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 replaced traditional agents, we now have access to a broader range of prices and options and all at our fingertips.
- Consumers have a range of options available when it comes to booking airline tickets.
- Flights are generally 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.
Why Do 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 CheapAir.com, you can expect rates to go up after that period. There may, of course, be some compounding factors that can affect this. For example, seasonal changes and holidays can have a big impact on 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
Discount airfare company CheapAir.com analyzes millions of flights and ticket prices each year. In the CheapAir.com 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 ticket prices fluctuate based on the amount of time that spans between the purchase and the flight, seasonality, and whether the flight is to Hawaii, which is different from booking a flight anywhere else. According to the study, the day of the week is a myth and does not affect the price of tickets.
6 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. The table below lists each booking period, the number of days in advance, and some of the key considerations for each.
|Booking Period||Days in Advance||Notes|
|First Dibs||203 to 315||Expect to pay about $50 more than if you waited to get the lowest airfare. But you will probably have more choices for itinerary and seating.|
|Peace of Mind||116 to 202||Tickets cost about $20 more than if you waited for the lowest airfare. There are plenty of good options for seats and flights.|
|Prime Booking Window||21 to 115||This is the ideal time to hunt for bargains and book your flights as airfares average within 5% of their lowest prices.|
|Push Your Luck||14 to 20||Fares often rise as the most convenient options are sold out and the best seats are taken but you may luck out and find some lower fares.|
|Playing with Fire||7 to 13||Ticket prices average $135 less than 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 to 6||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 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.
Regardless of the time, be sure to understand any health and safety restrictions you're expected to observe in the terminal or onboard when you're booking your flights.
Additional Tips 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.
Another thing to consider is how a travel rewards credit 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 costs. When comparing travel rewards cards, be sure to consider whether any blackout dates or other restrictions may apply for booking award travel.
When Is the Best Period to Book a Flight?
CheapAir.com's survey on airline ticket prices recognizes six booking periods. The best time to book an airline flight is the prime booking window, which is 21 to 115 days in advance. Airfares generally average 5% of their lowest prices during this period. Compare that to last-minute bookings (between 0 and six days in advance) when you'll pay an average of $220 more than the prime booking window.
Why Do Airline Prices Fluctuate?
There are a number of reasons why airline prices fluctuate. These factors include booking and flight seasons, holidays, seasonal changes, and overall volatility. For instance, the travel restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic pushed prices down as demand for travel waned. Similarly, higher fuel costs and consumer demand can push ticket prices higher.
How Do I Find the Best Airline Ticket Prices?
The best way to find the cheapest airline ticket price is to shop around. Price your tickets with different airlines and agents. You can always consult individual airlines and traditional travel agents, or search online for the best price yourself. We know that emergencies arise but the earlier you book your ticket, the better. The best time to book your ticket is the prime booking window, which is between 21 to 115 days in advance.
What Is the Best Day of the Week to Book Airline Tickets?
You may have heard that there is a cheap window of time during the week to book your airline tickets. According to CheapAir.com, that's a myth. The day and time of the week have no impact on ticket prices.
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 COVID-19 pandemic. Airlines increased prices after the restrictions were lifted, thanks to higher inflation, fuel costs, and a rise in consumer demand. So how can you save? 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.
CheapAir.com. "CheapAir.com’s 5th Annual Airfare Study Reveals the Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets."
Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "Domestic airline activity."
CNBC. "Airfare surged 20% over pre-pandemic levels in March as inflation hit vacations."