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The Best and Worst Days to Fly

clock calendarAirfares jolt up and down like a plane caught in turbulence. The airlines use computer systems to calculate ticket prices based on a complicated mix of factors, including competition, demand, the state of the economy, seasonality, taxes, the number of views on a YouTube cat video -- you name it. Ergo, it's nearly impossible to predict exactly where ticket prices will fall on any given day of the year. A quick search on the US Airways Web site turned up flights from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale that cost anywhere from $398 to $588 on different days during the same week in February.

Discount Airfare Deals

I'm not a betting woman (when I'm not on a cruise ship, that is), so I decided to tackle the mystery of plane ticket prices. Thanks to a handful of Web sites that compile data based on everything from direct bookings to historical studies of published fares, it's possible to analyze fare models and get at least a rough idea of the best and worst times to fly during the year. Use this information to figure out when a potential flight will cost you top dollar -- and when you can fly for a song.

The Worst Days to Fly

Christmas and New Year's
The Christmas and New Year's holiday travel window is more or less a 17-day period that overlaps the two holidays by about five or six days, according to statistics gathered from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Peak days always depend on when the weekends fall in relation to the holidays, since lots of people want to travel over convenient long weekends. This year's holiday travel window should last from December 21 through January 6. Now, this gives you at least a rough idea of when you can expect to see higher fares and airports packed with frantic Yuletide fliers. Various fare sale holiday blackout dates will likely deviate from the BTS model, so check with your airline or booking site to see if you can fly cheaply within this window.

In all likelihood, you probably can. An American Airlines Europe fare sale running right now features travel dates ranging from December through spring, with blackout dates falling December 17 through 24. The sale actually includes discounted week-of-Christmas fares: Depart on December 26, 27 or 28 and fly from Hartford to London from as little as $166 each way before taxes.

As this AA Europe sale demonstrates, it's not unusual to see flights departing on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve and sometimes the days immediately following or preceding the holiday that are cheaper than departures a few days out. Hence the most popular, and therefore most expensive, Christmas travel dates this year are those farther out from the festive day, yet still within that holiday travel window. According to data from Travelocity, average fares are most expensive for roundtrip flights departing on December 19 and returning on December 30. Here's the chart:

travelocity chart

Spring Break
Spring break peak travel dates vary by destination, but generally extend from late February through the beginning of April. Most colleges and universities have spring break in March or even early February, while families with school-age children have spring break around Easter, which is usually in the beginning of April. Watch out for higher fares to beach and family destinations like Florida and the Caribbean during this time.

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If you're visiting a destination that attracts the college set, such as Cancun, Punta Cana or Nassau, but you're hell-bent on avoiding "bikini contests, wet T-shirt contests, male hardbody contests, porn stars, movie stars, rock stars, rap stars," as spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida is described on TripSmarter.com, here's a tip. Take a look at this chart on the TripSmarter site, which outlines the 2012 spring break dates for American colleges and universities. Avoid planning your beach vacation around those dates -- unless, that is, you're down for a wild time.

beach bagSummer
Summer is high season for myriad destinations and accordingly, fares are driven higher by demand. The crest of summer travel is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, during which fares to most U.S., Canadian and European destinations are at their peak. Three-day weekends around summer holidays like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July are particularly expensive times to fly.

According to BTS, 97 percent of U.S. summer trips are to domestic destinations. June 2012 flights between Los Angeles and New York are roughly 35 percent more expensive than those in January of the same year, according to a search on Kayak.com.

Likewise, fares from the U.S. to Europe skyrocket, pun intended, in warmer months. Historically, we've seen incredible price jumps between winter and summer airfares across the pond, caused by not just high demand, but also route cuts and economic factors. In summer 2011, fares to Europe jumped by roughly 50 percent, reports Elissa Leibowitz Poma in Nine Ways to Save on Summer Flights to Europe. Poma offers this nugget of advice for those seeking low-priced summer flights to European locales: "If an airline does happen to cut prices or offer a discount this spring or summer, don't sit on it and wait for an even better fare. Whip your credit card out of your wallet and grab that deal."

Bottom line: You're going to pay a premium for summer travel to a whole host of places, but there are some exceptions to this rule. Summer is low season for U.S. mountain towns, the Caribbean, Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica, and lots of spots in the Southern Hemisphere like Australia and New Zealand.

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Thanksgiving Travel
Peak Thanksgiving travel dates are pretty cut and dry year after year, as the holiday always falls on the fourth Thursday of November. The period from Wednesday through Sunday around Thanksgiving wins the award for Busiest Travel Time of the Year. Most travelers are getting around by car, and according to BTS, just 5 to 6 percent of Thanksgiving travelers actually fly -- and that small percentage adds up to hundreds of thousands of fliers.

So when's the best time to depart for the big family feast? If you can avoid that Wednesday-through-Sunday holiday travel period, you'll likely save some green. But if you have to fly then, pick your day wisely. In 2011, Travelocity analyzed ticketed fares for the Thanksgiving travel season and found that the cheapest days to fly were, natch, the least convenient ones: departing on Thanksgiving Day and returning on the following day, for an average fare of $281 roundtrip. This will vary by year, but the chart below, courtesy of Travelocity, will give you a rough idea of what to expect:

travelocity chart

The Best Days to Fly

Winter and Low Season
Speaking of seasonality, here's a hard, fast and simple rule: the best days to fly are low-season, shoulder-season or non-holiday travel dates; this will vary based on your destination, largely because of weather. While summer is the popular tourism season for an abundance of vacation spots, winter is a great time to seek out rock-bottom airfares. Look for amazingly cheap tickets to places that draw big crowds in summer, like Europe, Canada and most domestic destinations (except ski towns, Florida and Hawaii). Excluding spring break and Thanksgiving, spring and autumn are also excellent occasions to find low-priced shoulder-season fares to these destinations.

Winter Travel Tips

Unless you are the amazing Zoltar, it's impossible to predict what the single cheapest day of the year to fly will be. Even if you could gauge data from previous years to determine which day offered the lowest prices for your particular route, there's no telling that the same pattern would happen the following year.

We may not know the cheapest day of the year to fly, but travel experts generally agree on the cheapest travel day of the week. There's something about Wednesday, that mid-week hump, which draws, on average, the lowest fares. FareCompare, a site that tracks ticket prices from more than 500 airlines, reports that Wednesday offers the least expensive fares for U.S. and Canada flights.

Tuesdays and Saturdays
The next cheapest days of the week to fly are Tuesday and Saturday. Saturday might sound like a popular -- hence expensive -- day to fly. But in truth, most travelers prefer to come back from vacation on Sunday or even Monday. If you're eyeing a Saturday flight, however, watch out for weekend surcharges, which some airlines tack onto ticket prices for Friday, Saturday and Sunday departures.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: ultimately, your best day to fly all depends on your airline. I see plenty of airfare sales that restrict discounted fly dates to Tuesdays and Wednesdays only (JetBlue, AirTran and Southwest like to do this) or Mondays through Thursdays. I've also seen those international fare sales that tack on weekend surcharges and require a Saturday night stay. Airline, seasonality, current demand and a barrage of other factors can completely overthrow the Wednesday-is-cheapest rule ... which brings us to our next point.

How to Do Your Own Research

There's that old saying about teaching a man to fish. We can give you scores of statistics, but you're still going to want to know how to find the least expensive flights that work with your particular travel itineraries. Below are some resources to get you started:

1. Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare offers basic tricks for grabbing the cheapest possible tickets available. It's a must-read for fliers.

2. We love Airfarewatchdog (which just happens to be our sister site) because they do the work for you. Sign up for free fare alerts from your local gateway and Airfarewatchdog will send you e-mail notifications when fares for your itinerary drop.

3. I had some fun playing around with the Expedia Trend Tracker, which displays a chart of historical average airfares between select gateways. Just choose your gateways from the dropdown and the most expensive and least expensive days to fly pop up on the chart.

4. Bing Travel's Price Predictor combs multiple travel booking sites to analyze fares to select U.S. and international destinations, and predict price drops. The tool displays an easy-to-understand results box that tells users whether they should buy now or keep waiting.

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--written by Caroline Costello

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. The TripAdvisor Media Network also owns Airfarewatchdog.

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