In some cases this can lead to better prices as the airlines try a last ditch attempt to fill their planes at any price. On the other hand, if it is a popular destination you may find that thanks to the laws of supply and demand the tickets are just as expensive as booking months in advance.
Now a giant study of over 1.5 billion airfares and almost 5 million trips has aimed to answer this most eclectic of questions. Cheap flights aggregator Cheap Air recently carried out an extensive year-long study to find the very cheapest times to book an aeroplane ticket. Their findings are fascinating.
The survey aimed to find out the best value times to book flights to international locations, as well as US internal flights.
Let’s start off with internal flights. Here Cheap Air gathered together millions of flights and found that internal flights start off reasonably cheap when they launch – normally around a year before the actual flight date. Assuming minimal uptake that early in the season, prices typically drop slowly but surely over the next few months. Then at around 50 days before the plane is due to take off flights suddenly spike in price, increasing in value by almost 50% between the trough and the peak.
The following graph does a good job of illustrating just how quickly that spike occurs:
The study found that internal US flights are invariably booked at the best price between 27 and 114 days before take-off (depending on destination). The study underlines the fact that, at least in terms of domestic flights, waiting for last minute deals is a highly risky strategy. Instead you’re better to book earlier in order to secure the very best prices possible.
The only caveat here is that around the most popular times of year for flying (such as Christmas and Thanksgiving) the “best buy” window tends to close much earlier. Instead you’re better if you’re travelling at “prime time” to book as early as possible because tickets tend to sell that much quicker at these times of year.
But what about international flights for expats and travellers – when should we be booking tickets for the best value when travelling abroad?
Here tickets once again tend to go on offer around 11 months before take-off, but in most cases the prices rise slowly and steadily over time. Quite simply it’s a matter of supply and demand; the more tickets the airline and their agents have sold, the more expensive the remaining tickets become.
For example the cheapest tickets to Asia are found 318 days before take-off while Europe was a little more moderate with the best time to buy 276 days early. It seems that popular tourist destinations like Spain, Italy and France book up early for summer holidays and half terms, so waiting until the last minute can be a very risky strategy. The study found that while occasional bargains are still to be had at short notice, they’re far harder to uncover. Most people will do best to book their holiday as early as possible, even the year before.
The graph below shows the “optimum” times to be buying tickets to specific destinations. Note that there can be a fair degree of volatility, and Cheap Air report that ticket prices changed on average every 4.5 days during their study so travellers looking for the best-value tickets should carefully monitor ticket prices over a period of time in order to get the best value possible.