When is the Best Time to Book Airline Tickets and Other Travel Myths

This past week Time featured a piece on ‘6 myths about travel spending that cost you money’.

What I learned from the piece is that when Time links to your blog, lots of other mirror sites pull their content and link to your blog as well, sending you trackback pings which are essentially spam that you need to clean up. Hah.

(This wasn’t my first time quoted in Time, for instance over the summer they included me on inflight reading styles explaining why I still travel with a physical book and not just an e-reader. But it was strangely the first time they linked to me that I can recall.)

When to Book Airline Tickets

The first myth they cover is when to book your ticket, and the correct time is not ‘as soon as possible’. To me booking too early is a mistake entirely apart from price, you don’t want to book when it’s reasonable likely that plans change and you’ll incur change fees.

But booking when airline schedules load usually means booking before the cheap fares extend out to your travel dates, and make it highly unlikely you’re booking during a sale.

The advice in the piece is to book 6 to 7 weeks out, my own mental model is that for peak holiday travel 90 days is closer to right since the cheap fare buckets will tend to sell out early since vacationers tend to book farther in advance.

When to Book Award Tickets

Here’s what the piece has to say about the timing of redeeming miles.

This holds true if you’re booking an awards ticket, says Gary Leff, who blogs at “View From the Wing.” Airlines don’t open award seats at the same time… This varies not just by airline but also by route and even day of week,“ he points out. If you want to cash in those miles, shoot for six to nine months out, and run some test searches a few weeks beforehand, he suggests. “Often times the patterns remain the same because far in advance airlines are usually working off a fairly generic playbook based on historical data.”

Here we’re essentially channeling The Myth of Booking Award Tickets at Midnight 330 Days Out.

Other Myths

Their other myths are:

  • You need the extra insurance on your car rental. Generally your own car insurance covers you in a rental, and premium credit cards will come with coverage that can pay collision costs not covered by your own policy. I use Diners Club, because its collision coverage is primary, meaning rental car dings don’t even have to get reported to my insurance company. (United Explorer’s coverage is primary as well.) And I rent from major agencies at airport locations which tend to be less persnickety about little scrapes.

  • You’ll get a better exchange rate overseas by paying in dollars. Wow, never actually heard this one, although there are some places where dollars are a preferred currency, certainly in Vietnam folks will want to take your dollars and give you change at the ‘official’ exchange rate. Don’t exchange money at booths in the airport in the U.S. at least, your best bet will be to pay with credit cards that incur no foreign currency transaction fees and to take cash out of an ATM (since you’ll get close to the interbank rate) using an account that doesn’t surcharge foreign currency as well.

  • Airfare prices are lowest late Tuesday night. I’ve never bought this one. There are certainly more updates to pricing during the day in the midst of the week, the best fares last only a few hours, you’re not really going to do the best by timing your searches to a particular day or staying up late at night.

  • The best hotel deals come from third-party sites. Often the best prices can be found elsewhere, you can do even better by using a hotel chain’s best rate guarantee, some properties though can be booked cheaply through third parties (especially international resorts) and some properties can be booked with better benefits through third parties (such as Virtuoso or American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts where you’ll get breakfast, upgrades, late checkout, and room credits at a similar room rate as booking directly). So it’s not entirely a myth, and the mere existence of best rate guarantees doesn’t actually mean that hotel chains offer the best rates on their own websites. But you don’t want to book through third party online travel agents usually if you want elite stay credit, and with some chains even recognition of elite status benefits.

  • Duty-free is a place to score deals. The finding is that some items are a deal, others are not, and of course pricing varies by airport and country as well.

All in all a good general-interest piece that turns out to be more right than wrong, which is my standard for travel pieces in mainstream publications.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Comments

  1. I think most of those ‘myths’ have/had a grain of truth, but saying it always/never applies would be wrong. In general, I would book airline tickets paid with cash ASAP, since generally prices go up in time. Of course, if your flexible, spontaneous, and happen to be near a computer when a deal posts, you can definitely score some great deals.

  2. With car rentals at airports… YMMV.

    I was a National Executive Elite for many years until I was dinged for $3000 worth of damage that I was not responsible for at their DEN location. I eventually had the charges cleared but it took many months and a threat of legal action before I was clear. I won’t get into detail here but they used questionable techniques to try to secure payment from me.

    Some locations seem to be much more persnickety than others. And while in general renting from a pricier “name brand” agency or having elite status may help, it is always worth being extra vigilant.

    As a side note it would be nice if we could track which agencies/locations were most susceptible for bogus charges.

  3. CUN has the best duty free I’ve ever seen. DEL used to be good ($8 for Absolut) but not anymore. I’m yet to find a Duty Free in the US that is anywhere close to as cheap as Bevmo or Costco

  4. To clarify about paying in dollars, even using a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, a merchant may give you a choice whether the charge is computed in dollars or local currency. My understanding is that the local currency option is the better one as conversion to dollars entails extra cost due to exchange rate and/or fees. Certainly on a recent trip to Beijing the hotel originally charged me in us dollars. When I said I preferred RMB, the original was voided. Comparing the charge in dollars on the voided receipt with the final charge on my credit card statement there was about a 3% difference.

  5. The best time to buy airline tickets are when they’re on sale.

    Seriously, the idea that there’s some sort of “magic time” to buy airline tickets is pretty much insane. I know I’ve been watching airline fares for more than 20 years and I’ve never been able to detect a pricing pattern based on a day of the week. I assume pricing departments are less likely to be fully staffed on weekends, so perhaps that’s a less likely time for a new sale to pop up. Of course, this can sometimes work to your advantage on the weekends (more so with foreign airlines) when a “mistake fare” is loaded on Friday and lasts until Monday.

  6. Been pricing up car rental prices lately and notice Sunday nights were cheaper than Mondays. It has happened the past 4 weeks so surely this can’t be a fluke. Inmregqrds to airfare….we might not be able to tell which day of the week but I surely know which airlines comes out with sales. Few of them have them same time every year. BA, SAS, etc.. which we base buying our vacation tickets around. 😉

  7. Duty free is usually very average unless your buying cigarettes or items from that local area. For example electronics in Europe at the airport duty free shop aren’t cheap compared to the prices in the USA. On a recent trip to Europe I noticed that the cheapest place to buy duty free cigs was on the MSC cruise ship at $25 per carton, the airports ran about $35 or so and the cruise port duty free shops ran about $37 but everything else was more expensive on the cruise ship than at other duty free shops. You have to know your prices. We did have great luck with global blue in getting our vat taxes refunded for purchases in France by the way. Complicated but well worth the trouble if you do much shopping.

  8. I pass through Duty Free stores at several Central American airports on my flts back to MIA. IMO the prices reflect little or no savings….however, I have noticed the Duty Free wine shop in GUA occasionally has sales and the prices are actually deeply discounted on their higher end offerings.

    Las week, I found an exceptional deal on Jose Curveo 1800 Reposado (750ml) at $12US in the airside Duty Free shop in BZE…usually around $30 back in the states.

    Agree with DaninSTL…gotta know your prices!

  9. The prices at Duty Free will rarely ever be a good deal for those living in North America.

    The goods will be a bargain for people based in less developed countries, or countries that have import taxes applied to foreign goods to protect local industry.

  10. In my past experience taking my family to London I looked daily at the prices for United and suddenly fell into a sale that was over 25% cheaper than earlier in the day. It was a Wednesday and in the evening. Later that evening the prices were back to normal. Praise the Lord for the sale!

  11. Sometimes the in-flight duty free purchases are actually a good deal. I bought a liter of JW Black on Singapore airlines for about $28. Certainly cheaper than anything I’ve ever seen in duty free or in NYC “discount” liquor stores. Only the liquor and tobacco are worth looking at in duty free, and you need to know your prices. Seriously, how much is “duty” on chocolates or all the other crap they sell in duty free? The markup will be a lot higher than any sales tax.

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