How Far In Advance Should You Book Your Flight?
How Far In Advance Should You Book Your Flight?
I’ve been asked many times if I should book my flight far in advance. My rule of thumb is this: book as soon as you are sure about your travel dates. Generally speaking the closer you are to your departure date, the higher the fare gets, but this is not always true and very much depends on a few things.
Where are you flying? And from where? The answer to this common question is actually a little more complicated than most travel sites make it seem. There is no one size fits all answer here, because different airlines operate differently in different regions. For example, many, if not most flight between countries within the European Union will be considered a “domestic” flight. Thus, they might more closely follow a similar pricing pattern to domestic flights in the US than international flights. Are you flying on a major airline or a budget airline? Are there multiple airlines serving your intended destination? Are you traveling during the summer? The beginning or the middle? Has school started? Is there a holiday happening on or around your travel dates? It’s complicated. So…
When Should You Book A Domestic Flight?
Expert Tip: Some sites have been known to increase the prices when you search for them again to make it seem like availability is running low. While its not something I see all the time, I still prefer to book flights in PRIVATE mode on my browser or clear my cookies and cache if I search for the same flight a few days later. I also check across multiple sites to ensure I get the best price when I’m ready to book.
One of my favorite sites to search for flights is Skyscanner. Based on their data from 2016 and 2017, they’ve found that the best time to book a domestic flight in the US is 2 – 3 weeks in advance, on average. That’s crazy right? I personally think so because data analysis is subject to interpretation. For example, their look up table indicates that booking a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles was cheapest 7 and 12 weeks in advance. For Seattle to Las Vegas, it was cheapest 14 and 16 weeks in advance. For Los Angeles to Chicago, it was 2 weeks in advance.
The data is all over the place. So can we learn anything from this? Yes, for me it says that booking TOO far in advance is not the best idea. Neither is booking a couple of days before flying. And this makes sense. Most airlines will let you book up to 360 days in advance, though many only show schedules 6-8 month out.
If you book RIGHT when they release their flights, you will probably get a pretty good price, but as they draw closer to the flight date, airlines will have a better idea as to how many seats will be left unbooked and potentially lower the prices to fill up the plane. Instead of waiting until the last minute to offer a low-fare, they usually do this a few weeks beforehand. This is the BEST time to book assuming the flight isn’t a popular one with limited availability. You see? It’s still complicated.
I personally book domestic flights at least 3 weeks out, when possible. I find 21 days is the magical number when fares usually start to shoot up dramatically. Airlines know that your options may be limited at this point, and will charge you whatever they want. Booking within a week of flying will almost guarantee that you’re paying more than usual.
Bottom Line: My sweet spot is between 3-8 weeks before departure. During this time, prices will be hovering at or near its low so they can fill up the flight. You can probably wait a few days or even a week and find that prices won’t have changed much.
Expert Tip: I always use Matrix – ITA Software to research different flight options and a range of the cheapest flight dates. I do this to get a sense of price range and the best times to travel. You can’t book your flights through the software, so I switch to Skyscanner or Momondo to book my flights.
What’s A Good Price To Pay
For a route I fly often like San Francisco to Los Angeles, I know that $50-60 is a good price-point to book a one-way ticket. This is the price I will expect to pay if I book 3-8 weeks in advance and if I’m not flying on a major holiday. If I can find this price for a Friday or Sunday/Monday morning flight, it’s considered a great deal, since that’s when fares are usually highest. I’m signed up to newsletter for many airlines, because they will announce sales this way. My last two flights to Los Angeles and back cost $35 on Southwest, and included their 2 free checked bags. That’s a great price and it worked out perfectly with my schedule.
To get an idea of how cheap or expensive a flight is, I usually search the same flight over two or three different periods ranging from a couple of weeks to a few months out. You can read my 5 Real Ways To Find Cheap Flights to find out how I find the best deals for all my trips.
The Exceptions To The 3 Week Rule
There are always exceptions and I’ve run into a few during the course of my travels. Some smaller airlines have fixed prices. This has its advantages and disadvantages. You can sometimes just show up and buy your ticket at the last minute for the same price as if you’d booked in advance. Or you can show up and it’s sold out. I’ve seen this in Nicaragua, Nepal, and Cuba.
Some airlines will also have last minute deals that they bundle with hotel stays. If you are flexible, you can take advantage of this and flight for a fraction of what you would have paid if you were a studious planner. Procrastinating can pay, but usually it doesn’t. These deals may not always be exactly what you want. They are usually only worthwhile if you and your travel partner(s) are extremely flexible. They generally are based on a double-occupancy as well.
Another exception is t
When Should I Book An International Flight?
While you might find yourself on a half full domestic flight, this doesn’t happen as often on international or long-haul flights. The fuel cost and required plane type means airlines are much more stringent and dialed in when it comes to determining their international schedule. This means your options can be much more limited. For long-haul flights with an infrequent schedule, booking 2-4 months out is more advisable.
If you need to fly from Los Angeles to Paris, on a specific date during the summer, booking 4-6 months is not a bad idea. If you just need to get to Paris, but can afford to the time to stop somewhere else first, you might have a lot more options. I’ve booked flights 2-3 weeks out to Europe from SFO that were not much different from their lowest fares. That’s because I can look for any number of options into Europe and then look for a cheaper “domestic” flight (since I’m booking 2-3 weeks out) onwards to Paris.
Bottom Line: If I’m flying during a peak travel people (Summer and Holidays), I book as far in advance as I can, and hope for the best. Usually, it’s about 1-2 months out for me because I don’t plan that far ahead. If I’m flying any other time, I try to be flexible with my destinations, and double up on the savings potential.
Don’t forget to check out my Best Cheap Flight Mailing Lists to learn about how to hear about the best last flights deals each day.