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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All Comments

  1. Anthony says:

    Need to fly YYZ to MIA on Dec 20 and back on Dec 27. Flights on those dates just rose by $100 to $900 per person. Will they come back down?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Anthony,

      I’m seeing many flights on those dates that are US$500 or less per person. The flights into Palm Beach and Ft Lauderdale are a bit cheaper than those into Miami, and those airports are all close to each other. So I’m not sure what you are looking at, but the flights that I’m seeing, the cheapest of which are on Delta and WestJet, are starting at US$405, and they will keep going up in price from there for those prime holiday dates. -Roger

  2. Naan says:

    I am going from msp to san fran from dec 14-21. Flights right now for non stop are $500+. I am assuming the price will go down, but I am also concerned that we are traveling around Christmas. thoughts?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Naan,

      This is an interesting one, which is probably why you are asking. The flight on Dec 14 would come down in price on its own, but the Dec 21 part is a busy day in the Christmas period so that one might go up. I just checked now and it looks like you can buy one-way tickets in each direction for about the same price as the round-trip. So you might think about checking the flights you are considering, and checking the price of each way alone. If they add up to about the same as the round-trip, you might buy the Dec 21 one soon to lock it in, and the first half could still go down in price. If those are your exact dates, this isn’t easy to answer, so that’s the best I can do with an opinion. Good luck. -Roger

  3. Sherry says:

    Hi,

    We’ve already committed to a villa rental in Akumal, MX in mid-July for our family of 7. My husband wants to buy the airline tickets now. I say monitor the onlinef prices ( they are running over $500 a ticket) and buy closer to the depature date. I haven’t seen anything about mid-summer fare rates to Mexico in 2014. What would you suggest as an approach to finding reasonable fares. ( Our daughter is flying from LAX; the rest of the family from DFW.). Thanks!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Sherry,

      I’ll assume that you will be flying into Cancun, and that should be part of the Caribbean data in the studies on airfare trends. My best guess is that the fares will drop between now and June, especially since $500 seems awfully high for such a short flight (from DFW). Also, July is part of the low season in the Cancun area, and that also works in your favor.

      The slightly tricky part for you is that you’ve already locked in dates for the villa, so you don’t have the flexibility to go a day earlier or a day later if those fares are lower. Still, it would be surprising if fares don’t come down over the next few months. As you can see in the Kayak data in the article above, Caribbean fares are often the cheapest just a week or two out. I wouldn’t want to wait that long if I already paid a deposit on a villa, but I’d think that by early June you’d see a price drop that is enticing enough to pull the trigger. Good luck. -Roger

  4. Alice Serras says:

    Hi,

    We are planning to go to New Zealand from London for 3 weeks at the end of October. The flights I have been watching have already gone down from £860 to £700. Do you think this is due to recent events or a natural decrease? When would you recommend we buy?

    Thanks,
    Alice

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Alice,

      Most of the studies published are for airfares leaving from the US, but I’d think that the same trends would be in effect for flights from the UK. So based on that, my hunch is that you might find even lower fares anywhere up to August. On the other hand, since you’ve already seen fares dropping lately, it seems unlikely that they’ll go down by too much more at any time. The trend seems to be that airlines start with fares that aren’t too much higher than their discount fares, drop them a few months out if there are still many available seats, and then start moving them up again once the plane is more full. In other words, there’s a chance that the fare would drop to maybe £650 in a couple months, but at some point it will pop back up to £860 and when it does it will be too late.

      Long story short, I think if you wait a month or two or three, you might save a bit, but you might get unlucky and the flight fills up at the current discount, and the fare starts going up. So I’d really think about buying soon, now that you are already seeing a discount. Good luck. -Roger

  5. Erika says:

    Hi Roger,

    I’m flying annually from VN-US-VN. I stay in the US for one month each summer.

    My first-ever round-trip ticket was US-VN in summer 2011, with VN-US in July 2012. Then I booked US-VN for August 2012, with VN-US for July 2013. Now I’m flying the VN-US leg in July 2014. …I haven’t bought a US-VN-US ticket yet for 2014/2015.

    It would more convenient for me to book, annually for summers, VN-US-VN. (It means I have to buy a one-way ticket US-VN for summer 2014).

    Is it cheaper to book VN-US-VN, versus US-VN-US?

    Thank you,
    Erika

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Erika,

      I’m assuming that VN is referring to Vietnam? I don’t think there is an easy answer for this. I’ve heard that you can sometimes get lower fares from within a country like Vietnam if you go through a local travel agent that specializes in flights to the US, but I think online either direction could be cheaper depending on the date you search.

      Also, the data does indicate that fares between the US and Asia tend to be at their lowest nearly a year out, so your idea of booking essentially an 11-month stay in the US could work. So unfortunately I can’t answer your question with any certainty. These airfares change every day, so I’d recommend you search the different options and if you see one that is even a bit cheaper than the others, jump on it. Good luck. -Roger

  6. VERONICA says:

    Hi. We are scheduled to go to St. Maarten from NC on Nov. 29 for a week. When do you suggest we aim to purchase our flights. I wasn’t sure if this would be considered “holiday”.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Veronica,

      Well, since Thanksgiving in the US is on November 27 this year, it means that your outbound flight will be within the holiday period, on Saturday. So I’d think that anything before that would be in high demand, but going from the US to the Caribbean on Saturday is probably not a common thing, and flying home a week later is even less common.

      My best guess is that you’ll be able to wait for the best fares on this, possibly as late as early November. But check them once in awhile and if you see the fare going down at all, then jump on it. This is a potentially tricky one, so good luck. -Roger

  7. sarah says:

    I am needing to fly out of Toronto 6 July 2014 into LA (One Way). About a month ago I saw them for $330 USD and now they are up around $390 USD. I am kicking myself I didn’t buy then, but needed to confirm dates with friend.
    I know 4 July is holiday in US and I’m flying out of Toronto on a Sunday around that holiday week…do you think I just need to cut my losses and book…or should I take the chance and wait a bit longer. So scary when I saw the price increase 🙁

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Sarah,

      Unfortunately, I think chances are highest that the fare will go up rather than down from here. That July 4 holiday is huge here in the US (as you certainly know), so it’s a perfect example of a weekend that millions of people have circled on their calendar. My best guess is that it won’t shoot up in price again soon and keep going up, but still, I think if the fare is still high after this coming Tuesday (when flights tend to be cheapest), then it will probably stay there. -Roger

  8. Teddy says:

    Hi Roger,
    I am planning to travel from Los Angeles,USA to Chennai,India on June 3rd week and return by July 3rd week.

    When is the right time to book ticket? If i travel from different city in USA, will it save any cost?

    Thanks,
    Ted

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Teddy,

      The study shows that for flights from the US to Asia, that 3 or 4 months out is the cheapest time to buy (unless you buy 9 or 10 months out). So I’d get ready to lock something in soon, keeping in mind that fares are usually lowest from Monday night through Wednesday and most expensive over the weekends.

      I recently ran some tests on international airports from the US and I found no cases where it would be cheaper to buy a separate round-trip to another city and then the international trip from there. In the case of India I think it’s possible that NYC to Chennai might have some cheap flights so that’s worth looking at, especially since LAX to JFK flights tend to be relatively cheap. Good luck. -Roger

  9. Melissa says:

    Hi Roger,

    Would love your advice. We need to be in Europe for a wedding in Split, Croatia on the 11th July 2014. Have not booked tickets yet!! Flying from Perth, Australia. We have from the 5th till the 19th July in Europe, 5 days in Split for wedding festivities. Would also like to check out another country close to Croatia though. When would be the best time to book, 11 weeks out? Also which city could be cheap to fly into? Thanks!!!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Melissa,

      Croatia is indeed a bit of a dead zone for cheap long-haul flights, although it’s worth checking flights into Zagreb, which is a pleasant place to spend a day or two. I think your other good choice in that direction would be Budapest, which is a wonderful (and quite affordable) city, and also has fairly cheap incoming flights. From Zagreb or Budapest you can take a train to Split, although those trains are a bit slow so it’s nice that they are cheap.

      Probably your best bet would be to fly into Milan or Rome and spend those extra days in Italy. If flights are cheaper into Milan you still might skip the city itself, and you can just hop on a train to Venice or Florence or even Rome. However you would tour Italy (by train), you can then pop over to Ancona (north of Rome and east of Florence) for a ferry ride directly to Split. If you’ve yet to spend much time in Italy, I think it would be the most enjoyable choice.

      And yes, my best guess is that the fare will be the lowest around 2 to 3 months out, although it’s hard to predict for sure. What I’d recommend is to check those various airports for the best flight deal right now, and then check the best options at least once per week (on Tuesday, if possible) until you’ve found that one of them has dropped in price. When that happens, jump on it, as that is probably the best you can do. If you get to 9 or 10 weeks out and no fares have dropped, it’s probably wise to buy before they creep up more. Bon voyage. -Roger

  10. Karen says:

    HI there,
    We are looking at tickets (multi-city Atl-Rapid City first leg, and Jackson Hole-ATL second part) leaving first week of June returning 2 weeks later. Would you suggest waiting until late March early April to purchase those? Thanks Michelle

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Karen,

      This is a tough one because those aren’t very popular routes so your choices might be limited. According to the studies and data, it’s most likely that fares will go down in the next few weeks. If fares right now look like they are higher than you expect, waiting is probably a good idea, and it’s unlikely that fares will just keep going up this early. Best of luck. -Roger