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!

Save

Save

80 Comments

  1. 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?

    • 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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).

  3. 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!

    • 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!

  4. 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!

    • 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.

  5. 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

    • 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.

  6. 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

    • 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.

  7. 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?

    • 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.

  8. 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.

    • 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.

  9. 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?

    • 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.

  10. 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.

    • 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.

Post a Comment