The rumors are true: finding the cheapest time to fly is no easy task. Most of you will have heard from people who have their own 'tips' on the best time to book flights; your super-organized friend will tell you booking early can save you a fortune. Another, less prepared pal will tell you to book as late as humanly possible.
'So, who's right - when is the best time to book flights? Well, it's not that simple - while flight pricing doesn't follow an exact formula, there are many things you can keep an eye out for if you’d rather spend all that hard-earned money on your actual holidays. We've curated some golden nuggets from our flight hackers to help you land the cheapest flights.
- Is there a best time to book flights?
- What is the difference between short-haul and long-haul flights, and why does it matter?
- The best time to book flights for holidays
- The best strategies for finding cheap holiday flights
- The best time to book flights to popular locations
- How can I find out about unannounced sales?
- Has Covid affected the best time to buy airline tickets?
Is there a best time to book flights?
The best time to book isn't perfectly predictable, but you can use the data we’ve collected over the years to set up a strategy for getting flights at their cheapest. The golden rules to follow are:
- Don't wait until the last minute
- Book flights 3-9 months in advance
Even as an avid traveler, it can be challenging to keep track of the price tag on every destination on your bucket list. But, we have a feeling you love finding a good deal since you're reading this guide.
So, at some point, you may have wondered how airlines decide on the price of a ticket since it's possible to pay a totally different price than the person sitting directly next to you.
Basically, airlines have different price groups for each seat and use complex algorithms to estimate how many seats need to be sold on each route by a certain period to make the most profit.
Once a target is met, they move on to the higher price group, but if seats don't sell, they get knocked down until they reach the minimum amount.
By this logic, you'd think that waiting on last-minute flights when airlines are desperate to sell off seats would be the best game plan.
But it's actually the opposite. Last-minute fares can go way up in price to take advantage of business travelers and others who may need to travel rather than simply want to. Airlines know they'll be less likely to gawk at the higher fare.
Although this isn't always the case, especially with short-haul flights, it's good to keep in mind:
"Banking on a last-minute deal is like playing roulette. The odds may be in your favor, but the house wins either way."
To find the best time to book your flight, you'll first need to know if it's a long- or short-haul flight.
What is the difference between short-haul and long-haul flights, and why does it matter?
How far you are going makes a huge difference when it comes to the best time to buy flights - short-haul and long-haul flights are two completely different beasts.
What is a short-haul flight?
Short-haul flights are less than 30 minutes to 3 hours - think quick domestic trips e.g. Boston to Philly or London to Belfast. However, it can also refer to technically medium-haul flights that last 3-6 hours like east coast to west coast trips in the USA or regional travel like Manchester to Ibiza.
We've found that short-haul flights are more predictable when deciding the best time to book: the best time to book a short-haul flight is a few weeks to four months before departure. The price variations for short-haul flights are consistently competitive, especially for popular destinations.
In the US, cheap flights come around pretty frequently to popular tourist spots like Hawaii and Las Vegas from big cities, like New York and Washington, D.C. This is mainly caused by price matching between the bigger airlines, and budget airlines needing more people to cover their costs. On the other hand, smaller cities like Salt Lake City and niche tourist spots like Myrtle Beach may not get to see deals as often.
In Europe, there’s a lot more competition for short-haul flights. Budget airlines like Ryanair, Wizz Air, easyJet and Norwegian operate a lot of the same routes, and flash sales can drop at any moment. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to wait it out and book just a couple of months in advance with these guys.
On the other hand, flying with a national carrier like British Airways or Brussels Airlines lets you plan in advance - and includes the all-important hand luggage. They usually have short-haul sales a couple of times a year - once in February/March, then again after summer.
In general, short-haul sales usually mean 20-30 dollars/pounds/euros off the original price, compared to 100+ discounts on long-haul routes.
What is a long-haul flight?
Long-haul flights are 6+ to 12+ hours long and always cross into a new border.
When searching for a long-haul flight, booking in advance is a pretty good idea. Broadly speaking, buying tickets somewhere between 8 months and 6 weeks in advance gets you the lowest prices - but more detail on that soon.
One option worth checking for last-minute flights if you’re in Europe is charter airline TUI. They buck the trend and often put deep discounts on flights less than 3 weeks away, mostly to beach-type destinations in the Caribbean and Europe.
Keep in mind that these are just general guidelines - prices on each route will vary based on many factors that affect the demand.
The best time to book flights for holidays
Booking cheap holiday flights can sometimes feel like an impossible task, but with 5+ years of experience under our belt, we’ve developed a spidey sense for when you’ll likely be able to book the cheapest holiday tickets.
Best time to book Thanksgiving holidays
As you're putting up your Jack O Lanterns, you might want to be on the lookout for Thanksgiving flights as well. They usually drop four to six weeks before the holiday and shoot up within two to three weeks. While it’s rare to find, there's a chance to find last-minute deals a few days before Thanksgiving.
Best time to book Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Cheap fares for Christmas and New Year start showing up two to three weeks before the holidays. For Christmas, the closer the holiday gets, the more prices climb. But we tend to see last-minute price drops for New Year's Day - especially after Boxing Day. To cut costs even further - try flying on the day of the holiday.
Best time to book school holidays.
Cheap flights for Easter, spring break, and summer holidays pop up between November and February. Because prices for these periods do tend to fluctuate, it's worth monitoring your route to see when prices drop and being ready to take advantage of that
The best strategies for finding cheap holiday flights
- Sign up for airline newsletters to keep track of seasonal sales - for example, in the US, Southwest has sales almost at the start of every season. It's common to find blackouts on their pricier days (e.g., Christmas Eve), but there'll often be discounts on days that fall on a holiday.
- Track prices with Google Flights tracker - if you've got specific dates already mapped out, the Google tracker is great for letting you know when prices change for that period. Combine that with the price history tool, and voila - no more second-guessing if the price is right! We’ve written a handy guide on how to use the tracker and other Google Flight features like a pro.
- Sign up for cheap flights newsletters - hey, that’s what we do! We take the hassle of price watching off your plate by notifying you when prices are great. We look for deals during the holidays too!
- Travel on the holiday - traveling on New Year's or Christmas Day can shave off quite a few bucks from your total price since most people want to settle in before the big day itself. This also applies to other major holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter.
- Avoid the rush where possible - a holiday might fall on the weekend, so it’s a no-brainer to come back on a Sunday or Monday to prep for the workweek. But according to CheapAir's study, avoiding these popular travel days saved an average of $125 per ticket during Christmas.
Knowing the right time to book flights is a good start, but you'll also have to keep in mind where you're heading.
The best time to book flights to popular locations
Finding cheap flights to the most popular vacation spots requires some research on the country's weather, peak/off seasons, and some experience with airline pricing patterns. It may seem like a lot of information - but hey, that's why we're here!
Three tips to keep in mind when flying to popular locations:
1) Avoid the peak season hype - Peak season may fall during the dry season/summer or when a major event occurs. If you're not targeting a specific event - it's best to visit just before or after these peak periods.
2) For international (long-haul) flights, we usually start seeing deals 1 - 2 seasons before departure. For example, deals for summer trips show up during winter and springtime.
3) Deals to exotic locations like the Maldives are rare, but the airlines often have flash deals worth setting up trackers to find.
How can I find out about unannounced sales?
Now that you know when to buy the cheapest flights, we thought our go-to tools for actually finding these deals were worth mentioning.
Google Flights allows you to look through a calendar to see what prices various dates bring back. It's probably the most comprehensive tool when it comes to depth and search options available, and it's also the most responsive.
One minor issue with this search tool is that not all airlines are included in the results (Thai Airlines, Air China, and China Eastern, for example, don't always show up). Also, it’s worth noting that it’s not great for browsing prices offered by OTAs - the likes of Momondo and Kayak are more suitable.
Skyscanner has a practical and easy-to-use design that allows users to see, via simple graphs, information about how far in advance to look for flights for specific places. Drop-downs let you input where you're going from and to, as well as showing which months are expensive, and which are less likely to be so. Skyscanner is especially good for budget airlines.
Kayak is great as its search options allow you to incorporate the cost of baggage within any search. This has become especially important in recent months as many airlines have significantly altered their policies and prices, with bags now potentially adding large numbers onto what initially seemed like very cheap fares.
Momondo provides an easy-to-use service that lets you see how expensive your flight dates are, combined with information about how flying to different airports or nearby locations may be cheaper. It's best suited for popular destinations like the Netherlands, on which it holds more information.
Has Covid affected the best time to buy airline tickets?
Yes and no. It's been a roller coaster ride for the travel industry, and as travel starts to open up, we've noticed a few changes when looking for the best time to travel.
- Airlines have border reopening sales - Although they may not overtly call it that, we've noticed ticket prices go down for countries a few weeks before and after announcing their border reopening.
- There are dry and wet spells for sales - While airlines were navigating all the new changes, we had long periods of very few deals. Now that travel's becoming more stable, there are more seasonal sales and random big drops (although they're not as generous as pre-Covid).
- The new normal brought new routes - It hasn't been all bad news for airlines. Many major airlines are branching out into more regions and including more routes. They'll often have a sale or two to gain traction.
- Last-minute sales are more common - We've noticed an increase in last-minute deals for domestic flights - especially in the USA. These sales happen one to two weeks before departure.
But, truly last-minute flights (a few days before travel) are still quite expensive. Plus, ensuring you've got all the proper documentation and approvals in less than 72 hours is a tight squeeze!
Want more advice?
Knowing the best time to book takes you one step closer to scoring amazing deals like a trip to Australia from the USA for $200! (Yep, that's actually a deal we've found in the past!)
Finding the best time to book is deceptively simple on the surface, but it comes with a few caveats. To get the thrill of securing a massively impressive deal, keep an eye out for the distance of the flight, the high and low seasons, and the right window for holidays. If you'd like more tips and tricks on how we find great deals, check out our ultimate guide to finding cheap flights.