The Best Time to Book a Flight for Domestic, International, and Holiday Travel
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Finding the best flight deals is a bit of an art form, but there's also some science — or at least economics — involved. There are only two definitive rules: Flights open for booking about a year in advance, and the airfare will change often between then and takeoff. So, as a general rule of thumb, you'll want to book plane tickets well in advance of your trip, as prices spike sharply in the days preceding the flight, taking advantage of any last-minute travelers who have no choice but to pay up.
But there are many variables that impact the dynamic pricing patterns of plane tickets, including the destination and time of year. In some cases, you can book just a couple of weeks in advance, while in others, you're better off booking months ahead (such as a trip over a big travel holiday, when demand is high).
Unfortunately (though unsurprisingly), the pandemic has changed the flight booking game, because, simply put, we travel differently these days. According to the most recent data from Skyscanner, we're not planning as far ahead as we once did, and we're much more likely to book one-way tickets. Nonetheless, good deals are still all about big-picture timing, and while travel logistics are more in flux these days, many airlines now waive change fees, making it easier for us to book well in advance and shift plans later, if need be.
The bottom line is that scoring the best flight deals can be tricky — and the pandemic's impact on travel and the airline industry has added more than a few challenges. But we're here to help you find the best flights for your upcoming travel. Our first tip: Start tracking flight prices as early as possible so you can keep an eye on price fluctuations. Use Google Flights or Hopper to receive price change notifications about your tracked flights.
When to Book Flights for Domestic Travel
According to a 2021 survey by CheapAir.com, on average, the best time to purchase plane tickets for a domestic trip is 64 days before your departure date. Keep in mind that this is an average — it doesn't mean you should log on exactly 64 days before travel, but rather that you should scout flights around the 64-days-out mark. Seasonality also makes a big difference. CheapAir.com revealed that the cheapest flights were found 67 days prior to a summer trip, 94 days prior to a winter trip, 84 days prior to a spring trip, and 89 days prior to a fall trip.
For domestic trips, pricing is elevated when tickets are first released, about a year before the flight. Per CheapAir.com, those prices will slowly creep downward, all the way to their lowest point sometime between 95 and 21 days (roughly three months to three weeks) before the flight, after which you'll likely see that last-minute spike in price.
Listen to Travel + Leisure's "Let's Go Together" podcast for more inspiring stories and adventures celebrating inclusivity in travel!
When to Book Flights for International Travel
Pricing for international flights has also shifted significantly over the last 18 months. Per CheapAir.com, you may actually want to book closer to your travel date than you otherwise would when traveling internationally. In previous years, CheapAir.com's advice has been to book not much after the flight schedule is announced, about a year prior to departure.
Don't forget, there is some variance depending on your destination. CheapAir.com found the lowest fares to Canada occurred two months before departure — and the same is true for booking Mexico travel. The best time to buy flights to Europe is 180 days out from your travel date — and the cheapest fares to Europe can be found in November. The Caribbean has emerged as a great destination for travelers looking to score a last-minute deal. You can find reasonable ticket prices less than two months from your preferred travel date.
When to Book Flights for Holiday Travel
The last year of pandemic-skewed data has significantly impacted price projections. Holiday travel is expected to cost 10% less than it did in 2019, but 13% more than it did last year. Per CheapAir, "As travel continues to recover and more Americans feel safe to travel, all projections signal a very busy holiday season for 2021."
CheapAir's 2021 holiday report reveals that it's better to book Thanksgiving flights in September and November than it is to book them in August and October. Domestic flight prices for Thanksgiving flights, when booked in August, average out at $415.
Thanksgiving 2021 flights are still 20% cheaper than previous years, which is a result of the pandemic. The least expensive pre-Thanksgiving flights are on the Tuesday and Wednesday directly before the holiday. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the most expensive travel day of the year — and if you wait just two days (until Tuesday), you could save $180.
As for Christmas and New Year's Eve travel, the experts recommend booking early, because while price fluctuations won't be significant over the next few months, demand may be higher than supply this year. Airlines are still recovering — getting their fleets back into the air, rebuilding and training their staffs — which means there may not be as many flight options as in previous years. So, for the 2021 December holidays, the sooner you can book flights, the better.