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Tips for Early Bird Travel Booking

A recent study of travel booking habits showed that most people book travel within a week or so of their travel date. There were some gender differences -- women typically booked a few days sooner than did men -- but neither the birds nor the bees seemed intent on booking too early.

This describes my habits, so I believe I have some insight into the why and wherefore of late and last-minute booking. It seems to come down to the simple fact that modern life is too complex, too unpredictable, and too fast-paced for most people to know with any certainty what time, day, or even week that they are going to be able to drop everything and go. How do you purchase an airfare 10 months from now when you don't even know if you'll have a job in the same city by then, let alone whether the dog-sitter will be available the evening of your flight?

Taking a more narrow view, I think it also has something to do with the litany of change fees and restrictions, radically unpredictable pricing, and the utterly nonrefundable, zero wiggle room nature of most modern travel products. It is no wonder that the last minute travel business is booming.

All of that said, there are occasions when I could imagine booking well in advance -- annual family events that happen the same weekend every year; sporting or entertainment events such as festivals that are often planned years in advance; the week between Christmas and New Year's when most people are sure to have a few days off, and potential travel days can be nailed down simply by checking the multi-year calendar on your computer.

And of course there are benefits to booking early when possible; here are some tips on how and when to save when booking well in advance.

Airfares: Book Up to 330 Days in Advance
By law, airlines can book flights for travel up to 330 days in advance. Quick, what date is 330 days from now? I don't know anyone who can answer this, but an easy way to remember is that it is one week short of 11 months from now. (Or you can count back five weeks, then jump ahead one year.) Also, most booking engine software won't allow you select a date 331 days from now, so even if you try a few days early, it will quickly become apparent when booking becomes available: if you use the calendar applications, dates beyond the 330 limit are grayed out and not clickable.

(Note: not all airlines allow booking 330 days out; JetBlue accepts bookings up to seven months in advance, and Southwest about four and a half -- August 3 as of this posting on March 20. Policies at other, especially smaller, airlines may vary.)

One note: the most important date to note is your return date; if your departure date is inside the 330 days, but your return date is not, you can't purchase the itinerary.

How do fares price out 330 days in advance? What you tend to see is a very high availability across several airlines, of affordable seats on direct flights, and considerable uniformity of pricing among airlines -- all this because everyone's planes are pretty much empty at this point. The prices tend neither to be rock bottom, nor to be very high -- but in my experience are always competitive in the market.

As for refundable flights -- which can be attractive this far in advance, since you never know what might happen -- I found pricing to be extremely erratic. One itinerary cost just over $100 extra to purchase a fully refundable fare 330 days in advance; another was over triple the nonrefundable price (and pretty much identical to the cost of a first class ticket on the same flight). Most booking engines make it very easy to search on fully refundable fares; it is worth the time to check these out, but don't expect miracles.

One Month Is Almost As Good As Eleven
Not surprisingly, I suppose, given the booking habits of most Americans, it turns out that booking one month in advance is almost as good as the full 330 days in advance when it comes to pricing. I ran a handful of very informal case studies for airfare prices one month in advance vs. and 330 days in advance, and in three of the five cases, the prices were identical.

On those cases that failed the one month test, I backed out steadily and found that at prices started to level off at approximately around five weeks, and right around two-months prior to travel, airfare prices were almost perfectly flat over time.

However, a couple days inside one month, I saw prices edge upward; typically from here on you will see prices climb steadily, particularly at the 21, 14, and 7-day marks. These artificial, airline-imposed "deadlines" conspire with disappearing capacity to drive prices upward, dramatically in some cases. In one of my test cases, fares were nearly double on T-20 days than they were on T-one month.

And that one month mark really seems to matter; even on those fares that had not increased at all, the booking site was giving fair warning that seats were disappearing, with notices like "3 tickets left at this price!" and even "1 ticket left at this price!"

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