I hate to disappoint everyone, but there is no “best” time to buy a plane ticket. I’d love to tell you if you purchase 43 days out on a Tuesday at 2pm, you’ll get the best deal, but it just doesn’t work that way. There are, though, a number of ways you can be more likely to get a great deal.
1. Know a good deal when you see one. You’re online and you see tickets for $350 round trip from Phoenix to Orlando. To buy or not to buy? Unless you know that tickets from Phoenix to Orlando usually cost over $400, you could miss the deal! Start watching fares before you’re ready to buy. If you’re using a travel agent, ask him or her. Just be sure to research so you can recognize a good deal if it comes your way.
2. Know the airline’s policy regarding lower fares. While many will not credit you if you find a lower fare after your purchase, a few will.
3. Shop at both the airlines’ sites as well as travel sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, etc. Quite often, I find the airline’s site is at least slightly less expensive. You can always start at one of the sites like Expedia, find the lowest fare, and then check the airline for that flight to see who has the better deal. Also note that Southwest flights cannot be found on those other sites.
4. When shopping for flights, search for just one person. An airline may have only one seat left at a lower price and by shopping for one, you’ll find that price. If you were shopping for four people, that price wouldn’t have shown up because it isn’t available for four seats. When you go to book, if the lower price still shows up when putting in four people, book it. If it doesn’t, keep lowering the number of passengers until it comes back up, book that, and then go back in and book flights for the remaining passengers at the higher price. This way, you’ll at least get a seat or two at the lower price.
5. Don’t book too early. In my experience, I have found that if I book earlier than 3 months out, it is unlikely that I will get the lowest fare. It seems airlines just don’t have their sales set up that far out. In fact, a study by economist Makoto Watanabe completed a few years ago showed 8 weeks out to be the best time. A more recent study done by cheapair.com shows that 54 days out (about that same 8 weeks) is the best time. There are a couple of very notable exceptions to this rule. Do not delay to book tickets around major holidays or events. You should also consider booking early during major holiday seasons such as spring break to warm, beach locations. International flights also tend to be less expensive on the earlier side of that three month window.
6. Don’t book too late. Usually, even worse than booking too early is booking too late. In general, flight prices start to increase 30 days out and then skyrocket 14 days out and continue climbing.
7. Watch for limited seats left. Many websites will now let you know how many seats are left on a flight at a particular price. If seats are disappearing, prices may go up
8. Be flexible. Many websites now offer a low fare finder. You put in a date and it searches not only that date, but the surrounding few dates to see if there’s a lower price. Some will also search nearby airports (like flying either into Chicago O’Hare or Chicago Midway). The more flexible you can be, the more likely you are to get a lower fare.
9. Sign up for alerts or airline sales. Most airline websites have a way to get deals right to your Inbox. You can also sign up for alerts from sites such as SmarterTravel, Airfarewatchdog, Kayak, FareCompare, and more.
10. Know that your best deal may be on two different airlines. Gone are the days where a round-trip is priced cheaper than two one ways. If you find the outbound flight on United is cheapest but find the return on American is cheapest, book two one way tickets.
I have also heard the old adage about booking on Tuesdays. I have not really found that to be reliable and have even seen some business travel articles that state that is “old information.” Some sales do come out on Tuesdays, but often those same fares are available later in the week, too. Flying on Tuesdays, though, instead of Saturday or Sunday can save you money. I have also heard that booking in the afternoon can be less expensive than the morning and that booking early in the morning is better than later in the day. Which is right? I’m not sure, but I haven’t found much difference in the time of day when I’ve booked my tickets. In other words, I can’t give you a best day/time, but I am sure that if you use the above suggestions, you’ll at least have a shot at lowering your airfare costs.