Travel Agent

It's all about the strategy if you want to get yourself, not your ticket prices, sky high.     Photo: Ulrich Peters/Flickr

Q:

When Is the Best Time to Buy a Plane Ticket?

A:On the Mount Rushmore of flight travel FAQs, this one sits between, “How do I get a free upgrade?” and “Where the blank is my luggage?”

Although far from an exact science, picking the right time to book is now less of a guessing game thanks to new metrics and services. This spring, the algorithmic Yodas at online travel agency CheapAir released a study that analyzed a 2013 database of more than a billion domestic airfares.

The results showed that the best time to buy a ticket is 54 days in advance, with the “prime booking window” being one to three-and-a-half months out. The study poked holes in both the buy-way-early and wait-until-the last-minute-to-jump-on price slashing strategy, arguing that the worst time to buy is one day to two weeks before flying.

Of course, that’s just one study—and one created by a for-profit enterprise—but it does beg some interesting questions. Namely, what day of the week is the best time to buy? Many travel agents still point their clients to Tuesday, which historically is when many carriers have released their screamin’ deals.

But in 2013, Texas A&M econ professor Steven Puller found that buying tickets on the weekend was actually a better strategy, with fares on Saturday and Sunday priced five percent cheaper than those on weekdays. Puller suggests that old-fashioned price discrimination explains the weekend drop. That is, airlines bank on business travelers purchasing higher-priced tickets during the week and budget-minded leisure travelers doing much of their trip planning on weekends.

Consumers also like to take chances. To cater to the gamblers, some online travel booking sites have added price forecasters that watch the market and predict the best time to buy, an idea spearheaded back in the mid-aughts by sites such as Farecast. Kayak analyzes its billion-plus annual user requests to predict when you should click “purchase.” The site includes a "confidence" rating next to its forecasted prices, essentially a percent accuracy rate that indicates whether to buy now or wait a week for prices to drop. A 79 percent, for example, means you should probably go ahead and click purchase because Kayak thinks the price will rise in seven days.

The moral of the story? None of the services suggested here are entirely accurate; they're all based on averages. It's all about getting the odds in your favor and then going for it. So, be sure to let us know how that purchase goes 54 days from now.

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