would mean a potential small reduce in price?
    I am talking about european destinations (London to Greece), if you have any experience on these.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Dimi, It does happen though we never recommend people hold out until the last minute in hopes of an additional flight opening up. Usually demand drives the addition of last minute flights. It’s usually better to buy your flights anywhere from 2.5 weeks to 4 months out (that’s the sweet spot for finding good fares). Christmas is a bit of an unusual case and we usually recommend buying on the early side. The prices are already at a premium for the holidays, and tend to only get more so the closer we get to Christmas week.

  15. Hi. I am planning to travel Boston-Sofia thru Istanbul in mid January. I was wondering if the prices will go a little bit down after Christmas or they won’t go down anymore since is a very short window of 2 1/2 weeks? Thank you!

    1. Hi Nick, This close to international travel, I would not expect those fares to go down at all. Once we are within 2 weeks of departure, you’ll probably see the fares jump up quite a bit. Buy now, if you haven’t already.

  16. Hi. We’re traveling from PDX to MCO 4/9-4/20. Our prime booking window is about 15 days away. The non-stop flights have been cheaper or right at the same price as the ones that have 1 stop. I know you recommend a good price and not the best price. I’m wondering if I should buy now or wait until our prime booking window for a cheaper price. Do all flights go down in price during the prime booking window or only select flights?

    Any help or advice you have, would be greatly appreciated as I’ve been watching rates daily for about a month now.

    1. Hi Destiney, The prime booking window is based on averages of many fares to a variety of domestic destinations. Every spot is slightly different (though the prime booking window is a good general rule). Our advice is always to get you a good fare, as you said not necessarily the BEST fare. Lots of times people wait and wait for the BEST fare and it passes them by because no one knows exactly what that BEST fare is. If you see a good fare now (and you’ll know because you’ve been watching fares for a while), we always recommend hopping on it and not waiting.

  17. Hi. I want to buy two round-trip tickets from New Delhi, India to EWR, USA. The month of travel is flexible. It can be anywhere between end of April and end of May depending on when the fares are cheaper. I would prefer a short travel time, if possible less than 20 hours because my parents are the ones traveling. Should I book now or should I wait?

    1. Hi Cheree, The bulk of our airfare data is for outbound U.S. travel (we are based) here, so it is hard to make too specific of recommendations for someone traveling inbound to the U.S. You’re not traveling in the high season months for travel (June-August), so that’s a plus for you. Fares are under $800 for both months at the moment (not a bad price) but that fare is for flights with more like a 30 hour total flight time (the most attractive itineraries are always a bit more expensive). There are flights available for around 20 hours, but you will expect to pay $800-900 for those. You definitely should buy soon.

  18. Hi, I’m planning to buy a return flight from Amsterdam to San Diego from the 19th – 23rd July. When is the best date, or how far out should I wait before buying it? Tried to buy it this month, but price increased from last month. Thanks.

    1. Hi Isaac, the summer months are always priced at a premium and July is the busiest travel month overall for most Americans. Once prices start to climb, they do not typically go back down. Our conservative advice would be to buy soon.

  19. Hi, I want to book two flights from Porto, POrtugal to Boston for the first week of August. How long should I wait until the fares go up?

    1. Hi Kristen, It’s a little hard to say. We don’t have inbound airfare intelligence for flights to the United States. Our company is based in California and our customer base is North American, so we primarily deal with outbound travel. I can say that the summer months tend to be a busy (translation: expensive) time for travel since a lot of people do tend to take their holidays in the summer months. For that reason, I would advise buying earlier rather than later.

  20. What do you think is a good time to buy an off-season flight to Munich?
    I’m currently in XNA, but the plan is to buy XNA->LGA, then a JFK->MUC ticket.
    Dates are September 28 to October 3.

    Currently the tickets are decently priced, total RT for both tickets will cause around $880.
    If I can actually do 3 RT tickets, XNA->LGA, JFK->CPH/STO, CPH/STO->MUC, it would cost me even less, around $800.

    But do you recommend I wait till the suggested 50-60 day timeframe?
    I’m not in a rush to buy the tickets, but I don’t think the prices will go up? I plan on going with just a backpack so a carry-on or checked bag isn’t needed.

    Cheers,
    Koko

    1. Hi there Koko, To be honest the price you’re seeing now is probably about as good as it’s going to get for your itinerary. I assume you’re allowing ample time between LGA and JFK (wouldn’t want you to miss your flight, after all). Getting from LGA to JFK can be a multi-hour extravaganza (hehehe) depending on what time you’re trying to navigate the city. You may be able to find a less expensive ticket for your domestic flights by waiting a bit longer, but it’s also Oktoberfest in Munich so the fares are not likely to go down (it seems like off-season, but Oktoberfest is NO JOKE). Munich is the cultural center of that celebration for Germans so you can expect flights to be as expensive as summer fares. I think $800 is a very good price. Hop on it.

  21. Hi, I’m going to Jamaica from Charlotte, NC December 30, 2018 to January 2nd, 2019 over New Years. Tickets went from about $600 to well over $900 in the past month. Do you think this comes back down at all? I know we are still 8 months out but it is over a holiday. I’d like to wait until the 2-3 month window but I also don’t want to get completely shut out either. Is there a big risk of losing out completely or will there almost always be seats? Thanks

    1. Hi Tom, It’s hard to say since (as you mentioned) we’re still quite a ways out. If we were within a couple of months of travel I’d say they are unlikely to come back down. It may be worth a call to the airline to find out how much of the flight is booked. If they tell you it’s over half full (for example) this means that the lower priced seats have all gone and you’re less likely to see the rest of the tickets at the price you had seen previously. If they tell you the plane is mostly empty as of yet, the price might just be bouncing around a bit.

  22. Hi! I’m going to Newport Beach, CA from SFO Aug3-5 (Fri-Sun). The best fare I found is JetBlue into LGB ($58/Fri + $88/Sun, $146). I haven’t flown in about 10 years so I’m not sure if this is a good fare. I know JetBlue has flash sales but usually Fri/Sun are excluded. Should I wait and see? Or buy the first leg and hope for a cheaper return flight? Thanks!

    1. Hi Karen, These fares are pretty, pretty good (we feel confident with the time we have left and the fact that you’re flying in summertime that the fare is likely to go up, not down). Don’t wait! If you purchase through CheapAir.com and the fare does happen to go back down, we’ll reimburse you up to $100 per ticket with our price drop payback feature.

  23. My husband and I are planning to visit Yellowstone for 10-14 days somewhere between 05/19/2019-06/08/2019. We are starting this early because we hear this destination is so popular it books really fast. This is a dream vacation for us. We would like to fly out of Philadelphia, PA (we can also do MD or NY) into Denver, Co.; then, trek the 9 hour drives to WY (kinda of splitting visiting between CO and WY). We are even up to renting an RV. Then at the end of our trip fly out from WY/MT. Can you give us any suggestions as to when we can start booking flights, hotels, etc? *We orignally wanted to do this in May of 2018; however, found it hard to find reasonable accomodations when we started searching in Janruary of 2018.* Any help is greatly appreciated, Thanks!

    1. Hi Trinity, It is probably not too early to be researching – it’s true that Yellowstone books out quite far. However, where you are considering staying is going to impact when you should book. Although it’s not our forte, if you are considering sleeping in the park (at campgrounds or cabins) you might already be too late for next year (not sure about that, but I do know things can book out quite far in the national parks). If you are considering hotels, you should probably wait a while (maybe start a serious search around the holidays). Because you are traveling in May, you will be avoiding the height of summer tourist season, so that’s a plus. If you had a hard time finding reasonable accommodations in January, maybe look even sooner – in the fall or late summer just to start keeping a close eye on availability and price. The airlines load their fares about 11 months out. I would imagine you’ll start to see flights populating for May 19 at the end of this month. Southwest does not keep to the 11 month rule, so if you are planning to fly Southwest you’ll have to wait until November (they load fares about 6 months out). Good luck on our search – let us know if we can offer additional help!

  24. Hi, my family of 6 (4 kids 16-8) are planning a trip to Disney in Dec. The best price I’ve seen so far traveling basic round trip is 2,138. I know it’s still a ways so not sure if it would be smart to wait for not.

    1. Hi Tabatha, What dates in December are you considering? If you are looking at dates between Dec 20 – January 2 or 3 I would probably buy now (even though it is early, you are booking for a big family and assume you all want to be seated together). If the flights are in the early part of the month, you can probably wait a while. Early December is somewhat of shoulder season (though if we are talking about Orlando and not Anaheim, again you’re probably better off buying early than later).

  25. Hi
    I am looking for a return ticket from Toronto to Vienna for July 23 ( a bit flexible there). Right now I can’t find anything bellow 1330.00. Is it smart to wait for another week or I shouldn’t be expecting it to go down any lower?

    1. Hi Nick, There’s not a good chance of the fares going down once we are this close to travel. Book as soon as you can. The prices will probably go up.

  26. Hi there!

    I’ve heard that prices drop around Monday or Tuesday every week but I’m looking to book a flight from Finland to Canada for mid-August (which is approaching soon). If there’s only about a month left until the departure date, will prices still be dropping a the beginning of the week?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Maggie,

      Based on your routing and dates, we’d recommend buying sooner than later. The prices are likely to only rise as we get closer to your departure date. Keep in mind, when you purchase flights with CheapAir if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you back the difference in the form of a travel voucher for up to $100 per ticket! Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights.

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