Dozens of airfare websites promise to do the bargain-hunting for you, comparing different rates and offering discount packages to boot. But if you spend just a few minutes searching for the same dates and destinations on different sites, you’ll quickly realize that none of them actually find the cheapest rates every single time.
Instead of letting your inbox fill up with custom alerts every day — or spending countless hours tweaking your search queries to settle on something affordable — follow a few thrifty rules of thumb instead.
Prices fluctuate according to a huge variety of factors, and according to New York Times travel columnist Michelle Higgins, almost all of them revolve around one thing: time. If you book the right fare at the right time, you could save big on your next flight and have plenty of money left over for the trip itself.
Wait Until the Afternoon
If you’re an early bird who starts your to-do-list as soon as you wake up, leave the travel reservations for last. According to The Economist, prices don’t just fluctuate from season to season or even day to day; they also drop during the day itself.
This has everything to do with demand: when businesspeople travel on their employer’s dime, they tend to book their flights at the beginning of the workday. However, people wait until they get home from work to book their family trips.
Airlines are savvy enough to realize that if they keep prices high in the morning hours, employees won’t care how much they charge to the company credit card. People traveling for leisure, however, tend to choose fares that leave more room in their budget for sightseeing and hotel stays.
That’s why prices usually don’t get competitive until after lunch, making this your prime time for deal scouting.
Book Eight Weeks in Advance
Seasoned flyers know that waiting until the very last minute is far from a sure thing. The more time-sensitive your request, the less freedom you have to compare rates. Two economists tackled this question in statistical terms, measuring everything from hourly rate changes to seasonal airline profits.
According to The Guardian, Makoto Watanabe and Marc Möller determined that eight weeks is the golden standard for getting the best deal.
Watanabe and Möller published their findings in the Economic Journal, providing detailed mathematical formulas and firsthand anecdotes to support their claim. They studied rate patterns for both domestic and international flights, concluding that prices begin to rise eight weeks before a flight as travelers get more desperate to book.
Cheap Air and Fare Compare both analyzed their own aggregated data to determine the most dominant patterns. Among millions of different rates over the course of a year, they could not determine a guaranteed, predictable window of cheap rates. However, they did notice some trends, including:
- Rates remain at their highest for the first four months of availability (between eleven and seven months before the flight)
- Between 29 and 104 days before a flight, the fare almost always drops within $10 of the cheapest it will ever get
- 14 days before a flight is the absolute worst time to book
If you’re lucky enough to have a flexible job that allows for last-minute vacations, you should always be on the lookout. That doesn’t mean you have to spend all your free time scouring budget websites, and it definitely doesn’t mean you have to be ready to make a purchase. Instead, simply browse a couple of airlines’ websites every week, and you’ll notice definite patterns in no time.
While ticket prices still depend on holidays, seasons and specific destinations, you’ll be ahead of the game if you keep an eye on rates throughout the year.
Don’t buy anything until a few months before your trip, but don’t wait until the last two weeks either. Use your powers of deduction and apply the patterns you’ve noticed to make the wisest purchase within that window of affordability. Enjoy your trip!