When is the best time to buy an airline ticket?
Many of us have pondered that question time and time again. But don’t despair, we may just have an answer!
The folks at cheapair.com examined 1,336,030,117 air fares (that’s about 1.3 billion) as part of their annual air fare study. What they found is that, on average, 54 is the best number of days in advance to buy a flight in 2015, for travel within the U.S.A.
But there’s a bit more to it. The study found that the best time to buy airline tickets varied. They caution that because of this, there’s really no one magic number that you can rely on, let’s say, to create a calendar reminder to book. However, they did find that there are some general rules that do usually hold up.
The “First Dibs” Zone
197-335 days out (approximately 6½ – 11 months)
Most airlines begin selling seats for flights 335 days out, or roughly 11 months in advance. In most cases, when flights first open for sale their fares are on the high side – and at some point in the future they are likely to come down. Still, the nice thing about buying flights early is that you have a full choice of flight options. All the flights are generally available so if you want a nonstop, or a flight at a specific time, you can usually have your pick if you book within this window. You also get first dibs on seat selection on most airlines which is important because fewer and fewer window and aisle seats are being made available without an extra charge. Early bookers have the best odds of snagging one of them.But these perks come at a cost. The lowest fares available for purchase 197-335 days out average about $50 more than those available during the “Prime Booking Window”, which is the least expensive time to buy.
The “Peace of Mind” Zone
113-196 days out (approximately 3½ – 6½ months)
If you don’t like the idea of paying a big premium to book in the “First Dibs” period, but you also want to relax and know your plans are firm well in advance of your trip, the “Peace of Mind” Zone might be for you. Travelers booking between 3 ½ and 6 ½ months in advance do pay a premium over the those buying in the “Prime Booking Window”, but it’s a modest premium, only about $20 more per ticket on average. And for that extra price you generally have more options to choose from, since by the time you get inside 3 months often the best flights are sold out at the lowest fares.
The “Prime Booking Window”
21-112 days out (approximately 3 weeks – 3 ½ – months)
If you’re a bargain hunter like most of us, your sweet spot is the “Prime Booking Window”, about 3 weeks to 3 ½ months in advance. We do a similar analysis every year and this window has been pretty consistent over time.Of course, 21 – 112 days out is a pretty big range –about 3 months. And we absolutely don’t want to suggest that there is no difference between buying your ticket 21 days in advance vs. buying it 112 days in advance vs. buying it at any other point in that window. During these 90 days, fares will likely fluctuate a lot. Don’t be surprised at all to see big swings, sometimes from day to day. Here’s the thing: we can’t promise you will necessarily get a good deal if you buy your ticket on any random day in this window. But we do suggest that you check fares frequently during this period because at some point during these 3 months the best fare is likely to pop up.
The “Push Your Luck” Zone
14-20 days out (2 – 3 weeks)
An interesting dynamic occurs right in the between the “Prime Booking Window” which ends about 3 weeks out and the “Hail Mary” Zone where you absolutely don’t want to be (inside of 14 days).
There is a week in the middle between 14 and 20 days out where circumstances can vary dramatically. There are times when you book in this window and you get hammered – flights are full and fares are through the roof. But other times you get lucky and there are actually some great fares comparable to the best fares offered months before. It really depends on how full the flights are.
If you’re thinking about chancing it, one very general rule of thumb is: the more popular your destination and the more popular your travel time, the less likely you are get lucky. Full flights are expensive flights. Going to New York for a week in the winter? You might find a great fare two weeks before. Going to Orlando for Spring Break? That’s much less likely.
The “Hail Mary” Zone
0-13 days out
Maybe you’ve heard a story of someone, somewhere who once booked a flight a day in advance and got a fantastic deal. And maybe you watched Aaron Rodgers throw that 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Jeff Janis to force overtime in the Divisional Playoff Game against the Cardinals. But just as almost all Hail Mary passes land incomplete, an overwhelming majority of last minute fare searches end in frustration.When you book your flight within 7 days of departure, you pay, on average, just under $200 more than if you booked during the “Prime Booking” window – and you’ll probably have only one flight time to choose from if you want to avoid paying even more. When you book between 7 and 13 days out, it’s a little better, but still you can expect at least a $75 premium on the cheapest flight, and often hundreds of dollars more on the best flights.