When friends and relatives come to me for help booking air travel, I often tell them they started looking too late, or that they’re trying to book too early. They find me really annoying.
The best time to book airfare is, generally speaking, between three months and three weeks before departure. But there are exceptions, and ways to work around those restrictions.
First, you should start looking for fares as soon as you know your travel dates. It’s unlikely you’ll find the best fare a year or six months out because fare sales generally extend forward only a few months, but there’s no reason not to have a look at what’s available.
If you happen to find a decent fare and you’re not worried that you’ll have to change your plans, book it. And if you’ll be traveling in the middle of a holiday period, don’t wait for sales. There won’t be any. Just get yourself a seat at the best price you can.
Another exception is booking award travel on frequent flier miles. You need to start looking as early as the airline allows, often close to a year ahead of time, especially if you’re going to a popular leisure destination or if you’re set on getting seats with the minimum required miles.
When I’m going to pay for my ticket, I usually take that first look around using the flexible search functions on Travelocity or Kayak.com. (The airfarewatchdog site has an excellent explanation of flexible airfare searching, including some great tips for international flights.)
About three months before departure, I start looking in earnest. I check the same sites and if Southwest serves my destination, I check southwest.com as well. Even if I don’t find a great fare right away, I might get some idea of whether a change in my travel dates would yield a lower one.
There’s no science to deciding when a fare is low enough to buy. I have my own benchmarks and instincts — I hate to pay more than $250 round trip to fly to the West Coast or $500 to Europe, which is not to say I haven’t done it. In the end it comes down to how much the ticket is worth to you and how comfortable you are with gambling on a lower fare.
I find people as likely to pass up a good deal in the vain hope of something better as they are to jump too early on a high fare. (I don’t really enjoy saying "I told you so" in either case, but sometimes it’s my duty.)
It’s not perfect, but you may get some guidance from Farecast, which uses historical pricing data to advise whether a fare might be expected to rise or fall.
It’s almost always a mistake to wait more than two weeks before departure to book airfare because most airlines cancel advance booking discounts at that point. Generally speaking if I’m still looking at three weeks before departure, I’ll bite the bullet and book the best fare I can get.
Still, if you have to travel at the last minute and your two-week advance is gone, all is not lost. There may be hope of a decent deal.
If you can travel over a weekend, look for the last-minute weekend fares at airfarewatchdog.com or the package deals on lastminute.com. If you have frequent-flier miles available, there may be some spotty, last-minute availability. Call the airline and be sure to ask about availability on partner airlines.
If you’re having trouble booking during a holiday period, look at the possibility of flying on the holiday itself. Fares are often substantially lower on Thanksgiving and Christmas days than on surrounding days.
And if you pay more than you wanted to remember this: there’s always next time.