I’ve discussed how to search for the cheapest airfare in my Family Travel Hacking Guide (which I will pick up again someday). The websites I use the most to do this are Kayak and Google Flights though there are a lot of other great resources out there. Still, a lot of people like to ask when is the best time to buy airfare? I thought I’d tackle my thought process in this post.
Understanding how to find the best revenue fares seems to gain importance as time goes on in this game. As Freequent Flyer recently wrote, award tickets on legacy airlines now represent one of the most unreliable rewards programs when it comes to saving money.
This rings doubly true for families who need to book more than two tickets: award space can be unpredictable and reliable for larger groups. But you can still use cash equivalents like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, or Barclays Arrival points to book revenue fares – and all those currencies are cheap to earn.
So tl;dr, the best time to buy airfare depends on a ton of factors. There is no best time but you can still book at the “right” time for you. If you don’t feel like reading through my reasoning, here are the rules of thumb I use. I’ll break each one down in the post, with the caveat that no one post will cover every scenario or factor.
- Always have in mind what you think would be a good price for your flights
- In general, one month out (domestic) and two months out (international) provides a good starting point for timeframe
- Rules of supply and demand apply – if you’re flying during peak times or on a busy route you generally want to book earlier. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays generally are cheapest.
- Use Kayak or Google Flights to monitor flight prices – start as soon as you know where/when you’re going
- If you see a price at or below your “good price”, book the flight. The chances of saving $20 per flight generally aren’t worth the risk of paying $50 more per flight.
Determine a “good price” for your flight
Sometimes it might be difficult to come up with a “good price” for the flight you want to take, but you need this as a starting point. A general rule of thumb I use from here in Boston is $150-$200 down the East Coast and out towards Chicago and $300-$350 for anything beyond that. If you fly even twice a year you probably have a good general feel for how much tickets cost for your home airport.
But don’t worry too much about a “good price.” Instead, decide what price you are willing to pay for your ticket before of shortly after you’ve begun looking for tickets. Sites like Google Flights and Kayak predict whether prices will go up or down so you can use that as a baseline. Note they only predict how prices will fluctuate for the next week, so don’t take it as gospel.
Since my searches tend to have an East Coast bias, I did a search between San Antonio and Raleigh, NC for the middle of July (on a Wednesday, see below).
Notice Kayak says buy now at a price of $383. My guess is you could probably do better if you wait a new, but I also think Kayak correctly determined that the price won’t change in a week. You don’t really start seeing price fluctuations until…
In general, flights tend to be cheapest 1-2 months out
A 2014 cheapair.com article found that on average, US flight prices bottomed out at 54 days before flight date in 2013. I generally use 1-2 months out as a benchmark or deadline for myself for buying flights.
You can figure this out using fairly simple logic. The airlines, business wise, have two goals:
- Fill every seat
- Get customers to pay as much as possible for every seat
A year out, airlines can afford to charge higher prices – they figure if anyone wants to take the flight that badly they’ll just pony up. (One notable exception: Southwest airlines – you generally want to grab those Wanna Get Away fares ASAP). A week out or the day before the flight, airlines know you’re desperate and can charge whatever they want. (They also need to create a disincentive for people always buying at the last minute).
Once you get to 1-2 months out, the airlines probably have a pretty good idea about how full a particular flight will be. Math, computers, and statistical models can cover that for them. Thus, if they need to lower prices, 1-2 months out presents the most logical time to do it. Take a look at my Kayak search for SAT-RDU for a month from now, May 3.
Of course, if a flight is already pretty full, they might not lower prices then. So the best thing to do is to start checking the flights you want early and often as soon as you know where/when you want to go.
You can estimate how full your flights are
One other tool I like to use is expertflyer.com to see how full a flight is. This is a far from perfect method, but it works if you don’t want to pay any money (you can get better data if you’re willing to, though!)
With a free subscription you can search seat maps to see how many seats have been reserved on a plane. Note this doesn’t necessarily tell you how many tickets have been sold – it’s possible the airline hasn’t assigned seats, especially with these new basic economy fares. Still, the search is simple – put your flight cities, dates, and numbers into expertflyer and search. Below is my search for one of the legs of the July 5th flight:
Now like I said, don’t consider this method foolproof. However, if you see a seatmap like this actual seatmap from that search: