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.

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All Comments

  1. Jon Grah says:

    ^^Interesting you just mentioned this. I just booked a R/T non-stop flight for a relative on JetBlue.com last week. JFK New York to MBJ Jamaica and it was $448 inclusive (Blue+). Leaves tues 05 Dec, return Sun 21 Jan. Also, all the seats closest to the front that are not premium seats (where you pay extra) sell out first. The rest of the plane was empty though, and on the return flight 21 Jan we were the 3rd or 4th passenger 🙂

    But the person traveling is a retiree, so date flexibility seems to make a huge difference. Flying so close to Christmas the price would likely be more. But for example, picking Dec 16/17/18 to Jan 11/12/13/14 was $630 vs your Dec 23rd to Jan 06 which the cheapest flight was $1025 (1 seat left on first leg, otherwise 13-$1400 for blue+)

    If your work schedule is an issue, it might be cheaper to take UNPAID time off of work and book the earlier flight. Just a thought.

    —–
    Also, JetBlue only allows booking about 240 days out. We actually had to wait until about 3 weeks ago to be able to book into Jan 2018. There was another flight to JFK MBJ we wanted to book from end of Feb 2018 to end of Mar 2018, but JetBlue currently only allows booking until 14 Feb 2018. I checked a couple of other online flight reservations and the cheapest thing I saw non-stop was nearly $500 on Caribbean Airlines. Not sure when JetBlue’s booking dates are updated further out (it’s not every week).

    Any insights on why any airline would limit booking to only 6-7 months out? I remember it being 11 months out years ago.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Jon,

      I agree with you about flexibility being a huge factor for getting cheaper fares. As far as I’m aware most airlines still do allow booking 11 months out, but I did notice recently that jetBlue has that shorter window. I don’t know why they do that, but my guess would be that they flights of the sort that jetBlue flies, probably sell 98% of their seats starting 8 months out. So they probably don’t lose many sales and this allows them to be more flexible with their scheduling. They can change routes and times while other airlines are already locked in.

      In my own research it’s clear that basically the longer the flight, the earlier people tend to book it. So Los Angeles to Singapore most people book 3 to 5 months early, but Los Angeles to Las Vegas is mostly booked only a few weeks out. Since jetBlue doesn’t have any flights longer than LA to New York (as far as I know), I guess they don’t lose many early bookings anyway. Again, it’s just my guess. Thanks for the comment. -Roger

  2. Tana says:

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for your response. The low cost carriers included Norwegian, but also Wow and XL Airways France. Both of the latter have rather poor reviews and require additional payment for luggage, seats, etc. so I wasn’t planning on flying either.

    I do think it’s worth the gamble to at least wait another week or so. I’ve been looking at available seats on traditional carriers’ flights and do see plenty of availability so it makes sense that they will drop prices again.

    Thanks again!
    Tana

  3. Tana says:

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for an informative article. I’m hoping for your advice. My husband and I are flying to Paris in late August (fixed date) and returning about 10 days later. When I first starting looking this past Sunday, flights were as low as $596 on a low-cost airline, which are now several hundred dollars more. Since we are now just under 8 weeks from departure, I’m concerned that if I wait for the weekend/early week, the prices may go up more. Do you advise waiting it out for a few days? Are prices likely to drop again or will they just keep going up at this point?

    Thanks much in advance!

    Tana

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Tana,

      Interestingly, late August tends to be a good month for airfare sales because most people schedule their summer holidays to return home by the middle of the month. For that reason airlines would often wait until later in July and then spring some pretty good sale fares on flights like the one you have in mind. So if the lowest price has recently shot up by a few hundred dollars I would think there is a decent chance that they will go lower again, and at least very little chance that they’ll go up again soon.

      If that low-cost airline you are referring to is Norwegian, they tend to start with low fares and then move them up as more seats are filled. So they don’t typically drop prices on flights that are for sale at higher fares at an earlier date. But the more traditional carriers might lower fares for your flights still. If I were you I’d do a price alert on your flight on kayak.com or airfarewatchdog.com and hope for an email soon saying the fare has dropped. If it doesn’t drop by late July, it might not go down at all. As you know, this is always a bit of a gamble, but right now my best guess is that waiting is worth the gamble. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  4. Nikeda says:

    Hi, i have been checking flights to Jamaica for Christmas and New Years (12/23-1/6) but already prices are $1,000+! Last year i bought my ticket for the same date (purchased on July 12th) and paid a little less than $500 round trip. Is there a reason why they are already doubled the price? I’m not sure if i should wait or purchase. The plan was to follow what i did last year but the prices are ridiculous already! thanks in advance

    Forget to mention i’m leaving from the Northeast. I have also checked flying from ny (which is a hassle, 2hr drive) but usually much cheaper, i’d be willing to do that. Those prices are also about the same!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Nikeda,

      Wow. I just checked NYC to Montego Bay for those dates and saw that the cheapest flights are US$695 and they quickly go up from there. Even checking using flexible dates only gets it down to US$648, although that is nonstop on jetBlue, which is pretty nice. Unfortunately, the problem seems to be that those are the busiest two weeks of the year for Jamaica, and it seems that more people are booking earlier. JetBlue, for example, works like a low-cost airline in that the first seats they sell on each flight are cheap, and then the price keeps going up as more seats are sold. In other words, the price every only goes up with jetBlue, and they don’t offer deals as departure approaches.

      Most other times of the year the cheapest fares to the Caribbean are only 2 to 3 weeks out, but since all the airlines know that those Christmas flights will be sold out eventually with people paying high fares, there is no incentive for them to discount. So sorry to say, most likely the prices will slowly rise from here. There is a chance that you might see a quick sale with Delta or American, but I wouldn’t count on it. Sorry for the bad news. -Roger

  5. Michael says:

    I am looking to fly the family to Bogota Colombia from DFW from Dec 20 through Jan 1 to visit wife’s family. I know it’s a peak period with the kids school schedule, and we have done it before, but the current prices are the highest I’ve ever seen, even when scanning other departure cities such as IAH ($1800/person). Are the likely to drop into August, i.e. 4 months out?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Michael,

      Sorry to say, it would be very unusual if fares were to fall much for those travel dates. The thing is, the airlines know those flights will all eventually be full, so there is little or no incentive for them to discount seats to fill them up early. That said, if fares are much higher than in the past, it could be some glitch and it’s possible that the fare will drop again in the coming month or two. Also, if fares are already that high, it’s unlikely that they’ll just keep going up and up from here. So my best guess is that you have at least a month or two to wait it out and hope that the fare does fall at some point. I hope this helps. -Roger

  6. Kesha says:

    Hello. I want to fly from Tucson to Ushuaia, Argentina first week November then Santiago, Chile back to Tucson around 15 December. Price is $1555 total, all flights there and back. Is that a reasonable price considering that the flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia is $300 one way and that removing Ushuaia altogether, the price is still $1555? I am not flexible on departure dates because I purchased domestic flights and a cruise to Antarctica already. They were cheaper than I researched, so I purchased them. Punta Arenas to Santiago $120 total. Easter Island rt was $450 total. Should I just book it for the $1555 because I’ve painted myself in a corner with specific date requirement? Thanks for any help with this, and thanks for what you do here.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Kesha,

      I just checked myself and found that Tuscon to Buenos Aires and Santiago to Tuscon on those dates is US$1,585. So if you can get those extra flights to and from Ushuaia for about that same price, I think you are doing well. Those are long flights to BA and back from Santiago, and it’s rare to see a round-trip for under US$1,000, and it’s usually higher. In other words, I think that’s a pretty good deal and you should jump on it, especially since you are not flexible. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  7. Adrienne says:

    You are very helpful Roger! Now I hope you can give me some insight. I will be traveling from Marrakech to Tucson mid-November to early-February. My dates are flexible and I will be traveling business class. Prices seem to have been holding steady and it looks like my best price would be with Iberia. When I look at prices at search engines, though, I see such things as “only two seats left at this price” in order, I assume, to get me to buy NOW. It makes me concerned that there might not be any seats left by August, which is when I i tend to purchase my tickets. Can you offer me some comfort please?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Adrienne,

      I know what you mean by those “only two seats left at this price!” messages, and I’m 95% sure they are exactly as you say, a trick to get you to buy now. In my experience, business class seats tend not to fill up too early so I think you’ll be fine. Those travel dates are very much in the low season, which also helps. If I were you I’d check on the ticket prices for a variety of dates in different months, and if you see that business class seats are much higher in some, then it could be something to think about. Most likely I’d think that you’d see the same fare for any flight that isn’t yet too full or within 6 weeks or so of departure. If that’s the case then you can probably wait until August with no problem.

      Actually, some fares start going down a bit in August because airlines try to get people to pay high summer prices in July, but by August there is less demand and they have to cut fares a bit to fill up seats. And since you have flexibility, you can just keep checking your preferred dates once in a while. And if somehow the fare DOES jump up, you can probably get that same lower fare on a date around the same time. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  8. Maria says:

    Rodger,
    We are planning a trip from Pasco, WA to Manzanillo Mexico around December 19th. I’ve been checking flights since February and they don’t go down and they are plus 1 day. Last year we traveled around same time and booked in May for half the price. Any suggestions? I’ve even considered flying out of Portland or Seattle. Thanks in advance!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Maria,

      December 19 is close enough to Christmas, and especially since you are flying from a cool place to a warm place, that airlines usually don’t discount. Depending on the airline it’s possible that fares might go down again at some point, but I think it’s more likely that they won’t, or at least not by much. Flying out of a larger airport should help. Best of luck with this. -Roger

  9. Cate says:

    Rodger,
    My (future) husband and I will be celebrating our honeymoon in Iceland next January. We will be traveling from Tampa to Iceland from Jan 8 – 24, 2018. I have been periodically checking prices for the past 4 months and haven’t noticed much of a change in pricing (slight increase of about $5). I noticed in some of your responses above that you mentioned Icelandair does not really have the pricing swings we see with other airlines. Right now our departing flight is listed at $413/person and the return flight is $313/person. Based on your experience, should I go ahead and book or is there a chance the departing flight could come down closer to the $300 range? Icelandair is starting to offer direct flights from Tampa to Reykjavik in September so do you think prices might come down once they start those routes or would that force prices up? As you know, Iceland is very expensive so any money we can save on the flight is a huge bonus. Thank you so much for your help!!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Cate,

      That should be a very quiet time of year to go to Iceland, or even to go to Europe with a Reykjavik stopover. But yeah, in my experience it seems that Iceland Air starts with reasonable prices and they don’t change much until the flights start getting full. If I were you I’d check the fare on departures in November and early December, and maybe another couple of random dates. If you see that US$413 seems to be the bottom price for those, then you probably can’t do any better. But if you see lower prices for some departures, you might have luck by waiting. My guess is that you’d be safe waiting at least a couple months because I think it’s unlikely those departure fares will shoot up anytime soon, if at all. Best of luck with this. -Roger

  10. Mistie says:

    Roger thank you so much for the insight! I appreciate what you do. Have a great day!