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. Aisyah says:

    Hi,
    i would like to fly to America (New York) in Dec’14 throughout chrostmas and New Yr. i have checked through skyscanner the amt is SGD 1,400++. i never fly to america before so im not sure what is the lowest price and when would be the best time to buy the flights?

    What would be the average price to fly to America during these period?

    Thanks
    Aisyah

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Aisyah,

      As mentioned in the article above, it’s more expensive to fly during big holiday periods, and they don’t get any bigger than Christmas. Since you mentioned SGD, I assume you are leaving from Singapore? If so, that looks like a pretty good price for a long round-trip flight like that. I’m actually surprised it’s not higher. It’s rare to find a round-trip flight between the US and Asia for less than US$1,000 (SG$1,250) at any time of year.

      So if you want to do this trip around the Christmas weeks, you are probably seeing the lowest fares now, and at some point they’ll start to climb even more. Best of luck. -Roger

  2. Steve says:

    So I’ve been planning on booking a flight from JFK to LAX on 7/1/2014 to 7/7/2014 and I’ve been wondering what the ideal time of purchase should be. I read through some of the previous comments and I’m guessing the best time would be around the beginning of May? I just want to make sure because this is my first trip across the states without the help of my parents. Thanks in advance. 🙂

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Steve,

      This one could be a bit tricky. On most dates, the 3 to 7 weeks thing is typically the cheapest time to buy on domestic US fares, and it may be true on this one as well. But, since July 4 is a Friday and a huge holiday in this country, many people will be taking that week off, so that might be a popular week to travel.

      My best guess is that fares will go down in May, but maybe not by too much because the flights will probably be more sold than flights a week or two later. I doubt they’ll go up quickly from here, so you should have time to look and think about it. And NYC to Los Angeles is a very busy and competitive route, so even if one or two airlines start raising their prices, there will probably still be a few who don’t follow suit at the same time. Good luck. -Roger

  3. Allison says:

    Hello,
    I’m looking to fly from YYC (Calgary) to NCL (Newcastle, UK) for around Christmas (probably 16 Dec to 31 Dec). The best I am seeing at the moment (with reasonable travel duration and only 1 stop) is around $1185 (CDN). Would you envisage the price dropping at all (e.g. airline special offers) or should I just go ahead and book now?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Allison,

      The data from past years says that flights around the big holidays tend to just keep getting more and more expensive as the departure date nears. Those are prime dates for a Christmas trip, and I’d think that going into a 2nd-tier airport like Newcastle makes it even tougher because there just aren’t that many flights to choose from.

      So my best guess is that it’s unlikely that the fare will drop, and it’s far more likely to just keep going up. On the other hand, it’s so far in advance that it might drop a bit at some point. If if were me and I was locked into those dates and those airports, I’d probably buy soon. You might save a bit of money by flying into Manchester or Edinburgh, but probably not enough to make it worthwhile.

      Fortunately, the fare you are looking at seems pretty good compared to summer fares, so buying soon is probably the way to go. -Roger

  4. Anthony says:

    Thanks for taking the time to reply to everyone’s message. I’ve been looking at flights from San Francisco Airport (SFO) to New Orleans (MSY) for about a month now for July 9-13, and I haven’t seen them get as low as they are posted today for (~$410).

    Going by the information you posted here though, I should wait until May for lower-priced tickets? I’m just worried I’m risking the low price for even more lower-priced tickets. Let me know your thoughts. Thanks Roger.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Anthony,

      This is a subject I find very interesting so I’m happy to check these scenarios and give my opinion. In this case I do think chances are very high that even lower fares will appear starting late this month or early May, and the studies suggest that could go all the way through mid June. Even Kayak.com’s Price Trend tool says fares are likely to go down, although they only evaluate the next 7 days.

      So my opinion is that the lower fares are coming up, and it seems very unlikely that they’ll go up from here and just get higher and higher (as they would on Southwest or other low-cost airlines). But with all of that said, it sounds like you’ve got firm dates, and returning on a Sunday is a popular thing to do, which might work against you. In other words, if those are the only dates you are willing to fly, you might not want to risk it by waiting and waiting. Like, if you were able to go on the 8th and return on the 12th instead, you’d have more backup possibilities. That way, even if fares go up for the Sunday flight, you could just lock in the Saturday flight before that one goes up too.

      Best of luck with whatever you decide. -Roger

  5. Kyle says:

    Hi,

    I’m planning to go to South Korea (ICN) from Toronto (YYZ) the first week of August. I’m pretty flexible with my dates, if needed I can go the 4th week of July or 2nd week of August. When do you suggest I start looking to buy? If I understand the 11 week thing correctly then I should look sometime in May for a departure in August?

    Thank you!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Kyle,

      More than one study has shown that “international” flights are cheapest about 11 weeks out, while the newer Kayak.com data from just recently is more specific in saying that flights from North America to Asia are cheapest from 3 to 4 months out. My guess is that the longer the flight, the earlier people tend to buy, so airlines start raising fares again sooner. In other words, you are already within the prime window for the July departures, and very close for August as well. Look for any price break you can find, and be ready to buy. Good luck. -Roger

  6. DANIEL says:

    Hello,

    I was thinking of going to New York (JFK) from Los Angeles (LAX) for Memorial Day Weekend 5/23/14 – 5/26/14. Do you know when the best time would be to purchase tickets for a reasonably cheap rate ($350 or less)?

    Thanks,

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Daniel,

      It’s probably bad news that I think any possibility of a ticket that cheap are probably gone. You want to go on the most popular travel days of a popular travel holiday weekend, and the research says that those generally just keep going up in price. If you went a week before or a week later, the fares will probably be lowest around 4 or 5 weeks out, but so many people want to fly on those exact dates, the airlines have no motivation to cut prices. Sorry, and good luck. -Roger

  7. edmund says:

    I am looking at airafres from Madrid to london 1.1.15 , as this is peak should i buy the tickets now. Also looking at tickets rome to Barcelona 28.12.14 peak season, tickets on sale but not Ryanair, should I wait till they put there tickets up for this period or wait.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Edmund,

      For the flight on January 1 from Madrid to London, I do think that you are best off buying early. On specific holidays like that, fares tend to just keep going up.

      As for Rome to Barcelona next 14 December, that one might get cheaper on major carriers, but if you are thinking of going on Ryanair or any other low-cost airline, you are best off buying tickets as early as possible. On those carriers, all seats start off cheap, and go up in price as the plane fills up. Good luck. -Roger

  8. Jessica says:

    Do you think flights from China follow a similar pattern? We are planning a trip to Europe this summer, flying out of Shanghai, roughly July 5 to Aug 15. Are we better off waiting a bit before getting tickets?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Jessica,

      I do think flights starting in Asia and going to Europe will follow a similar pattern in airfare changes. So the 11-weeks-out might be about when the fares will be cheapest, but if I were you I’d check them at least every week starting now, and be ready to buy when you see the fares go down. It seems unlikely that they’ll only go up from here. Good luck. -Roger

  9. Lisa says:

    Charlotte to Las Vegas currently pricing at $525 for 6/29 – 7/13. Is it best to wait until end of April/beginning of May to book?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Lisa,

      This one seems like a classic example of a domestic flight where fares are likely to be lowest between 3 and 7 weeks from departure. So according to the data, early May would be the time to start getting serious about booking. But if your dates are set, and since these are Sundays (which tend to be busy), you should probably check every week or so, and be ready to buy once you see a dip in fares. Good luck. -Roger

  10. Pamela Tune says:

    Hi Roger….Came across you website hoping you can help me with some info on when to buy our airline tickets. We are going to be taking flights in Australia Sydney-Brisbane Brisbane-Cairns Cairns-Melbourne travel will be late September early October 2014. We need a flight back to USA Newark Airport. Any Advice would be appreciated. Thanks in Advance Pam

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Pamela,

      Those popular domestic routes in Australia are all covered by low-cost airlines like Tiger Air and Virgin Australia, and those carriers use pricing systems like Southwest Airlines in that all flights start at the same price and then fares go up as more seats are filled. In other words, the cheapest time to buy is NOW. Fortunately, they are pretty cheap already and you are booking early enough to get very good fares. If you see a route where Qantas has the lowest fares (which is unlikely) then those might dip a bit about a month or so out.

      So if you can, buy very soon for the best fares. For the flight back to the NYC area it’s a different story, and that flight might be cheapest around 3 months out similar to other international flights. Good luck and have a great trip. -Roger