Travel site analyzes best timing for low airfares

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The worst part of flying usually isn't turbulence in the air. It's the turbulence on the ground as you wrestle with how far in advance you should buy a ticket to snag the best price.

"By far the most frequent question we get from travelers is, 'When is the best time to book my ticket?' " said Jeff Klee, CEO of the airfare comparison site CheapAir.com. "That question comes up constantly, even within our company. We have a team of travel agents and everyone has a different opinion."

In an effort to get the best answer, the company recently analyzed some 560 million fare search records in over 11,000 markets for 2012.

The results showed that, on average, the best time to book a domestic flight was 49 days, or seven weeks, in advance.

Not surprisingly, the worst day to buy a ticket was the day before the flight. Two days in advance was the second worst time and three days was the third worst, etc., until 11 days out. At that point, the next worst day was a tie between 208, 209 and 210, which was the furthest out the company analyzed.

In short, the easiest way to get the worst airfare was to buy really late or really early.

Mr. Klee also ran the numbers specifically for flights departing from Pittsburgh International Airport. The analysis turned up the same result, showing that on average, 49 days out yielded the best price.

The overall trend line showed fares starting out high and steadily decreasing until hitting rock bottom at around seven weeks before the flight. After that, fares started to increase a bit, but stayed pretty steady until about one month out. At that point, they started to spike pretty dramatically.

For international flights, the sweet spot was further out. It was 12 weeks in advance, or 81 days. For holidays and other peak travel times, the best fares also typically were further out than 49 days, Mr. Klee said.

He emphasized that the low points should only be used as a guideline because the analysis found plenty of exceptions and variations depending on the market and the trip.

For example, there were numerous instances where the best fare actually was found one day before the flight.

There also were many examples where the best time to book was the day the flight opened for sale, or 331 days in advance. (CheapAir.com looked at a select number of flights 331 days in advance, which is the furthest out airlines allow flights to be booked.)

"We're not telling people to book exactly 49 days out. That's just an average," Mr. Klee said.

His best overall advice for nabbing the cheapest ticket?

"As soon as you know you want to take a trip, start checking fares. Get familiar with the market. Check early and check often and get ready to pounce when you see fares drop."

The company's analysis also found that, contrary to the popular belief that it's cheaper to buy tickets Tuesdays and Wednesdays, no particular day of the week consistently had the best deals.

While airlines frequently promote systemwide sales Tuesdays and Wednesdays, there are a large number of unadvertised sales that pop up on other days, Mr. Klee said.

"Even though they have sales on Tuesdays, it's usually for such a limited number of days and seats that it doesn't upset the whole average significantly," he said.

Still, certain days of the week were cheaper on average when it came to picking when to fly.

For domestic flights, Tuesdays were the least expensive, followed by Wednesdays. The most expensive days were Sundays and Fridays.

Monday, Thursday and Saturday were in the middle.

The company didn't analyze international flights, but in general, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays have the lowest fares, Mr. Klee said.

People who can be flexible with their travel dates and times can afford to wait longer for fares to drop than people who must travel on a certain date, he said.

The biggest influence on the price of a ticket for a particular flight is how full it is.

"If you can't be flexible, make sure you buy early," he said.

"If you don't, you run the risk of the flight filling up and fares increasing dramatically."

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Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.


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