When Is the Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets?
As a travel editor, one of the questions I get asked the most when friends or family are booking flights is: “If I wait, will the price go up or down?”
The best time to book a flight is generally one to two months out for domestic trips. For international flights, book six to eight months out for the best deals. However, there are many factors that can lead to an increase (or decrease) in the price of an airline ticket.
“Airline pricing models are complex, with tickets kept priced low enough so passengers can afford them, while keeping airlines profitable,” explains Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert with flight tracking and booking tool Skyscanner. The strongest determinate for airfares, says Crossey, is demand.
Along those lines, the variables that can make an airfare go higher or lower include:
- The flight route: Are there are a lot of planes flying between the selected airports, or is service rather limited? If it’s the latter, it will be harder to find a good deal. If the route is more competitive, the airfares will be, too.
- The time of year: Are you looking to travel during popular periods such as summer or the holidays? If so, the prices likely won’t come down the closer you get to the travel date.
- Special events: Is there a special event taking place, such as a festival, big sporting event, or conference? If that’s the case, then airfares are likely not going to come down much, if at all.
- The booking window: How far out it is from the time of travel? If it’s very far out, prices could still fluctuate quite a bit. The closer in it is, the less likely a drop in price will become.
Airline tickets typically go on sale up to a year out from the departure date, so that’s when the pricing roller coaster begins. During the pandemic, airfares were dramatically affected by the severe drop in demand. Over the past year, however, as travel rebounded, so, too, did airfares.
Airfare prices in 2023
Does that mean there’s no hope for more affordable airline ticket prices in 2023?
“To the contrary,” says Scott Keyes, founder of flight deal tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights. “There’s great reason for optimism about cheap flights going into 2023.” (Whew.)
Keyes notes that while airfares shot up in spring 2022, they peaked in May and have been falling five of the past six months; airfares are now down 17 percent from their May highs. “And in fact, when you adjust airfare for inflation, it’s cheaper today than it was in 2019. If you fell asleep between March 2020 and November 2022, nothing would surprise you about today’s average fares,” says Keyes.
He adds that just because average airfares are up from their 2020 and 2021 lows, doesn’t mean that there won’t be cheap flights aplenty in the year ahead.
“Even airline CEOs are conceding that fares are likely to drop next year. Delta’s CEO just this week noted that with expected flight capacity increases in 2023, that will ‘take a little bit of pressure’ off airfares,” says Keyes.
If you have your heart set on a specific destination or time frame, start tracking flights early to get a sense of the standard range. That way you’ll know a good deal when you see one—and can pounce when an attractive airfare pops up.
The best time to buy airline tickets is ultimately a combination of luck and strategy. While we can’t help too much with the luck part, we can at least try to help with the strategizing. Thankfully, there are some ways to improve your chances of finding cheaper flights, according to experts who spend a lot of time analyzing flight data. Here’s what they recommend.
How far in advance should you book a flight to get the best deal?
The best time to book a flight is one to three months before your departure for domestic airline tickets and two to eight months prior for international flights, according to Scott’s Cheap Flights.
“We call these the ‘Goldilocks windows,’” says Keyes. “Not too early, not too late—just right in the middle.”
If you want to travel during the holidays, over spring break, during peak summer travel periods, or for a popular event such as Mardi Gras or a big music festival, you should start looking and booking a bit earlier—three to six months out for domestic travel and four to 10 months out for international travel.
When it comes to how long before traveling you should book your airfare, there is no single perfect moment (e.g., exactly 60 days before your flight), but more of an ideal window or time frame, as mentioned above, during which you should be researching flights and ultimately committing to them before prices start to rise.
The best day of the week to buy airline tickets
Although you may have heard that flight prices are lower on Tuesdays, the general consensus these days is that there is no single day of the week to score good deals on airfares. Deals get doled out every day of the week.
According to Skyscanner’s Crossey, your chances are a bit better earlier in the week. “Flight prices typically go through a weekly cycle, meaning the lowest prices are made available earlier in the week, and the highest prices are offered later in the week,” says Crossey.
Cheapest day of the week to fly
According to travel booking site Hopper, flying midweek will score you the best prices. Tuesday and Wednesday are typically the cheapest days to fly domestically. For international travel, midweek is also best. Hopper recommends departing earlier in the week (between Monday and Wednesday) and returning later in the week (between Tuesday and Thursday) for international flights.
How to find the best airfare deals
When searching for airfares, there are ways to fiddle with your dates, filters, and other search tools that could help you land on a more attractive flight price.
Explore different dates with a flight search tool
There are plenty of flight search tools out there, but the one that’s often the most comprehensive (by our estimation) is Google Flights. Its best feature is the Calendar tool, which allows travelers to see the full range of airfares over the course of each month. Google Flights is a search tool—not a booking tool—so travelers use it to find the flights and airfares that work for them but then book directly with the airline.
As useful as Google Flights is, it never hurts to cross-check against other sites like Kayak, Skyscanner, or Momondo.
If there’s a particular airline you know you want to book—say, because of a loyalty membership or because of preferred routes and service—you can (and should) also search directly with that carrier to get the full spread of options straight from the airline’s inventory.
Set an alert to track prices
Flight search sites like Google Flights and Kayak have a price-tracking tool, which allows users to set an alert for when the price changes on a route of interest. This is a great option for stalking your flight for the best price.
Lock in a flight deal for 24 hours
For flights booked at least seven days or more prior to departure, the Department of Transportation requires that airlines flying within, into, or out of the United States allow customers to cancel without penalty within 24 hours. So, if you see a good airfare, you can always hold it for 24 hours while you look around a bit more or make a final decision on your travel plans.
Filter the search based on travel interests and needs
If you know you’re going to travel with checked luggage or only want to fly nonstop, you can filter your search so you’re only comparing flights relevant to your needs.
You can filter your search by the number of stops, flight duration, airlines (handy for eliminating carriers you definitely do not want to fly with), and departure and arrival times. You can also filter by the number of bags you want to check, all of which helps travelers find the best deals that meet their specific needs. (For instance, I am often traveling with two small kids, so shorter flight times and fewer stops are more important to me than the absolute rock-bottom prices.) You can search more than one origin or destination airport as well to expand your options.
Explore cheap fares by destination
On Google Flights, there is an Explore tool that allows users to enter their origin city and explore destinations within a given time frame—for example, a “one-week trip within the next six months.” This is great for just planting some idea seeds for upcoming travel. You can do the same with the destination, and enter a broader region such as Hawai‘i or Europe to get larger snapshots of the airfares available across several cities and airports.
Sign up for an airfare deal newsletter, like Scott’s Cheap Flights
Another useful way to find an airfare deal is to sign up for a deal newsletter such as Scott’s Cheap Flights and Dollar Flight Club. These services are constantly looking for amazing flight offers and inform their members as soon as great deals crop up. This is perfect for when you are still in the inspiration phase of trip planning.
Sign up for frequent flier programs
Members of airlines’ frequent flier programs will typically get emailed about the latest and greatest airfare sales. This is another way to nab a good deal as soon as it drops.
Do flight prices go down at the last minute?
While there can be a fair amount of price fluctuation several months before travel, once you get within a few weeks of your flight, that airfare is very unlikely to come down, according to Scott’s Cheap Flights.
The reality is that last-minute offers just don’t come around as often as travelers may think. “Generally speaking, waiting until the 11th hour to book airfare isn’t going to save you money. After about the three-week mark, prices rise significantly, no matter the route,” Scott’s Cheap Flights concludes.