A mixture of travel industry analysis, travel deals, and tips and tricks to travel smarter.

Omar Halabi, 24, is a graduate of Harvard College and a travel enthusiast who has traveled to over 50 countries. He aims to share some of his travel experiences and insights through this blog.

FlightSpin Travel Blog is also affiliated with FlightSpin Travel Agency; A full service travel agency that specializes in group air travel, complex international bookings, and frequent flyer mile consulting.

1st July 2011

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How far in advance should I buy my airline ticket?

This is a question I often get asked and the short answer is that it’s impossible to predict with certainty when a ticket will be at its cheapest. The long answer is that it depends on a number of important factors; some of which you can predict and some of which you can’t.

1. Advance purchase requirement – Many cheap fares require 3, 7, 14 or even 21 day advance purchase for the fare to be valid (some discounted business class fares require up to a 60 day advance purchase requirement, but this is rare). You will often see fares go up when these time intervals have passed. Business routes often have more stringent advance fare requirements to make last minute business travelers pay lots of money whereas leisure routes may file their cheapest fares with no advance purchase requirement at all.

2. Saturday or Sunday night stay requirement – Many low-cost fares require that you stay a Saturday night in order to qualify for that fare. This is again to root out business travelers who are not as sensitive to prices.

3. Available inventory – As a flight fills up cheaper inventory dries up even independent of the advanced purchase requirement. You may have 7 days left till travel time, but the cheap inventory that requires the 7 day advance fare may be gone at any time. However, it is a myth that once the inventory is gone it can never reappear. Airlines often release cheaper inventory when they are sure the flight will not be sold out. That is why fares can go down closer to departure as long as the cheaper inventory meets the advance purchase requirement. Inventory is also the culprit if you can only find 1 or 2 seats at the price you want.

4. Time of week – There is some evidence that fares are often cheaper to buy on Tuesdays and Saturdays than the rest of the week. Anecdotally, I find this to be true on domestic fares more than international fares.

5. Fare expiration dates – The airlines often have the date of expiration for a particular fare in the fare rules. You can be sure that the fare will change once that expiration date is reached. That could mean the fare will go up or down, but if it was a promotional fare, you can be relatively certain the fare will go up. 6. Randomness – airlines often pull and file new fares all the time with new advance purchase requirements, sat/sun night stay, and fare expiration dates (or no expiration date at all) without warning. There is just no way to anticipate this one.

General questions/notes:

How do I look up the fare rules?

You can find the fare rules when you look up a ticket on most online travel agencies or the airlines website. This is a clumsy way of doing it because you won’t be able to see fares that are filed on the route but are just not available the day you are searching. I recommend using tools like www.expertflyer.com where you can see all the filed fares on a particular route or just ask a travel agent and pay his or her requisite fee for the advice (if any).

Is the strategy different for an award booking?

The conventional wisdom is that one should book award tickets as far in advance as possible. This advice used to be true when airlines used to release a finite number of seats on each flight and once they were booked that was it. This is no longer the case for most airlines (there are a few exceptions). Most airlines dynamically adjust award availability based on the probability that they will sell all the seats on the plane. This means that award availability can and often does open up closer to departure if the flight has not sold out. Some airlines release lots of seats close to departure and others would rather keep their premium cabins empty rather than release them for award redemption in order to maintain the ‘integrity’ of the premium cabin.

Booking further in advance is always better, right?

Not necessarily. At three months out, for example, the airline may not have a promotional fare filed or may restrict the lower inventory and release it as demand becomes easier to forecast for the airlines. I generally advise people against booking 3+ months in advance for this reason (with a few exceptions). If the fares feel very expensive when booking far in advance they probably are too high and you should wait. There are websites like farecompare.com that will give you historical pricing and serve as a guide for what to expect this year. This is flawed for a number of reasons, so only use this information as an example of how low a fare can go rather than using it to predict when to buy your ticket. As the stock warning label goes: past performance is not an indicator of future performance.

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