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When to Book Cheap Summer Flights for 2012

The kids are out of school, the days are long, and the weather's just right—but prices aren't. High season equals high fares for many destinations. Blame it on demand. Droves of travelers head to Europe, Canada, and popular places in the U.S. during summer, driving airfare prices sky-high. But if you know when to book, it's possible to grab a fare at the lower end of the high-season price spectrum.

The Web offers a potpourri of advice for low-fare seekers: Book on a Tuesday; book after the seventh of every month (so says Peter Greenburg); book when Jupiter aligns with Mars. So what's a traveler to do? No matter what, it helps to anticipate the level of demand for your particular destination. Then, do a price comparison to get a sense of what fares to your destination are going to look like.

The Forecast for 2012

We asked Lauren Sullivan, editor of Cheapflights, what travelers should expect when flying during high season this year. According to Sullivan, airfares for travel to major metropolitan areas in Europe in June, July, and August are tracking about $200 higher than last summer. (It's still early in the year, so this is just a rough estimate of things to come.) Thanks to a recovering economy, the falling euro, and the Summer Olympics in London, Europe is going to be a heavily visited destination this summer. Expect airfares to rise in accordance with demand.

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In general, Sullivan said, August is the cheapest summer month for travel to Europe (except for travel to London, which is hosting the Olympics that month).

For the U.S., Sullivan ran numbers for a series of popular cities and found higher fares across the board this year; this doesn't mean price won't change in the coming months. But if you see an unusually low fare, grab it.

We used the Bing Travel Price Prediction, which analyzes airfare data to predict whether a price will drop, rise, or hold steady, to test some summer travel dates for high-season destinations. The site claims a 75 percent rate of accuracy.  We ran a few fare searches for midweek high-season travel departing Wednesday, July 11, and returning Wednesday, July 18. Here's what we found:

  • The lowest fare for a flight from New York City to London was $1,026 round-trip. Bing was 73 percent confident that prices will rise or hold steady and recommended that we book this flight.
  • The lowest fare for a flight from Los Angeles to Paris was $1,338 round-trip. Bing was 80 percent confident that prices will drop or hold steady and recommended that we wait to book.
  •  The lowest fare for a flight from Chicago to San Francisco was $413 round-trip. Bing was 80 percent confident that prices will drop and recommended that we wait to book.

What does this tell us? First, it's important to keep in mind that Bing's price predictions are only supposed to be accurate for seven days after you search. So airfares could spike or fall in a month or two, and Bing would be unable to anticipate that. Still, the numbers above offer at least a rough idea of what you can expect to pay for high-season travel in 2012, especially if you're looking to book well in advance.

When to Book

When it comes to saving money on a high-season flight, flexibility is key. Typically, travelers shouldn't book flights too early, since fares could drop as the travel date nears. Sullivan recommends booking 60 to 90 days out for both domestic and international flights (but travelers may want to start looking earlier for the latter), and told us that March and April are the months when travelers are most likely to find the best summer fares. Airlines usually don't adjust fares until three or four months before date of departure. If demand is low, prices will drop.

Start looking for your flight in March. High-season flyers can benefit from fare alerts, which are offered by several websites. Basically, you sign up for an alert and then receive an email when the price for your particular itinerary falls. Here are some sites where you can get started:

  • Our sister site Airfarewatchdog tracks fluctuating fares around the world. Sign up for low-fare alerts and you'll receive an email when your fare hits a reasonable rate.
  • Priceline offers a price drop alert and will send email notifications when fares fall to low prices for select routes.
  • Set up a Price Alert on Kayak for email notifications when your itinerary of choice sees a dip in pricing.
  • Subscribe to SmarterTravel's newsletter, which includes daily fare alerts as well as hand-picked hotel, vacation, and car-rental deals.

Enter the Sales

There are always going to be last-minute airfare sales, even during high season. But wait for one to book and you're taking a risk, said Sullivan. Ticket sales are usually bogged down with blackout dates, day-of-week travel restrictions, and other cumbersome fine print. If your travel dates aren't changeable, or if you're seeking a direct flight, beware the last-minute sale.

Flexible flyers, however, could take advantage of reduced last-minute rates. Robert Birge, C.M.O. of Kayak, told us in an email that there is a "sweet spot" for booking flights at about three to four weeks before departure. But, said Birge, "Our overall rule of thumb is that if you see a price that you are willing to pay for the dates you want, book it."

Where are you traveling this summer? Share your high-season travel plans in the comments.

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