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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