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Travel is back, and we’ve got tips from the experts on the best time to buy flights to get great deals on airfare
Navigating the world of air travel, especially post-pandemic, can be daunting with fluctuating prices and seemingly unpredictable deals. According to Hopper’s 2023 Travel Trends report, 84% of travelers are spending more on travel than last year and the overall cost of travel is up 14% compared to June 2019 (source: NerdWallet’s Travel Price Index).
With the cost of travel going up, US travelers are looking for ways to save money on airfare. They’re asking the age-old question: When is the best time to book a flight, whether for domestic travel or international getaways. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Why trust Reader’s Digest? We’ve read through the latest 2023 studies from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Expedia, Hopper, and more. We also go straight to the experts to find out the best time to buy anything—in this case, that specifically means airline tickets. Keep reading to find out when to book a flight and when to take your trip to get a great deal in 2023, plus travel tips you won’t want to miss if you are traveling on a budget, like the best time to book a hotel.
What is the best day to buy plane tickets?
Research by Expedia shows the ideal day to book a flight is Sunday. For domestic flights, you can get the best airfare by booking at the end of the weekend. Doing so can save you around 5%. For international flights, the savings are nearly 10%.
In the past, you may have heard that the secret best time to buy plane tickets was Tuesday at midnight, but according to Hayley Berg, lead economist for travel deals app Hopper, that’s not always the case. “We found that this was only applicable to 1.6% of routes and yielded savings of 6%,” she says.
RD.com, Getty Images
In your hunt for the best time to buy flights, you’re probably searching for the best time of year or the best month, week and even the best time of day to buy airline tickets. (Anything to save a little cash!) But travel deals tend to vary too much to pin down those specifics. “There are many factors that impact pricing, so there is no golden rule that applies to all flights, nor is there a specific time of day, week [or] month that is better to book, in general,” Berg says. “It all varies, depending on the route you’re flying, etc.” That means there isn’t one best time to book a flight during the day—and that it’s a myth that it’s cheapest to book flights at midnight.
|♦ Best day to buy: Sunday|
|Save 5% on domestic travel and 10% on international flights.|
How far in advance should you book flights?
“The general rule of thumb,” says Berg, “is to buy at least three weeks [or about 27 days] in advance for domestic trips. Prices spike in the two weeks leading up to a flight’s departure, rising 25% two weeks out and another 30% in the final week.”
However, new data from CheapAir’s recently released ninth annual Airfare Study, which analyzed 917 million flight prices in more than 8,000 markets across the United States, determined that the best day to buy domestic flights is 70 days before departure. Keep in mind, the report does note that when booking airline tickets, there are many factors that impact how far in advance travelers should secure their flights. Seat location, flight experience, destination and price all determine when to purchase in order to receive the best deal.
For international trips, you’ll want to book up to six months in advance, according to Expedia. Yes, that’s far in advance, but the company’s data shows that travelers who do plan that far out save up to 10% over those who purchase their tickets less than two months before traveling.
|♦ When to book: 45 to 70 days before your trip|
|For domestic travel, book your flight about 45 days before your trip. For international flights, book six months ahead.|
What is the cheapest day to fly?
“For international trips, depart on a Thursday to save as much as 6%, or $60, per round trip ticket, ” Berg says. “The day of the week that you actually travel can be a more predictable way to save.”
For domestic trips, Wednesday is the cheapest day of the week to fly, saving on average $100 per airline ticket compared with the most expensive day, Sunday, according to the CheapAir Airfare Study.
|♦ Cheapest days to fly: Tuesday through Thursday|
|Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday for the cheapest domestic travel. Fly on Thursday for the lowest-priced international flights.|
What is the cheapest month to fly?
Because they come after the holidays and most people are back to work, January and February are the cheapest months to fly.
Looking for the best time to buy tickets to Europe or other international locations? Book a summer trip. Expedia data shows that August is the cheapest warm-weather month to fly, with average ticket prices nearly 10% lower compared with July. Tickets are also cheaper in August than during the December rush.
|♦ Cheapest month to fly: January or February|
|For the lowest fares on domestic flights, travel in January or February. But for international trips, you’ll find the cheapest fare in August.|
When is the best time of day to travel?
Being a savvy traveler isn’t just about knowing how to find cheap flights. It’s also about choosing the flights that’ll make for the smoothest travel experience.
Early is the way to go, travel experts agree. Early-morning flights are typically less crowded, and they give you more opportunities to get on another flight during the day if your flight is delayed or canceled.
Avoid taking the last flight of the day whenever possible, especially during the winter travel months, to reduce the chances of missed connections or getting stuck for the night in the airport due to bad weather.
When is the worst time to fly?
The holidays are always going to be the busiest times to travel because everyone is trying to get somewhere to celebrate. Prices tend to be higher, but that’s not the only reason this is the worst time to fly. The holidays are jam-packed with travelers, and not just in the busiest airports in the world. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2022, the TSA screened 2.56 million people, which meant longer lines in many airports and travel hubs.
What is the best time to buy tickets for holiday travel?
If you’re already thinking about getting away for Thanksgiving or the December holidays, check out flights and, if you find a price you like, book your tickets now. Although September is traditionally the best time to buy holiday airline tickets on the cheap, the pandemic has made travel unpredictable, so it may be worth locking in your tickets as soon as you can. Just make sure there will be no change fees if you find a lower price later on and want to switch your flight.
Why do flight prices fluctuate so much?
“Airfare is impacted by several factors, including jet fuel prices, seasonality and seat capacity,” explains Berg. “Large-scale events in a market can alter prices, but on a smaller level, the airfare you see when searching a flight can be impacted by what fare class is currently available on a given flight or how far out you are booking. These factors and more are constantly evolving, creating volatile pricing.”
How can you get the best deals?
Knowing the best time to buy flights is one way to travel on the cheap. Booking on a budget airline is another. But there are other steps you can take to save money on air travel.
Scour the best websites for cheap flights
There are a number of sites you can check for cheap flights, including these travel expert go-tos:
Make sure you read the fine print, paying attention to any unexpected fees or restrictions, before booking. And keep in mind that airlines will always give priority to passengers who booked directly through them rather than through a third-party site. So weigh your actual savings against the possibility of what might happen if you have an issue with delays, cancellations or lost baggage.
Set alerts and do your research
“It’s going to be hard to find cheap flights these days, so your best strategy is to track your airfare for places you want to travel,” says national travel correspondent Dayvee Sutton. “My favorite site for that is Google Flights. Just put in your destination, set it and forget it. Now you don’t have to hunt every hour or every day for the flight you want. When there is a change in the price, Google will send you an email, and when you see a price that works for you, book the flight!”
Another tool: the price-tracking and predictions tool on the Expedia app, which notifies travelers when airfare moves up or down and predicts price trends based on historical data. You can also try the Hopper app, which will predict the best time to buy for your specific trip. That’s important because the best time to buy flights largely depends on your route and dates.
Be flexible in price, destination and timing
“My No. 1 tip for getting travel deals is to be flexible,” says Sutton. “Travel is expensive right now, and the industry doesn’t predict it getting any better anytime soon. So if we rethink our approach to traveling, we can still find some deals by booking what is on sale as opposed to a specific destination.”
Deborah Jourdan, a senior vice president with sightseeing app Go City, agrees. “Certain destinations, such as Las Vegas, have already surpassed pre-pandemic numbers in terms of Go City pass purchases,” she says. “People are eager to get back out there, and New York City, London, San Diego, Oahu and Paris are currently our most booked cities.”
Look at less-popular cities for better deals.
Consider seasonality before booking
Seasonally, demand typically slows around mid- to late June, as most travelers have already booked their vacations for peak May, June and July travel. Lower demand for late summer and early fall travel means you may be able to get lower airfare by traveling in September or October. In fact, according to Berg, you can save an average of $118 off domestic airfare if you wait and travel in late August or early September.
Browse incognito for flights
You’re innocently searching out the must-see places in the United States to take your kids and teens, when the price increases. Is Google tracking your searches and dishing up higher prices, knowing you’re eager to get away? And should you be clearing your browser’s cookies when looking for flights?
“The better strategy would be to search in incognito mode,” says Sutton. “The algorithms do, indeed, track your search, and this could affect the prices you are quoted. Although this is not always true, and I have seen the price remain the same for days after I’ve done an initial search, it can’t hurt.”
As Sutton acknowledges, the issue is a bit murky. While some travel experts put this trick into practice, others say there’s no evidence that searches affect ticket prices, maintaining that clearing cookies and using a private browser won’t help you find cheaper fares. Airline ticket prices, they say, fluctuate based on a whole bunch of factors, including demand. Still, if you’re really pinching pennies, there’s no harm in trying.
What’s the best way to avoid waiting in lines?
Other than arriving early (at least two hours before your domestic flight and three hours before an international one, says the TSA), invest in trusted traveler programs like Global Entry and TSA PreCheck (both of which last five years) and/or Clear, which is renewed annually. With any of these options, you’ll get to skip the longer lines at security.
And pack light if you can. Checking bags can add time and expenses to travel. If possible, opt for carry-on luggage on your next trip. You’ll skip lines when you arrive at the airport and won’t have to wait for luggage when you land.
Whenever possible, select nonstop flights. Choosing a nonstop option instead of a connecting flight can make dealing with unexpected delays, crowds or cancellations a little easier because you don’t have to worry about getting on another flight. If you can’t take a direct flight, make sure to budget sufficient time to make a connection, just in case your first flight is delayed.
Finally, many car rental companies offer contactless pickup, so you can just walk onto the lot and hop in your car. On Expedia, use the “skip the counter” filter to find these options and avoid waiting in yet another line at the car rental office.
Unfortunately, the waiting doesn’t end at the airport, though. To avoid long lines at the attractions you want to visit at your destination, buy your tickets online before you leave home. “This summer will be one of the busiest travel seasons in years,” warns Jourdan, “and visitors should be prepared for longer lines and more limited capacity in popular destinations and attractions. Just as foodie travelers might book a restaurant reservation a couple weeks ahead of a trip, experience-driven travelers should think about their must-see attractions and book reservations to ensure they have the access they want.”
All experts agree that this summer is going to be a challenging one for travel. “With restrictions relaxed, people are more comfortable with the idea of traveling than they have been for the past couple of years,” says Sutton. “But everyone should keep in mind that traveling itself is not comfortable right now. Protocols are changing all the time, lines are longer, crowds are bigger and there are more flight delays and cancellations than ever. So if you’re going to travel, be prepared for the unexpected, pack your patience and focus on the fun you will have at your destination.”
Knowing the best time to buy flights is a great first step in saving money. But if you really want to save—and these days, who doesn’t?—learn more ways timing is everything by finding out the best time to buy a TV, a car and household appliances.
Additional reporting by Melissa Klurman.
- Hayley Berg, lead economist at Hopper
- Expedia: “2023 Air Travel Hacks Report”
- Christie Hudson, senior public relations manager of Expedia
- Cheapair.com: 9th Annual Airfare Study
- Deborah Jourdan, senior vice president at Go City
- Adam Lawless, director of communications at Viator
- Dayvee Sutton, national travel correspondent
- Viator: “Travel Trends Report 2022”