Travel Tuesday: When is the Best Time to Book a Flight?
Over the Thanksgiving travel holiday, millions of Americans returned to the skies. And while certain news has inspired anxiety about what will happen to travel in the more immediate future, let’s look forward to when vacations can once again be carefree. Of course, while we all wish money were no object and we could plan the trip of our dreams without restrictions, the fact is that booking a flight can be pricey — but timing can help savvy travelers score great deals.
Continuing my series looking at the best time to book travel, let’s talk about when you should be buying flights. First, we’ll hop into some of the data and then I’ll add a few tips from my persona experience. Ready? Let’s go:
How Far in Advance Should You Book a Flight?
What the Data Says
The good news is that, when it comes to timing your flight booking, we have fresh data on the subject. Recently, the travel site Expedia published its annual report that it prepares in partnership with the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC).
When to book
In terms of how far in advance to book your flight, the study found that domestic fares tended to start rising 21 days in advance while international itineraries started to climb 28 days beforehand. This puts the sweet spot for domestic flight bookings at 28 to 35 days in advance. However, if you’re flying internationally, between three to four months ahead of your departure is usually when you’ll find the best fares according to Expedia.
When to fly
Of course, the days you travel on matters — and the results of which days are best may be a bit surprising. For domestic travel, starting your trip on a Friday was found to yield savings of more than 15% (although hotel rates are worth considering if you’re talking weekend trips). On the other hand, international trips are best starting on Thursdays — although the savings aren’t quite as robust, coming in at around 5%. Either way, it was found that flying during the latter half of the week (Wednesday through Saturday) rather than the first half of the week (Sunday through Tuesday) typically helped with prices.
What day to book on
As you may have heard, the day of the week you choose to buy your flight can also be a factor in your fare. Furthermore, the research found that Sunday was the best day for booking. In fact, domestic fliers were able to save as much as 5% by booking on Sunday while international flight savings were closer to 10%.
Although this data is definitely interesting, it’s worth keeping in mind that it is subject to change over time. What’s more, the results are based on averages and, thus, may not apply in every situation. Ultimately, while this may help you set a basic course, it’ll be up to you to navigate the best path from there.
My Experience and Tips for Savings on Flights
Explore airport options
For most people, booking a flight just involves selecting the nearest airport to where you live, the closest airport to where you’re going, and looking at what’s available. However, while that’s a great starting point, you may be able to save more by widening your search. Specifically, it may be worth exploring alternative airports. Obviously this is common in cities like Dallas, New York City, Chicago, or others that have more than one major airport to begin with, but there are other times when looking at a close-enough city may be beneficial.
In my case, while I love the Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF), it does have limited options and can be a bit pricey to fly out of at times given its size. Meanwhile, if I’m willing to drive up to Kansas City instead, I not only have a greater selection of airlines and destinations but can also usually find better fares. Similarly, as I discovered on a trip to New York, Northwest Arkansas (XNA) has direct flights to LaGuardia. So, despite the two-hour drive, we managed to save time and money by making the trip.
Obviously, this plan may not work for everyone. Still, it may be worth exploring if you’re looking for a deal.
Try flexible date and fare calendars
Did you know that some airlines will actually help you find the cheapest time to fly? It’s true! While not every carrier site offers such a feature, be sure to look for flexible date or fare calendar options when booking. Ideally, this will allow you to see a table of which travel dates have the best deals. For example, here’s a look at what Delta’s Flexible Dates view looks like if you toggle on the “My dates are flexible” option:
Even better, if you’re not sure what time of year you want to fly but want a deal, there are options for that as well. In the case of Delta, in addition to the Flexible Dates view, they also have a Price Calendar. As you can see, this reveals that flying this same itinerary in March is currently significantly cheaper than the dates in April:
Overall, tools like these can be greatly beneficial when exploring booking options — so be sure to keep an eye out for them. Meanwhile, if your preferred airline doesn’t offer any such tools, you can try third-party options such as Google Flights instead.
Consider rebooking for less
If you’re looking for a small silver lining to the awful pandemic we’re all living through, then updates to airline booking policies may be among them. In the past year, several domestic carriers have adjusted their terms to now waive cancelation and change fees for customers. In theory, this means that you could potentially cancel your flight if you find a better price and rebook it for less. However, there is a bit of an asterisk on this as there are some exclusions to this policy. Therefore, I’d be sure to read the terms closely before pursuing such an option.
Personally, I’ve only done this with one airline: Southwest. That’s because, before this recent wave (yep, it’s a pun) of updates, Southwest already allowed flyers to rebook for better fares and bank the credit. For that, Southwest gets a shoutout — but here’s hoping that similar tactics can now be employed with other airlines.
Remember to compare apple to apples
Here’s the thing about looking just at fares: it probably won’t tell you the whole story. That’s why it’s vital that, before booking a “deal,” you look more closely at what the fare includes. For example, while airlines like Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant offer killer base fares, you’ll likely need to pay to select a seat, bring on a carry-on, or even print your boarding pass. On the other hand, these may be things that are already bundled into what other carriers are quoting you.
This isn’t to say that discount carriers won’t save you money — they certainly can (and have for me in the case of Allegiant). All I’m saying is that it’s important to consider the true cost and not just react to the fare you see. Also, as someone with a bit of experience with ultra-low-cost carriers, it also helps to go in with your expectations primed. That way, you won’t be shocked by the “nickel and diming” you’re in for.
Don’t stress yourself out
Finally, in a repeat of my advice regarding hotel booking, I’d advise that it’s better to get a flight you like at a price you’re happy with than it is to drive yourself mad trying to get a better deal — and running the risk of ending up with a worse itinerary for more money. One thing I’ll often do is set a target price based on my research and tracking. That way, if I end up getting near that target, I feel like I won even if the price does eventually dip lower. Of course, if you are able to take the above advice and rebook for lower, go ahead and keep tabs on the fares for updates. Otherwise, be satisfied, let it go, and enjoy your trip!
When it comes to booking a flight, there are several factors that will dictate when the best time to book is. The good news is that, with this latest data and a stable of tools and tricks at your disposal, you can go about finding your best bet. With that said, as I mentioned, be sure not to stress too much about potentially lost savings. Instead, just do your best and be happy with the deals you do get without sweating those you didn’t.
Also published on Medium.