When to buy cheap airline tickets

Although I fly several times per year, I’m not a sophisticated traveler. Many of my friends are top-notch travel hackers, but I’m just a beginner. Still, I’m getting better.

On my recent trip to Florida, for instance, I booked both my initial hotel and my rental car using travel miles. That’s a big step for me! And it saved me from using actual cash, which is in short supply around these parts lately.

I didn’t do such a good job with my airfare. I booked my flight for January 4th on December 5th. I paid cash. Luckily, thirty days in advance turns out to be in the sweet spot for finding cheap airline tickets, so I got an okay deal — even if I didn’t book the trip with points or miles.

When to Buy Cheap Airline Tickets

According to flight-booking site CheapAir.com (about which I knew nothing until today), airfares tend to fluctuate in predictable patterns so that they fall into five “booking zones”. Here’s an infographic from their site:

When to buy cheap airline tickets

The five CheapAir.com booking zones are:

  • The “first dibs” zone (about 178-321 days before the flight). When you book early, you get the advantage of choosing your flight and your seat exactly as you want them. The trade-off is that you pay a premium — about 15% more than the cheapest possible airline ticket.
  • The “peace of mind” zone (between 106-177 days in advance). By waiting until three to six months before your flight, you get cheaper prices (about 5-10% more than the eventual bottom) while still enjoying plenty of flight options.
  • The “prime booking window” (between 21-105 days in advance). The cheapest fares — usually within 5% of the lowest possible price — tend to be found between one and three months before your trip. Sometimes big price swings are possbile, but generally this is the sweet spot for buying a cheap airline ticket.
  • The “pushing your luck” zone (about 14 to 20 days in advance). The closer you get to the flight, the fewer seats are available — and the higher prices rise. If a flight isn’t filling, fares might remain low, but basically you’re gambling at this point.
  • The “hail Mary” zone (less than 14 days before your flight). Last-minute flights generally cost more — sometimes much more. The absolute worst day to purchase a plane ticket is the day before the flight, when prices soar to nearly twice their lowest point (and seating options are limited).

The CheapAir article notes that the statistical best time to buy cheap airline tickets varies by season. In spring and summer, the lowest point averages about 75 days before the trip. In winter, it’s 54 days. And in fall, it’s 47 days.

The Best Day of the Week to Fly

The company also notes there are some misconceptions about the cheapest day of the week to buy an airline ticket. Their analysis reveals their isn’t a best day to buy. However, there is a best day (or days) to fly. “Flying on a Tuesday or Wednesday will save you an average of $73 per ticket,” CheapAir writes. And flying on Sunday is most expensive.

CheapAir cautions that these are just average numbers based on their database of nearly 3,000,000 flights. The actual best time to book any individual flight can vary widely.

Bonus tip! What’s the one thing you should never drink on airplanes? Anything involving the on-board water system — including tea or coffee. I had a flight attendant tell me this a couple of weeks ago, and just read an article with the same info this evening. Seriously. Flight attendants refuse to drink the coffee on planes. You should too.

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There are 10 comments to "When to buy cheap airline tickets".

  1. Dave @ Accidental FIRE says 25 January 2018 at 03:19

    Those time windows line up pretty good with what I’ve experienced over the years. Southwest Airlines however can be more quirky with their pricing, but that their schtick. I like to fly with them for personal travel when I’m doing big climbing or outdoor adventure vacations since they don’t charge for bags, and that alone saves a bunch of money.

  2. Michael says 25 January 2018 at 04:58

    I am really curious what this data looks like if you remove peak travel times? The reason I say this is I bet around Thanksgiving and Christmas buying same day is super expensive comparative to regular days. I wonder does this also include when the airlines get cancelled or are overbooked. The airlines pay for the tickets but, I bet they would be super expensive the day on the flight.

  3. Joe says 25 January 2018 at 05:37

    We’re going to Iceland this year and I heard you need to book very early because it is so popular in the summer. Is this an exception to the rule?
    Usually I wait until a bit closer.

    • J.D. says 25 January 2018 at 06:56

      That’s a great question, Joe. I didn’t dig any deeper into the CheapAir blog, but there are other articles there. I’m willing to be they have info on when to book international fares, and on special situations like the one you’re describing. If it were me booking your trip, I’d do it ASAP. The prices for booking early aren’t that much out of line with the eventual lows, you are in a situation to afford it, and then you’ve got the peace of mind of having booked the tickets already.

    • Mystic says 25 January 2018 at 12:53

      I don’t think booking early will save you money. Reason is that price is determined by algorithms and analytics from past 25-50 years of data on air traffic for each and every day of the year so airlines know traffic is high/demand is high around holidays so prices are set accordingly. If summer is peak time, you will pay more and above suggestions are still valid. 4 weeks to 8 weeks before i have found best price.

  4. Robert says 25 January 2018 at 23:39

    Hi J.D.

    Thank you for this article. I did have a question though since I am planning a trip to Asia (Thailand). In the article you said:

    “The “hail Mary” zone (less than 14 days before your flight). Last-minute flights generally cost more — sometimes much more. The absolute worst day to purchase a plane ticket is the day before the flight, when prices soar to nearly twice their lowest point (and seating options are limited).”

    I’ve actually read on another site I follow https://thegayexpat.com/cheap-flights-in-asia/ that airlines often will make last minute deals just to fill the plane. Is that not true?

    Thanks in advance

    • J.D. says 26 January 2018 at 06:34

      Hey, Robert. That’s a great question. Because I’m new to all of this, I don’t know. I can see the logic for both sides. I suppose the only real way to find out is to dig deeper into the research — and to ask folks who fly often. Sounds like a future project. 🙂

    • Kate says 25 July 2018 at 22:58

      From my experience in the international airline industry, last-minute travelers are usually business travelers or people who don’t care about the price. So usually last-minute tickets are more expensive because they know these travelers (or their company) will book anyway regardless of the price.

      These last-minute deals, if available, would probably be only sold through travel agents and not through the airline or online booking site (unless it was also a travel agency)

  5. Physician on FIRE says 26 January 2018 at 07:00

    The discount airlines are making things interesting. I paid cash for my flight to Orlando (I like to save my points for personal travel as opposed to business).

    On Frontier, I flew direct from MSP to MCO for $74 round trip, including fees.

    I can usually get to Denver and back for under $100 each way, and sometimes under $50.

    Spring break last year on Icelandair was $417 each round trip to Paris with a 2-day Reykavik stopover.

    I love travel rewards, but I can often find great cash fares, too.


  6. Abhinav Johnson says 01 February 2018 at 06:29

    Thank you. This helps short and precise; I always had this question on when to book your flights.

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