Figuring out when to buy a plane ticket and score a deal can be exhausting. Should you buy on Tuesdays? Should you book through the airline, or other travel planning sites? It's hard to know what the formula is for finding the cheapest ticket. But new, comprehensive research from CheapAir.com, a site that aims to help customers find affordable tickets, hotels, and rentals, is here to help you figure out when you should purchase airfare. To do so, they looked at 1.3 billion airfares and roughly 3 million trips (defined as a round-trip ticket) to discover how far in advance you should book your next vacation. Based on just the airfare data, 54 days in advance was the best time to book a trip... in 2015.
But what does that mean for 2016 vacationers? When CheapAir looked at the 3 million itineraries, the best times to book ranged from 45 to 60 days. Some travelers even benefited from booking at the very last second. From that analysis, they came to the (frustrating) conclusion that, unfortunately, there is no magic number. But there are a few patterns they observed that can help you score the best deal.
To better understand the booking patterns, CheapAir divided booking times into five "zones," labeled: “First Dibs” (6 1/2 to 11 months out); “Peace of Mind” (3 1/2 to 6 1/2 months out); the “Prime Booking Window” (3 weeks to 3 1/2 months out); the “Push Your Luck” (14 – 20 days out); and “Hail Mary” (0 – 13 days out). They found that from the day the flight opens for booking, its price mirrors a valley pattern, starting out high, descending slowly, and then climbing a few weeks before the flight. There's a sharp increase in price once you reach the "Push Your Luck" zone of 14 days from take-off.
They weren't able to come up with an exact time to book, but they did identify the "Prime Booking Window," which is 21 to 112 days in advance (from 3 weeks to 3 1/2 months). It is a big range—and they do admit that prices will fluctuate during this period—but if you check your flight frequently during this time, the best flight will pop up. Of course, there's also evidence that you should clear your browsing data or search in an incognito window when booking flights so the airline doesn't hike up your prices based on on your search history (they can be tricky like that!).
The takeaway? If you're comfortable waiting it out, consider holding off until the 3 1/2 month-mark, and diligently check the site for the best deal. As the three-week deadline looms, make your purchase, because once you hit the "Push Your Luck" zone, your odds of finding a reasonably-priced flight are slim.