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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
As summer turns into fall, there’s a shift in mindset when it comes to travel planning. After spending months thinking about the best ways to save on summer trips, suddenly the focus turns to how to avoid overpaying on holiday travel.
Flights during the holidays are notoriously expensive in a normal year. Now factor in that this is a year when inflation, limited flights and pent-up travel demand have driven up the cost of air travel, along with most other expenses.
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While considering when to book and when to fly for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, you might wonder if there’s a trick for finding the cheapest airfare.
Perhaps you’re thinking of a cousin who claims he found a great deal when he checked on airfare prices at 12:01 a.m. on a Wednesday. Maybe you have a friend who swears by setting a reminder on her phone for 1 p.m. on a Thursday when she’s shopping for flights.
Indeed, there is no shortage of rumors (and “studies”) out there, but does the time of day you purchase flights actually make a difference in what you pay in any predictable pattern? Could it help you save this holiday season at a time when so many other expenses (like gifts!) can pile up?
Unfortunately for your cousin who is ready to set that alarm for midnight to save some cash on their next airfare purchase, it doesn’t really work that way. There are, however, factors that can certainly influence what you’ll pay. Understanding them could make your holiday flight purchases less painful at checkout time.
TPG caught up with airfare experts to debunk myths and learn how to really find the cheapest airfare prices to help you book travel for the holidays or make the best booking decisions any time of the year.
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Is there a best day of the week to book airfare?
There “used to be some truth” to the notion that shopping for flights the first thing on Tuesday led to cash savings, according to the booking app Hopper.
Even then, we weren’t talking about getting half off on a trip from New York to Los Angeles. At the most, Hopper said this generally — again, in the past — could get buyers about a 6% savings on around 1.6% of routes.
A recent Google analysis of five years worth of travel data suggests prices just don’t fluctuate that much during the week. “If you shop for flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays instead of Saturdays or Sundays, prices have only been 1.9% cheaper on average over the past five years,” according to Google.
As for today? “There really is no one-size-fits-all,” said Hayley Berg, Hopper’s lead economist.
“Prices do fluctuate more during the work week, though,” added Bob Harrell, airfare consultant and principal of New York-based Harrell Associates, which analyzes airline pricing, generating weekly reports for its clients on hundreds of routes.
During the week, Harrell points out, airlines have more employees managing prices, on top of the algorithms that are always at work.
“The inventory is managed more actively during the week,” he told TPG.
More fluctuation between Monday and Friday means, yes, you’re more likely to see a price change — which could mean, at times, the price decreases. It also means you could see the price go up; it’s a sort of roll of the dice.
Following this logic, if you’re already doing daily checks of airfare prices around Christmas, this far out, you may be more likely to see major fluctuations during the work week. As we get further into autumn, though, fluctuations are likely to be more regular.
With the free TPG app, you can track your progress toward your next trip, and get spending recommendations to help you reach your travel goals.
Is there a best day to travel?
While it’s nearly impossible to “game the system” and book cheaper airfare on any certain day of the week with consistency, experts seem to agree that there are best days to travel if you want lower prices.
Those days: Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
While leisure travelers tend to fill the airports on Fridays and Sundays and business travelers do the same on Mondays, those midweek days tend to have lower demand for flights. That means lower prices, Harrell said.
Related: Strategies to find cheap airfare
“Historically, it’s been cheaper to fly in the middle of the week than on the weekend,” reports Google, “On average, flights that depart on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday have been 12% cheaper than weekend departures. If you exclude international destinations, the potential savings jump even higher to 20%.”
Saturday tends to be the cheapest weekend day to travel, with many leisure travelers departing for their destination on Thursday or Friday, spending Saturday there, and returning home on Sunday.
When it comes to the holidays, picking the right travel days can be a crucial factor in saving money on airfare as the normal pattern for an average week doesn’t always hold. Oftentimes, traveling on a major holiday itself can be a way to save.
Most travelers prefer to be at their destination by the day before Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day arrive. Therefore, if you’re willing and able to travel on the morning of the major holiday itself, you can usually save quite a bit of money.
New Year’s Day can often be the exception to that general rule since many travelers return from destinations on that holiday before the work and school days start back up.
When to book flights for 2022 domestic travel
As airfare has surged throughout much of the year, the mantra has been that if you see a good price on a flight, you should book it as soon as possible.
“You really have to jump on those deals immediately when you see them because they tend to go away really quickly these days,” TPG managing editor for news Clint Henderson advised in a recent interview on ABC News Live Prime.
There have been some encouraging signs of late, with average airfare dropping in August after surging for months. It’s fueled some mild optimism over where prices might be headed but has perhaps sparked confusion, too, over how far in advance of your travel you should book.
To understand that, it’s important to understand when, why and how prices go up … and down.
As a general rule of thumb, you’re likely — and in fact, almost certain — to see the price of a flight fluctuate as you get closer to the day of your planned trip.
Airlines begin “actively managing” their flights and pricing four to six weeks ahead of departure, Harrell said. They’re looking at customer demand and monitoring booking trends to make decisions on whether to open up or close certain types of fares, and whether to raise or lower existing fares.
Once you pass what Harrell likes to call “mile markers” at 21 and 14 days out from departure, he says the computer will start recognizing you as a likely business traveler, which means prices will go up.
If not enough travelers buy those higher-priced tickets, though, you could see the airline reopen the cheaper tickets. After all, if you’re in the business of trying to make money off of airfare, selling a $400 ticket is better than selling a $300 ticket … but selling a $300 ticket is way better than leaving a seat empty.
So, what does that translate to for the sweet spot for when to buy an airline ticket?
In terms of booking airfare, doing so at least three weeks in advance for domestic trips is your best bet, Hopper says, noting that prices tend to spike by about a quarter two weeks out, and by another 30% in the final week.
“For U.S. domestic flights, prices have usually been their lowest 21-60 days out, with average prices bottoming out 44 days before departure,” according to that Google study, but that’s not always the best strategy for holiday bookings.
Ultimately, the economics of what happens to airfare looks a lot like any other commodity.
“Airline pricing,” Harrell said, “is the story of supply and demand.”
When to book flights for international travel in 2022-2023
You’re generally going to want to book international travel further in advance than you would domestic travel.
From New York to Paris, for instance, Hopper currently suggests booking 45 days ahead of time. For trips to Cancun, Mexico, Hopper suggests a whopping 80 days in advance.
Naturally, international trips tend to come with more advanced planning, anyway. For instance, I can tell you right now my wife and I are considering a trip to the Maldives next summer.
Considering airlines load their flight schedules into booking sites around 11 months in advance, I could start checking the pricing on round trips to the Maldives on a daily basis now if I wanted to. But it would be a waste of time, Harrell said. Sure, the algorithms could lead to some minor fluctuations in prices, but by and large, he said those 2023 flights … “They’re just sitting there.”
He recommends keeping a much closer watch on the flights as departure day draws a bit nearer, at which point, he said, “Take a gander each day. Or a couple of times a day.”
Hopper recommends travelers avoid booking more than 150 days out for international trips since there’s always a chance airlines could bring prices down to adjust for demand.
Note that this advice applies to cash fares. If you are using airline miles it’s never too soon to start checking — and lock something in if you find what you are after.
When to book flights for 2022-2023 holiday travel
Historically, things have been a bit simpler when it came to advice on when to book your holiday travel.
Conventional wisdom suggested getting your Thanksgiving flights booked by Halloween and your Christmas flights booked by Thanksgiving, Berg said.
Aviation and travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt traditionally advised waiting until at least mid-September, at the earliest, to even start purchasing holiday tickets in case airlines held fare sales.
The complexity of 2022 has led him to make a different but still simple recommendation.
“My advice to travelers now is that if you find flights with a convenient schedule and fares that fit your budget, book them,” Harteveldt said. “Don’t try to game the system.”
Whether you’re not quite ready to book your holiday trips yet, though, or wondering if the fare you’ve found is the one to go with, here’s what you should know.
Domestic round trips for Thanksgiving travel currently average $356, Berg said. In concert with trends for much of 2022, that’s up 41% compared to last year, and by about 25% compared to the last pre-pandemic Thanksgiving in 2019.
She expects prices will plateau at around $360 for a round trip during September and October but begin to rise rapidly in the three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. With the holiday falling on Nov. 24, that corresponds to major price spikes potentially beginning around Nov. 3.
Of course, avoiding a major price spike is only the bare minimum benchmark to meet if you’re trying to save as much money as possible.
Like Harteveldt, Berg recommends booking as soon as you see a fare that you like (in other words, now is fine) but to lock in your price no later than the beginning of October
Christmas and New Year’s
It’s a similar story for Christmas and New Year’s, this year. Experts across the board say there’s no real price incentive to waiting.
Historically, prices have tended to just rise steadily, the closer you get to Christmas and New Year’s travel dates.
Hopper currently projects average domestic Christmas airfare at $467, round trip, up 37% from 2021 and by more than 25% compared to 2019.
Similar to the recommendations of other analysts, CheapAir says your best bet is to book your travel for this holiday season “much earlier than you might typically shop for flights.”
Berg suggests travelers for all year-end holidays book flights by early October, just like Thanksgiving travelers.
At the end of the day, all the data analysis and research in the world can’t put a crystal ball in your hands when it comes to finding the cheapest airfare prices for your desired trip.
“The only person who’s got the real answer is the guy behind the desk at the major airlines,” Harrell said, even with his decades of work in this arena.
While there is no magical time or day of the week to book airfare to get the best prices, there are some common themes.
You’re more likely to see fares suddenly get more (or less) expensive during the work week. And once you cross 21 and 14 days until the departure date you are likely to see more dramatic increases. At the same time, that’s also when you could see prices drop if the demand just isn’t there.
On the flip side, many months out, you’ll likely not see the fare change very dramatically. But as you get within a month or two before your flight, if you see a good fare, it’s often a good idea to lock it in.
In fact, anytime you see a good fare in the current environment might be the perfect time to book the airfare for your next flight. Thanks to more flexible change and rebooking policies, your deal can only really get better from there.