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. Marian west says:

    Catching cruise from Sydney on April 22 and returning from Seattle on may 14. Can fly from Charlotte or Atlanta. When should I try to book my flight?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Marian,

      The cheapest fares on those routes look to be from about 8 to 15 weeks out, so you should track fares once in a while now, but most likely you won’t see them come down until right after the first of next year. Even then, it looks like you’ll have a month or two before they start going up again. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  2. Mona says:

    Hi!
    When do you advice me to buy Paris – Punta Cana, first half of december 2017. In fact, the trip is Bucharest – Punta, with 1 escale at Paris, with Air France.
    Thank you! All the best!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Mona,

      This is an interesting one. If you were in the US or Canada you would probably get the lowest fare by waiting until November, but generally longer flights have their lowest fares earlier than shorter flights do. In other words, I’d probably buy soon. I just put in some early December dates and I’m seeing a RT fare of US$588 with 2 layovers each way, but US$784 on Air France with nonstop going and one short stop going back. Then it jumps up to US$960 RT for all other flights. If you can get a fare close to the US$784 Air France is offering, I’d take it now. This doesn’t look like a situation where fares will drop much or at all in the weeks before the flights. I hope this helps. Best of luck. -Roger

  3. Emilia says:

    Hello there,

    After reading this I feel better about waiting to get my ticket, but when it comes to planning my trip it gets a bit tricky. My niece and I received a $200 voucher from American Airlines because they had a huge delay in a past trip. Now, we want to go to New York, leaving from Quito, Ecuador because it’s cheaper then the other international airport. The thing is that I’ve noticed that the prices for May 2018 are raising, the lowest I saw was around $460 in June, now it’s about $530 or so… According to what I’ve read around here the best thing is to wait, but with American Airlines I don’t know,I would really appreciate any light you can shed in the matter. Thanks in advance.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Emilia,

      With that flight still 9 months away I’m not surprised the fares are currently going up. In most cases the cheaper fares only start to appear about 6 months out, although it can be earlier in some cases. And as I’ve mentioned before, I’m certain that seats on those flights are still mostly empty at this point. The airlines just don’t have an incentive to start lowering fares when someone might still pay a higher fare for the same seat. So I think you are best off waiting and just checking every week or so, or even doing one of those email fare alerts. I’d guess that you’ll see lower fares starting in November or so, and maybe even lower in January. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  4. JD says:

    Nice work. Please i would be traveling to Kuala Lumpur from Lagos, Nigeria come mid September 2017. I know time ain’t on my side anymore but i was wondering if you can help me with the cheapest flight fare on a return ticket 8 months from September. Or you could guide me on the day of the week that would be best to book my ticket and /or fly for cheapest rate.
    Thanks
    JD.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      JD,

      I wish I could be of more help, but I’m not really familiar with the airfare patterns into Africa and I haven’t see much data. I’ve flown out of KL many times, but usually on Air Asia or similar carriers, and those always have low prices that keep going up as more seats are sold, as you probably know. Sometimes fares are lower when you check on Saturday, but that isn’t even always the case. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  5. Harshita says:

    Hi Roger,
    Thank you so much for doing this. It’s really helpful! 🙂
    I wish to book a round trip ticket from RDU to BOM (Mumbai, India) from 16 Dec, 2017 to 16 Jan, 2017. I started checking tickets in July and they were $1350 then. Ever since then, prices have only risen. Is there a possibility for the prices to come down by any chance in September? Or the current deal of $1630 the best I can get…?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Hashita,

      This is a tricky one. The data says that the lowest fares for that route tend to be around 8 to 10 weeks out, so it seems likely that they will come down in a month or two. However, so many people travel over the Christmas holidays that some of those flights like your outbound one can get booked up early. So if it were me I’d wait and I think most likely you’ll see something closer to US$1,300 again or maybe a bit lower. But there is a chance that they might stay high and eventually get a bit higher. It’s a bit of a risk, but I’d wait a month or two if I were you. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  6. Philip says:

    Roger, My cruise is out of Puerto Rico. So I need to fly from ABQ>SJU March 16>March 25. Due to work schedules, dates are not flexible. Thanks for weighing in. Philip

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Philip,

      Interestingly, ABQ to SJU seems to have a sweet spot from 9 to 11 months out. That is the first time I’ve ever seen that so I’m a bit skeptical that the data may be off a bit. The good news is that there is another cheaper window around 7 to 12 weeks out. Either way, that early window is over and I really think your best bet now is to wait and keep checking the fares. As I mentioned before, I’m 100% sure that those scheduled flights you are looking at are still nearly empty, so it’s just a matter of playing a bit of a game of chicken with the airlines. They sell as many tickets as possible at the highest price, and only start discounting when the flights are fast approaching. I’d recommend a Fare Watch so you can get an email when the fare goes down again. Best of luck with this. -Roger

  7. Philip says:

    I need to book a flight for 4 adults for a cruise in March 2018. We already have the cruise booked and now need to secure the flight.

    We need to leave ABQ on March 16 and Return on March 25 after noon. Flights are quite expensive about $833 for our preferred times.

    Is it likely to be cheaper if we wait? We don’t want to wait to last minute but would like to book with the next couple of months if there was a significant savings. Thanks!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Philip,

      It would be helpful to know your destination airport. Based on the price and the dates I’m guessing you are flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale. If that’s the case, or even if it’s anywhere in that same area, it looks like waiting is the right call. The chart I’m seeing for those cities shows that the tickets are cheapest from about 3 to 12 weeks out on average. One thing we know for sure is those flights out of Albuquerque aren’t full yet and won’t be until at least December or so. So I really think that time is on your side and most likely if you keep checking you will see the fares drop in the next few months. If you are going somewhere else let me know and I can take a look, though most likely the advice will be the same. Good luck on this. -Roger

  8. Cheryl Herrmann says:

    Hi
    I am planning to go to Tokyo from NY area in the beginning of February for 2 weeks. Currently fares are hovering $1400 on JAL. Should we wait to purchase or do you think Summer fares will be imminent? Thanks for you advice

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Cheryl,

      According to the available data, fares between NYC and Tokyo are usually cheapest from about 4 months to about 2 months out. So I’d definitely wait. You should be able to get something around US$1,000 return if you wait it out. That is a very dead time of year for long flights such as that one, so I don’t see any real risk in waiting at least until September or so. Sometimes this can be a bit of a gamble, but honestly I think waiting for lower fares is an easy call on this flight. Have a great trip. -Roger

  9. Julie Bocley says:

    Looking for multicity flights from los angeles to auckland then from sydney to los angeles in november. Long flights, so need to be non-stop, or at least one flight should be such. Flights havd been bouncing around $400 hundred dollars difference. Should we still wait awhile?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Julie,

      Even though those are obviously long flights, it seems that the lowest fares tend to cluster around 2 to 3 months out. Those aren’t high-season dates, so I would think the pattern should hold. In other words, I’d keep an eye on fares and then wait for a price drop to buy. Also it’s helpful to check the fares for a variety of travel dates so you can get a good idea what the typical lowest fares are. In other words, if you see that one of the flights is, say, US$600 in early October and more expensive on other dates, then US$600 is around what you are waiting for to buy. Best of luck on this. -Roger

  10. Nancy says:

    Hi Roger,
    Just found your website! Great tips! We’re planning on a trip to Japan end of February-beginning of March 2018 from SFO to either NRT or Haneda. I keep checking tickets and prices keep going up and down. We’d prefer the direct flights like flying JAL since we’ll have 2 small children with us and possibly trying the premium economy seats out.. When would be the best time to book? I know I have some time so I’m not overly worried, but at the same time I read other posts stating for international flights it’s best to book as far out. Any tips you have would be great! Thank you!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Nancy,

      For SFO to Tokyo it looks like the cheapest fares tend to be 4 to 6 months out, so you’ve definitely got at least a couple months before you should start thinking about buying. It’s true that the longer flights tend to be booked up longer in advance, but except for holiday flights such as around Christmas, I’d bet that those late February flights to Tokyo will still be almost empty as of 6 months out. Late winter is the lowest season of all for non-Tropical destinations, so it will be a buyer’s market.

      If I were you I’d check fares for those same flights in late January (another very dead season) and find the lowest you can find. Then you can keep checking your own ideal travel dates and wait for fares similar to the late January ones. When you see fares that are near the late January low for your own ideal dates, it’s probably time to buy because that is probably the lowest you’ll see. Best of luck with this. -Roger