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The Tip Jar: Is there a best time to book plane tickets?

There are a lot of variation, but studies suggest there is a "prime booking window."
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The peak vacation season is approaching and you may not know it, but we're currently in the "prime booking window" for summer flights to U.S. destinations.

That's according to CheapAir.com, which earlier this year carried out a ridiculously large survey of around 921 million air fares to figure out once and for all when the best time to book is.

The Tip Jar has taken a look at what it found, and also tracked down some other useful tips to help you when it comes to booking your flight.

First things first

Let's caveat this whole thing with a reminder that while there are trends when it comes to getting the best flight deals, there's still so much variation in the market that there's no hard and fast rule considering the myriad destinations you can fly to and the broad mixture of major and budget carriers that can take you to them.

FareCompare has a couple of basic tips on how to keep costs down though – namely that splitting your journey by adding a stop or two will be cheaper than flying direct (sometimes as much as 50 percent cheaper), and it'll also be cheaper if you fly from, through or to bigger airports.

SkyScanner notes it's also worth checking if two one-way tickets is cheaper than a return – more often than not they won't be, but you may get lucky.

Finally, it suggests setting up email alerts from your preferred airlines to get the latest information on flash flight sales and new flights with special, introductory rates. You can also sign up for daily email alerts from websites such as Skyscanner that give you regular updates to price changes for specific flights.

When to travel

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I know this isn't always practical given the typical working week, but you can save significant amounts on flight bookings by traveling on specific days.

PennyHoarder has put together this table on the cheapest days of the week to fly, and found that Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are the cheapest.

Unsurprisingly, given the demand for weekend breaks, the most expensive days are Fridays and Sundays. It also notes that flying at dawn, overnight and around lunchtime/dinnertime are likely to be cheaper too.

Given the lower demand, winter months (January and February, not December) are cheaper times to fly, with prices also lower in October and April.

When to book domestic flights

With the whole "it varies from airline to airline, destination to destination" caveat in mind, CheapAir highlighted the sweet spot for booking domestic flights is anywhere between 21 and 105 days in advance.

That's a big window, which shows how much variation there can be in the market. But the average for the best time to book came in at 54 days in advance (though it varies depending on season – in the summer it's 76 days, fall is 47 days, spring is 75 days and winter is 54 days).

Here's a chart from the comparison website that shows the various stages of booking flights and how much you can expect to pay (the big takeaway is, don't leave it last minute).

The "first dibs" section is when flights are first made available and they are targeted at people who tend to he wealthier and/or who want to take advantage of the more favorable traveling options – such as having a free choice of seats.

As well as when you fly, the window also changes depending on where you're flying, which is why it's worth using CheapAir's interactive chart, which gives you prime booking times based on destination.

The prime window for flying from Minneapolis to Chicago, for example, is 17 to 59 days in advance.

Travel search engine Hipmunk has some tips on when the best time is to book your flights for the summer federal holidays of Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day.

For July 4 weekend, booking six weeks in advance (so around May 23) is the optimal time, while booking seven weeks prior (mid-July) is best for Labor Day weekend, and five weeks in advance is best for Memorial Day weekend.

What about international flights?

The rules for domestic flights don't always apply for international flights, with optimal booking times varying depending on which continent you're traveling to. International flight prices are also impacted by things like currency fluctuations and political upheaval compared to flights to U.S. cities.

A personal anecdote here, my family is flying to France this August to attend a wedding and I managed to get round-trip flights from MSP Airport direct to Paris for $500 each. I booked this in early February, more than six months in advance.

Since then, I've seen the Paris price increase to $700 initially and now it's around the $1,000 mark, even though CheapAir suggests the best time to buy flights to Europe is 99 days in advance. This goes to prove how there really is no perfect rule for booking flights.

As a point of comparison, it cost us about $1,250 each (I wept) to fly to the U.K. this past Christmas – and it wasn't even direct.

As CNBC notes, this guide will change from year-to-year. In 2016, CheapAir suggested booking flights to Asia seven months in advance – this year it's down to just three months.

Here's a rough guide for when to book flights for particular destinations this year, according to CheapAir:

  • Canada: 59 days
  • Mexico: 61 days
  • Asia: 90 days
  • Europe: 99 days
  • Africa: 119 days
  • Middle East: 119 days
  • Central America: 61 days
  • Caribbean: 76 days
  • South America: 81 days

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