There are many travel blog and industry articles out there claiming insider tips on how to snag the best deal on plane tickets. The thing is, the algorithms used by airlines for posting and altering prices change, as does the consumer demand for destinations. This means tips from a year or two ago might not be relevant anymore.
Two companies, Skyscanner and CheapAir.com, recently published their own studies with the latest insider buying tips based on historic flight data from 2018. While their conclusions aren’t always exactly the same, they can give you a ballpark of times and dates to book cheap flights. And even a ballpark can be helpful, especially since CheapAir’s study found that on average, fares change 62 times in 11 months.
Before looking at the specifics of booking domestic and international flights, there are some general trends identified by each study that you should consider.
Skyscanner found you’ll have the best chance at booking the lowest airfare at 5am (although the study didn’t specify a time zone, other reporting sources assumed ET). You should avoid booking between 8 and 11pm.
CheapAir.com recommends you monitor airfares from four months to three weeks (121 to 21 days) prior to your desired departure date.
For booking domestic flights throughout the U.S., we’ll look at Skyscanner’s recommendations first. They say the best time to book domestic flights is two to three weeks in advance of your trip. If you have flexibility for when you travel, they found that January, followed by February and August, are the cheapest months to book tickets. Travel in January, February, or September for the cheapest prices.
Skyscanner sticks to the previous and long-held (although somewhat controversial) wisdom that it’s cheapest to book a flight on Tuesday, as new tickets and prices are usually posted at 12am on Wednesday.
CheapAir.com, based on their data of 917 million fares from nearly 3 million trips, says the best time to buy domestic airline tickets is roughly 70 days before intended departure. This is a change from last year's study, which reported a target date of 54 days in advance.
For summer trips, CheapAir recommends booking 47 days in advance. For fall and winter trips, aim to book 69 to 62 days in advance, respectively. For spring vacations, look at 90 days ahead of departure.
Skyscanner says their data analysis points to booking international vacations five to six months in advance for the lowest ticket prices. Traveling in October, April, or February will bring those prices down even further (respectively), although for ultimate savings, look at the off-peak or shoulder travel season for your specific destination. Wednesday is the best day of the week to nab the best deals on prices, according to Skyscanner.
According to CheapAir, booking international flights two months before travel is ideal.
Both studies agree that waiting to book last minute for the cheapest deals is a myth. In fact, it’s a risk if you book a flight 20 or fewer days before liftoff. You might get a good deal, but you’re more likely to pay more or not get the itinerary you want because of sold-out flights.
According to CheapAir, prices can climb by $208 in the final six days before departure. Ouch!
Now that you have a ballpark of when to purchase your flight, how do you keep on top of changing prices across multiple airlines during that prime booking window? The best way is to set up alerts for your ideal itinerary or price range across travel search engines and apps, like Google Flights, Skyscanner Price Alert, Kayak, or Hopper. This will allow you to book deals as soon as they appear.
Where to book
Travel search engine sites are good places to compare prices and get a feel for which airlines are offering the best deal at the moment. However, it can often be cheaper to book directly through the airline’s website. If you don’t see the same fare quoted, call the airline’s customer service number—most of them will match the price shown on sites like Kayak and Travelocity.