Airline ticket by Cassiopeia sweet from Wikimedia Commons
Airline ticket by Cassiopeia sweet from Wikimedia Commons

When to buy; when to fly

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

“When’s the best time to buy an airline ticket?” “When are fares lowest?” Travelers ask those questions all the time, and you have no trouble finding someone to answer them. Time was, answers depended on rudimentary data and opinion, but these days, ticket processing agencies have hard data on millions of actual transactions they can mine to show real-world trends. The latest data come from the Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) and Expedia, with key findings for travel originating in North America:

For most coach/economy tickets:

  • Book at least 30 days before departure
  • Book on a Sunday; avoid Friday
  • Start your trip on Thursday or Friday, avoid Sunday
  • For international travel, buy in February, avoid December and July
  • For most domestic travel, fly in September, avoid June

For most premium-class tickets:

  • Book at least 30 days before departure
  • Book on Saturday or Sunday
  • Start your trip on Friday or Sunday

For the most part, this report shows that fares more than 30 days in advance tend to keep decreasing with increasing lead time, but at a very small rate of change. For ticket purchases closer than 30 days, fares increase steeply to a peak at departure time. The report also shows some routes where fares follow the 30-day pattern as an average but exhibit a great deal of volatility throughout the period.

These figures are well documented, but they do not agree with trends reported by some other agencies. Last year, several studies placed the optimum buy period at seven weeks in advance for domestic flights and 11 weeks in advance for international flights. Also, other sources report that when airlines initially post fares, 10 to 11 months in advance, prices are what airlines would like to charge, not what they will realistically be able to charge. Fares decline gradually to a minimum, six to 11 weeks before departure, rise gradually until about two or three weeks before departure, then rise rapidly up to departure date.

Other reports have also indicated that day-to-day fare variations near the low point are fairly minor. Fares a week before or a week after the low point are only a few dollars higher. And if you miss buying on Sunday, you won’t lose much by waiting until Monday.

Over the years, my take has always been, “The best time to buy an airline ticket is when it’s on sale.” As the data in the current report indicate, average trend lines show a lot of volatility. Sale fares can be spectacular, you see them all the time, and a good sale can easily answer the “best time to buy” question. Sale fares, however, don’t help much in deciding when to fly: If your vacation is in the summer, great fares in March are helpful only if you’re flexible enough to base the timing of your trip on airfares. Which, for most people, is a nonstarter.

My take has always been that the best way to keep airfare costs low is to keep on top of sales. Unless you want to spend hours every day looking at search engines, that means signing up for one or more of the many free airfare and “deal” email or text bulletins that online travel agencies and travel websites offer. I provide input to SmarterTravel.com and its affiliate, AirfareWatchdog.com; you can sign up there to receive notification of any fare specials from your home airport. OTAs and many airlines also issue deal bulletins keyed to our home airport. To make sure you get the most information, join the loyalty program of any airline you can feasibly fly.

Keep in mind that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Concede that you might not get the absolutely lowest airfare for any given flight. Instead, keep your eyes open for deals, and when you find something that looks good, jump on it. If somebody later gets a fare a few dollars less than you paid, say “kismet” and enjoy the deal you got.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s rail travel bsite at Rail-Guru.com.)

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