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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80 Comments

  1. 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!

    • 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.

  2. 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!

    • 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.

  3. 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!

    • 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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?

    • 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.

  6. 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!

    • 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.

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

    • 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.

  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?

    • 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.

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