Want to get the cheapest flight possible? You're not alone. We're always trying to lock in the lowest price for airline tickets, whether it's to visit family or for that next great vacation. Thanks to the internet and online travel agencies and discount providers that have replaced traditional agents, we now have access to a broader range of prices and options and all at our fingertips.
- Flights tend to be the most inexpensive between four months and three weeks before your departure date.
- Seasonal changes and holidays can create price fluctuations in ticket prices.
- The day of the week that you book a flight does not affect the price.
- Using a rewards credit card to book could help you earn miles or points that you could apply to savings on future flights.
Understanding Why Airline Ticket Prices Fluctuate
If you're interested in getting the best deal on flights, it helps to understand what causes changes in pricing. Timing plays an important part. Specifically, plane tickets usually don't get cheaper closer to the departure date. Instead, flights tend to be the most inexpensive when you book between four months and three weeks before your departure date.
According to the CheapAir.com 2019 Annual Airfare Study, you can expect rates to go up after that period. There may, of course, be some compounding factors that can affect this. Seasonal changes and holidays, for example, can impact pricing at different times.
Using a free tool like Google Flight Alerts can help you stay on top of fare pricing trends so you can pinpoint the best time to book flights.
The Volatility of Airfare Prices
Each year, discount airfare company CheapAir.com analyzes millions of flights and ticket prices. In the CheapAir.com 2019 study, the company looked at fares for more than 917 million flights in 8,000 markets. The results show volatility is the main reason behind the prices of flights.
The company found that the ticket prices fluctuate based on the amount of time between the purchase and the flight, seasonality, and whether the flight is to Hawaii, which is different from booking a flight anywhere else. Day of the week, however, is a myth according to the study and does not affect the price of tickets.
Six Booking Zones
From its extensive analysis, CheapAir.com identified six booking zones for airfares based on the number of days before departure and what to expect during each of them. Here's how fares compare across each booking zone.
First Dibs (203-315 days in advance)
You will pay about $50 more during this period than if you waited to get the lowest airfare. The positive during this period is that you will probably have more choices when it comes to itinerary and seating.
Peace of Mind (116-202 days in advance)
Tickets cost about $20 more during this period than if you waited for the lowest airfare. Still, there are plenty of good options for seats and flights.
Prime Booking Window (21-115 days in advance)
Push Your Luck (14-20 days in advance)
Fares often rise during this time. The most convenient flight options are sold out, and the best seat options are already taken. But you may luck out and find some lower fares during this period.
Playing with Fire (7-13 days in advance)
The pricing during this period is, on average, $135 lower than it would be if you waited until the last minute to buy your tickets, but it's still not the ideal time to buy. Flight and seat choices are also limited by this time.
Hail Mary (0-6 days in advance)
If possible, you should try to avoid booking flights during this period unless a last-minute emergency arises. You'll pay an average of $220 more than if you had booked during the prime booking window.
The general recommendations that CheapAir.com lays out in the six booking zones can be helpful guidelines for buying plane tickets. But the company notes they may change depending on the season.
- Fall: You can usually wait a bit longer to book fall travel and still get decent deals. The average best time to buy is 69 days in advance. The exception is Thanksgiving week, for which you should book travel earlier.
- Winter: Travel around the Christmas and New Year holidays will usually cost more no matter what; otherwise, winter can be an affordable time to travel. For non-holiday travel, aim to buy plane tickets 94 days in advance.
- Spring: Many people travel during a wide range of days for spring break, so the key to travel during this season is to plan ahead. If possible, buy your tickets 84 days in advance.
- Summer: This is the most popular season for American travel. CheapAir.com recommends buying your tickets 99 days in advance during this time.
When booking flights, regardless of the time, be sure to understand any health and safety restrictions you're expected to observe in the terminal or onboard.
Special Considerations for Booking Flights
While you shop around for the best possible flight, remember the tips and windows of time laid out by CheapAir.com above. But you should also remember one more thing: When you spot a bargain, take it. If you wait, you may be costing yourself more money in the end. The longer you wait, the more you'll end up paying, which may not be good for your budget.
Also, consider how a travel rewards card could help with saving money on airfare. For example, you may be able to find a card that offers perks such as:
- Free checked bags
- Global Entry/TSA PreCheck fee credits
- Free companion passes
- Elite status in frequent flyer programs
- Complimentary airport lounge access
- Free food and drinks onboard
- Complimentary in-flight WiFi
Those kinds of benefits may not trim money off your actual ticket cost but they can save you on other flight-related expenses. Checking out some of the best travel rewards cards can help you find one that offers the right combination of rewards, benefits and cost.
When comparing travel rewards cards, be sure to consider whether any blackout dates or other restrictions may apply for booking award travel.
The Bottom Line
Getting a great deal on flights means understanding what affects airfare pricing. In 2020, domestic fares dropped sharply from $352 on average to $292 on average due to travel restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, it's likely that fares may begin to climb as more travelers resume air travel. Using an airline miles credit to book flights can help earn miles or points toward future air travel. You may also consider joining one or more frequent flyer programs to rack up additional money-saving miles.