The Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets

Myths, facts and advice on how to snag that supercheap seat.

March 25, 2008, 10:07 AM

March 26, 2008 — -- You: "Hi. My name is Joe."

Crowd: "Hi, Joe!"

You: "I am an online airfare addict. It has been four hours and 22 minutes since my last travel Web site visit."

Admit it -- you, me, everyone is obsessed with finding that most elusive of deals: incredibly cheap airfare for our very next trip.

And that's no surprise. Clearly, we are a deal-oriented society. I know this firsthand. As a newlywed, I temporarily lost my mind and agreed to accompany my bride to my first-ever "Semi-Annual Sale" at Nordstrom's. My first -- and last. But after the shock of watching elbows fly like a Stanley Cup playoff game wore off, I learned something: There is an art to finding a deal (no Trumpian pun intended).

Now let me share what I know about when to find great airfare deals.

Let's begin by pointing out that the airlines know a lot about our buying habits. For example, according to travel industry statistics, they know we shop at four to six Web sites before we actually make our airline ticket purchase. They also know we aren't anywhere near as loyal to airlines as we used to be. The reason is a simple, two-part equation:

Our goal: find cheap airline tickets.

Airline goal: sell expensive airline tickets.

Now, this is where the games begin -- and where many of the most popular air travel shopping myths start. Among my favorite myths:

Here's something you should know: The people who espouse these gems have no clue when it comes to how an airline decides to price its flights.

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But I can help you sort fact from fiction. First of all, I have the luxury of having one of the world's largest databases of current and historical airfares at my fingertips. And that means, after reviewing millions of airfares that can (and do) change daily, and after writing software programs to slice and dice this information, I am uniquely qualified to answer the question: "When is the best time to buy a cheap airline ticket?"

But first, some fun background stuff.

Airlines, in general, only set aside about 10 percent (or less) of their seats for the very cheapest prices. Most flights have about eight price points, or levels of pricing: four different prices for leisure travelers and four different prices for business travelers (who purchase inside the 14-days-before-departure rule).

How firm is that 10 percent? Well, just so you know, I have spent many hours trying to confirm what several airline people have told me, and that is: If an airline promotes an airfare in the media, it must sell at least 10 percent of the seats at that fare. Sorry, but I have yet to find this rule written down, anywhere.

But let's say it's true; that still means 90 percent of us are not going to get the cheapest deal. That is simply an airline, economic fact of life.

But can you increase your chances of getting the cheapest airfare? Of course. Let me show you, and let's bust some myths along the way.

Shop early (but not too early).

Planes are packed these days, so the last-minute deals that helped airlines fill up their planes are no longer necessary. You may come across one from time to time, but do not count on it. Instead, start shopping (not buying) early; typically, airlines start actively managing their cheapest seats about four months before departure. Look for trends, and use technology to help you see when your destination normally has the cheapest airfare available.

Don't buy too early; tickets purchased before this four month window will generally be priced at a midtier level. An exception: shopping for busy holiday times (Thanksgiving, Christmas); due to current price hikes and ever-increasing fuel surcharges, you may want to purchase these tickets earlier than usual, to lock in the price.

Bottom line: Airfare sales tend to occur early in the week. Not always, but usually. And increases tend to occur at the end of the week. Same caveat. Now, it is true that the busiest shopping day of the week for airfare is Tuesday, but there is no evidence that Tuesday is the cheapest day to buy. First of all, domestic airfares can and do change three times a day (on weekdays) and once a day on weekends. All the more reason that everyone should sign up for e-mail alerts that will follow these price changes for you, and let you know when good deals are available.

What about that myth that airlines raise prices for weekend departures? Not true. What is true is Saturday is one of the cheapest days to fly. And Sunday is one of the most expensive days to fly.

Something else to consider: Airlines follow a herd mentality. If one starts a sale, most of the others will follow; if one raises prices, the others will soon catch up.

Go to your favorite travel Web sites and see what's available: Do they have e-mail alerts, historical airfare dates, graphs of trends, information on fuel surcharges and price hikes?

Find these tools and use them. Education is key, and having the right technology to help educate yourself is vital to finding cheap airfares.

Remember, the airlines would rather you didn't find the cheap seats. They'd prefer that you bought more expensive tickets (or really expensive tickets). So they don't make it easy for you.

I know what you want: You want someone to say, "Oh, you're flying Burbank to Detroit this month? The cheapest tickets for that trip go on sale April 2."

Unfortunately, nobody can tell you that. It simply cannot be done. But if you keep in mind my insider tips and know how to use the best available technological tools, you can get a good deal. No, you may not always get the best deal; but you may get the second or third cheapest airfare and -- guess what -- you'll still be flying for less than most of the others on your plane.

Oh, and by the way, about my brutal Nordstrom's experience? There was an upside to it: I had my wife promise me that if I was ever lost at sea, she would insist the Coast Guard use the same grid search pattern she developed to scope out bargains in the store that day.

I have never again worried about being lost at sea.

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 offers consumers free, new generation, software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

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