According to CheapAir.com, the average airfare changed 62 times last year before departure. With factors like dates and airport origins can’t always be flexible, it’s hard for the average traveler to know what they should be looking for when they’re ready to book a flight.
There are also tons of myths and debates circulating around booking flights, “Are round-trip fares really cheaper? Are non-direct flights always more expensive? Are budget airlines worth it? Is Tuesday really the best day to fly, etc.,” so I wanted to go straight to the experts and ask airfare analysts one simple question: What makes them click “book?”
Airfare analysts spend every day studying fare prices. In my interviews, it became clear there are a three determining factors for when to book flights that every expert analysts use: convenience, price, and timing.
When to Book Flights: Convenience
“According to our research, people are most likely to hit the book/purchase button when the flight is the best deal they can find with as little research as possible,” says Naveen Dittakavi, founder of Next Vacay, a subscription-based flight deal service.
Hans Desjarlais, founder of FlightList, says that layover time is a big factor of his decision-making process, “I don’t like waiting too long in an airport for my connecting flight so if the ticket is very cheap but has layovers more than five hours, I’ll go for a slightly more expensive flight.”
When to Book Flights: Loyalty Programs and Points
Loyalty programs and frequent flyer points or miles can also influence the decision-making process, even when the fare might not necessarily be cheaper.
“Purchasing airfare using frequent flyer points instead of cash really extends how far I can travel and saves me the most money. I compare every airline that flies to the destination that I want and book the flight which is offered for the smallest number of frequent flier points,” says Adrian Mederos, founder of Aerocred.com.
“Knowing the benefits of loyalty programs and miles I will receive plays a huge part in what airline I fly with. If I’m in a loyalty program with an airline that has a little bit of a higher fare, I will typically pay the extra amount because I know the benefits I will receive for that flight,” says Tom Spagnola, Senior V.P. of Supplier Relations at CheapOair.
When to Book Flights: Price
Tracy Stewart, an airfare analyst at Airfarewatchdog (our sister site), sums up the pricing game best, “there’s no guarantee that today’s fare won’t double in price tomorrow, or—on the flip side—drop even lower the second after you book … When a search turns up fares that are much lower than I expect, I don’t wait for something better to come along. I book immediately.”
Stewart used this reasoning to book a $150 round-trip fare to the Amazon, “which was clearly some sort of mistake, but was just too exciting to pass up. When you’re excited by how insanely low the fare is, that is a definite sign to book.” You can read more about “fat finger” or mistake fares, here.
Desjarlais, who considers himself to be a flexible traveler always books one-way flights, “Often, they can be found by traveling during the week, usually Monday to Thursday but certain destinations also have good prices on the weekends.” Desjarlais pointed me to an interesting study on the one-way flight trend, available to read here, which found that there’s an increase in the number of markets where one-way premiums are disappearing.
When to Book Flights: The Booking Window
Booking airfare usually comes down to timing and flexibility. In some cases you have the liberty to change your travel dates or the airport you’re flying into/from and can adjust accordingly, but sometimes you don’t. In these cases, understanding timing, or the booking window, can be helpful.
Here’s the low-down on the “prime booking window,” according to Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir and the company’s 2018 airfare study.
“It’s the period in which the lowest fares for a particular flight tend to be within five percent of its lowest point.” For 2018, CheapAir has determined the window to be 21 days to four months from departure. “Keep in mind, there are situations in which the lowest fare might not be the main mission. If your M.O. is more ‘I like to have the most choice possible,’ you will want to buy earlier, in what we call the ‘First Dibs’ zone (approximately six to 11 months in advance).”
In general, the sooner you can book, the better, Scott Wainner, CEO of Fareness, a flight comparison app advises, “Don’t wait any longer … the longer you wait to book, the more expensive the airfare will be.”
Especially with holiday travel, booking sooner is almost always better as demand only increases closer to the departure date.
When to Book Flights: Deal Alerts
When you are set on your travel dates and destination, setting up airfare alerts on sites like Airfarewatchdog, Google Flights, and Next Vacay can help source deals and gives you a general idea of the average fare.
Stewart advises, “In the months or weeks before your ideal departure date, set up fare alerts across multiple sites and monitor prices to get a better sense of what’s available. If you don’t have the luxury of waiting, you may have to settle for reasonable over cheap.”
As with most purchases in life, it comes down to what you’re willing to pay for what you’re getting. And if you change your mind, don’t forget that you always have a 24-hour buffer window to cancel your flight.
More from SmarterTravel:
- How to Find a Free Stopover—or Even Save Money By Taking One
- 7 Shameless Ways to Make Your Flight More Comfortable
- 14 Myths About Booking Cheap Flights