Most travelers know that booking a flight at the last minute means paying through the nose. Travel experts, travel agents, online travel booking sites will all tell you that booking earlier is better.
But the sweet spot for exactly when to snag the cheapest airfare? That’s always been the Holy Grail, and much harder to pin down.
On Wednesday, Google published new insights based on five years worth of Google Flights historical airfare data. For U.S. domestic flights, the study found that prices were usually at their lowest three weeks to two months out, with average prices bottoming out 44 days before departure.
For travelers looking for a cheap flight, the report finds that when you book definitely matters. “The timing of how far ahead you’re looking is really the most important factor,” says James Byers, senior product manager for Google Flights.
But here’s where things get more complicated. Google also found that the very best day for booking was a moving target, depending on the season and holiday. For example, spring break tickets were cheapest 38 days before departure, while for Thanksgiving travel, airfares hit their lowest point 52 days out. For a summer vacation in July or August, the cheapest airfare popped up just 21 days before the travel date. Those are some pretty wild swings.
So is there an ironclad golden rule for when to book? Other top booking sites also endorse the idea that travelers should book at least 21 days in advance of their departure dates, though their “sweet spots” vary.
The deal-finding site Hopper also advises booking at least three weeks in advance to find the best deals for domestic trips. “Prices will be lowest three to six weeks before your trip, rising rapidly in the last three weeks before departure date,” according to the site’s analysts. That puts the optimal booking window range from 21 days to about 45 days before travel.
For CheapAir.com’s Annual Flight Report published in March, the company crunched the numbers on more than 917 million domestic airfares in more than 8,000 markets across the United States. The verdict: The best time for travelers to book airfare this year is three weeks to three or four months before a trip. The report found that the best day to book, on average, is much further out, about 76 days — about two and a half months — before your travel date.
Airlines will frequently raise flight prices at the 21-day mark, the 14-day mark, and seven days prior to the departure date, according to the report’s authors. “Travelers who wait to book their flights within three weeks of travel dates can risk paying double, or even triple the amount,” they wrote. “If you have an emergency or unexpected trip, you’ll likely pay about $150 more than you would if you shopped in the prime booking window.”
Best Day of the Week to Buy
There’s an often-repeated wives’ tale that Tuesday is the best day of the week to buy plane tickets. Travel booking sites agree that’s overblown.
After analyzing five years worth of data, Google found no big savings to be had by targeting any particular day of the week, though buying midweek may save you a few dollars. Flights were about 1.9% cheaper if bought midweek — on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday — compared to those purchased on a weekend.
“Actually, the average low fare only varies by about $1, no matter the day of the week that you buy an airline ticket,” wrote the authors of CheapAir.com’s report.
Best Day of the Week to Fly
Historically, it’s been cheaper to fly in the middle of the week than on the weekend, especially on Sunday. On average, domestic flights that depart on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday have been 20% cheaper than weekend departures.
But the two-year Covid-19 pandemic has impacted this metric. “One of the trends we’ve seen, especially when comparing 2020 through 2022, is we’ve seen a shift towards some flexibility around weekend travel,” says Byers. “So for example, on Memorial Day weekend, we see a shift towards Thursday departures and pulling some of that travel earlier into the week versus prior years. And we think that’s in some part due to increased flexibility and, and a some changing patterns in work.”
But what has not changed is the inflection point when prices jump. “Roughly two to three weeks out from a flight is the time when we very often see prices rise. That effect is has remained consistent, despite the big changes over the last few years,” says Byers.