Flights are usually cheapest 3 to 7 weeks before departure: Updated for 2015
It’s a common question. Someone is planning a trip for several months out and they are wondering if they should buy the cheapest ticket available now, or wait and hope the fare drops at least a bit. If the flight is around a holiday time (Christmas, Thanksgiving etc) then the answer is to buy it as early as possible, since fares around holidays generally just keep going higher and higher.
However, if the trip is planned for some random non-holiday time, research done by the folks at Farecast shows that fares tend to be at their lowest between 2 and 8 weeks from departure. More recent research by 2 Associated Press reporters concluded that fares actually bottom out between 4 and 6 weeks before departure.
Another new survey says 7 weeks out is the cheapest time
An extensive survey done by the people at cheapair.com, and summarized in the USA Today, concluded that in 2012, domestic airfares within the US bottomed out at exactly 7 weeks before the flight. Obviously this is only a bit different from the data mentioned above, and it seems likely that prices stay near the bottom for a few weeks after the 7-week mark.
This means that travelers should begin looking at prices for flights at least 2 to 3 months in advance, and be prepared to buy as soon as prices start going down.
The most expensive times to book are within 11 days, or 7 months in advance
The same cheapair.com study found, to no surprise, that fares were highest starting 11 days before the flight, and stayed high until the departure date. What might be surprising is that they found that the second most expensive time was 208 to 210 days out, which is about 7 months. Evidently, airlines have discovered that some people are really anxious to lock in a specific flight that early, and they don’t mind paying more for the privilege, though they probably don’t even realize they are paying a higher fare than those who book 5 months later.
The cheapest time for international flights is 11 weeks in advance
Again from the cheapair data, they discovered that for international flights the lowest prices are 81 days in advance, which is between 11 and 12 weeks out. This makes sense compared to the domestic flights because, at least in the US, people generally plan international trips more in advance. If you are thinking about flying from Chicago to Las Vegas, you can usually move your trip around by a week or two, but if you are flying to Paris you generally are going for a longer period and you want to lock it in further in advance.
Knowing these facts are helpful, but you might also find it interesting to know why this is, so we’ll discuss the economic principles driving this situation below.
2015 Update with more specifics about regions and timing
In early 2015, the fine folks at Kayak have published their data from last year, and most of it confirms what earlier studies had found. But it also offers more specifics on different regions. It’s important to consider that Kayak.com mainly does business in the United States, and it appears that their data reflects airfares starting out in the US. Still, the overall trends are likely very similar for flights starting from Europe or most of the rest of the world.
Kayak’s 2015 data:
- Domestic: Book between 4-6 weeks out
- Europe: 6 months weeks out (discussed further below)
- Asia: 5 weeks out
- South America: 3 to 6 weeks out
- Central America: 4 to 5 weeks out
- Africa: 2 months out
- Caribbean: 2 to 4 weeks out, but unlike all other regions, you can still get a deal one week out (i.e. it’s a great last-minute destination)
Cheapest time to book flights for Christmas and New Year’s trips
According to a 2015 study by Skyscanner, the absolute cheapest time to book flights for the popular dates just before Christmas and New Years is August 10 to 16, at least based on their 2014 data. The study also shows that fares only inch up a bit in later August and into September, but that by early November the fares will be closer to their peak.
Previously we’d heard that it’s best to buy holiday flights as early as possible, which is usually 11 months out for most airlines. I think that’s still mostly true, partly because it will allow you to pick the best possible departure times in both directions. But if you aren’t quite so picky as to which time of day you leave and return, waiting until mid August seems like a decent idea and you’ll still get a relatively good fare.
Cheapest fares between the US and Europe
According to the 2015 data, it is now recommended that 6 months out has the lowest fares. But there have been several other studies that have shown that 7 to 11 weeks is more likely the sweet spot. In addition this, I’ve done dozens if not hundreds of tests myself in the past year and all signs point to the graph being mostly flat for many months as the flight date approaches.
Put another way, it seems like it might be a tiny bit cheaper to buy a ticket to Europe 6 months in advance, but fares probably don’t start going up dramatically until 6 or so weeks before the flight. Since these low fares are always nonrefundable, it’s always a question as to whether you should lock in a low fare in order to save a small amount, and have your money tied up the whole time.
My own 2015 US or Canada to Europe recommendations: If you are SURE you want the ticket and you see a good fare 5 or 6 months out, then buying it will probably save you at least a little money. But chances are that the fare won’t start going up more than a little bit until about two months out, so there isn’t much to lose by waiting.
Book earliest for popular flight times: If you want to cross the Atlantic in July or August or if you want to travel on convenient weekend flights, buying 3 to 6 months out is probably wise because the fare might start rising soon. But if you are flying in another month and especially if you can fly midweek, then waiting longer is probably okay.
Cheapest fares for flights from the US to Asia or other long distances
As of 2014, the data said that flights from the US and Canada to Asia were cheapest 11 months out or 5 to 6 months out, but the 2015 data (above) says 5 weeks is the cheapest time. Again, combining all of the studies and my own tests into my best recommendations, it seems clear that these fares don’t change dramatically from 11 months out until one month out. In other words, a Chicago to Bangkok flight that is US$1,200 almost a year in advance, will probably be available from US$1,100 to US$1,300 for most of that year.
This appears to be true of pretty much all long-distance flights including those to Australia, South Africa, and the Middle East. Long story short, it’s very hard to predict the exact date that a fare is likely to be cheapest for a long flight, so it’s probably best to book as soon as you are sure about the trip, assuming that the fare seems reasonable.
Important exception: Book flights on low-cost airlines as early as possible, always
If you are thinking about booking a flight on a low-cost airline, such as Southwest or Spirit in the US, or EasyJet or Ryanair in Europe, or Air Asia in Asia, the cheapest fare will always be as early as you are ready to commit. Unlike the more traditional airlines, the low-cost carrier revenue model is based on starting with all seats as cheap as they’ll ever be when the flight is officially in the system. Then as seats are sold on that flight, the fare goes up as the plane is selling out. So maybe the first 20% of the seats are sold at the lowest price, and when those are gone, the next 20% are sold at a higher price, and so forth until all seats are sold or the plane takes off.
However, it’s important to consider the fact that “low-cost airlines” aren’t necessarily cheaper than their more traditional counterparts. Specifically, Southwest Airlines will often be more expensive than American or United, at least once the first group of cheap seats is gone. Also, since traditional airlines do in fact lower fares during the sweet spot of a few weeks to a few months before departure, you might find that waiting for those lower fares might be the best deal of all.
Airfares are still often cheapest on Tuesday, in spite of a recent report saying otherwise
In late 2014 there was another airfare report that seemed to bust the “myth” that fares were often lowest on Tuesdays. The problem is, the report is very misleading and fares are still probably lowest on Tuesdays (or Mondays or Wednesdays). The report only looked at the prices paid on each day of the week, rather than the fares offered each day of the week.
It’s well known that many leisure travelers book on Saturdays, which is one reason why many fare sales are expired by then. But it’s also true that a huge majority of full-fare business travel is booked Mondays through Fridays. For this reason, it can appear that fares are higher during the week and lower on weekends even though the opposite is true. In other words, if I buy a US$300 roundtrip from LA to NYC on Saturday and some business traveler’s assistant buys the seat next to me for US$800 (fully refundable) on Tuesday, the study makes it look like fares offered are actually higher on Tuesdays.
The advice: Check any and every day of the week, and if it’s the weekend you might want to wait a few more days to see if fares drop.
Why do airfares go up and down and up again as the day approaches?
Looking at the data above, you might think the airlines are playing some sort of game with fliers, but these pricing policies are actually a result of elaborate data and computer models that help them make the most money from each plane that leaves the ground. Here’s why:
People who buy plane tickets early are less price sensitive
In the world of economics they call this being “inelastic” in that in some situations consumers will buy almost exactly as many tickets, even if the price is higher. Airlines (obviously) want to maximize their profit for every seat they sell on the plane, so they take advantage of those who are driven to lock in early.
Consumers who buy early might:
- Already have set vacation days they want to use all of
- Be attending an event, such as a wedding, where there’s no flexibility
- Be someone who feels great stress until the ticket is locked in
In the above situations, whether a round-trip between Los Angeles and London is US$800 or US$1100, the person buying at least 3 months out is likely to buy either way. There is little incentive to airlines to sell a ticket for $800 if they’d sell almost as many at $1100.
People who buy plane tickets late are also less price sensitive
Similarly, consumers who are interested in flying 10 or fewer days from any given moment are also inelastic. They are likely to pay a premium for the convenience of going soon, so there’s little incentive for airlines to discount these tickets either.
Consumers who buy at the last minute might:
- Have just gotten approval for fixed time off soon
- Have an event on a fixed date (a football game, etc)
- Be someone who hates to commit to things early, and is willing to pay extra for the added flexibility
Now, keep in mind, that anyone who is hoping to fly in 10 days or fewer from now will see higher prices, and they’ll have the option of going 2 or 3 weeks later to save quite a bit of money. This price discrimination allows airlines to sell more expensive seats to those who can’t wait, and cheaper tickets to those who can.
What happened to cheap “last-minute” fares?
In reality, it’s always been difficult to find last-minute airfare bargains, at least to specific places you already want to visit. There are still examples of those weekly fare sales where an airline publishes a list of last minute bargain flights, but anyone who’s paid attention to them can see the problem.
They tend to offer cheap flights between obscure city pairs on the least popular travel dates. So if you are ready to fly between, say, Charlotte and Bermuda this coming Saturday and return the following Tuesday, those last-minute deals could be for you. But for most of us, they never appear for places we really want to go and at times we want to travel.
Why no last-minute deals, you might ask? Why are airlines willing to fly with empty seats instead of filling them for low prices?
The reason airlines don’t lower prices for unsold seats at the last minute is that the last thing they want to do is condition travelers to wait until the last minute, hoping for a bargain, and then sometimes not flying at all when a bargain doesn’t appear.
Think about it. If you wanted to go from Los Angeles to London at some point soon, and a round-trip next month is $900, but if you go in 2 days it’s only $650, you are likely to buy the cheap ticket two days from now, or skip it and hope that the same deal is available next month when you are ready to go.
Airlines make more money on each plane-load of people if they condition passengers into buying earlier at higher prices, or very early at even higher prices.
When to wait for fare sales
This all ties in with the economic principles above. You’ll notice fare sales by various airlines, and they usually appear in the middle of a season (summer, for example) trying to fill up seats for the rest of that season. In some cases they’ll announce an autumn fare sale in August, but it always tends to be for times of the year when the fewest people travel, namely, January through March plus October and November.
If you are waiting for a fare sale and wondering when it might appear, it’s important to consider the airlines’ motivation in announcing them. Let’s say they announced an October fare sale in June, with round-trip fares way lower than those offered in summer. That would actually cannibalize their business for July through September. If someone is considering paying a high fare to fly in August, the airlines are not motivated to show them a much lower fare if they waited. That would lead to empty seats in late summer, which would be very costly for them.
In almost all cases you are best off waiting until 6 weeks or so before your departure date, but it’s also important to track the fares before that, and keep an eye on fare sales.
This same research by the AP also said that fare sales usually appear on Tuesdays and are over by the end of Thursday, so check fares early in the week and if a price drops then jump on it. They also found the highest fares showed up for those searching on Saturdays and Sundays, so you might be best off just skipping the weekends for fare research anyway.