New Research: When It’s Cheapest to Book Airline Tickets

As a general matter I believe the way to get the best airfares is to:

  1. Know how much tickets usually cost on your route. That way you know when prices are higher or lower than normal. If they’re lower, consider buying. If they’re higher, there’s plenty of time to travel, and not an obvious event driving up demand, it can be advisable to wait.

  2. Not buy before your plans are firm. Because change fees can eat up any savings.

  3. Don’t buy too far in advance. Often lowest discount inventory isn’t loaded for flights a year in advance when schedules load. The only time to book super early is for peak holiday travel days where flights do sell out and what limited inexpensive inventory might be available goes early.

  4. Usually consider buying around 3 months out. There are last minute deals but not predictable enough to bank on, within 90 days airline schedules are firm and discount fares are loaded. One counterargument for booking further than 90 days out is the likelihood of a schedule change that could get you a fee-free cancellation or change if you want it.

This advice has remained largely the same, here are the 8 best ways to save money on airfare and I don’t think it alters much based on new research from the Airline Reporting Corporation and Expedia.

One of the most significant findings was this,

Booking flights three weeks in advance, on the weekend – particularly Sunday – and beginning travel on a Thursday or Friday is the ‘sweet spot’ for fare savings and delivers the lowest average ticket prices with discounts of around 10%;

However claiming that you will get the cheapest fares when you book on the weekend gets it exactly backwards. People are more likely to be booking leisure travel on the weekend than they are business travel, which is more often done at work. As a result the fares that are purchased on the weekend tend to be for individuals not business, and the people booking tend to be more price sensitive. They’ll adjust travel times to get better fares. And they’re traveling when fares are lower.

Though ultra low cost carriers have undermined many of the traditional tools to segment business from leisure travelers such as advance purchase and Saturday night stay requirements, airlines have new tools to separate out different types of customers in order to charge less price sensitive business customers more.

The study also finds that “for around three-quarters of trips, quantifiable savings can be realised by travellers who extend their weekday trip to include a Saturday night stay” which is just to suggest that by traveling when leisure travelers fly fares are lower, not necessarily that Saturday stay requirements are making enough of a comeback at least on domestic US routes.

Probably the most important finding, which doesn’t get nearly as much attention, is that “travellers can often make up to 50 searches before deciding on a flight.” That’s consistent with past research that customers visit at least 10 websites on average when booking a trip. That matters because it undermines calls to regulate what each website shows to passengers, demanding uniformity in how flights, fares, and fees are displayed out of fear that consumers will only see options presented to them on a single site.

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, 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 »

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  1. Personally, I am not sure there is a sure there is a good way to determine if you have the best deal. My belief is that you should always know what the average cost of the route you are looking for (google flights is great for this) and when you see a good deal jump on it immediately.

    The worst thing you can do when you see a good deal is hesitate because the really good deals do not last very long. Since you are allowed to cancel your flight within 24 hours of booking for free (so long as it is more than 7 days out and it is a US flight), I say book a good deal first ask questions later. Some deals last hours not days.

    Weekdays do seem to be the best days to book, but that does not mean a good deal will not pop up on a weekend. You always have to be ready.

  2. As someone with 40+ years’ experience booking travel dating back to my first jobs at two different travel agencies, one of which is still a recognized leader all these decades later, which includes being SABRE proficient from its earliest introduction to travel agencies, and whom has booked as many, or more flights over the decades than even most of the highest elite road warriors typically have (and still does a fair amount of bookings for family and my closest friends), I wholeheartedly agree with @Gary’s recommendations above.

    He’s absolutely right!

    There’s no set time of day (or night) anymore when the “best fares” are “predictably found”.

    In fact, trying to figure out when a good fare will appear (or how fast it will disappear) offers one only the guarantee of endless frustration and pulling their hair out – but alas, hardly ever the fare they were on the hunt for!

    And suggestion #1 is probably the most reliable method to score a low fare on those increasingly rare moment when they appear/disappear & reappear/disappear according to whatever the airline’s algorithms determine at any given time.

    That’s just how it is now.

    And yep, PATIENCE IS REQUIRED as the glory days of low fares being “easy” to find are long gone.

    Oh, and one thing I’d like to add, is that very often now, it pays to consider booking one’s itineraries separately as one-way segments (either on the same, or another airline) as it has become increasingly common for round-trips to price much higher due to one flight or the other being significantly higher than the other when auto priced for round trip itineraries booked under a single confirmation/ PNR #, whereas now it’s likelier to get the lowest total combined round trip fares if one carefully monitors:

    – round trip itineraries for those rarer and rarer (and seemingly infinitesimal) moments when low fares appear;

    – one-way fares for the outbound segment(s) which should include all of the airlines one is willing to fly;

    – one-way fares for the return segment(s), which again, should include all of the airlines one is willing to fly (be it the same one as the outbound itinerary – or perhaps not!)

    Also, in recent years, sometimes the return flight(s) are booked before the outbound itinerary.

    Yeah, I know – sounds crazy!

    But, hello!

    We’re talking about AIRLINES, which is already the land of insanity when it comes to pricing and its overall hostility towards, and abuse of, consumers (starting with the torturous “hate sell” gauntlet/rodeo most of us now have to endure from the first moment the very first page loads after we begin our “fare/flights” search until the bitter end when the very last fees/charges are posted to our bank/credit card statements after our trip is completed…), so who ever said “conventional logic” (and sequential order) applies to the process and order in which one should buy their flight segments to obtain the best (as in lower/lowest) possible combination of airfares for their anticipated/ desired dates of travel anyway?!?!

    Of course, the downside to buying separate, one-way tickets is that if one must change plans or cancel their trips altogether then they face a double whammy of change fees and/or penalties.

    However, if one must change one side of the trip or the other, then the change fees and any other additional fare difference is the same whether it’s purchased as as single round-trip booking, or two separate one-way itineraries.

    Finally, keep in mind that this applies mostly to DOMESTIC bookings ONLY, as international itineraries mostly still follow the rules from the past where round-trips are required to qualify for the lowest fares, so the method noted above of splitting up itineraries into separate outbound/return bookings to score the best possible fares is less likely to be beneficial.

    Of course, whatever itineraries are purchased, if one believes they have a need to hedge against risk of trip cancellations for non-refundable bookings made in advance, then purchasing trip insurance featuring “Cancel for Any Reason” coverage might be their best option (and NOT found with the “one size fits all” policies sold by airlines or the online travel agencies when their offers for trip insurance are seen during bookings made on their web sites).

    Happy (airfare) hunting!

    And good luck – as very often that’s now needed… 😉

  3. I have to disagree with you in regard to when leisure travelers book. It is noble to think that leisure travelers wait for the weekend to make their travel plans, but it is not true. We are in the lodging business, almost exclusively leisure, and we do less than 5% of our bookings on weekends. Pretty much everyone is booking their leisure travel from work.

  4. @Edward,

    There are two web sites that allows one to better define what type of coverage, and at what price that best fits their budgets for comparison shopping of a great many trip insurance policies – and what one finds at these sites is significantly better than the generic, “one size fits all” plans offered on airline and online travel agency web sites.

    Because inclusion of specific links to web sites can result in a delay in comments being posted, I’ll simply note their brand names while omitting their domain names:

    Squaremouth or Insure My Trip

    Both of these sites are excellent, and easy to use.

    However, I’m more partial to Squaremouth and typically recommend that to family and friends because I’ve been using that site for many years now, and am familiar with the format for inputting data, and the resulting presentation of search results.

    Additionally, the policies purchased have always met our needs, with questions directly to the concierge services usually answered very quickly on those few occasions when our itineraries faced disruption (for example, although we were “rescued” by a flight attendant who worked for Lufthansa when our train from Cologne to Brussels was canceled due to a fatal accident a few stations before reaching Cologne and faced an unplanned overnight stay until the next day [the F/A arranged for us to be included with his paid for by Deutsche Bahn taxi via the autobahn at speeds exceeding 180 kph to a station on another line so we were spared the ordeal of being stranded in Cologne after all]; or more recently when 13 out of 14 family members, including myself, caught very severe colds (two of whom progressed to pneumonia) while on a family renunion trip to the Philippines and I needed to see the doctor in Manila.

    So, these would be the first two web sites I’d turn to as they’re relatively easy to use, and to date, the policies found have met our needs.

    For the record, I’m NOT a paid spokesperson person for either web site, and have NOT received any compensation or other considerations in exchange for the information discussed above.

  5. OK so they’ve got it backwards saying Sunday buyers do best (because Sunday buyers are leisure travellers who ensure they buy cheap fares)… but similarly you’ve got it back to front when you say websites need not be regulated (to show real prices rather than bait-and-switch numbers which balloon when you try to book) because people look at up to ten websites when booking. D’oh if they could see the real price the first time they wouldn’t have to burrow around the internet

  6. @Harry, I think what Gary is referring to with respect to flights is proposals that would require search websites to show each passenger a price that includes a specific package of services that are often optional, and some passengers would rather not pay for. To some the bare bones fare is exactly what they pay, while for others there are indeed add-ons. Why regulate that airlines show an inclusive fare rather than the bare bones fare when some of there customers don’t want the add-ons or only want them sometimes? Where the issue does matter is the case of the lodging “resort fee” or similar euphemisms which mean properties lie about their prices. And in this case, the lie aids the property in looking better in search results, meaning the competition has to match the tactic or be left behind. That’s definitely a place for regulation in the interest of informed decision making.

  7. Another thing to consider is that more people are flying than ever before so seats disappear rather quickly now. You have to book sometimes six months in advance to even be able to get a seat, let alone a good price! I’m already looking to purchase tickets for a trip to Poland in September although I have a very defined route I want to fly so only LOT is available to me.

  8. Hi, Gary!
    This is a good read.
    I had a quick question mark drawn in my face when I read about the new research in booking a trip. “How come?”
    In my experience, I can see lower fares on weekdays, mostly between Tuesdays to Thursdays, but highest on weekends. It may be lower also if it’s off-peak.

  9. Aren’t you an economist? You find consumers having to search 50 websites a positive when it’s really a social drag, a dead-weight cost that lowers everybody’s (the economy’s) productivity? And this is for a measly $240-300 average purchase.

    Airlines are truly a despicable business, worthy of their status of belonging to the neighborhood of Health Insurance and the U.S. Postal Service at the lower echelons of the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index

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