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After CheapAir.com released their study of plane ticket prices earlier this year, there’s been a lot of talk about the ideal time to get the lowest prices on plane tickets. The CheapAir.com study supports findings from another study by ARC, which followed ticket prices in 2009, 2010, and 2011. I'm always looking for better and cheaper ways to travel, so all this talk of when to buy plane tickets piqued my curiosity.
I’ve heard a lot recently about Tuesday afternoons being the best time to buy, about deleting your computer’s cookies when you search, and other techniques that supposedly will help you find that magical low price. I tend to take these things with a grain of salt, so I delved into the research and here’s what I found out:
Debunking the Myths
As is the case anytime a topic becomes popular, there are a lot of rumors going around about how to get the cheapest prices on flight tickets. You just can’t believe everything you hear. One of the biggest myths about buying plane tickets is that you should buy your tickets as far in advance as possible.
Actually, if you buy too far in advance, you could end up paying more than you would if you waited a bit. According to Justin Bachman from Businessweek, this is because the airlines don’t know that far in advance what the market will look like, so they set the prices conservatively in the middle range. Once they know a little more, they might actually drop the prices.
Another strange myth about buying flight tickets is that you should either search for your tickets in an incognito browser window (if you use Google Chrome) or delete the cookies from your browser each time you search. Supposedly, this is to keep the flight companies from tracking your searches and jacking up the prices. There is no evidence to support this.
I even tried it myself, searching a few times for the same route on the same site, once in a normal window and once in an incognito window. There was no difference in prices. While a study was done in 2007 that showed a difference in prices based on presence of cookies or not, current Reddit users were unable to duplicate the results of that study, so we are led to conclude that it is a travel myth.
How Airfares Work
The best way to make sure you get the best possible price on your plane tickets is to first gain a little understanding of how airlines price their tickets.
Like just about any other thing you could buy or sell, the price of airline tickets depends on supply and demand. According to Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, airlines price their tickets based on 5 primary factors:
1. Competition on route (how many other carriers offer the same route)
2. Seat demand (how many people want a seat on the route at this time of year)
3. Distance of route
4. Seat supply (how many seats have already sold and how many remain)
5. Fuel prices.
Since you can’t really control your ticket search for competition, distance, or fuel prices, let’s focus on seat supply and demand.
Have you ever wondered why plane tickets are so much more expensive around holidays? It’s because many more people want to fly at that time – the demand for seats rises, while the number of available seats remains the same.
Likewise, the rules of supply and demand apply to single flights as well. If the date of the flight is drawing near and only half of the seats have been purchased, the airline will drop the price of tickets to try to fill the remaining seats.
What this means for you is that if you want tickets during a holiday or peak season then yes, you should buy earlier. But for any other time, it will behoove you to wait a little bit for that magical time to buy your tickets, which we’re about to get to:
When to Buy
All of this still leaves us with the question, when is really the best time to buy plane tickets to get the best deal? I’ve read a lot about Tuesday or Wednesday (basically mid-week) being the best time to buy, with weekends being the most expensive. But some articles debunked this theory as another myth, so the jury is still out on that one. There are a few things we know for sure, though:
1. For domestic flights, your best bet for a low price is buying your tickets anywhere from 42 to 54 days (about 6 - 8 weeks) before takeoff. The ARC Study includes charts detailing the fluctuations in prices that show that this is generally the best time.
2. For international flights, you’ll want to book a little further ahead. According to Suzy Strutner from Huffington Post, reporting on the CheapAir.com study, 10 - 15 weeks ahead of your takeoff date is the best time to get tickets.
3. Do not buy tickets last minute! If you buy within 2 weeks of departure, you’ll spend much more than you would have otherwise.
4. The “Buy on Tuesday” rule does hold true if you’re looking to get a deal on a vacation package from a travel site like Expedia, Travelocity, or Vayama – they usually send out their newsletters with new discounts and promotions on Tuesday mornings.
5. Try to schedule your flights for Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Fridays and Sundays are the most expensive days to fly, while mid-week flights tend to be cheaper. If your schedule permits, you should go for those flights – and remember, if you’re willing to fly a red-eye or a very early morning flight, you might also get a cheaper price on those. Remember supply and demand. There is less demand for inconvenient flights!
Basically, your number one takeaway is that planning ahead is key, and you should try to buy within that 6 - 8 week window. Keep searching for tickets on various search engines every day, and once you find a price you’re willing to pay, grab your tickets. Then pack your bags!