To buy or not to buy...That is my question.
May 18, 2009 4:50 PM   Subscribe

How soon in advance should we purchase airline tickets to get the cheapest flights?

I already perused the previously asked posts about cheap airfare and most of them were 3-4 years old. Given the change in the economy (and the downturn in the airline industry), I thought I would query the Ask MeFi community once more.

The husband and I are flying from DC to Portland, driving up to Seattle, and then flying back to DC at the beginning of August. When I started checking airfare prices about a month ago, Southwest and Frontier had the most reasonable fares.

However, over the past 4-6 weeks, the prices on those same flights have gone up by almost $200.

The husband read an article on the NY Times which suggests the best time to buy airfare in the current economy is 6-8 weeks out. In your recent experience(s), what are the chances that the prices (on these or any other airlines) will go down if we wait until the 6-8 week mark? Since our travel dates are fixed, should we just suck it up and buy now?

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by clpage to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Farecast is supposed to tell you whether or not prices are likely to drop.
posted by amarynth at 4:57 PM on May 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I meant to say "supposed to be able to tell you..."
posted by amarynth at 4:58 PM on May 18, 2009

I think buying airplane tickets is so random. That's been my experience at least. It's a crapshoot and I have found no evidence that booking earlier means getting better fares. In fact, more often than not I will do the suggested 6-8 week purchase in advance only to find that fares are cheaper 2, 3, 4 weeks in advance. One time I bought tickets to travel from PHX to Illinois. I got a screaming deal of around $215 per ticket. Nice, right? Only I got to talking to some other travelers on the flight who bought their tickets a week in advance for $100 bucks per ticket.

It has also been my experience that no matter when I buy my tickets, I will then continue checking fares and will kick myself when cheaper ones pop up (and they always do). Too late for me. I love torturing myself.

My advice is to figure out a price you are comfortable with and just buy them. I won't pay more than $300 per ticket for a trip to PA, so when I see fares lower than that, I'm happy!
posted by Sassyfras at 4:59 PM on May 18, 2009

As Sassyfras mentioned, if you feel comfortable buying tickets at a certain rate, go for it. Do some research and find out what the average costs are for the specific dates you want. It might be cheaper on a Tuesday than a Friday. It might not. It might be cheaper today than it was two weeks ago or two weeks from now. It might not. Airlines use a very complicated formula in deciding how much to charge for a routing.

The worst case scenario is if the airline you bought the ticket from discounts the SAME FLIGHTS on the SAME DATES, then you can call them and get the difference in savings in some sort of voucher. But that means you're going to have to spend time tracking those flights week after week, month after month. What is your time worth to save $50? $100?

I just came back from Ecuador. I booked the flights back in February and bought the tickets for around $750. A month later, the same flights were about $40 cheaper, but it wasn't worth it to me to go through all the hassle to get the refund. The price was fair, in my price range, and the time I would have spent chasing after the $40 difference was not worth it in the long run.
posted by HeyAllie at 5:17 PM on May 18, 2009

I buy somewhere between 10 and 15 airplane tickets a year and continue to do so. I haven't seen, on average, fares changing dramatically for flights within the US. My general approach is to check the fares whenever my trip is first planned, and then get an idea of the prices and decide what I'm willing to pay [similar to Sassyfras] and then usually wait to buy my tickets aboiut 2-3 weeks in advance with 15 days being the minimum because sometimes tickets to less popular places do manage to go UP in the last few weeks. This is just my anecdata but it's based on a few years of doing this.

Also, as always, being more willing to take the unpleasant flights (red eye, early/late) and travel on unpopular days can really save you a lot of money.
posted by jessamyn at 5:18 PM on May 18, 2009

I usually try to book a couple of months in advance and forget about it. Sassyfras is right, the whole process is just random. I swear they just have a number generator that cranks out random prices. Since you're not going until August, take a couple more weeks and keep an eye on it. It's probably not going to climb exponentially by then.

I have learned one valuable lesson from booking airline tickets: No matter how far in advance I book, Air Canada will find a way to fuck it up.
posted by futureisunwritten at 5:23 PM on May 18, 2009

I just bought tickets from RDU to BWI and back--got the best deal at Southwest. I bought them a month out from my travel dates. My sister checked fares from CLT to BWI at six weeks out on US Air she ended up buying at 4 weeks out and they had gone up by $20.

I was almost tempted to wait in order to get an incredible last minute deal that I always hear about from the travel gurus on TV--I don't even know if these deals really exists. Also my travel dates are set in stone, so I'd rather be safe than pay a huge amount (possibly) if I waited.
posted by sandra194 at 5:59 PM on May 18, 2009

My wife and I just booked a very similar trip -- we're flying from BWI to Seattle, driving to Portland, and then returning to BWI from Seattle. We're flying Frontier Airlines and our tickets were less than $300 each, non-stop, round-trip.
posted by seinfeld at 6:56 PM on May 18, 2009

No, it's not random at all (I was in a long-distance relationship for almost three years--now we're together--and, since we saw each other every 3-4 weeks, I know more about airline tickets than I'd like). Farecast will show you that the best time to buy tickets is 42-45 days before your flight. It's true in my experience, but to be fair, we never planned trips more than five weeks in advance.

You are hugely disadvantaged by not being able to buy a round-trip flight. The price difference between the two might be greater than the $30 Amtrak fare from SEA to PDX: something to consider. You will get to fly a much more decent airline for the same amount of money if you buy a roundtrip (I've flown Frontier: never agai;, have heard rather negative stories about Southwest). Also, you could save a lot of money by driving back to PDX and returning the car where you got it from: have you looked at how much renting a car will cost you?

Farecast, by the way, doesn't list any Southwest prices: Southwest--if you don't mind kinda being treated like cattle, which I think is totally worth saving a few bucks--is great in that you can cancel/change your flight at any time without incurring any fees (you won't get a refund either, but at least you can still use the money for another flight). As far as I know, no other airline does that.
posted by halogen at 8:32 PM on May 18, 2009

I fly every couple of weeks, usually to one of the same few cities. I've looked back at the credit card statements from time to time to try to figure out a pattern. There isn't a clean one, but there are some trends...

Those ones that have gone up by $200 will go down again. And up again. And down again.

The cheapest flights, by far, are those I buy with the shortest warning, only a day or two in advance. Of course, the choice is often limited and I end up on a redeye via three cities... so that's not a strategy for the fainthearted. But these are the least expensive by a mile.

A day or two earlier than that, and it gets expensive (also on average) when buying 0-3 weeks in advance. This seems to be the spot the airlines target to squeeze money from. Business fliers, I suppose.

After that, it gets cheap again, usually, in for just a few days somewhere in the period 4-6 weeks in advance. But not as cheap as the last-minute ones.

And after that, there's no special advantage either way. It doesn't get cheaper or more expensive if you go further in advance than 8 weeks or so, though some general patterns repeat week to week. (Early AM and late-night departures tend to be inexpensive. And any flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays tend to be lower cost, in my experience.)

Flights vary a lot these days from day to day, too. A flight on the 16th might be $900, the same flight number the next day could be $540, and the one two days later will be $850 again. And all of those, even for the same dates, will change tomorrow.

When searching online, always-always use those "check three days before and after" search options, or check them all manually. I like Lastminute, Sidestep and Orbitz. The last one refunds you if your purchase gets cheaper later, which is pretty darn nifty.

My favorite vacations are when I pack and get ready to leave tomorrow... then find somewhere to go by checking what's on sale tomorrow. :)
posted by rokusan at 2:52 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out - they have an interesting product wherein they help you get refunds from airlines if the prices drop after you've made a purchase. I've never used it and am not entirely sure how it works, but I've heard good things and you may find it useful. I think they take advantage of policies that the airlines already have in place, but that most people don't know about.

And yeah, use, too, as previously mentioned. But nothing is perfect. Like someone else said, it really is a crapshoot. I still find that sometimes prices drop 3-4 weeks beforehand, usually on late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, when a lot of the airlines release their deals each week. good luck!
posted by inatizzy at 10:14 PM on May 20, 2009

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