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What s the Sweet Spot for Buying International Airline Tickets?
Book early and save on airfare, right? Not so fast, savvy traveler.
The sweet spot for buying international trips appears to be two to three months before departure. For peak-season summer trips, for example, data compiled for this week’s Middle Seat show that fares were lowest in April. If you booked earlier than that, you likely paid more.
When to buy your ticket is one of the most vexing decisions for travelers. Airlines bounce fares up and down regularly, sometimes several times in the same day. Sales come and go quickly, and availability of cheap seats on prime flights can be scarce. Travelers who wait for a better price can end up disappointed when prices keep rising. Travelers who jump on a fare at first search may end up angry if the price drops. It can be like playing poker against airlines.
With domestic trips, sales are typically launched Monday nights and the cheapest prices can often be found buying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (Most leisure travelers shop on the weekends, however, when prices may be higher.) I wrote about that last year in this Middle Seat column .
But things are different when trying to time the purchase of international trips. International sales are seasonal, not weekly, fare experts say, and often route-by-route rather than global. A major sale for fall travel often kicks in about the end of July or early August. The cheapest prices of the year are for travel in February, fare experts say, and those deals usually show up in November and early December.
For peak-season travel, fares start fairly high and then come down. Airlines start more-actively managing pricing on flights about three-to-four months before departure. That’s also when shoppers start getting more active.
For every route, airlines load a dozen or more different fares into reservation systems and then pick which one applies to a specific flight at a specific time, usually based on how well that flight is selling and what the airline expects in future demand for seats, including demand from business travelers who book later.
Harrell Associates compared 100 different routes to Europe and found the highest prices for peak-season fares were in October, on average, so buying that early for summer would have been a mistake. The cheapest time to buy that peak-period fare: April.
How do you know if you’ve found a good fare? Check prices often, if you can, and write down the lowest fare offered. Having that historical information will help you evaluate when a price is worth grabbing. The travel-booking section at Microsoft’s Bing.com offers several months of historical prices on select routes. If that’s available for your itinerary, it’s a huge help: You can see from the chart whether the current price is high or low compared to past prices.
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