The question comes up all the time: “Should I buy my tickets now for the summer, or do you think fares will drop if I wait?”

It’s a great question.  As many of you have noticed, air fares in general are pretty high right now.  In fact, the airlines have successfully raised domestic fares 6 times already since the beginning of the year.

Summer flights: buy now or wait?

In addition, they have significantly increased fuel surcharges on international flights, to the tune of $400 per round trip ticket for flights from the U.S. to Europe!

Over the next 6 months, odds are good that average fares will continue to go up.  Fuel, now over $100 per barrel, doesn’t look like it’s getting cheaper any time soon.  To cope, airlines are reducing their number of flights — Delta, United, Continental, and US Airways have all announced capacity cuts which means there will be less empty seats that airlines have to discount at the last minute.

But, even so, there are still plenty of airfare sales.  Although the discounts aren’t as deep as they were last year, the airlines have continued to offer deals in one form or another just about every week, and that is likely to continue.  For now, many of these sales only apply for flights through May or early June.  For example, in the New York to Los Angeles market, American’s lowest fare is $318 before tax for travel between now and June 8th.  But for travel in July, their lowest fare is $518 — a whopping $200 more.  This fare is likely to come down at some point as we get closer to July.  On the other hand, there are markets like Boston to San Francisco where American is offering a fare of $298 for travel through the end of the summer, which is likely as good a deal as there’s going to be.

So what should you do?

Here’s our advice:

1. Check early, check often

While now may not be the right time to buy, it is definitely the right time to start searching.  Start checking fares at least once a week, so you get a sense of what the market’s like and whether fares to your city are rising or falling.

2. Day of the Week Matters

It can make a big difference which day of the week you fly on.  For domestic travel, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are generally the least expensive days to fly.  Friday and Sunday are the most.  If you are flexible and can schedule your trip on these less expensive days, you can often save $40-$100 per ticket.  Even if you can only be flexible in one direction — that will be better than none.

3. Do Your Searching on Tuesdays

Believe it or not, some days are cheaper to buy flights than others.  While there are definitely exceptions, the most popular days for airline sales have lately been Mondays and Tuesdays.  If you are checking for fares every week, your best odds of finding a good deal will be to make Tuesdays your day to check.  Second best: Mondays.

4. Be Realistic

Fares in 2011 are higher than in 2009 or 2010.  If you wait around to find the same deal you got last year, you may be out of luck.  Fuel is almost twice as expensive and the economy is in at least somewhat better shape.  So expect to pay more.  On average, the lowest possible fare in each domestic market is $40 more than it was a year ago.

5. Don’t Wait too Long

The ideal time to buy an airline ticket is usually about 4-8 weeks before your trip for domestic travel — and 6-10 weeks for international.  One immutable fact, though, is that once a flight starts to fill up, it gets more and more expensive and there is nothing you can do about that.  So don’t wait too long.  Especially for domestic flights where many of the sales are flash, one day sales that are limited to only a handful of seats per plane.  If you do suddenly see a good fare on a flight you’ve been watching, we suggest you grab it before someone else does.  If you can’t buy it immediately, at least try to come back that same day, in case the fare increases overnight.

15 Comments

    • Hi Lynn, we’re standing by the data for now, Usually in May we update our data to adjust for later summer fluctuations.

  1. A flight for 2 in Jan 2011 just cost me $1000 and I’m trying to book it again for nov. It’s now $1800 and yes, Continental raised the price on a Tuesday.

    This is a ridiculous increase.

  2. I bought my tickets to Dublin, Inverness, back home to Tennessee after searching for two weeks. Thought I had the best prices. Two weeks later I saw the same trip for two for $300.00 cheaper. I guess you never know when the best prices ar out there. I guess Cheapair doesn’t guarantee the best price.

    • Leroy:

      We do guarantee the best price on the day you are booking, but you’re right that there is never a guarantee fares won’t go down a couple of weeks later. That said, if your fare went down by $300 per ticket, you are most likely entitled to a refund from the airline in the form of a travel credit, minus the airline’s reissue fee which is usually $150. You can contact the airline you are flying with to find out if you qualify, or you can contact our customer service department and we can look into it for you.

      Your point is well taken, though: buying airline tickets is a little like playing the stock market; it’s hard to time time things perfectly so you buy on that rock-bottom day. To come as close as possible, we suggest checking fares frequently beginning as far in advance as you can. Usually, there will be a point about 4-8 weeks before your flight where the price drops substantially from where it’s been. That’s generally a good time to buy.

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