What really matters is how far in advance you buy tickets

The best times and best days to book flights is a much-debated subject among travelers. We’ve all heard various opinions on the subject, like buy tickets on the third Tuesday of the month at 11 p.m. when there’s a full moon.

Maybe the opinions aren’t quite that far-fetched, but all the information out there about booking flights seems just as complicated! Plus, any avid traveler knows that airline ticket prices can fluctuate, and no one wants to buy a ticket just to learn that they could have gotten it for less a couple of weeks later.

Unfortunately, there’s no secret formula, but if you’re looking to purchase airline tickets, there are some tips to keep in mind. Data compiled by online travel agencies that sell airline tickets show that there are days and times when you can get cheaper airline tickets.

Plus, what may be more important is not the day of the week you buy tickets, but how far in advance you do it.

First, understand why ticket prices fluctuate so much 

The price of an economy plane ticket changes 61 times before the travel date, according to online travel company and airfare booking website CheapAir. 

StockSnap / Pixabay

According to CNBC, airlines will often start with tickets at a higher price and change it based on whether people are buying tickets or not. Airlines have complex algorithms and analysis systems that allow them to figure out how to price their tickets to make the most money off of them. 

Another factor that makes this more complicated is that airlines are constantly selling seats, according to CheapAir. With so many websites where travelers can buy tickets nowadays, travelers are always looking at and buying the same tickets.

This means that prices are constantly fluctuating, depending on how many people are buying seats.

As CheapAir explains it, airlines will sell seats at different price points, with a certain number of tickets available at each price point. Generally, the lower price points get sold out first. As time goes by, only higher fares are available. However, sometimes airlines will open up lower fares again. 

How far in advance to buy tickets

Now that you have a basic idea of how pricing works, it should make sense that the best time to buy airline tickets is early. Based on the pricing logic outlined above, tickets will generally get more expensive as time goes on.

But based on the same logic, you might not want to book them too far in advance, because the earliest prices might be more expensive until airlines lower prices to get tickets sold.  

CheapAir’s annual airfare report, which analyzed 917 million airfares, concluded that the best timeframe to buy domestic flights is from three weeks to four months in advance, and the best day is 76 days in advance.

When to book

Online airfare booking website Skyscanner analyzed historical flight booking data from 2018 and concluded that the best time to book domestic flights within the U.S. is at least 30 days in advance. For international flights from the U.S., the company recommends booking four months in advance. 

These numbers are averages, but it’s also important to note that specific times vary by destination and time of year. 

Best time to book flights, whether to New York or New Zealand

Skyscanner took a look at how far in advance to book flights some popular domestic destinations. To New York City, book at least a month in advance. To Chicago, buy tickets at least three months ahead of time, and to Miami, at least one to two months in advance.

As for international destinations, CheapAir has some guidance depending on the continent or region you’re traveling to, based on 2018 data. 

The best time to buy airline tickets for Mexico and Central America is 80 and 78 days in advance, respectively. For South America, the ideal time is 84 days in advance. Caribbean flights are cheapest at 99 days ahead of time. Buy flights to Canada a little earlier, at 115 days before you want to go. 

“The price of an economy plane ticket changes 61 times before the travel date, according to online travel company and airfare booking website CheapAir.” 

The rest of the world is a different story. European flights are cheapest at 200 days (almost seven months) in advance. Africa and the Middle East are also up there, with the best booking time at 199 and 196 days ahead of time, respectively. The South Pacific is close at 186 days. 

What season you’re traveling during 

The time of year you want to travel also plays into how far in advance you should buy your tickets, since more people travel at certain times of the year — summer and holidays, for example.

Summer is a peak travel time for Americans. If you want to travel in summer, buy your tickets about three weeks to five months in advance. Specifically, the best time is 99 days in advance, according to CheapAir. 

Here’s what CheapAir says about the other seasons: In fall, book about three weeks to about 3.5 months in advance, with the best time at 69 days out. In winter, book from about 2.5 to four months out, or ideally at 94 days in advance. In spring, the sweet spot is 84 days out, but the window is between 1.5 and four months. 

No matter the season you’re traveling in, flights will be more expensive during holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas or long weekends). If you are traveling during these times, it’s best to buy on the earlier side. 

“CheapAir’s annual airfare report concluded that the best timeframe to buy domestic flights is from three weeks to four months in advance.”

The truth about the best days to book flights

It’s been said that Tuesdays are the best day to get travel deals, because this is when many airlines launch sales, so there will be cheap flights available. However, while travelers may be lucky and able to snag deals, CheapAir’s analysis found that what really matters for buying cheaper flights is the amount of time in advance that you do it. 

But if booking a certain day of the week makes you feel sure you get the best deal, Skyscanner’s data shows that Saturday is the best day to book flights domestically, and it’s Sunday for international flights. Its data also shows that 6 a.m. EST is the best time of day to book a flight for the cheapest fares. 

However, there is one Tuesday each year when you might be able to get cheaper flights, and that is what has become known as “Travel Deal Tuesday.” This is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, following Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Hopper, an app that predicts flight prices, reports that it usually finds up to 50 percent more travel deals on this Tuesday than an average day.

Consider traveling at times when flights are generally cheaper

Keep in mind that no matter how far in advance or what day you buy your tickets, some travel times will simply be more expensive than others. If you’re really hoping to get cheap flights and your travel plans are somewhat flexible, consider traveling during cheaper times.

“CheapAir’s analysis found that what really matters for buying cheaper flights is the amount of time in advance that you do it.”

For example, from June 15 to August 15 is peak summer travel time. Plan trips for late August and early September for cheaper fares, according to CheapAir. 

Although the day of the week you buy your ticket might not have a huge impact on price, the day of the week you fly might. Cheap flights are generally available on Tuesdays and mid-week, and flights on Fridays and weekends are more expensive. 

The bottom line about the best time to buy airline tickets

If there’s anything you’ve learned from this article, it’s probably that there are a lot of factors that go into the price of flights and deciding when you should buy tickets. The information in this article can guide you, but flight pricing trends change year by year.

However, the bottom line is this: Don’t wait too long to buy flights. No matter where you’re going or when, definitely don’t book flights less than three weeks in advance. For international destinations, the best times vary, but try to do it at least a few months (if not more for some destinations) before you want to travel.

Wherever you’re going, keep checking airfare prices. Use fare forecast apps like Hopper. Travel booking website Kayak will predict if it’s best for you to buy tickets or wait, and many websites allow travelers to set up price alerts so they can know when airfares change. 

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Holiday flights may be expensive, but follow these tips to save money in other ways. 

Learn more ways to find cheap flights.