Booking Air Travel: Timing is Everything

Last fall, as I was preparing a client's travel plans, I was reminded yet again how important it is to plan ahead. Sometimes just looking past the coming weekend can be challenging enough, but if you want good selection and a budget price-point (or award availability), extra lead time is the most precious commodity. It has taken me a while to get back to this topic for a post, but it's finally time. Here are some good rules of thumb:

When to Book Domestic Flights

In the US and most other places, the sweet spot for purchasing airline tickets is between two and four months from departure. Before that time-frame tickets will be high because the airline knows that flight is important to you if you’re thinking that far ahead. Less than two-to-four months out and the airline knows how full the flight has become and understands that a premium can be extracted for those precious few remaining seats.

When to Book International Flights

General industry theory suggests that the sweet-spot for paid tickets on international flights is usually between five-to-seven months in advance of departure. The same reasoning that held for domestic flights applies here, but the ideal booking window moves out a few months because people usually plan farther ahead when committing significant time off and money to international travel.

If you're not to particular about where you go, or just can't decide where to go first, another option is to keep an eye on The Flight Deal. This website points out extremely good fares to places around the world.

When to Book Award Flights

It is commonly known among savvy frequent-flyer award travelers and mile-hounds that many top airlines release award travel seats about 11 months in advance of departure. While this does not hold true for all airlines, all the major US and European airlines seem to play by these rules, so that’s the best time to start looking for availability. Award seats are a very limited commodity so it pays to be early to the game. Another sweet-spot occurs within the last 21 days of departure, when airlines will release more award seats if a flight is unlikely to fill up with paid tickets (keep in mind you will pay a close-in booking fee usually between $25-$75 to use award miles within this window).

Exceptions to the Rules

  • It’s important to understand whether you are flying during peak-season, the holidays, or a big local event. In this case, add several months to the estimates you’ve read above and snag the first good deal you see.
  • Conversely to the last point, traveling out-of-season often turns up good deals at the last minute even on international flights.
  • Different destinations have different flight patterns. For example, Washington D.C. has many commuters who make the early Monday-morning journey from their homes across the country to Capitol Hill to begin their work-week, only to head back to their constituents at home every Friday evening. In this case, there may be a sweet mid-week deal even late into the booking period, but it’s very unlikely that anything good will pop up for Sunday evening/Monday morning or Friday evening/Saturday morning if you are late to the game.
  • Sometimes certain destinations are under or over-served as a result of major airline restructuring. For example, when major airlines merge, they must decide which hubs to keep and which to let go, but often that process is gradual, meaning that an airline may have a more significant than warranted presence in a city for years after a merger. This often leads to flights with open seats, and therefore, more opportunity to find a last-minute deal.
  • If you are flexible about where you want to go, there are always at least one or two options for exploiting an under-sold flight somewhere interesting at the last minute.

What to do if Starting Late

If you’re late to the game but are set on flying, consider hiring a travel planner with expertise in finding alternative routes or scrounging up hidden award-seat availability (contact me through this site for a consultation). There is almost always a way to at least reduce the monetary hemorrhaging associated with last-minute flight bookings to destinations at peak-travel times, but these work-arounds can be elusive.

In the case of the clients I was working with this week, they needed a domestic flight in a South American country for the end of December. They planned to celebrate New Years Eve in one of the top places to do so in Latin America, and with less than two months until departure, all flights to their destination were three times what they would have been a few months earlier. By using a work-around involving another nearby city, I was able to save them several-hundred dollars on their airfare, allowing them more spending money for their celebrations on the ground!

Here are two examples of what's possible:

How to book $9,000 in flights for $300

Travel to the End of the World for Free*: Patagonia and Back on Miles, pt. 1