When to book airfare
Buy at the right time - The sweet spot is 6–12 weeks out
Never buy your plane tickets more than about 3 months before your departure date.
Why? Because no one is discounting those seats yet, so you'll pay top dollar—which is misleadingly called the "lowest published fare."
But don't wait too long to buy, either.
A few years ago, the troubled airlines were throwing near-daily last-minute fire sales of unsold seats in a desperate attempt to avoid flying half-empty planes. Those days are gone.
The airlines have gotten much better at flying only as many planes as they can fill—which means last minute deals are far less common than flights that sell out.
What's the sweet spot, then? I’d say (a) check out the undiscounted rack rate for your intended flight about three months out, (b) then idly keep track of the fares and keep an eye out for sudden sales, and (c) if no sale comes along by about six to ten weeks out from your travel date, then you go ahead and buy.
That's when airfare consolidators lock in their fares, and most airlines will already be running sales by then if they plan to.
Keep in mind that, as a general rule, the cheapest tickets will sell out more quickly during peak travel season. Last-minute sales will pop up closer to travel dates in low season. In other words, wait a bit longer to buy in winter than you would in summer.
- Momondo.com - (Aggregator) Before I get into details, just know this: 95% of the time, I find the lowest fares on Momondo. Momondo quietly blows most of the other aggregators out of the water. It searches more than 600 airline sites, plus booking engines, search engines, travel agencies, online discounters, etc. This is two to three times as many sources as the competition—including the low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines most of the other search engines ignore—and it pays off. You can also quickly see which flight is cheapest and which quickest (and which best overall), as well as use all the usual filters on the results (length of flight, departure/arrival times, number of stops, airlines, etc.). I ran Momondo through many tests, and it almost always found the lowest available fares on domestic, Transatlantic, and inter-European flights. It found fares from carriers none of the others did, and when it did find the same flights as some of the competition, it almost invariably managed to find a lower price for it. For now, at least, I'm calling it: Momondo is the single best resource out there, bar none.Partner
- Flyinternational.com - (Consolidator) The airfares branch of AutoEurope.com consistently offers among the cheapest (and most reliable) European airfare consolidators out there. Barring some sale fare elsewhere, this is where I almost always end up buying my transatlantic tickets for the simple reason that they are almost always the cheapest. This is also why I chose to partner with them for this site.Partner
- Skyscanner.com - (Aggregator) Another excellent aggregator that, like Momondo, also includes the little low-cost carriers and no-frills airlines ignored by most other search engines. I like that you can be as vague on your departure/arrivial points as simply an entire country, rather than a specific city of airport—you never know when, say, a flght into Manchester will actually be cheaper than one to London.Partner
- Hotwire.com - (OTA) Offers regaular fare searches and Hot Rates opaque fares (cost less, but with slightly less control over departure times and other details)Partner
- VirginAtlantic.com - Given all options, I will actually pay a bit more for Virgin Atlantic flight than one on any other airline. They just treat you so much better.Partner
- Google.com/flights - (Aggregator) Google has acquired ITA, the original airfare booking engine long used by travel agents. It's now available to the general public, and niftily shows you the rough current lowest cost for flights to pretty much anywhere from your hometown via a Google map measled with red dots marking major cities around the world. It doesn't allow you to book, but will tell you where/how to book the results it finds. Not really a strong performer on internaitonal flights yet—though, oddly, does a good job with last-minute international fares, so worth checking.
- Expedia.com - (OTA) Expedia—which does a fine job on middle-of-the-road fares—is the last remaining of the Big Three online travel agencies. (Expedia bought both Travelocity and Orbitz in 2015; Travelocity's search results are now identical to those at Expsia, and we can only hope Orbitz's lackluster results follow suit.)Partner
- Hipmunk.com - (Aggregator) The aggregator that rethought how searches should be delivered—and I always like those who think outside the search box. All results are shown on a timeline, and the default sort-order for flights that match your search is "Agony"—a combination factoring in price, flight duration, and stopovers—so that the least annoying options pop up first. You can also sort more traditionally by price, duration, departure time, arrival time, non-stop only, and ask it to favor your preferred airlines (or airline alliance). One drawback: It really only serarches the airlines directly plus a few booking engines like Expedia, so you're not getting the full story (no discounters are in the mix). Still: handy.
- CheapOair.com - (OTA) Upstart consolidator and discounter using the power of the Web to weave together the best bargains and negotiated discounts with three reservations systems and fifteen travel service providers—something of a mash-up of a traditional booking service and a wholesaler. It claims 18 million exclusive flight deals, a low airfare guarantee, and 84,000 negotiated hotel rates.Partner
- Vayama.com - (Aggregator) One of the original international airfare aggregators, and still one of the better ones.Partner