Best time to buy plane tickets
February 28, 2005 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Hi. Is there a sweet spot time period for buying airline tickets? A friend is flying from Illinois to North Carolina in the next year, and was wondering if anyone has mastered the best interval in which to buy tickets (several months out, 3 weeks out, etc.). Thanks.
posted by Zosia Blue to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about a sweet spot, but you can check southwestern, last time I checked they were offering $149 one way tix from Midway to RDU.
posted by corpse at 1:22 PM on February 28, 2005

One thing that works for me is using some of the travel sites (such as Pepsi Blue... I mean... travelocity). I recently booked a flight from DFW to Cleveland using travelocity and paid $750 for two round-trip tix on American, a rental car and hotel (after quoted me $1300 for just the air travel).

In my experience, though, the dot-com travel sites are most useful if you are looking for a package deal... travelocity quoted me $800 for just the airline tix, but adding the car and hotel made the price go down to $750... go figure.

The above transaction was about 12 days before travel.
posted by Doohickie at 1:35 PM on February 28, 2005

Where in Illinois to where in North Carolina?
posted by nathan_teske at 1:44 PM on February 28, 2005

The cost of airline tickets is determined by two things: fares and availability. A fare is a set of conditions on travel between two cities designated by a fare basis code. It has a price which the airline can change at any time before you purchase the ticket. The cheapest fares usually require 21-day advance purchase, although in some markets (usually international) there are 30-day advance purchase fares.

While a particular domestic flight may have only two classes of service, each of those will be associated with several booking classes. So on a domestic flight, first class might be booking classes F and A, while economy class will be something like Y, B, H, K, M, Q, V, L, N, W (this is almost the order for American Airlines). The inventory of these booking classes is manipulated by the airline's revenue management department. What does this have to do with anything? Well, each fare is associated with a booking class, and if there are no seats left in L class, you won't be able to buy that cheapie fare. If you buy a long time in advance, however, you will probably get it.

Sometimes you can get a last minute super-cheap deal if you are willing to stay over a Saturday night. But sometimes you can't, so it's a bad thing to count on if you definitely want to go on this trip.

For international travel, there are definitely times of the year that are best to buy. For domestic? I'd just buy as far in advance as possible, and definitely more than 21 days in advance. Unless it doesn't matter when you travel, in which case, I'd definitely go for a last-minute deal.

If you can be a bit more specific about your question, you will get a more specific answer.

corpse: It's Southwest, not Southwestern.
posted by grouse at 1:47 PM on February 28, 2005

There isn't just one good time, but in my experience there is a not-so-good-time, and that is usually less than 1 month and greater than 3 days before travel. That said, when shopping for price it doesn't hurt to start early, if only to get a good idea of what the average price is. Keep in mind that prices fluctuate for many different reasons, some of which can be anticipated, like vacation season. There are wild cards however, with high prices as a result of fuel price spikes.

At one time I was finding very good deals on the expedias and travelocities of the web. Lately, though, I've had better luck booking directly with the airlines. If you find a specific airline that serves a city to/from a city you want to fly, you can sign up for the airlines' deal emails.

Finally, This thread in the blue had some excellent information about online aggregators. Just steer away from, as it turns out this is a scam. I've used, which scours all of the popular sites and airlines for good deals.
posted by SteveInMaine at 1:59 PM on February 28, 2005

Not an answer, but an anecdote: I just got burned for nearly $200 playing this game. My family is flying from Atlanta to San Francisco in April. I'd been watching fares daily (via Travelocity, mostly) trying to find the sweetspot. The average price was $250 a ticket, but there were daily fluctuations. I thought I could get it closer to $200 if I watched closely enough. Last week, the price jumped up to $350, and I blinked first and bought the tickets before they got any higher. Two days later, the fare dropped down to $225 -- but now I'm locked in at the higher rate.

(Unless anyone knows a way to transfer my tickets to the cheap rate and not pay a huge fee?)

BTW: All these prices were on the same airline, on the same flight! The fare prices jumped around more than gas prices.
posted by ewagoner at 2:05 PM on February 28, 2005

My personal recommendation is to decide on a price that is "good enough", and take anything that meets or beats that price when it becomes available (or when you first look). They you don't have any regrets. Plus, quite frankly, we're not talking about a lot of potential savings here - $50 at most?

Southwest is good as a benchmark. Also, you can buy a fully refundable ticket from them, and then if you find something cheaper, elsewhere, get all your money back.
posted by WestCoaster at 2:23 PM on February 28, 2005

Getting to Chicago has the advantage of having two major airlines hubbing at O'Hare (United and American), and a large Southwest presence at Midway. This means that, to a given city, you have at least, two, maybe three, occasionally four choices, thus, fares stay pretty reasonable.

Getting downstate means less choice, less frequency, small to tiny planes, and more cost. The airline that serves the most of the state is Chatauqua, operating as American Connection out of St. Louis. Other are served by American Eagle out of Chicago.

As to "best time to buy." Very possibly, right now. AA is running several good fare out of/in to Chicago right now. If you are flying before June 5th, I'd check now. (STL-ORD is $78 , for example.)

Otherwise, to Chicago, there really is no best time. There are worst times, namely, for big events and for flights less than a week out, but it's more a case of "Chicago is unusually expensive that week", not "Chicago is unusally cheap this week."
posted by eriko at 2:54 PM on February 28, 2005

another thread on the subject
posted by jacobsee at 3:45 PM on February 28, 2005

ewagoner: AA will give you a rollover to a lower fare on an international itinerary. On a domestic itinerary they will do it but take an expensive change fee out. And the refund for domestic is a transportation voucher, not cash. I think some of the other major airlines might do this.
posted by grouse at 4:25 PM on February 28, 2005

The discount for booking 21 days (or more) in advance is generally the biggest discount. On most airlines, the discount is reduced at 21 days, 14 days(? not sure about this one), 7 days, 3 days, and the day of the flight. Now the price itself (from which this discount is being subtracted) fluctuates constantly (especially for domestic flights) so there's never a guarantee. But allowing the 21-day deadline to pass in the hopes of a price drop that will more than offset the lost discount is a bad gamble.

Disclaimer: my experience is mostly with international (Canada to US) flights.
posted by winston at 4:30 PM on February 28, 2005

One other note - prior to 6 weeks, the only fares you can find are generally regular fares, rather than sale fares. At six weeks out, the airlines generally start making sale fares available; thus, between six and three weeks is the sweet spot. This advice is offered with one major caveat: if there's very little demand and/or supply, you're generally going to have to pay whatever the airlines charge. The good fares are on routes with a lot of carriers.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:34 PM on February 28, 2005

I get good fares (and sometimes great fares) by using travel sites like Expedia or Travelocity and selecting the "my travel dates are flexible" option. I find a flight on the calendar that fits my budget, then I go to the actual airline and book through them, thus saving myself the $5 booking fee.

Because when it comes to paying money to sit in an uncomfortable seat for several hours with little to do, I find that I can't be too much of a cheapskate.
posted by desuetude at 8:39 AM on March 1, 2005

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