On average, the cheapest ticket is available 76 days before departure
“Fall is really the best time to travel, period,” Tracy Stewart, content editor at the travel deal site Airfarewatchdog, told The Washington Post. “Not only are fares lower, but crowds tend to thin out at major attractions, and temperatures are usually somewhere in the Goldilocks range.”
When is a good time to start booking those fall getaways? Right now, according to the experts.
According to Hopper, the airfare prediction app, domestic round-trip airfare would drop nearly 7 percent compared with June’s peak prices. Another 5.5 percent price drop is expected in August, and a smaller dip should follow in September. The forecast calls for prices will level off in October, then tick up about 2 percent in November. The holiday travel season begins after Halloween and as Thanksgiving approaches.
A CheapAir study released in March, which analyzed more than 917 million airfares in 8,000 markets, reveals that there’s a smart, and not so smart, time to book airfare. “On average, the cheapest ticket is available 76 days before departure. Travelers beware though: getting the best fare is not that simple,” the report reveals.
Of course, that’s simply an average and plenty of deals will be had before and after 76 days. Instead, CheapAir.com finds that it’s more helpful to think of booking within windows of time. Book too early and you pay more: 203 to 315 days in advance and you’ll pay an average of $50 more (though you will maximize seat choices); 116 to 202 days in advance and you’ll pay $20 extra.
The best booking window for deals is 20 to 115 days in advance. Book later than that and you’ll pay a lot, sometimes up to an average of $220 more.
“The overall pattern is similar to what we see in a typical year in that, as we get into the peak travel season in July, the tickets that people are booking are shifting toward the off-peak prices,” says Patrick Surry, Hopper’s chief data scientist. “We tend to see prices fall throughout the summer and into the end of the year.”
“If you can sneak in after kids go back to school, it’s always a great time to go,” says Rick Seaney, chairman of the airline ticket comparison website FareCompare. “You’re going to get a pretty hefty price break, especially international” tickets.
He said summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the most expensive times of year for flights.
Experts say budget-hunting travelers should keep a few tips in mind. Just booking a flight in mid-July doesn’t mean it will be cheap; the travel should take place at least a month out to lock in better prices. Buying a late-July flight in mid-July, for example, is a recipe to spend too much.
Scott Keyes, founder and CEO of the flight deals site Scott’s Cheap Flights, said travelers should book between one to three months ahead for domestic flights at off-peak times and two to eight months for international flights to have the best chance at low prices.
“Those time frames are when a cheap flight is most likely to pop up,” he says, “the best fares tend to be unadvertised."
The price of an airline ticket is tied to four factors, Seaney says: supply (or how much capacity airlines have), demand, competition and fuel prices.
Hopper’s report said capacity for major U.S. carriers was up this month compared with a year earlier, despite the grounding of Boeing 737 Max airplanes. American Airlines, United and Southwest have canceled all flights on that aircraft — hundreds a day — into October and early November. American and United both extended their cancellations in the past few days.
“The only wild card in the deck for fares this year is the effect the Max 737 grounding will have as it drags on longer than airlines initially anticipated,” says Stewart, of Airfarewatchdog. “Airlines have struggled to make it work as best as they could for the busy summer months, but only time will tell.”
Surry said the price of fuel presents another question mark for the longer term. The cost of jet fuel has risen nearly 12 percent since January of this year, according to Hopper’s report, though it is still lower than a year ago. But fuel prices have been on a general upward trend since a deep dive a few years ago, with occasional fluctuations.
“If oil keeps going up due to the geopolitical instability and so forth, then it will prevent the airlines [from] being able to continue discounting,” Surry says. “We’ve been looking for that point for a while as to when the party will finish for cheap airfare. Maybe prices will start to drift upwards again; it feels like we’re on the cusp of that.”
For July, airfare is expected to be in line with 2018 prices even as it drops from June.
“It’s a great time to look for bargains,” Surry says. “It may be that this time next year we’re going to be telling a much different story if the oil price does continue its upward trajectory.”