Here’s when to start looking and booking, depending on when...

Here’s when to start looking and booking, depending on when and where you want to fly. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Lacheev

Nailing down the perfect moment to book airfare can be agonizing. Starting your search too late nearly guarantees you’ll get gouged by airlines. Book too early and “you actually might be missing out on a future price drop,” says Scott Keyes, founder of the airfare booking site Going.com.

To find the sweet spot, embrace window shopping: not strolling down 5th Avenue peeking into the Saks display, but giving yourself a timeline on when to pursue your airfare. The idea is not too early, but not too late. You’re looking for what Keyes calls the “Goldilocks Window.” This is the period when cheap fares are most likely to pop up.

The Goldilocks Window will vary depending on whether you’re traveling domestic or international, and during peak or off-peak times. Use it as a time frame for your shopping, not an immediate pressure to book.

Over the course of your Goldilocks Window, which could be days, weeks or months, Keyes says you should pay extra attention, because that’s the time you have the best odds of spotting a cheap flight.

If you miss the window, you’re doomed.. “It’s not a zero percent chance [of finding low fares] outside of the Goldilocks Window, but it’s a lot lower,” Keyes says.

Once you’ve established when you should be shopping based on your travel dates and corresponding Goldilocks Windows, try the set-it-and-forget-it method of signing up for airfare price alerts.

If you’re not sure whether you’re getting a good deal, plug the trip into Google Flights. The site will tell you whether a price is high, low or typical compared to past averages.

Here’s when to start looking and booking, depending on when and where you want to fly.

The most popular spots: 3 to 7 months out

Getting to in-demand destinations at popular times will be expensive no matter how far in advance you book, so you’re out of luck if you’re flying to Paris for the Olympics or Tokyo for cherry blossom season. You can still keep an eye out for unexpected drops in price, mistake fares or sales. Or opt to visit during shoulder season when crowds are smaller, hotels and car rentals are cheaper, and the weather might even be better. In Spain, Keyes says, “the weather’s way better” in the spring, September or October than in the middle of the summer.

Otherwise, Keyes advises travelers to start shopping for hot spots during the opposite season (so winter for a summer booking), or about three to seven months out for domestic trips, and four to 10 months for international.

The same is true for flights around nationally recognized long weekends, says Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel booking app Hopper. For the Fourth of July, for example, you should consider booking by “very early April,” she says.

A regular getaway: 1 to 3 months out

For an off-peak, domestic trip — meaning no holiday weekends, no school breaks and no coinciding with a Taylor Swift concert in the same place — “you are most likely to see cheap flights pop up about one to three months in advance,” Keyes says. For an international trip, he says “two to eight months in advance is the sweet spot.”

That domestic estimate lines up with Expedia’s 2024 Air Travel Hacks Report, which says travelers can save most by booking domestic flights at least 28 days before departure. The report has different advice for international travel, arguing travelers should book tickets abroad between 60 days and four months out for optimal savings.

Summer vacation: February through April

Brace yourself for another gangbusters (read: pricey) summer of travel, and not just for the most popular spots. “Expect even some of the off-the-beaten-path destinations to be busy and expensive,” Berg says.

With that warning, “if you’re thinking about a trip for this summer, start planning it now,” Berg said in February.

Keyes agrees. Planning and booking now aligns with his advice for shopping for peak fares during the opposite season. Per Keyes’s Goldilocks estimate, you should have a few more months to mull it over if you’re going domestic, but be ready to book in late winter in case the right airfare lands sooner than later.

Fall trips: Late summer

Whether you’re looking for an autumnal jaunt through New England, or a shoulder season trip to the beach, “we expect the fall season to be inexpensive as it typically is,” Berg says. “This past year, we saw the lowest prices in fall for domestic trips that we had seen since 2018 at least.” Berg even recommends shifting your big vacation from July or August to September or October, as it could save you up to 30% on airfare.

Get the lowest fares by looking for domestic trips one to three months out, and international trips two to eight months. If you are heading to some of those particularly popular leaf-peeping destinations, start a month or two earlier.

Thanksgiving: May through early October

Per Keyes’s Goldilocks predictions, get ahead of the Thanksgiving gouge by setting price alerts as early as late May. Google Flights data claims the lowest prices for flights around Thanksgiving have hit their lowest 52 days out; following that calculation, you can extend your shopping window through early October.

Of course, you could skip the turkey and go abroad instead. As Thanksgiving week doesn’t mean much to the rest of the world, it’s one of the cheapest times to travel internationally.

Christmas and New Year’s: July through October

While you’re at the beach in the throes of summer, start your Christmas and New Year’s domestic airfare shopping. Keyes says to think about it like winter apparel: you’re going to get a deal on a down coat when it’s hot out, not when demand surges as temperatures drop.

“When Fourth of July rolls around, that’s when you should be looking around for Christmas trips,” Keyes says.

Google Flights data has shown the lowest prices for late December flights appear around 71 days before takeoff. This Christmas, that’s mid-October.

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