You may have noticed that airfares change all the time. A new airfare study crunched 921 million airfares from 2.9 million trips to find the best and worst times to buy an airline ticket. For the second consecutive year, the study found that 54 days out is, on average, when travelers can get the best deals on domestic flights. However, the best timing depends on when and where passengers fly.
CheapAir.com’s 2017 Annual Airfare Study found that the lowest fare for a given flight changes an average of 71 times between the time it's announced and the day the plane takes off. In other words, the price of a flight changes on average every 4.5 days. And with each change the lowest price went up or down by an average of $33. So, clearly, it matters a huge deal when you choose to pull the trigger on your flight purchase.
"People always ask why air fares have to be so crazy complicated," said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. "We try to share as much data and insight as we can to make the process a little less daunting." Klee added, "The most important rule is fairly obvious: don't wait until the last minute, as that rarely works out. But beyond that, you also want to be careful not to buy too early. I always suggest that travelers check fares early and often and get familiar with the market. Then, when you see a good deal pop up, grab it, because it likely won't last very long."
“Prime booking window” is where for most trips the best time to buy usually falls. For domestic fares, the prime booking window is between 21 and 105 days in advance.
The Airfare Study identifies five booking windows in which travelers buy flights which CheapAir has labeled:
"First Dibs" approximately 6 – 11 months in advance, when flights first open for sale and fares tend to be on the high side.
"Peace of Mind" 3½ – 6 months in advance, when fares are at a modest premium but options abound.
"Prime Booking Window" 3 weeks – 3½ months in advance, when airfares are the cheapest, on average. This is typically the best time to buy airline tickets.
"Push Your Luck" 2 – 3 weeks in advance, fares can vary dramatically but are often rising significantly, particularly as flights fill to popular destinations.
"Hail Mary" 0 – 2 weeks in advance, this is when airfares are highest, on average $150 more than booking in CheapAir.com's "Prime Booking Window."
CheapAir.com also examined whether the day of the week you click "purchase" makes a difference. The study found that there is on average less than a 0.6% (less than $2) difference between purchase days of week. However, the day of the actual flight is a different matter. Tuesday and Wednesday are the cheapest days to fly, and Sunday is the most expensive, with an average difference of $73.
When to Buy Summer Flights
Many Americans take their one “big trip” of the year during the summer months. Because demand is higher, you’ll want to approach summer travel research and airline ticket purchase a bit more aggressively (hint, hint: don’t wait too long). Here are a few tips to help you score a sweet price on a summer airline ticket (or 3!)
Buy a little earlier. The average best time to buy is 76 days, or about 2.5 months in advance.
Prime Booking Window is 21 – 140 days from travel. In this pricey season, one positive is that the Prime Booking Window starts earlier than in other seasons and you can still get good fares later in the season if you are willing to be flexible with airlines, flight times and number of connections.
The difference between the best and worst priced days is a whopping $250!
When to Buy Flights in the Fall
You have a little extra time to consider your flight plans if you’re traveling in the fall. In addition, fall is an overall good value for leisure travel. The one exception is Thanksgiving week travel, when airfares are at a premium and tend to sell out quickly. Purchase Thanksgiving airfare on the early side for the best prices.
If you’re traveling in the fall, you can probably wait a bit longer to book air tickets. The best time to buy is 47 days out, about 7 weeks in advance.
Prime Booking Window is 21 – 91 days from travel.
No surprises here – the worst time to buy your airline ticket in the fall is the week before you’re traveling. If you wait until the day before your trip, you can expect to fork over a painful $270 more than the best priced day.
When to Buy Winter Flights
Other than the peak holiday travel dates around Christmas and New Years, winter can be a great time to get a good deal. (We will cover the holidays in another post.) For general winter travel:
54 days from your expected travel date is the best time to buy an affordable airline ticket in the winter months.
Prime Booking Window is 21 – 86 days from travel.
The difference between the best and worst priced day is $275
When to Buy Spring Flights
Springtime is a bit tricky. On the one hand, there are no major travel holidays to drive up prices on specific dates. On the other hand, “spring break” dates cover March through April and inspire travel from college students and families with kids alike. So, in general, planning ahead is key for snagging better prices.
2.5 months (75 days) from your travel date is the optimal time to buy airfare for spring air travel.
Prime Booking Window is 21 – 105 days from travel. Because you have a larger window to get the best fares, buying early is not a gamble.
The difference between the best and worst priced day is a (relatively moderate) $224. If you tend to procrastinate, you’ll come out better financially in the spring months.
For specific buying guidance, travelers can enter their route into CheapAir.com's When to Buy Flights widget. For all flights, CheapAir.com offers Price Drop Payback™, which reimburses customers with a travel voucher up to $100 per ticket if their fare drops before the trip.