If you put “best time to book a flight” into Google you’ll get more than 737 million results. Try the best day to book a flight and you’ll get more than 800 million results. Apparently people ask this a lot, as in tens of thousands of queries in any given month.
When it comes to how far out to book, there have been dozens of studies and the answers vary between seasons and popularity. The magic number is usually between 40 and 60 days, however. That doesn’t mean it’s when your flight will be the cheapest of course. Any time you bring this subject up in a crowd you’re bound to find people who found a terrific flight deal at the last minute, at three months ahead, or booking six months out.
A lot of the variance just depends on simple supply and demand between the two destinations. Throw a hub airport in there and it gets even more complicated. Plus a July flight to Europe is going to vary a lot less than one in January when demand is lower.
Next people will ask things like, “I heard if you book on a Tuesday night after midnight you’ll get the best deal.”
Well, not really. As soon as any warp in the wormhole like that opens up, it closes as soon as everyone catches on. There’s some evidence that Sunday night is the worst time to book (when a lot of other people are doing the same), but we’ve all seen exceptions to that in our own lives too. I had been searching for days for a good deal to central Mexico from Florida last year and on Sunday night a fare popped up for $212.84 one-way on JustFly. I immediately snagged it and was a happy traveler.
In reality, fares are changing by the hour or even faster these days. The airlines have gotten really good at cramming every single cramped seat full of cattle passengers. So the day you book doesn’t matter as much as whether you know a good deal when you see it.
The Day You Fly Really Matters
Where you’ll see the biggest varience in flight prices is not when you book, but when you’re going to actually fly.
If you’ve ever priced out a Friday to Friday vacation flight to a resort area, you have seen the pain of peak time pricing. If you’re a business traveler trying to fly out Monday morning and return Friday afternoon, ditto.
I’m constantly harping on the need to have flexibility in your travel plans. It’s the main theme of my book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. Otherwise your pursuit of a great deal is going to lead to lots of frustration. The more variables you have open, the less you’ll pay.
If you need any proof that the day of the week you fly makes a huge difference, check out this e-mail I got a while back from Delta:
This is no bait and switch either. When I pulled up flexible dates for a random route from Tampa to Seattle, the round-trip price ranged from $395 (Saturday) to $760 (Sunday). When I checked Atlanta (Delta’s main hub) and San Francisco it ranged from $246 (Wednesday) to $343 (Sunday and Monday).
This is not just a Delta thing though—they’re just putting the natural patterns of which day people fly most into an e-mail and making it look like a sale. You’ll see the same patterns on the others whenever it’s a route flown by business travelers. Where business and leisure intersect is Sunday: vacationers are coming home and sales reps are flying out to be rested for their Monday meetings.
When I searched Chicago to London round trip, I found some terrific deals as low as $383 from Saturday to Saturday—when few business travelers are on the move. Going direct was only $15 more. When I checked departures Monday to Thursday the same week, however, flights started at $492 for ones that took 18 hours and started at $590 for direct flights. That was for March. Try the same exercise in the summer and you can double the difference in prices.
For leisure destinations, the peak days reverse. If you’re trying to fly to Hawaii on a Friday with everyone else from California, well, good luck with that. You’ll pay a premium. If you can go on a Wednesday, however, you might actually get that sale price you saw advertised online or that popped up on Twitter. Test some different options regardless and see if you can drop the fare by changing the day you fly.
Set Flight Alerts and Shop Around
If you have plenty of time before your trip, it can make sense to set a price alert for your destination. Online referral agents like Kayak will allow you to set up e-mail messages for when a price drops below your target amount. Just make sure you click through to check out the fees though: these days you’ll see results for airlines like Spirit that are trying to figure out how to tack on extra charges for oxygen and the race-to-the-bottom legacy airlines have added “basic economy” seats that are just as bad.
When you do get that flight alert, check a few other sites as well to see if that’s really the best price. Sometimes other airlines will rush to match or exceed the cut if sales are slow and you can end up doing even better.
Be sure to shop around and see as many options as you can. In my experience, the online travel agents like JustFly will show you far more creative options than the airlines themselves will, even when you think you know where your favorite airline and its partners go. JustFly, for example, has partnered with more than 400 airlines so they can find the best prices for each route. Sometimes by using one airline for the departure and another for the return can save a small fortune. Or by choosing an alternate nearby airport. They’ll even help you out on the phone if you need assistance.
In the end, flexibility is going to get you much further than worrying about some special hack that supposedly gives you an edge by booking at a certain hour on a certain day. Pay more attention to what happens if you change the departure or return date. Moving the day you fly up or back a few days can drop the price you pay by enough to pay for a nice dinner or even a hotel night or two.