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.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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!