Is there really a best time to book flights?

News outlets periodically claim to share the best time to book flights. Is there such a thing and, if so, when is it? We ask an expert for answers.

When it comes to the best time to book flights, Peter and I do very little strategising. We simply search online and book the first decent deal we see.

In the early days, we sacrificed time to save money, but as we’ve grown older and more financially stable, we’ve moved in the other direction. We’ll still endure an 18-hour layover if it saves us hundreds of pounds (like we did in Singapore this year), but will no longer sleep overnight in an airport to save mere tens of pounds (like we did in Chile three years ago).

Given our jobs, we’re often asked if there really is a best time to book flights and the honest answer has been ‘we don’t know’. There is so much conflicting information out there, it’s difficult to say for sure.

To find a definitive answer, we spoke to Michael Green* who trains cabin crew for a major airline, having worked for a decade as crew himself. In addition, we spoke to Kyle Bernard, Senior Editor at flight specialist Justfly, for his insight on the best time to book flights.

Use flight comparison sites

This is a no-brainer, but it’s always worth mentioning. Travel agents will advertise special rates, but most just use flight comparison websites, says Michael. As such, feel free to book your flights directly.

Travel agents use comparison sites to find the best flights

Some travellers will advise that you search for flights in an incognito window on your browser to prevent price hikes based on your search history. There is, however, no evidence to suggest this actually happens. Airlines say they do not do this and we at Atlas & Boots have not experienced it personally. That said, this extra step certainly can’t hurt.

Do book as early as possible

It has been widely reported that purchasing a ticket 70 days in advance is the best time to book flights. Michael, however, advises travellers to book as early as possible: “Prices very rarely go down outside of sales so do book early. Don’t wait until the last minute. There is no value in waiting.”

Airlines will overbook flights in an effort to fill the plane

Michael says that the 70-day benchmark is an average that varies based on your route and the season in which you want to travel.

“Airlines do so much strategising on how to fill a flight,” he explains. “They will overbook in an effort to fill flights”. Your chances therefore of securing a last minute deal for empty seats are markedly low.

Kyle adds that while two months ahead of your departure date is a good benchmark, “you should always factor in for seasonality. Tickets tend to cost more when booked during periods when people typically have time off (i.e. holidays).”

… Unless you can wait for the sales

With the above said, it is worth waiting for sales, says Michael: “I used to be sceptical about sales and think they were just a marketing tool, but you do get really good prices.”

Airlines usually offer special deals twice a year: from boxing day to the end of year and then Easter weekend.

Michael flags a marketing trick often used in this period: “If you see ‘only two seats left’, be wary. There are different ways to measure this and companies are being pushed for more clarity to stop hard selling.”

10% is a good deal

Some travellers expect heavy discounts, but this isn’t likely, says Michael: “It’s worth noting that 10% is a good sale price. This is usually the biggest discount airlines will offer. Airport taxes are very high so on a sale of £500, the airline may make £50 to £100 as the tax swallows the rest.”

While deal-hunting is worth the time, Michael warns against trying to game ‘flexi deals’, a type of ticket that allows you to buy a cheap flight out of season and later change it to peak season at no extra cost: “Sometimes, airlines will have an embargo on certain dates or low availability. Get it wrong and you could end up with a ticket you don’t want and can’t use.”

Book on any day of the week

Some publications have claimed that Tuesday is the best time to book flights, but this is largely coincidental. The very nature of ranking means a specific day will come first in the list. This does not mean it is the best time to book your flight.

Unless there is an unforeseeable event, prices during the week don’t tend to fluctuate wildly, so you don’t have to wait until a Tuesday to book your flight.

Fly on specific days of the week

When it comes to the day you fly, however, there is a difference. As with many things, this depends on your route.

The best time to fly depends on your destination

Michael says: “Flying to the Caribbean on a weekend will be expensive as most people go there on holiday from weekend to weekend. Conversely, flying to a city on a weekday can be expensive – New York, Boston, Washington – as business travellers will be going there. When people say it’s always cheaper in the week, that’s not necessarily the case.”

Kyle adds: “booking flights that depart later in the day strongly correlate with savings”. The best time to fly then is against the tide of other passengers and late in the day where possible.

Stop at an unusual airport

Depending on where you are going, building in a stop can reduce the cost. What’s interesting is that opting for a stop at an unusual destination can help lower the cost as the airport taxes are lower.

Build in a stop to reduce the cost of your flight

“Flying to Asia with Finnair with a stop in Helsinki is a good option because the airport taxes at Helsinki are relatively low.” says Michael. “SAS with a stop in Stockholm is also a good option for Asia.”

He warns that you will likely have to change planes and with that comes a greater risk of lost luggage and the like, but the savings can be substantial: “For an individual, this may be a relatively marginal £80, but for a family of four, it’s certainly worth it.”

Be loyal

“If you’re a loyal customer to a specific company, you will get used to the patterns of when they discount and when they don’t,” says Michael. This will help determine the best time to book flights on that airline.

Being loyal to an airline or alliance also helps build up air miles which can secure upgrades and preferential treatment like priority boarding and access to premium lounges.

Accept voluntary cancellations

As mentioned, airlines tend to overbook flights in an effort to fill the plane. This may baffle the ordinary customer, but Michael explains that no-shows are more frequent than we might suspect: “There are various reasons why people miss flights. They may not turn up for health reasons, but they don’t warn the airline; they just go through insurance instead.”

Of course, there are occasions on which everyone does turn up at which point the airline will usually ask for volunteers to take the next flight.

“Accept these offers if you can,” says Michael. “You will get your money back and you will get to your destination.”

If you like it, book it!

Michael’s final piece of advice: “If you see a good deal, don’t wait around for very long. Indecisive travellers will want to sleep on it for a few days, or say they will book it this evening when they get home. If something feels like a great deal, grab it.”

If it feels like a deal, book it and go!

So, the best time to book flights in a nutshell: booking 70 days in advance is good; even earlier is great unless you know there will be a sale. Don’t expect much more than 10% off, book on any day of the week, but fly on specific ones. Build in a stop if you can, be loyal and accept voluntary cancellations where possible. Finally, if you like it, book it.

Good luck and we’ll see you out there!

*We have changed the name of this interviewee as he would otherwise need official permission from his employer to speak publicly about his job.
Lead image: Dreamstime

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