When to Buy Your Tickets (and How to Take Advantage of Price Drops) (2021)
Other than shifting around your travel dates, the other major factor that affects your ticket price is how far ahead of time you purchase your ticket.
Knowing when to buy your airline tickets is tricky. If you buy too early, you may wind up regretting it—the airline might have a fare sale, get involved in a price war, or need to lower prices to fill the plane. If you wait, the airline might sell out all the cheaper seats and you’ll wind up needing to pay more.
There is no surefire way to book at the lowest possible price. But some useful rules of thumb and price prediction services can improve your odds of getting a good ticket price. And with the major US airlines, you may be able to lock in the current fare and rebook if prices drop.
When possible, book early (and rebook if the price drops)
Starting in 2021, the big US airlines eliminated change fees for many tickets. This is great news if your plans change and you aren't able to take your trip.
But it can also eliminate some of the worry of trying to book your ticket at the "right" time. You can always lock in a price and rebook if better prices become available later.
- Only Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, United, and Hawaiian "permanently" waived their change fees, and Southwest never charged them. You'll still pay them on some of the smaller carriers.
- Basic economy tickets still have change fees. If you don't need the other benefits of "standard" tickets, you'll need to pay more upfront to maintain the opportunity to potentially pay less later (and the flexibility to cancel altogether if necessary). The lowest priced tickets are still basic economy tickets purchased at the "right time". If you want to save money with basic economy tickets, you'll need to pay more attention to the rules of thumb and price prediction tools discussed below.
- This usually only works on tickets originating in North America. On United, the tickets must originate within the United States or be between the US and Mexico or the Caribbean. On American, tickets may originate in South America as well. Alaska, JetBlue, and Hawaiian extend the fee waiver to all flights, but they don't have many options that don't originate in North America.
- When you book tickets without a change fee, it is a good idea to set up a price alert. You'll be notified if prices drop and there is an opportunity to rebook your tickets at a lower price (more details below). This is a lot more convenient than periodically checking fares manually.
- If you rebook your flights, you'll wind up with a flight credit (not a refund). While airlines won't add on extra fee, they also won't give you a true refund (unless you pay much more for a fully refundable ticket). Instead, you'll get a credit good for a future flight (often only for the same passenger). So there is still an incentive to initially book at a lower price and avoid having to rebook later.
- With United, Delta, and Hawaiian, it's even worse. On United and Hawaiian, if you change to a flight with a lower price, they won't give you a credit for the difference in fare. On Delta, you'll get the difference on fair if you switch to a different trip, but you won't if you reissue for the same dates, origin, and destination. In other words, Delta won't let you simply get a partial refund for a cheaper ticket on the same flights or even on a cheaper flight on the same day.
- These credits will usually expire in a year. If you don't think you'll be flying again on the same airline, you may want to treat your flights more like a non-refundable reservation. In some cases, you may be able to extend the expiration date by using the credit to purchase another refundable ticket.
When you are flying internationally with a US airline, you ideally want to buy a round-trip or multi-city ticket (rather than separate one-way tickets), so that you have the ability to change your return flight without any cancellation fees.
To get around this, you'll should be able to pay out-of-pocket for the new ticket, hold onto a credit for the entire amount of the original ticket, and wait for an opportunity to use the credit on a more expensive ticket sometime in the future. Of course, if you simply need to make a change and the new ticket is around the same price, you might just decide to take a small loss. But you probably shouldn't consider these tickets to be truly flexible.
Rules of thumb
Due to change fees, you can't easily rebook your tickets to take advantage of price drops on most airlines, basic economy tickets, or flights that originate overseas. And even if there aren't any change fees, it is beneficial to avoid needing to rebook and winding up with a "credit" that needs to be used for a future flight. As a result, it is helpful to book when you are most likely to be getting a good price.
- The best time to buy domestic tickets is usually one to four months before you are going to fly. In most cases, ticket prices tend go up as you get closer to the travel dates, especially when you get within the final three weeks. However, if you book too far out, the airlines haven’t bothered to start pricing tickets aggressively yet. For summer travel, try to book by the middle of May.
- If you're buying for the holidays, earlier is often better. Prices usually start going up much sooner. However, the very best rates are available only about a month before each holiday, when airlines may need to unload unsold inventory. But that’s risky. If flights are already reasonably full, there may not drop prices.
- International tickets should often be bought further ahead-of-time. Historically about three to six months out was a good window for long-haul flights. However, recent competitive turmoil often results in airfare sales closer to the departure date. Prices may wind up going down or they might just keep creeping up. It is a bit of a gamble. On the other hand, for most ultra-cheap airlines, ticket prices will often start out cheap and just keeping going up, the longer you wait.
- Check the Google Flights calendar to see if farther-out flights are still artificially high. If the airline hasn't bothered to competitively price seats in future months, you'll notice that the prices are consistently higher than for closer-in months. In that case, waiting will usually result in lower fares. Since the fares around any specific date may be affected by higher demand, you need to look at the month as a whole. Try to use the filters to eliminate airlines or flights you wouldn't take or focus only on flights you are interested in, so that the calendar reflects the prices for the actual flights you want.
- Contrary to what you might have heard, there isn’t a magical time during the week to buy tickets. Airlines adjust inventory and prices on a continuous basis and there is no time during the week that has consistently lower pricing. Just shop when it is convenient for you. You might read that average ticket prices are cheaper on the weekends, but that is a statistical by-product of more leisure and less business flights being bought during those times.
You may also be able to take advantage of "Price Prediction Tools" and "Flight Alerts" to help you decide when to buy.
Using Price Tracking
You can easily set up an alert to notify you if the price drops for your trip.
- If you bought a ticket that doesn't have change fees, price tracking will let you know about any opportunity to rebook at a lower price. Just set up the price alert as part of the booking process or just after you book. Whenever you receive a notification, you can decide whether the price drop is significant enough to bother to rebook.
- If you bought a ticket that has change fees, it can still be worthwhile to set up an alert. If the price drops significantly, it can still make sense to rebook, even if you need to pay a $75-200 rebooking fee. For example, if you purchased a $1,000 international airfare ticket and the price drops to $700, you would still save $100 even after accounting for a $200 change fee.
- If you expect prices to drop, you can set up a price alert ahead of time, so that you don't miss a good opportunity to buy your tickets. Each time that prices drop, you can decide whether you are comfortable pulling the trigger.
- Price tracking is built into Google and Kayak / Momondo. On Google Flights, look for the option on the flight results page:
- Don't just track a specific flight, set up an alert to track all the acceptable flights to your destination. If a good fare becomes available on an alternative flight, you can book that instead. If you've already booked your ticket and the new opportunity is on a different airline, you'll need to pay out-of-pocket for the new fare and convert your old ticket to a travel credit. But the price savings may be worth it.
- Try to use filters to rule out flights you aren't interested in. If you don't want to leave before a certain time, don't want to make too many stops, don't want to fly (or only want to fly) a specific airline, or wouldn't consider a red-eye, build that into the price alert using the booking tool's filters. Otherwise, you'll wind up being notified about price drops on flights that you aren't interested in. Even worse, if some crappy flight is cheaper, you won't be notified about any price drops on flights that you would consider.
And in some cases, the price may drop in the first 24 hours, allowing you to rebook during the free 24-hour cancellation window.
If it is far enough ahead of time, there is a good chance that you can capture a fare sale between the time you set up the alert and when you feel you shouldn't wait any longer to lock in the price. Or you can capture some of the natural variability in ticket pricing and buy at one of the dips in ticket pricing.
On Kayak / Momondo, look for the option in the upper-left hand corner:
As of now, using Kayak is the better option. Unlike Google Flights, it allows you to set up an alert for a range of dates. Perhaps more importantly, it allows you to filter out "Basic Economy" tickets (if they don't miss your needs).
If we've already bought a ticket, we like to set up two alerts: one for just the airline that we booked with and one for all other acceptable airlines. That way we find out about price drops that are easier to take advantage of, as well as new booking opportunities that might be worthwhile.
Before turning on flight tracking, the flight results list should only include flights you'd actually be willing to take. If there are some flights that you would only consider if their price was much cheaper than your better options, you can set up multiple alerts: one to find out about price drops on the better options and the other to notify you of particularly good options on lessor flights.
Price prediction services
Some travel websites recommend looking at current prices and buying if they seem like good fares. The problem is that, in many situations, you don’t know what a good price for the route looks like.
A better option is probably to take advantage of several services that try to predict whether airfare prices are likely to go up or down. These services have the advantage of being able to leverage historical data for specific routes and specific times of year, rather than relying on sweeping generalities. They benefit from dedicated teams of people trying to crack “the best time to buy” problem.
If you are worried about buying at the right time, our recommendation is to see what these services say. They may not be right 100% of the time, but there is no more accurate alternative.
But airline behavior is constantly changing, so while these tools are probably better than nothing, they aren't always right. Just don’t be too upset, if they recommend that you wait, and the price winds up going up; or they tell you to buy, and the price winds up going down.
- For many flights, Kayak and Momondo automatically show fare prediction information in the upper-left corner of the page. The two websites use the same backend, so you get the same prediction on each of them.
- Momondo also provides some extra information that can help you make decisions about when to purchase your tickets and how to get the price down. When available on your route, simply click on the “Flight Insights” link in the upper-right corner, to bring up a set of information about the route you are shopping for:
- Hopper is a Smartphone application whose whole purpose is giving you advice about when to fly and when to book your tickets. For some reason, they don’t provide a web-based version that you can use on your computer. iOS App Store. Google Play.
- Google Flights doesn't make a prediction, but it lets you know if the currently selected date's prices are lower or higher than normal.
You can see a chart showing the lowest price for the route over the last 90 days. The purchase advice is based on a prediction of what will happen to the price over the next 7 days.
The “days before departure” chart provides a nice visualization about the typical best window to book a flight:
When you enter your flight information into Hopper, it will give you a recommendation for whether you should buy now or wait for better pricing. It also displays a prediction of how much money you are likely to save by waiting (if any), and when prices will start rising.
If you want, you can have Hopper watch the flight and notify you if the price drops.
Expanding the relative pricing indicator displays historical pricing information for the specific route and date.
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