What is the Best Day to Buy Cheap Airfare?

10 things you should know to get the best flight deals.

November 10, 2009, 5:17 AM

Jan. 20, 2010 — -- Flying is a pain. We all know that. The insane security demands, those preposterous bag fees. It's gotten out of control. So the least the airlines can do is let us fly for cheap, right? And many times they do.

The trick is learning how to find those cheap airfares.

For more air travel news and insights, visit Rick's blog.

Not so easy. The airlines don't always announce their specials and sales. Indeed, airline discounting on a specific flight may only last a couple of hours, and chances are you'll never hear about it.

But someone will save, and it might as well be you. So here are the 10 things you should know so you can nab those savings.

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No. 1: Know What Cheap Airfare Looks Like

That 2007 Honda Civic you've been salivating over, the one with the moon roof? You wouldn't buy it without consulting the Blue Book, would you? Do the same with airfare. Learn what a cheap fare to your destination of choice looks like. Get a baseline from airfare maps with prices including deals to your destination and surrounding areas. Keep up with airfare sales and pay attention to tip No. 8. If you're new at this, do not buy the first fare you see no matter what it costs. You wouldn't do that with a Honda, would you?

If you're really into research, check out historical data so you can see what prices were two and three years ago.

And don't buy too far ahead of time: It's rare that sale prices show up outside a four-month departure window. If you buy earlier, you will pay more than you should.

Airfare Sales

No. 2: Know the Days the Sales Begin

Airfare sales usually begin with a single airline announcing new deals Monday evening. By Tuesday at lunchtime, the other airlines have matched those prices, meaning Tuesday afternoons are often the best days to buy.

This is how it usually works, although sales have been announced on other weekdays.

No. 3: Know the Cheapest Days to Fly

The cheapest tickets are reserved for the least popular days to fly, meaning Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. In fact, most airline sales force you to fly on those days, if you want maximum savings. The average person likes to stretch out vacation by flying Fridays and Sundays but the airlines know this and that's why they charge more for those days. Flights on Thursdays generally go for mid-range prices.

When looking at potential flights online, use a site that shows your preferred dates on a full-month calendar page so you can clearly see how the prices differ day to day.

No. 4: Know the Cheapest Times to Fly

No one wants to get up at 4 a.m. to head to the airport, but that's when you save. The cheapest times to fly coincide with mealtimes, because nobody wants to fly then either. Bargain shoppers should book travel at dawn or first flight of the day, lunch time the dinner hour or overnight/red-eye flights.

If weather could be a problem (think snowstorms) be sure to get that first flight out to avoid getting stranded.

No. 5: Know Where to Fly From

Compare prices at all the airports near you. Generally, the big hub airports will have the cheapest prices. The savings could be $50 to $150 per flight compared with smaller airports nearby. But check out your neighboring airports. Once in awhile, airlines will discount routes to smaller cities.

If you're lucky enough to be near two big airports, like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, check prices on flights to both.

You may find that getting the cheapest airfare means traveling to an airport that's two or three hours away; only you can decide if it's worth the drive.

Busiest Travel Days

No. 6: Know the "Peak Travel Surcharge" Dates

Just before the holidays last year, the airlines came up with a new moneymaker: They added a surcharge to the specific days that most of us like to travel on, including the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It worked. The airlines made money, and they've added more surcharge dates throughout 2010. The price of these surcharges? Anywhere from $20 to $60 roundtrip.

See my updated chart that lists all the surcharge dates. You'll note that many are clustered around Valentine's Day weekend, spring break and the start of vacation time in June.

No. 7: Know About Off-Seasons

OK, so maybe Florida in August isn't exactly up your alley (although some people love it). But how about visiting national parks in the spring or fall when the crowds disappear? That's called traveling in the off-season and it is generally a big way to save.

Did you know Hawaii actually has an off-season? It's also in the spring and fall when the weather is absolutely terrific.

Europe has off-season, too. Travel in late-March and pay one fare, travel just a few days later, in the spring season, and your flight has just increased by 200 bucks or more.

No. 8: Know How to Use Airfare Alerts

Many sites, including my own, allow you to sign up for airfare alerts. Do it. You can choose the trip you're interested in and you'll be notified of price drops by e-mail on your computer or cell phone, or via Twitter.

Whenever you get an alert, check it immediately. Procrastination can be lethal; see tip No. 9.

The Best Airline Deals

No. 9: Know When to Jump on a Deal

OK, you know how to recognize a good deal, and you've signed up for alerts so you'll hear about it. When you see a good price, pounce. This is because airlines put their deepest discounts on only a very few seats and you have a lot of competition. Don't delay your purchase.

It's always first come, first served and if you ignore your alerts, you may lose out.

No. 10: Know When to Gamble

This is advice only for travelers who don't need to make a particular trip, because it is risky. I'm talking about playing the daredevil and waiting until the very last moment to book a flight, hoping for a tremendous bargain. It's rare, but it happens, as we saw just before Thanksgiving 2008, when the airlines noticed their planes weren't filling up. An alarm went out and prices dropped like stones.

Gambling is great, unless you're committed to a trip. By that I mean, if mother expects you home for Thanksgiving, you darn well better have reservations weeks ahead of time.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect 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.