We spent a lot of time over the last year doing a huge study on flight booking patterns and we concluded that the best time to book a flight is 54 days in advance, on average. We also found that booking too early or too late could cause you to pay more than you have to and that the “prime booking window” where the best fares are available usually ranges from 29 to 104 days before departure.
All of this is generally great advice.
Except when it isn’t.
Importantly, there are some exception circumstances where you might want to forget about the “don’t book too early” warning and book your flight much earlier than 54 days in advance. The main reason is that, in order for prices to drop, there needs to be a decent number of seats left on a flight; otherwise, airlines have no need to discount them. If you’re traveling to an especially popular destination at an especially popular time, flights might fill up well before what is normally the prime booking window. That gives airlines the luxury of never having to put those flights on sale.
Flights to Florida for Spring Break are a great example. If you want to travel on weekends, especially, reasonably priced seats on those flights can be extremely hard to come by. Also, flights to Europe for the summer. In that case, we actually found that the best time to buy was 319 days in advance! And the best day to buy domestic flights for both the Thanksgiving and Christmas periods was June 4th, 5 months before Thanksgiving and 6 months before Christmas.
The simple fact is that where and when you’re going makes a huge difference. Popular vacation destinations are more likely to sell out and, for that reason, it’s best to book earlier. For example, for Ft. Lauderdale, Phoenix, Orange County, San Diego, West Palm Beach, Pensacola, and Orlando the average best time to buy was actually 75 days in advance. For Vegas, it was 81. Hawaii (all airports), 87. These are all 3-5 weeks earlier than the general average of 54.
If your destination is a small airport with limited service on a small number of airlines, you are also at higher risk if you wait too long. There is often not enough competition to these cities to encourage the fare sales that play a big role in driving fares down in other markets.
For both reasons above — they are popular and there is less air service to them — it’s usually better to book international flights further in advance than you would book a domestic ticket. Our study revealed that the best time to buy flights to the South Pacific was 70 days out, on average. To Africa it was 166 days out. For Mexico it was 89 days, Europe 151, Asia 129, and the Caribbean 101.
Average Best Time to Buy International Flights
Price vs. Convenience
The other important point to consider when deciding when to buy your ticket is that there is usually a trade-off between price and convenience. Our study was very much focused on simply the lowest price. We measured, for every purchase day for every trip, the lowest possible fare in the market, without regard to airline, time, number of stops, or other convenience factors. Sometimes there was a choice of flights at different times that offered the same “lowest fare.” Other times, there were only a few options, or only one. We have customers tell us all the time, “I don’t care how I get there, strap me to the wing if you have to, I just want cheap!” Our study was particularly well-suited for those customers. On the other hand, for those who care deeply about what airline you fly, what time you fly, or whether you are going nonstop (and there are millions of you out there), it is best to book earlier than someone who is more flexible, because as time goes by you have a shrinking pool of options to choose from, even if the lowest possible fare stays around the same.
General Ticket Buying Strategies
It’s Better to Buy Too Early Than Too Late
One last thing to consider when you’re trying to decide when to pull the trigger. While you are frequently not well served by booking too early or too late, of the two “too late” is much worse. For domestic flights in 2013, those who booked before the prime booking window of 29-104 days in advance paid an average of $33 more per ticket than those who booked within that window. But those who booked too late paid an average of $73 more per ticket.
The Airlines’ Last Laugh
Finally, we spent a lot of time researching what people should do, and when we finished we thought it would be fun to see what our customers actually did do. Looking at bookings on CheapAir.com in 2013, we found that only 34% bought within the prime booking window. The number who bought earlier than that was tiny, only 5%. That means a whole bunch of customers, 61% to be exact, booked their trips within 28 days of travel, too late to get the best fare. 36% even broke our cardinal rule and waited until inside of two weeks.
No wonder the airlines are making more money than ever!