It’s a question I get often: How far in advance of a trip should you start looking at flights?
Because every trip is different, no single day or booking window can be the best time to book flights for every situation, but there are plenty of tricks that you can use to find a good deal (I use these 17 tricks to find cheap flights). And new analyses of flight data are constantly shining new light on modern flight booking patterns, which you can leverage in your own searches.
The latest analysis, completed by travel booking platform Qtrip, is particularly helpful. And for that reason, it’s the focus of today’s tip. In the Qtrip Airfare Study, Qtrip looked at 917 million airfares over six years to “uncover insights and provide advice so you can make an informed choice when you shop for travel.” The first set of findings (of three), released yesterday, focuses on when to book a domestic flight (excluding flights to/from Hawaii and Alaska).
When to book a domestic flight, from the Qtrip Airfare Study
Qtrip found that the “average best day to buy a flight is 77 days in advance of your travel date (for domestic U.S. travel).” But that’s an average, of course. So to provide even more insight, it defined six “Airfare Booking Zones” to illustrate domestic airfare patterns that you can expect in the lead-up to your travel dates. Here are those “Airfare Booking Zones” from the study, as worded by Qtrip:
1. First Dibs
315 to 202 days in advance (approximately 10 to 6.5 months)
If you are a traveler who appreciates having the most options, you’ll likely find the First Dibs zone ideal. The most choice in seats, specific flight times, and even classes of service occur when you buy early. If you buy in this early bird zone, you’ll spend around $50 more than if you wait to buy in the “Prime Booking Window.” It’s money well spent, if you prefer to have all the choices.
2. Peace of Mind
201 to 128 days in advance (approximately 6.5 to 4 months)
The Peace of Mind zone is best for travelers who like to keep a balance between choice and value. It’s early enough that you’ll still have options, and it’s not quite as expensive as First Dibs (you’ll save about $30 on average compared to First Dibs).
3. Qtrip’s Prime Booking Window
127 to 21 days in advance (approximately 4 months to 3 weeks)
This is where you want to be if budget takes precedence in your decision-making. Year over year, this prime booking zone consistently yields the lowest prices for travelers (within 5% of the lowest ticket price). You’re likely going to trade in some of that choice we mentioned earlier, but if cost is the main consideration, there is no better zone for you.
4. Push Your Luck
20 to 14 days in advance (approximately 3 to 2 weeks)
Here’s where things can get dicey. Inside of 3 weeks, the odds are prices will go up, and choice gets limited. This is a zone best left to gamblers, Sometimes you can find a great deal in the Push Your Luck zone, but it’s not a sure thing.
5. Playing with Fire
13 to 7 days in advance (2 weeks to 1 week)
Real risk takers dwell in the Playing with Fire zone – these are travelers who can’t help but wait until nearly the last minute to buy tickets. The truth is that playing with fire will often leave singe marks on your wallet. There’s usually much less choice and the prices are even higher.
6. Hail Mary
6 to 0 days in advance (less than a week)
Most people find themselves in the “Hail Mary” zone out of necessity (family emergency or unexpected trip), rather than a premeditated choice. If you hope to save money OR like choice, there’s little to recommend buying here. If you have to do so, you’ll likely pay about $200 more, on average, than you would if you shopped in the Prime Booking Window…
Want more insights?
See the full Qtrip Airfare Study for other insights, including how seasonality influences the trends above. And if you have your thoughts on when to book a domestic flight (or international), please share them in the comments below!
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