Good Times to Buy Airfare

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Booking your flight well in advance can save you hundreds of dollars.
Booking your flight well in advance can save you hundreds of dollars. (Image: Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Nothing is fixed, uniform or consistent when it comes to airfares, travel guidebook author Rick Steves says. Passengers on any given flight might have paid 10 different fare prices, which typically fluctuate not merely according to season and days of the week, but also by time of day. When you're in pursuit of the cheapest fare you can get, timing is everything.

Weekends Vs. Weekdays

The authors of a survey of airfare price fluctuations set out to investigate the travel industry's "folk wisdom" that airfares tended to be cheaper on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The conclusion they drew was both widely publicized and highly controversial. Their findings, published in the December 2012 edition of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, were that based on historical patterns, U.S. airlines discounted their fares by about 5 percent on weekends. So, at least one study touts Saturday and Sunday the cheapest days on which to buy.

Look for the Best Deals on Tuesdays

Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, strongly disagrees that travelers get the best prices on airfares if they buy on weekends. In fact, he calls booking flights for weekend travel "risky." Writing in the newspaper USA Today, Seaney says that because his company has been tracking patterns of airfare price fluctuations for years, he can be very specific about the best time to shop for bargains: about 3 p.m. EDT Tuesdays. That's when one or more airlines typically launch a seat sale, causing their competitors to scramble to match the reduced prices. You have to be quick, though, because prices are likely to be back to normal levels by Wednesday or Thursday, Seaney writes.

How About Holiday Travel?

If you're planning to travel during peak times such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, make your booking about 14 weeks ahead to snag the best bargains, advises the magazine Travelers Today. Based on a detailed analysis of trends, Kayak further narrows this advice: If you book your departure for a Monday or Tuesday, you can expect discounts of 15 percent to 23 percent below the average price. If you book your return on Thanksgiving day, Friday or the next Tuesday, you're likely to save better than 20 percent. For maximum savings at Christmas, depart as close to Dec. 25 as possible, avoiding weekends either for departure or return. If there's somewhere you want to be on New Year's Eve, trips of less than five days, returning over the first couple of days in January, can save you as much as 30 percent on regular fares, Kayak says.

Seasonal and International Travel

Rick Steves, host of "Rick Steves' Europe" on PBS, says that if you're traveling internationally, you should start scoping out airfares as soon as your dates are firm, at least four to six months before your departure. If you're planning a spring or summer arrival overseas, start shopping for the best fares in January, February and March. For fall departures to Europe, try to book in May or June. Because the first part of September is a popular time to visit Europe, start looking even earlier if that's when you plan to be there. It also makes sense to research when peak season starts and ends for your particular destination because moving your flight dates by even one day into off-peak season can save hundreds of dollars in airfare. In general, fares tend to be cheapest on weekdays, Steves says.

Monitor and Be Ready to Pounce

Online travel booking sites such as Expedia make it easy to compare airfares based both on days of the week and round-trip prices. Before making your booking, though, take some time to monitor fares so you learn what represents high, average and low for your destination. Because prices fluctuate for no apparent reason, "you want to be ready to pounce on a good fare when you see it," Steves says. Also, be careful of additional fees such as airport taxes, charges for checked bags and fuel surcharges, all of which can make a flight's advertised price appear to be a bigger bargain than it actually is.

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