Cost-conscious travelers have always been obsessed with paying less for plane tickets, but as airlines consolidate, raise prices and fees, and slash amenities, gaming the system in search of a good deal has become a standard step in the booking process. As it turns out, there’s not an easy answer to the industry’s million-dollar question, but we’ve combed through the latest data to bring you the information, tips, and tricks that’ll help you find those hidden-gem fares.
What’s the best day of the week to shop?
First, the not-so-great news: If you’re strictly interested in the best day to hit the “buy” button, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Though standard wisdom indicates that midweek purchases tend to be cheaper—FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney doubled down on this advice in March 2017, telling Barron’s (barrons.com) that to find a sale fare, “the best time is Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m.,” thanks to airlines’ price-matching adjustments—the reality may not be so straightforward. The 2018 Air Travel Outlook Report from Expedia and the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), which tracked Average Ticket Prices (ATPs) and examined billions of data points to identify travel patterns, determined that it’s cheapest to buy economy flights (both international and domestic) on Sunday and most expensive on Friday, but a competing report claims that the specific date of purchase may not actually have that much impact. The most recent CheapAir.com Annual Airfare Study looked at 921 million airfares from 2.9 million trips and found negligible cost differentials from day to day, with average lowest fares within $2 of each other—a change of less than 0.6 percent.
How far in advance should you book?
Now for the better news: You might not be able to predict price drops by day of the week, but if you pay attention to the calendar, you should be able to find bargains. Though last-minute deals aren’t unicorn-level rare, you’ll likely get the best prices at least three weeks in advance. Instead of zooming in on a specific day to shop, CheapAir.com recommends booking within a window of 21 to 105 days ahead, depending on the season, with a domestic-flight sweet spot of 54 days before departure. The Expedia/ARC report also pushes for a long lead time, recommending that bargain-minded economy travelers book 30-plus days in advance for the lowest ATPs, and Skyscanner suggests a 21-day cut-off as well. “There are obviously a lot of factors at play, but Skyscanner has found that savings can typically be found three to seven weeks out from the dates of travel,” says Randi Imas, the company’s head of communications for the Americas.
What are the best times to travel?
And finally, the best news: When you buy doesn’t matter as much as when you fly, so you’ll be ahead of the game if you can keep your dates loose. Of course, there’s not a complete consensus on this front either, but the Expedia/ARC report found that the best day for an economy-class traveler to start a trip is Friday (for overseas travel, check Thursday departures as well), while CheapAir.com’s study declared Tuesday and Wednesday the least expensive days to fly, with average tickets costing $73 less than on Sunday. To complicate matters further, seasonality affects pricing as well—the ARC data indicates that U.S. international travelers paid the highest economy fares in December and the lowest in February, while domestic flights were highest in June and lowest in September, so if you have flexible PTO, plan accordingly.
So how DO you find the best fare?
To cover your bases, sign up for newsletters like Scott’s Cheap Flights for flash sales and mistake fares, follow your favorite airlines on social media for real-time deal alerts, and try flight predictors like Skyscanner, Hopper, or Google Flights, which closely monitor airline activity and let you know when to buy. “When considering fluctuation in ticket prices, economic states, and the increase in airline flash sales, it is hard to guarantee that there is a specific day or time that will offer the cheapest flight, so we recommend travelers set up price alerts to track a route’s fare to see how it can fluctuate and independently determine the best time to book based on their own criteria, whether that’s based on budget, dates of travel, or adjustments to departure or arrival city/airport,” says Skyscanner’s Imas. Suffering from buyer’s remorse? Don’t worry, airlines operating in the U.S. are required by law to refund your money if you cancel within 24 hours of booking, at least seven days in advance of departure. If you missed that window, try Yapta, a site that tracks your purchased flights and notifies you if prices drop enough to trigger the individual airlines’ refund policies.
Scored a great deal lately? Tell us how you did it in the comments below, and we’ll highlight our favorite strategies in an upcoming roundup.