Deciding when to book your flight to get the best price can be frustrating. Do you wait to try to get a last minute deal? Should you book in advance? How do you navigate expensive tickets around the holidays? With the help of Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, Warren Chang, Vice President and General Manager of Fly.com and Anisha Sekar, Vice President of Credit and Debit Products for NerdWallet, we’ve created a guide to help travelers make the right choices when booking flights.
When is the best time to book?
While booking as early as possible is the general rule of thumb to getting great flight deals, this also depends on how far away your travel dates are. In general, if your trip is more than three months away, wait.
Explains Chang, “Airline sales tend to target travel dates that are two to three months out, most of the time, so flights beyond that window generally are priced at a higher level until the sales target those dates.”
Klee adds there are a few myths related to booking flights. One is that the further in advance you book, the better. The other is if you wait until the last minute, there will be unsold seats that the airlines will practically give away. Both of these are untrue in almost all cases.
The truth is, there is no hard and fast rule; however, there are some general trends to be aware of. Most airlines will open their flights for booking about 11 months in advance. Usually when a flight first opens for sale, fares are on the high side. The airline will keep them that way for a while to get a sense of the overall demand. As it gets closer to the flight date, you’ll begin to see sporadic sales. Then, depending on how heavily booked a flight is, you might start to see more frequent and aggressive discounting.“On average, six weeks in advance is the least expensive time to buy a domestic flight – but that does fluctuate quite a bit,” says Klee. “With popular markets on popular travel dates, it’s best to book even earlier. And always try to book at least 21 days in advance.”
This dynamic changes a bit during holidays, making it much more important to book early. The basic factor affecting a flight’s price is how full it is. In fact, airlines typically offer five to 15 different prices for the same flight, just at different times. Usually, airlines will sell the first 20 seats at their lowest fare and the next 20 at the next lowest fare, with the pattern continuing until the flight is sold out. In short, the fuller a plane is getting, the more expensive the seats will be.
What days of the week are cheapest/most expensive to fly?
Although there are always exceptions, Tuesdays and Wednesdays rank as the least popular days and are usually the least expensive to fly. Additionally, because it’s common for travelers to fly on Fridays and Sundays, they are the most expensive. According to Chang, Wednesday afternoons specifically are the best time to book.
“Tuesday and Wednesday are the days of the week when airlines release their sales,” he explains. “Once all the sales are released, other airlines may match some of the discounted fares, so waiting until Wednesday afternoon allows for these matching airlines to file their fares as well.”
Keep in mind, around the holidays the rules change. For example, during Thanksgiving week, Wednesday and Sunday are two of the busiest and most expensive travel days of the year. Additionally, the Tuesday before and the Monday after are also more expensive than usual.
“You can save a lot if you avoid those days,” explains Klee. “The best days to travel out are generally the Saturday or Monday before Thanksgiving and the best days to travel back are the Friday, Saturday or Tuesday after. Of course, if you can fly on Thanksgiving Day itself you can usually get a great deal, too.”
For Christmas and New Years, the day after is usually very expensive, as are the Fridays and Saturdays before and the Sundays after.
The main tactic to saving money on flights is to be as flexible with your dates as possible. If you are locked into exact travel dates, it will be more of a challenge to get a great deal. However, if you are willing to fly on multiple sets of dates, the odds of finding a good deal
get better. Moreover, being flexible with the times you travel is a big help.
Says Chang, “Flying late morning through afternoon is often a lot more expensive than catching a red eye or hopping on the first flight of the day.”
Alternate airports can help, too. “If there is more than one airport near your origin or destination city, check them both,” advises Klee. “The more options you have in terms of airports and travel dates, the more likely you will find what may be one of the last discount seats to where you are going.”
Knowing what you’re paying for before you book is also important. While a recent law set by the U.S. Transportation Department states airfares shown in advertisements must be “the entire price to be paid by the customer,” there are still other charges like baggage, entertainment and meal and beverage fees.
As long as you’re not wedded to a specific hotel, looking for a package deal can also help you save a bundle on flights. When doing this, you can sometimes get an almost-free hotel or car rental.
“Over the years we have seen some spectacular deals where, for as little as $2 more, you can also stay at a top-notch hotel,” says Chang.
Furthermore, it’s a good idea to start checking fares as soon as you know your potential travel dates and airports. If you don’t like what you find, and you have two months of more, make a point to check back every few days. As soon as you see a good deal, book it. Availability changes quickly around the holidays and what you see today will very possibly not still be available tomorrow.
When trying to find a deal, make use of the online tools available to you. CheapAir.com offers a “Price Drop Payback,” where they refund passengers the difference if a ticket they purchased drops in price. Furthermore, Bing Travel features a price predictor to help you decide if you should wait or buy now by showing if fares are rising or dropping. Kayak is also helpful, as it shows fare history charts to give you some foresight. If you have Twitter, Fly.com has an award-winning feed for flight deals, being nominated as one of the best by Time Magazine. Additionally, using aggregator sites like the ones mentioned above, as well as Skyscanner, Orbitz, cheapOair and Hotwire can help you compare airline prices.
Use Your Miles And Points
According to Sekar, the key to effectively using credit card miles and points to book flights is flexibility. Being willing to tweak your dates to get the best value is important. Additionally, timing your flights to coincide with higher ticket prices for the same rewards amount is beneficial.
Sekar also generally recommends using regular credit cards over airline-specific cards, unless there is one carrier you use all the time. Furthermore, using your miles to book holiday flights usually offers the worst redemption value.
So, what cards give you the best value? In terms of deals, the Chase Sapphire and Chase Ink Bold offer a 25% points boost when you use your Ultimate Rewards Points to book travel through Chase. Also, the Starwood American Express nominally pays out in Starpoints, but you can trade 20,000 Starpoints for 25,000 miles on many major airlines for a value of 1.25 cents per Starpoint earned.
In terms of general flight booking, the Capital One Venture Rewards and BankAmericard Privileges with Travel Rewards offer some of the highest earning rates, and most flexible rewards, in the business.
“Both give two miles per $1 spent on all purchases, and allow you to redeem your miles against any travel expense, be it airfare, baggage fees, gas or meals in the hotel’s dining room,” explains Sekar. “Because you redeem your miles as a statement credit, you can be sure you’re getting the full one cent per point value.”
If you’re traveling around the holidays, you’re going to need to be realistic. This is the time when flights are almost always going to be more expensive than other times of the year. Airlines understand on peak travel days, demand exceeds supply. In response, they increase prices, add surcharges and limit low fare options.
“If you went to Chicago last spring for $238 and now the fare is $320 over the holidays, don’t
assume that this is an aberration and it will come back down,” explains Klee. “Paying up to $100 more for a domestic flight during holiday time is, unfortunately, not uncommon. In fact, prices can go up even more than that if you don’t book far in advance.”
[Images via Shutterstock]