The Best Time to Purchase Airline Tickets and Hotel Rooms

Finding cheap airfare is a matter of timing. First, determine how flexible your plans are, and then keep your eyes peeled.
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When to Buy Plane Tickets
To find the best price on airfare, start looking 60 to 90 days out. (Photodisc)

While the Internet has democratized the process of booking travel, it certainly hasn't made it less complicated. Waiting to pounce on a good travel deal is a little like a high-stakes game of poker: Within days, or even hours, prices can plummet or skyrocket. The good news is that any savvy traveler, armed with a little know-how, can turn the volatile cycles of travel deals to their advantage. When do you book ahead and when do you wait till the last minute? Read on.

When to Buy Plane Tickets
Although airlines will hold sales at unpredictable moments, even altering their prices by hundreds of dollars within hours, there are generally two strategies when it comes to snagging good airfare deals: Book far in advance or wait until the very last minute.

"A lot of finding the sweet spot of when to book airfare depends on when you are traveling," says Jeanenne Tornatore, senior travel editor at Orbitz.com. "The airlines are constantly monitoring and managing price changes based on capacity and seat availability, and the less inventory there is available, the more it is going to cost you."

Booking well in advance—between one and three months—makes sense when traveling on high-traffic travel days, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4th, Labor Day, and President's Day. That also goes for popular destinations during peak vacation times, like Europe and major national parks during the summer, or the Caribbean, Mexico, and ski resorts during the winter. The best deals for these destinations (during peak season, at least) commonly occur about three months ahead of time: For a summer jaunt to Europe, transatlantic airlines typically hold sales in March and April.

Booking early is also a good rule to adopt if you are inflexible about your dates or destination or you are traveling to a remote, off-the-beaten-track airport with limited air service. In other words, don't hold out hope that fares to Albania will go on sale. One other tip: Because business travelers tend to book flights to big cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco at the last minute, leisure travelers generally land the best deals when they book a month or more ahead.

"As the airlines fill up their planes, they increase their prices," says Ike Anand, director of airline strategy and analysis at Expedia.com. "If you know you're going to travel 60 to 90 days in advance, it's better to buy at that time. If you're way late in the process, then the best time to buy is two or three weeks before."

Twenty-one days before each flight is the magic moment when airlines assess their capacity and hold sales. Booking at the last minute can yield legendary deals, but it necessitates a lot of flexibility on the part of the traveler—or a lot of nerve.

"The absolute best deals are at the last minute, unless it's a holiday period or other peak times when everything is sold out," says Tim Leffel, author of The World's Cheapest Destinations and Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. "If you're flexible, you'll routinely be paying half what everyone else is, especially if you use last-minute auction sites."

Being flexible as to where you're going can pay big rewards. Hawaii is a good example: Because it's almost exclusively a leisure destination, travelers tend to book far in advance. When airlines see empty flights, fares routinely drop to bargain-basement prices, but often within a week of a departure date. Other popular vacation destinations where there are a glut of flights, such as Cancun and Las Vegas, can turn up similar deals at the very last minute, especially during low-traffic times like the beginning of December.

The ultimate departure window for last-minute deals is between September and December, months that are historically slow for travel. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the best, since fewer people travel between holidays. And those serious about last-minute deals should keep an especially keen eye out on Tuesdays, when airlines routinely release hot-off-the-press sale fares.

"The gold time that travel experts talk about is 3 P.M. on Tuesdays," says Kristin Finan, travel writer and author of the guidebook The Cheap Bastard's Guide to Houston. "That's when you'll see airlines offering their deep discount fares. You have to be really quick about it because, within about five hours, they'll all be gone."


Published: 14 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 8 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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