When most serious travelers get an idea for a new trip, one of the first things they typically do is to hop online and check how much the airfare might cost. In an informal survey of friends who travel a lot, I found that if they are not already at a computer, most of them pull out their smartphones, launch a browser or airfare app, and search airfare costs right on the spot to figure out if they can actually afford to take the trip.
Sure, in the back of their minds they wonder if the airfare they find is competitive, and if airfares might come down if they were to wait. Although the excitement of booking the fare is almost irresistible, many of them suspect that there is likely a better time to research, price and decide. Well, it turns out there is, and it is a very specific day.
While there is considerable variation by destination, route, time of year and type of travel as it affects airfare pricing, a consensus is starting to emerge that the timing of every flight purchase has a sweet spot that tends to be several weeks before your date of travel.
After crunching pricing data on 4,191,533 flights during 2013, monitoring price changes day after day until it had tallied more than 1.3 billion individual prices on those flights (at an average of 92 price changes per flight), CheapAir.com pegged the sweetest of sweet spots at 54 days before travel.
CheapAir admits that the 54-day mark is an average "best day" among those millions of pricing changes, and specific flights may deviate considerably from that day. However, the site does find a very compelling "prime booking window" between 104 days and 29 days before travel, in which prices for domestic flights are about as low as they will go.
Other airfare pricing researchers have done similar studies; their conclusions and recommendations vary a little bit, but not really too much in the end.
For example, the folks at FareCompare are reluctant to pick a specific day to purchase, but instead cite a "zone of indecision," a period when the airlines are starting to worry about filling flights and travelers are just starting to think about booking them, as the best time to buy. For domestic flights, FareCompare pegs this time to start about 3.5 months before departure, and to end (pretty abruptly) about 30 days before departure. Since 3.5 months is around 105 days, this is nearly identical to CheapAir's 104- to 29-day recommendation.
BuzzFeed and Kayak also recently teamed up to analyze more than 100 million airfares to figure out when to book what based on your destination; here are the results, presented in slick graphical form. The recommendation for domestic fares is three to seven weeks before your trip, a slightly later window than the other two studies.
While there's a pretty clear booking window for U.S. domestic flights, international fares behave a bit differently and vary more by destination (and even from one study to the next). CheapAir and the folks behind the BuzzFeed/Kayak survey found that the best prices on international fares generally appeared in a much earlier window than domestic airfares. Due to high demand and fewer available flights, the best fares to popular international destinations tend to sell out much sooner.
CheapAir found that early booking was particularly important for flights to Africa (the sweet spot is 166 days before travel), Europe (151 days) and Asia (129 days). The BuzzFeed/Kayak survey recommends booking even earlier for Europe (eight to 10 months) and Asia (nine to 10 months, though if you miss that window there's a secondary sweet spot from three to four months out).
The differences in the two studies -- for example, BuzzFeed/Kayak only recommends booking three to five weeks out for Africa -- highlight the difficulty of generalizing about the best time to book international flights. If you're planning an international trip, take a look at both studies and then track fares on your itinerary for a while before purchasing to get a sense of your best strategy.
While it's all well and good to aim for a booking date of 54 days in advance of your trip, keep in mind that these ideal booking periods are averages, based on heaps upon heaps of individual flights, and lots of other factors come into play such as seasonality and holidays. When you factor in high-traffic events such as the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras or Christmas, your airfare mileage may vary.
CheapAir addresses this phenomenon as well, specifically mentioning Thanksgiving, spring break and more, and noting that travel to popular destinations has very different sweet spots. For Hawaii, it's 87 days; for Las Vegas, 81; for several destinations in Florida and southern California, 75 days.
Additionally, the Zone can vary quite a bit depending on the type of travel you are doing, and where you are going. CheapAir notes that the data from millions of flights and billions of price changes tends to smooth out volatility on specific flights, but when you look at price changes on a single flight, it becomes almost impossible to recommend a specific day to purchase. As an example, they tracked 135 prices changes on an actual New York - Miami itinerary for August 11 - 18, 2013, with the lowest price coming in on December 26, 2012, at $197, and the highest price on the day before travel, when the price was $492.
If you recall that CheapAir found an average of 92 price changes per itinerary across 4.19 million flights in 2013, this kind of thing is actually pretty common, or, as CheapAir notes, "What may seem like a fluky example is actually very typical."
By current practice, airfares become available to purchase 331 days from the date of travel. Common sense might lead you to think that airlines would be willing to sell some tickets at super-competitive prices in the very early going, but that is not what actually happens. More commonly, they apply no discounts whatsoever way in advance.
CheapAir found that fares start to dip around 225 days out, with a gradual decline until 180 days out before holding for several weeks. Then at around 120 days out, fares start to decline again, before reaching the sweet spot for booking a little less than 15 weeks before travel.
All of that said, if you're flying to or from a smaller airport with limited service, you may want to book earlier than the average. Says CheapAir, "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."
Keep in mind that you don't necessarily need to stress out over booking exactly 54 days out. While this was the average optimum day to buy, the window in which fares were pretty close to bottomed out is actually pretty broad, specifically from around 104 days before travel to 29 days before travel. During this extended, 75-day period, fares generally only fluctuate about $10 or so (again, on average) -- so don't sweat it if you don't nail the 54-day mark.
If you're wondering about the reason for all the price changes during the prime booking window, this tends to be the time when the airline is most actively trying to calibrate pricing to actual inventory (before that they don't much care, and after that they just jack up prices). With each flight search, tentative reservation, and subsequent release of seats or cancellation, the prices rollercoaster up and down. You go in, book a seat but don't purchase, prices go up; 23 hours later you release your seats, prices go down. Repeat times as many people who look at that flight over 75 days or so, and you get a lot of price changes.
Many travelers wonder if they can beat the system by purchasing airfares at the very last minute, perhaps when the airline realizes it has a half-empty plane and is willing to fill seats at almost any cost. While this does still happen now and then, it is a much rarer occurrence than only a few years ago, and statistically is very much a losing strategy.
How bad is it? Well, CheapAir's researchers found that tickets are typically at their highest price the day before travel. The second highest price? Two days before travel. The third highest? Three days before travel. You get the idea. CheapAir found this trend to continue all the way through to 13 days in advance.
Because most of these studies are based solely on price and not on time of day, preferred airline or any other factors, you will want to be more vigilant with your fare research if these other factors are important to you. The lowest price could well be on a gnarly redeye on a discount airline you swore you would never fly again, or on a frequently delayed flight, or a flight that leaves well before dawn. If you care when you fly and on which carrier, it might take an earlier start and little more work to find the best fares.
We are all veteran travelers here, and we have this stuff wired, of course. We are all booking at the best times and prices. Well, if we are, then almost no one else is; CheapAir found that only 34 percent of its bookings took place during the prime booking window. Another 5 percent booked earlier. The other 61 percent of travelers booked inside the 28-day period where airfares are climbing rapidly, and 36 percent overall purchased in the priciest last two weeks. Ouch!
As a solution, most of the folks doing the surveys recommend you research pricing on your itinerary early and often, and if a good price appears, pounce on it. This is a bit of an old saw we have been pushing for years, but like a lot of old saws, it typically makes the cut.