Historically, the rule of thumb to finding the cheapest airfare was begin the shopping process about three months out -- typically, when airlines would begin releasing their cheapest seats. Well, forget that. There's no such thing as "typical" these days -- and buying at the last minute does not necessarily penalize anyone.
But don't wait forever. Airlines are pragmatic -- they know their planes aren't filled -- so they're going to start cutting capacity (meaning, they'll cut seats) in the fall -- or even as early as late summer. And the more seats are cut, the more power the airlines have -- to raise prices.
How to know if you're getting a good deal? Well, an amazing deal on a cross-country flight right now would be about $230 roundtrip -- again, that's the best of the best. Pay $300 for the same flight, and that's still a good deal -- it's just not a steal. Shorter distances would be somewhat less than that.
I also tell people to look for last-minute weekend specials -- but you have to be ready to book, and fly almost immediately. If you're that flexible, you'll save big. And set some e-mail alerts for your favorite routes -- even if you're not certain you can afford to fly.
After all -- you never know when the next $14 deal is going to come along.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.