Here are our best tips for booking domestic, international, and holiday travel.

By Stefanie Waldek
November 17, 2020
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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 (domestic trips in the fall), while in others, you’re better off booking months ahead (such as a trip over a big travel holiday, when demand is high).

Now, you’ve probably heard that old rumor that it’s cheaper to book flights on Tuesdays than any other day of the week. As it turns out, that’s not the case, as average ticket prices only fluctuate about four dollars across the days of the week, per a Skyscanner report. Instead, finding a good deal is all about big-picture timing, looking at weeks-long or even months-long windows for deals.

The bottom line is that scoring the best flight deals can be tricky. But we’re here to help you start your research. 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. 

Credit: Getty Images

When to Book Flights for Domestic Travel

According to a 2019 survey by CheapAir.com, on average, the best day to purchase plane tickets for a domestic trip is 76 days prior to a flight. But if you break down the year, it turns out seasonality makes a big difference. CheapAir.com found that the cheapest flights were found 99 days prior to a summer trip, 94 days prior to a winter trip, 84 days prior to a spring trip, and 69 days prior to a fall trip.

But these numbers are just averages, so you can expect some deviation for your individual flight. Therefore, it’s better to stick to the general trends when figuring out when to purchase plane tickets. 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 some time between 115 and 21 days (roughly four months to three weeks) before the flight, after which you’ll likely see that last-minute spike in price.

Now, when it comes to an alternative currency — say, points or miles — your strategy should be a little different. “While points and miles fanatics love to save their miles for international travel, you will actually have the most flexibility using your rewards for domestic travel,” says ValuePenguin travel expert Stella Shon. “You can book domestic travel with points and miles and still get a solid deal no later than two weeks before your intended departure date. If you’re looking to fly transcontinental business, you should book earlier, as availability is more limited.”

Ultimately, you’ll want to book domestic award travel between six months and two weeks in advance of your trip. Yes, that’s a pretty big window, but award pricing can fluctuate wildly, or stay completely stagnant. So, if you see a good deal, book it.

When to Book Flights for International Travel

Pricing for international flights works a little differently than for domestic trips. Per CheapAir.com, the earlier you book, the better; prices don’t dip all that much after the flight schedule is announced about a year prior to departure.

But there is some variance depending on your destination. CheapAir.com found the lowest fares to Central America occurred just 78 days before departure, while the lowest fares to Europe were available 200 days before departure. That said, you’re probably not going to save a ton of money by waiting for prices on international flights to drop; you should feel comfortable booking the second you find a reasonable fare.

Award travel for international flights follows similar pricing patterns — book early. “In general, you’re guaranteed the best deals for booking international award travel about a month in advance,” says Shon. “However, with international travel, you can book as early as the airline schedules are released.” As with domestic flights, if you find a reasonable award price, book it without delay.

When to Book Flights for Holiday Travel

We asked our friends at Priceline to do a bit of number crunching to determine how early you should book a flight before a major travel holiday to score the best deal. Based on Priceline’s 2019 data, here are the sweet spots.

  • Spring Break: 6 weeks out
  • Memorial Day: 7-8 weeks out
  • Fourth of July: 6 weeks out
  • August Travel: 4-5 weeks out
  • Labor Day: 7 weeks out
  • Thanksgiving: 2 weeks out*
  • Christmas: 4 weeks out

Now, if you’re booking award tickets, there’s just one rule for holiday travel, according to Shon: Book as early as possible, at least two months in advance. “Keep in mind that you’re not necessarily going to get the best value for your points and miles when booking for holiday travel,” she says. “But if you’ve been sitting on a large number of points and miles over the past nine months, it might not be a bad idea to go ahead and use up your rewards.”

*We found this data to be particularly intriguing. Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel holidays of the year — in 2019, the TSA screened more than 26 million people over Thanksgiving week. As such, it’s one of the most expensive times to fly. Convention says to book Thanksgiving flights as far in advance as possible, but in this case, it might not be the early bird who gets the worm. We suspect that flight prices stay rather stagnant for Thanksgiving travel, since the demand is always high. Therefore, there might have just been a slight dip in prices two weeks out from the 2019 holiday, accounting for this data.

Booking Flights During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Everything we’ve covered has been true in years past, but 2020 is a year unlike any other. With limited schedules, fewer routes, and the general public’s fear of contracting COVID-19, the best time to book flights has changed quite a bit. Travelers can now score far better last-minute deals (or somewhat last-minute deals).

“The sweet spot for booking a flight in 2020 is three weeks for domestic flights and five weeks for international flights,” according to a Kayak spokesperson. “Avoid booking a flight within two weeks, as prices do still increase the closer you get to the departure date. Keep in mind that flight prices are overall 11% cheaper in 2020 compared to 2019, so there are plenty of great deals to most destinations.”

Skyscanner’s latest report agrees with Kayak’s data for domestic travel in 2020, showing that the sweet spot for booking flights is three weeks in advance. But for international travel in 2020, it suggests that you hold off on booking up to two weeks prior to your flight. In pre-pandemic times, booking that late would typically cost a fortune.

As for booking award travel? That’s shifted in favor of last-minute travel, too, which is a great development for international trips. “If we’ve collectively learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that planning ahead in the future may be fruitless. We don’t know what the airline industry will look like a year from today, so there’s no point in rushing to book award travel right now,” says Shon. “In fact, the pandemic has provided more flexibility for booking with points and miles, as there’s less of a rush to book months in advance. The new sweet spot to book award travel seems to be around a few weeks to a couple of months.”