Question by Mark Hastings, San Jose, Calif.
A: When to book flights is a question that torments even the most experienced of travelers. Who hasn’t sat in front of the computer wondering: Do I wait for a better deal, or is this the best I’m going to see?
There are no hard-and-fast rules for hitting the right booking window. A recent report from online travel agency CheapAir found that, historically, the lowest average fares have been available seven weeks before departure. Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), which manages airline ticket sales for U.S. travel agencies, conducted a similar study and located the best airfares six weeks prior to flying. But that window changes dramatically depending on where you are traveling—and when.
“There’s such a thing as booking too early,” says Rick Seaney, CEO and cofounder of online research tool FareCompare. “Airlines don’t really begin managing their domestic flights until about three months in advance—that’s when they start releasing the more affordable seats.” The sweet spot, he says, lies between three months and six weeks in advance. Recent data from Kayak supports this. The airfare aggregator looked at a year’s worth of searches and found that six months before departure, domestic ticket prices were about 20 percent higher than the lowest fares. They started dropping three months out and hit a low three to seven weeks before departure. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last week, when prices shoot up—by about 25 percent, according to Kayak.
For long-haul tickets, start your search early. Kayak’s data located the best average fares for Asian flights a full nine to ten months out; they drop again (though not as low) between three and four month in advance. For South American tickets, the ideal booking window was around six months before departure. For African trips, the site found that prices started to fall about three months out. Interestingly, they didn’t bottom out until about five weeks before departure. Of course, these are all average prices. If you’re hoping to catch a fare sale to a farther-flung destination, focus your search between five and two months out, when they usually appear, Seaney says. The best plan for long-haul shopping: search for fares early to get a general sense of prices and sign up for a fare-watching service—Airfarewatchdog, CheapAir, and FareCompare all have good ones. You’ll know to book when the right price comes along.
Summer Trips to Europe
You’ll have to plan in advance to get the best tickets to Europe. When ARC crunched the numbers for travel between Memorial Day and Labor Day last year, it found the lowest average fares to Europe a full 31 weeks before departure. Seaney recommends beginning your search around four to five months out. (That means now.) And don’t get caught in magical thinking: sales on summer airfare to Europe are rare. According to Jeff Klee, CEO and cofounder of CheapAir, they usually occur when there’s an increase in capacity (i.e., new flights or routes). But if you can’t be flexible about your dates or destination, you likely won’t be able to take advantage of these deals. If you do have some flexibility, the booking window decreases and the fares drop for travel in the spring or fall—outside of the school holidays.
Winter Caribbean and Ski Getaways
There’s no use waiting for fare sales here. High demand and limited airlift mean that prices for winter flights to Caribbean islands and smaller ski-country airports usually don’t fluctuate much—and rise dramatically fairly early. Looking at last winter’s economy-class fares from the United States to the Caribbean islands, ARC found the lowest average fares 21 weeks before departure. That jibes with Seaney’s advice to book both Caribbean and ski getaways about four to five months before your trip. The exceptions: flights to Denver, Salt Lake City, and other large airports serving ski destinations. You’ll have extra time to book because the airports have more capacity.
The earlier the better, once again. Last year, analysts with CheapAir tracked domestic airfares for more than 11,000 markets for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s travel. Notably, for all three holidays average ticket prices hit a low in early June. They fluctuated throughout the rest of the summer and early fall, but by the end of September they were steadily rising. Not everyone can plan a winter holiday in June, of course. But if you’re considering going from somewhere cold to somewhere warm, Klee advises getting the tickets as soon as possible. A similar principle is at work for spring-break travel. Tickets to Florida and other popular warm-weather destinations start rising early—and tend not to vary. Seaney recommends planning these trips five months in advance. “Airlines are really good at knowing when an airport’s local school districts are on spring break, and will adjust airfares accordingly,” he cautions.
Of course, all of these booking windows are estimates and should be taken as guidelines rather than rule of law. As George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, says: “If there were an established best time to book, airlines would identify it and hike fares accordingly.” Consider yourself warned.
By the Numbers
$1,284: Lowest average economy-class airfare to Europe last summer, booked 31 weeks in advance.
$589: Lowest average economy-class airfare to the Caribbean last winter, booked 21 weeks in advance.
Source: Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC)