So many things in life come down to getting the timing right, and that goes for scoring a great deal on an airline ticket, too. Unfortunately, however, in nearly a decade of watching and tracking airfare prices, we’ve never found a simple rule or magic number of days ahead of a trip that will always mean you find a cheap flight.
While great deals can pop up at any time (and SCF members can be confident they’ll hear about deals first), there are a couple of things it’s worth keeping track of on the calendar—especially if you’re hoping to use award miles to book a trip instead of buying a ticket. One is how far ahead the airlines even make booking available for a flight, and the other is our general recommendations for when you’re most likely to find the best deals on airfare.
When do airlines make their flights available for sale?
US airlines typically open their booking window around 330 days in advance, but the early bird in this case doesn’t usually get the worm. Booking a ticket too early in that window can be an expensive mistake—second only in cost to booking at the last minute. If you want to keep track of when the clock starts on a booking window, however, here’s a rundown of when major North American airlines open their booking windows.
- Air Canada: 354 days ahead
- Alaska Airlines: 330 days ahead
- Allegiant Air: varies; about 6–9 months ahead
- American Airlines: 331 days ahead
- Avelo Airlines: varies; 4–5 months ahead
- Breeze Airways: varies; 7 months ahead
- Delta Air Lines: 331 days ahead
- Hawaiian Airlines: 330 days ahead
- JetBlue Airways: varies; about 6–10 months ahead, always noted clearly on booking page
- Southwest Airlines: varies; about 7–8 months ahead, always noted clearly on booking page
- United Airlines: 11 months ahead; number of days varies based on the length of each month
When do airlines release award availability?
While it’s best to not click the “buy” button just as the booking window opens if you’re purchasing your tickets with cash, award tickets are just the opposite. Since the number of award tickets available on any flight is always limited (especially in premium classes), your best bet to get one is to jump on it as soon as the window opens for award seats.
With US airlines, the date on which you can get an award ticket is the same as when the booking window opens to purchase tickets. They may only have a few seats available immediately and add more award seats later, but that’s not always definite—so be ready to click “buy” on an award ticket ASAP.
How far in advance should you book your flight to get the best deal?
The most honest answer to the question of when to book a flight to get the best deal isn’t necessarily the one travelers want to hear: “It depends.”
In our experience, while fantastic deals can pop up at any time, the best time to book a flight (what we call the Goldilocks Window) is 1–3 months ahead for domestic travel and 2–8 months ahead for international travel—unless your trip is around a popular holiday or peak travel time, or you have very specific travel dates. In that case, it's wise to start looking even earlier. Generally, we recommend you think about booking during the opposite season: for peak summer, look around the Christmas holiday, while for Christmas travel you should be looking to book around the 4th of July.
How far in advance should you book domestic flights?
We recommend booking domestic flights between 1–3 months in advance of your domestic trip (unless you’re traveling during peak season or a popular holiday).
How far in advance should you book international flights?
We recommend booking domestic flights between 2–8 months in advance of your international trip (unless you’re traveling during peak season or a popular holiday).
How far in advance should you book award flights?
The shortest answer is “as soon as you can.” Award tickets for US airlines become available at about the same time as tickets you can buy, and since there are so few award tickets on a given flight you’ll likely miss out on the dates you want if you wait too long.
How far in advance to book with COVID?
Not long ago, as travel was beginning to open back up again, booking further in advance (or even at the last minute) might have saved you money as airlines tried to lure travelers back into the sky. We’re still seeing some good last-minute deals, but those are going to start to dwindle soon. This means that, for the most part, the timelines we listed above (1–3 months ahead for domestic trips and 2–8 months ahead for international trips) are back.
One important thing to research before you book, however, is the airline’s ticket change or cancellation policy under COVID.
Most airlines relaxed these policies significantly in 2020 (even waiving change/cancellation fees altogether in some cases), and since many are beginning to tighten them again it’s a good idea to look into your change or cancellation options before you book a trip. The good news is that the major US airlines are still waiving change fees above basic economy, and you can often upgrade from basic economy to main economy for $30-$75 each way—a price that may be worth it for the flexibility.
Do flights get cheaper at the last minute?
Nope! Last-minute tickets are not cheaper, despite what you might have read. Sure, you’ll hear about the occasional last-minute steal on a ticket, but that’s really the exception that proves the rule.
There can sometimes be a brief window a few weeks out if an airline is trying to fill a plane it considers too empty, but that’s never a guarantee. Generally speaking, ticket prices start to go up about three weeks out, and they rarely dip after that.