When Justin McCurry, founder of the website RootofGood.com, travels with his family of five, he leaves little to chance. He typically books his international airplane tickets as far as 11 months out, or whenever the tickets first become available to purchase.
“If we’re looking at a summer trip, we start looking the summer before and book tickets in September,” says McCurry, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his family.
McCurry’s early-bird approach might sound extreme, but it probably ensures he has the most flight options, largely because he is booking his tickets primarily with accumulated credit card and frequent flyer points.
For those purchasing tickets with money, it's generally better to buy closer to the trip itself — but not too close.
“In general, you want to book in advance, but not too far in advance,” says Brett Snyder, president of CrankyConcierge.com, which assists travelers with flights. When flights initially go on sale, they are typically not listed at the lowest fares, he says. Prices for domestic travel tend to dip around one month before you fly and for international travel around two months before you fly, he says. Monitoring prices around that time frame can help you snag the best deal.
Here are more tips on when to book your trip so you get the most for your dollar:
Monitor prices within 3 months of your trip
You can use airfare comparison websites such as Yapta, CrankyConcierge, FareCompare and others to monitor price fluctuations and decide when to buy. “The sweet spot to start shopping for domestic travel is three months out. You don’t have to buy then, but start looking,” says Rick Seaney, co-founder and CEO of FareCompare.com. For international travel, Seaney recommends starting to look five to six months in advance.
Avoid the most popular travel times
In general, Snyder says, prices depend on demand, so if you want to travel when everyone else does — such as at Thanksgiving and the December holidays — you probably can’t avoid paying a higher price. “You may as well book earlier in advance because those flights are likely to book up sooner than normal,” he says.
According to an analysis of airfare prices by Yapta, the day of the week also makes a big difference: The average ticket price was cheapest on Wednesday, with Thursday and Tuesday close runners-up. Weekend ticket prices tend to be significantly higher.
“Do your best to ‘zig’ when the rest of the travel population ‘zags’ and you’ll find that travel is not as costly,” said James Filsinger, president and CEO of Yapta, in an email.
Follow your favorite airline
Follow your favorite airlines on Twitter and sign up for email alerts. That way, you’ll be the first to know about sales. Southwest, for example, recently shared its summer sale, with one-way tickets starting at $69, on Twitter.
With points, beware the late booking fee
Some airlines charge an additional fee, typically around $75, if you book your trip with award points within 21 days of travel. At American Airlines, for example, there is a $75 fee for award tickets booked or mileage upgrade requests within 21 days of travel.
So if you're using points and you have to book so close to your travel date, be sure to factor in that additional charge.
Check your airline’s schedule
Airlines vary in how early they allow travelers to purchase tickets, with some like Southwest offering tickets for sale four to six months out and others offering tickets for sale almost a year early. McCurry says he purchased tickets to the Bahamas for his family of five, including children ages 6, 11 and 13, on Southwest as soon as he could, which was about five months in advance, and he noticed the price almost doubled after he booked them.
“We got really good ticket prices and used miles to pay for them,” he says. He estimates the early purchase saved him around $850 total for all five tickets.
Review the cancellation policy
Of course, if you book far in advance, it's more likely your plans could change. McCurry recommends checking the rebooking or cancellation fee and deciding whether the risk is worth it.
With cash, avoid last-minute purchases
“Once you get inside 14 days, and especially if you get inside seven, airlines will treat you like your boss is paying for your ticket and you can afford to pay more,” Seaney says. Unlike hotels, he explains, airlines don’t offer fire-sale pricing on empty seats — they just let them sit empty. That’s for tickets you’re buying with money; if you’re using points, you might find award travel seats open up shortly before the departure date, depending on supply and demand and other factors.