Airfares jolt up and down like a plane caught in turbulence. The airlines use computer systems to set 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.
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 websites 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
Note that it's not unusual to see flights departing on Christmas Day, New Year's Day and sometimes the days immediately following or preceding the holidays that are cheaper than departures a few days out, depending on how they fall during the week. If you're booking a holiday trip, use your booking engine's flexible dates option to see which days will save you the most money.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 late February, while families with school-age children vacation around Easter, which is usually in late March or early April. Watch out for higher fares to beach and family destinations like Florida and the Caribbean during this time. (See Top 25 Ways to Save on Caribbean Travel for more help.)
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 [and] 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 spring break dates for American colleges and universities each year. Avoid planning your beach vacation around those dates -- unless, that is, you're down for a wild time.
Summer: Summer is high season for myriad destinations and fares are accordingly 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.
If you can put off your trip till mid-September or go in May instead of June, you'll likely pay less than you would over the summer (not only for airfares but also for hotels once you arrive).
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, parts of Mexico, Costa Rica, and lots of spots in the Southern Hemisphere like Australia and New Zealand.
Thanksgiving: Peak Thanksgiving travel dates are pretty cut and dried 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.
So when's the best time to depart for the big family feast? The busiest and most expensive days are the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Flying on Thanksgiving Day itself typically offers the cheapest possible fares; the day after is often a pretty good deal as well. As with Christmas and New Year's, you'll save by zigging when others zag; while everyone else plans to be back at work the Monday after Thanksgiving, you could save by extending your long weekend and flying home that day instead of Sunday.
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 U.S. 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.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays: 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 days of the week. Fare tracker site Airfarewatchdog notes that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the two best days to fly if you want to save some coin.
Thursdays and Saturdays: The next cheapest days of the week to fly are Thursday 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 to maximize their time away. The most popular days for business travelers, meanwhile, are Monday and Friday. If you're eyeing a Saturday flight, 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 route and your airline. I see plenty of airfare sales that restrict discounted dates to Tuesdays and Wednesdays only or Mondays through Thursdays. I've also seen 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 10 basic tricks for grabbing the cheapest possible tickets available. It's a must-read for fliers. Other useful reads include Seven Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight and How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare.
2. We love Airfarewatchdog (which just happens to be our sister site) because it does the work for you. Sign up for free fare alerts from your local gateway, and Airfarewatchdog will send you email notifications when fares for your itinerary drop.
3. I had some fun playing around with the Expedia Trend Tracker, which tells you the cheapest times of year to fly between select cities. Just choose your gateways from the dropdown and the least expensive months to fly pop up, along with a weather chart so you can see whether you'd want to travel then.
4. When you search flights on Kayak.com, the site typically offers a prediction for whether you should buy or wait, along with a chart of recent fare trends for that itinerary. The site uses data to predict whether the fare is likely to rise or fall in the next seven days.
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--written by Caroline CostelloEditor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Airfarewatchdog.