Flights are cheapest 5 to 16 weeks out in 2019: Here’s when to book

Trying to find the absolute cheapest airfare for a trip you are planning is like playing a game that feels too easy to lose. Now in this era of ‘big data’ where many companies are able to check airfares on every route every day to calculate the cheapest possible time to buy, it’s finally a bit easier.

Only a few years ago the advice was often to buy between 4 and 6 weeks out, but things have changed and it really depends on where you are going. As you’ll see in the 2019 update below, the window for buying the cheapest fares starts earlier these days and buying about 4 months out often leads to the best deals. We’ve summarized a variety of studies below and with a quick scan you should be able to get some insight on when to buy and when to wait.

Note: This article was first published in 2012, and has been updated and revised each year as new information has come out, most recently in February, 2019.

2019 UPDATE: The data for 2018 has been similar to 2016 and 2017, but it's still complicated

As of 2019 there are quite a few different companies that are analyzing millions of airfare purchases in order to find the money-saving trends. They tend to show the same pattern, which is that buying two or four months early is the sweet spot for most tickets.

For the tests we ran below we used the very helpful tool from Cheapair.com.

Summary: Buying air tickets earlier will usually save you money

In years past the sweet spot for buying cheap tickets often didn’t start until 6 to 8 weeks before the flight, but the data from 2018 shows once again that the cheaper airfares are now usually available starting 4 to 6 months out in many cases. In other words, if you are sure you want to fly on particular dates, you can usually get something close to the lowest possible fare if you book almost half a year out.

Another interesting thing about the data is that once you reach the beginning of that “sweet spot” where fares are near their low for any given flight, they still bounce around by up to US$50 over the next couple of months before they start heading higher as the flight approaches. So the best strategy is to set an alert for fare decreases on the route that you are shopping for, and buy as soon as you get one of those dips.

North America to Europe: 7 to 16 weeks out is usually the sweet spot

The optimal purchase window varies a bit depending on your departure and arrival cities, but generally speaking if you are flying between North America and Europe then the fares will be close to their lowest about 16 weeks out and you usually (but not always) don’t have to worry about them shooting up until about 7 weeks out.

As long as you are within that 16-week window, the longer you wait the greater the chance that the fares will start jumping up for good. This is especially true for popular travel periods such as July and August. In spring and autumn you can usually get away with waiting a bit longer.

>>>Cheapest Europe cities to fly into from US and Canada

North America to the Caribbean: Book 3 to 12 weeks out

The great news is that if you want to go to a Caribbean hot spot such as Cancun, San Juan, or Nassau, you can often get the lowest fares only 2 or 3 weeks out. You can book as early as 10 to 12 weeks out and lock in the best fares, but they usually don’t go any lower than that so waiting longer isn’t really advisable if you are sure when you want to go.

The Caribbean hurricanes in 2017 won’t change anything, in case you were curious. The islands that were affected most are all small islands that only got a small percentage of Caribbean flights in the first place. The busy airports such as CancunPunta Cana, and even San Juan, Puerto Rico (which has fully recovered) should carry on the same as before when it comes to airfare windows.

>>>Cheapest Caribbean islands and destinations

North America to Asia/Pacific: 8 to 20 weeks is cheapest

As of 2016 it was necessary to book long flights between North America and Asia almost half a year in advance for the lowest fares, but in 2017 and into 2018 it seems that you can book between about 8 and 20 weeks to get something close to the lowest possible price on any flight. Generally speaking, the longer the flight the earlier that people book it, so it’s wise to book as soon as you are sure of your dates.

The good news is that you no longer have to book so far in advance to get something close to the lowest fare. The more obscure your destination (Hanoi, Kathmandu etc), the earlier you should probably book. For more common destinations such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Bangkok, you have more time to wait.

>>>Cheapest Asia cities to fly into from the US and Canada

North America to Middle East & Africa: 6 to 12 weeks is best

Another case where flight shoppers in 2019 can wait a bit longer to get a great deal than even a year ago, you should now be able to get a good fare to a place like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Cairo only 6 weeks or so out.

North America to South America: 5 to 16 weeks is cheapest

In 2019 there is a wider range for the lowest fares going from North America to South America. Many of these are not especially popular routes so there isn’t much competition on them. In cases like this it’s usually best to book early because if there is only one airline flying that route, you are vulnerable to a nasty surprise.

On short and popular routes, 3 to 4 weeks is usually fine

If you are flying on a very popular route, and especially a shorter one such as Los Angeles to Las Vegas or San Francisco, or New York to Washington DC, the window with the lowest fares is usually between 2 or 3 weeks and 8 weeks or so. Since so many people book these kinds of flights with little notice, you can usually get a very low fare even 3 weeks out.

Flights within Europe: Buy as early as possible

In reality the cheapest fares within Europe are almost all on the low-cost carriers such as Easyjet and RyanAir. If you are flying on any of those airlines, the fares ALWAYS start out cheap and get more expensive as more seats are sold. So the cheapest time to buy on a low-cost airline is NOW (or as soon as tickets go on sale, which is usually 11 months out).

Flying on a low-cost carrier (even to Europe): Buy now

As mentioned just above, if you are flying on one of the low-cost airlines, the seats go on sale about 11 months out at the lowest price, and they keep getting more expensive as each next group of seats are sold.

This is even true on Norwegian Airlines between the US and Europe. They offer the lowest fares in general on scores of popular routes, so if you are sure of your dates you should buy the tickets as soon as possible to lock in the lowest fare. They won’t be getting any cheaper.

Cheapest times of the year to fly

The trends above should be valid for flights for most of 2018 and into 2019, but there are a few times of the year that are always a bit cheaper than others. For this information we look to research from Rick Seaney of FareCompare, who has been doing this longer than anyone else.

Domestic US flights are cheapest

January 7 to March 5 (between Christmas Break and Spring Break)

April 18 to June 2 (between Spring Break and Summer travel season)

August 22 to mid December (most summer trips end and autumn is a slower season)

If you can fly in any of the periods mentioned above you are likely to get lower fares than if you fly during the traditionally busier periods.

US to Europe flights are cheapest

Before June and after mid August (summer season is by far the busiest, and it ends earlier than you might think)

Weekdays and especially Tuesdays and Wednesdays (Even more so than domestic travel, trans-Atlantic travelers like to travel Fridays through Sundays, so flying the other days will almost always be cheaper).

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.

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.

Flights are still often cheapest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

There has been some confusion over the years about this fact, partly because some of the reporting has been about the day of the week the flight is booked rather than the day of the week the flight is taken. Some data showed that prices were higher for bookings on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and lower on Saturdays. The problem with this is that most business fares are booked on weekdays and those fares are higher, and most people buying on a Saturday are leisure travelers and they are price-sensitive so they only buy cheaper tickets.

My favorite trick for finding the best fares for an upcoming flight is to check for that route on a Wednesday and returning on a Wednesday. That will almost always show you the lowest possible fare, and then you can compare prices of other days of the week to see how much more you are willing to pay to fly on, say, a Friday or Saturday.

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 flyers, 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.

Check multiple websites at once to find the cheapest fares

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All Comments

  1. Steph says:

    Hey!
    I’m deciding to go to Barbados in April until June. When should I book my flight so it’s at the lowest price?
    Thank you
    Steph

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Steph,

      According to the most recent data by kayak.com, you’ll find the lowest prices about 2 to 3 weeks out, although that’s probably not true of Easter Week, which will probably just go up in price. So if you are thinking of going early in April, look for price drops in the next few weeks, and buy as soon as you see one. They also say that fares can also be cheap just one week out, so hopefully you’ll have chances for lower fares than right now. -Roger

  2. Yvonne McKenzie says:

    I am seeing that the best time to purchase international (Calgary Canada to Mendoza Argentina) is 11 weeks. Although in part of your post the data suggests 6 months to South America. We are travelling the last week of Oct and returning mid Nov, what do you suggest? We have seen a slight rise since last month, but we are hoping for a decent drop yet!
    Thank you muchly

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Yvonne,

      That’s an interesting question. My guess is that the 11 weeks number for international tickets includes mostly flights to Europe plus many to the Caribbean, so I’d think that the 6 months figure specifically for South America is probably more accurate. In my own experience, I very rarely see airfares going up and staying high for the entire period before the flight, so I think there’s a very good chance they will come back down again in the coming month or two. It’s always a bit of a gamble though.

      I hope you are also checking fares on Mondays or Tuesdays to see if they are lower. It seems that flights to almost everywhere tend to be lowest on those days, and go up again over weekends. Good luck. -Roger

  3. Jars says:

    What is the best time to buy tickets if I plan fly to manila (from winnipeg, ca) in mid December this year? …cuz right now the tickets are too pricy as I checked online. Thanks.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Jars,

      The most recent study says that international flights that aren’t in holiday periods are cheapest 11 weeks out, so you will probably find the best fare in mid to late September. Until then, the airlines are too busy trying to sell out the flights that take off in a few weeks or a few months, so they don’t discount fares for flights 11 months away. -Roger

  4. Edgar says:

    When would you say will the lowest airfare become available for travel on Holiday Weekends such as President’s Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Edgar,

      Memorial Day and Labor Day should be treated as holidays, at least if you are planning on leaving on Thursday or Friday and returning on Sunday or Monday. In other words, buy as early as possible because it’s unlikely that they will discount those flights a month or two out. With President’s Day, I’d think it’s the same, but maybe not as much competition. Probably flights from cold places into warm places for the weekend should be bought as early as possible, but if you are flying from, say, Atlanta to New York City, I think you might get the best deal in early January. -Roger

  5. margaret says:

    We are going to switzerland in the middle of june. i have not seen any price changes lately from the dfw area. when should i really look for the best price and is there another city in the u.s. that is the cheapest to fly from to zurich…we could always use miles to get to that city.

    thanks so much

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Margaret,

      For international flights like this, evidence suggests that the lowest price will be around 11 weeks from the departure date. That means that you will likely see prices drop at least a little in early or mid March. When that happens, be prepared to buy.

      To reach Zurich from the US, the cheapest cities are New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Boston and Chicago are also fairly cheap. Closer to Dallas, New Orleans is the cheapest in your area. Good luck. -Roger

  6. Ruth says:

    As I understand it, I should wait until late April/early May to book flights from east coast US to Puerto Rico scheduled for mid June? If I wait until late April/early May, would I still save money booking flights leaving midweek rather than Saturday-Saturday? Thanks for all your excellent insights.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Ruth,

      Yes, it’s most likely that the lowest fares will appear starting in late April or early May, but you should check them every week or so until then. If the price drops for your preferred dates, it’s probably a good idea to buy. -Roger

  7. Dawn says:

    I am going to London in August, but while there I want to fly to Ireland. When would the best time to buy tickets for this trip be? Right now they are about 217 sterling pounds for two people.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Dawn,

      If you are going to fly on a low-cost airline like Ryanair or EasyJet, then book that one as soon as possible for the lowest fare. I just checked some random dates in August on Ryanair (which is usually cheaper, although EasyJet is better), and I’m seeing a total of £98 for two people, round-trip from London Gatwick to Dublin. There are some additional charges for checked baggage and such, but it should be way less than £200.

      You should be able to get similar fares between a variety of city pairs in England and Ireland if you book soon. In other words, check Ryanair and EasyJet now for flights that work, paying close attention to the add-on fees on both, and book soon. The price will keep going up as more seats on each flight are sold. If EasyJet is only a little more expensive, I recommend paying it to avoid the headache that goes along with flying Ryanair. -Roger

  8. early says:

    Hi
    just want to ask if how much is the ticket now from here saudi Arabi
    to manila philippines connect to general santos airport
    if I book this week…thanks

  9. Angeline says:

    Hi, just want to ask is summer (Jun’14/ Jul’14) considered holiday period? If so, am I right to say that the latest I need to buy an international air ticket is Mar’14? Thanks 🙂

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Angeline,

      The “holiday periods” that the study refers to are things like Christmas or Easter. Summer is just a normal busy period, so yes, you’ll want to get serious about a purchase around March or so. -Roger

  10. June says:

    Hi im june
    I read it well and it is really helpful. thanks!
    But still i cant make sure sth
    If i want to buy a one way ticket from south america to L.A.
    The date of flight will be around 2/13-15 somthing
    Then it is the internatiolnal flight, right?
    Then should i buy it 11week before or 4-6weeks before?
    I thought now is the most high season of south america
    so i was waiting for going down the price

    1. Roger Wade says:

      June,

      Yes, it’s an international flight so you’d want to buy the ticket up to 3 months in advance. After that, the airfare is more likely to rise than to fall. -Roger

    2. Maria says:

      Hi Roger,

      I have plan to book flight ticket from Singapore to Amsterdam on 15 May 2015-31 May 2015. I always checked the ticket price these 2 months. Now the price increased very high, $1300-1600, the cheapest is Malaysia Airline, went down from $1150 to $997. Should I buy now or wait 3 months before departure? Do you think the price will go down again? Because I need to apply visa which require flight ticket. Please advise. Thanks.

      1. Roger Wade says:

        Maria,

        I just checked your dates on Kayak.com and got US$769 return on Malaysia Airlines, with good connections. If you are quoting in S$ then maybe it’s the same price. Either way, I think that looks like quite a good fare and I’d be surprised if it went much lower than that. I mean, it might go down by US$100 if you are very lucky, but it’s more likely to go up. And with your visa situation, I don’t think it’s worth waiting and hoping for a small reduction.

        Even without a visa on the line, I think that fare looks pretty good, especially for Friday and Saturday flights. Best of luck. -Roger