Planning your 2013
holidays? Often the timing of when you book matters more than which agency you use.
Historically, January is the month when tour operators, both online and
offline, run the greatest number of deeply
discounted holiday packages, where flights are sold along with hotels. Many
of these packages are for travel between now and September, though some are
only for trips within the next few months.
When it comes to purchasing flights separately, though, booking far in
advance isn’t always the best idea.
Many studies – mostly
focusing on tickets sold by US online travel agencies – have been done on the best time to purchase flights, and
sadly, the results aren’t as clear and definitive as one might hope. But the overall direction of the
research does offer a few clues to help travellers take advantage of
the periodic rises and falls in airfares, both for travel in the US and beyond.
Kayak.com, the metasearch
more than a billion US domestic airfares available for purchase throughout
2011. The site found that the average price when tickets were booked six months
before departure ($406) tended to be 9% higher than the average airfare
available during that six-month period ($370), and 19% more than the average price available a mere 21 days before departure ($342).
But don’t wait too long. As any savvy traveller knows, prices tend to
skyrocket for truly last-minute purchases. The study revealed that airfares sold
one week before departure tended to be 30% more expensive ($445) than they were
two weeks prior.
For international trips departing from the US, timing didn’t matter as much.
Tickets were the cheapest 34 days before departure, but the fares averaged
$977, which is merely 4% lower than the average of fare prices at any point in
the six months before departure, $1,016.
The old rule of thumb – booking
tickets three months ahead for the lowest prices – seems now to be out of synch
with the latest research.
The time of day you book tickets may make a difference, too. An on-going
study, whose preliminary results were reported in the Economic
Journal in 2010 by Marc Möller at the University of Bern and Makoto Watanabe at
VU University in Amsterdam, suggests that airline tickets purchased around the
world tend to be less expensive when booked in the afternoon, rather than in
the morning. The authors considered the savings statistically significant, but
didn’t reveal the exact amounts because research has yet to conclude. (Nighttime
purchases, however, appear to offer no additional savings.)
One possible explanation is that airlines assume that people who book
tickets in the morning tend to be business travellers who are willing to spend
more money. But no one knows the reason for sure.
The day of the week you book tickets may also make a difference. FareCompare.com, a website that
a few billion fare searches since 2007, reports that Tuesday is typically
the day when the most discounted fares are available for domestic US routes.
No one is certain why airlines tend to post the bulk of their fare
sales at the start of the week. But some have speculated that it’s a habit held
over from 15 years ago, when travel agents typically worked Monday-to-Friday schedules
and airline-pricing analysts spent Mondays preparing to launch sales that
appeared on Tuesdays — early enough for customers to visit the agents during
the rest of the week. The pricing analysts may eventually lose this habit,
though, as they adjust to the pace of always-open online travel agencies.
What’s true about timing in general may not be true for you
specifically, so before booking a specific ticket, try the fare prediction
tools at Bing Travel, a
Microsoft-owned website that analyses millions of round-trip flight itineraries
daily to determine pricing patterns. After you run a search for a US domestic
or international trip (with at least one airport on the itinerary being in the
US), Bing Travel makes a prediction about whether you should buy, because
prices are predicted to go up later, or wait, because lower prices are
expected. An independent audit of its predictions by Navigant, a consulting
firm, found that the forecasts were correct approximately three out of four
As a downside, Bing’s price predictor only works on routes within the
US or that include one US stop and are travelling to or from Canada, Europe or
the Caribbean, all within a few months after purchase.
The bottom line
You have the best odds of finding the best deal on flights by making your
purchase on Tuesdays in the afternoon, about three weeks in advance for
domestic US tickets and a little more than a month in advance for international
Sean O’Neill is
the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel