When it comes to holiday travel, there are certain things you can always count on. Security waits will be interminable, planes will be packed and millions of procrastinating people will ponder the age-old question of when is the best time to buy airfare.
If you have to ask, you’re probably already too late.
“People always feel like the holidays are a long way away but the longer you wait, the more you’re likely to spend,” said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist for Hopper.com, an airfare-pricing website.
Furthermore, he notes, the typical consumer searches for flights for up to two weeks, incurring another five percent in “procrastination costs” between the time they start looking and the time they decide to buy.
Take Thanksgiving travel. Analyzing 2013 pricing data, the number crunchers at Orbitz determined that the best day to buy this year was Oct. 10, with average fares available through Oct. 21. However, when their counterparts at Kayak ran their numbers, they determined that average fares were actually lower in mid-November than mid-October. Surry’s research showed prices were relatively flat throughout the period before spiking 10 days before the holiday.
The data for Christmas isn’t much clearer. Orbitz says you’d have gotten the best deal if you’d bought in early October while Hopper says you could’ve waited until around Halloween. For those who haven’t pulled the trigger yet, both Kayak and Travelocity suggest a second window for deals may open in early December.
While disappointing for deal-hunters, the discrepancies shouldn’t be surprising. The size and incredible complexity of the system — non-stops vs. connecting flights, price vs. convenience bookings and a near-infinite array of city pairs — makes apples-to-oranges comparisons across the system almost impossible.
Bottom line: Finding a deal has more to do with what’s happening with bookings for your particular flight and route than the system overall.
“The thing we’ve discovered looking at all these prices is that there is no easy answer,” said Surry. “You really have to research each particular trip.”
That reality also applies to the age-old debate about what day of the week offers the best deals. For years, conventional wisdom has had it that Tuesday was your best bet as airline executives played Monday-morning quarterback over slow weekend sales and offered up quick sales to fill seats.
In September, however, Airlines Reporting Corp., which handles ticket sales for travel agencies and other third-party sellers, threw that logic for a loop when it released a report showing that the cheapest fares are not found on Tuesday, but over the weekend.
The report, which looked at nearly 130 million ticket sales between January 2013 and July 2014 found that the lowest fares were actually found on Sunday, when the average price was $432, 13 percent lower than Tuesday’s $497. Saturday came in second at $439.
Alas, this may be yet another case of apples and oranges as the Tuesday figure no doubt includes plenty of business travelers booking last-minute, high-priced tickets while weekend bookings are dominated by leisure travelers looking for the lowest possible fare. Thus, average fares purchased on weekends are bound to be lower.
Or not. According to an as-yet-unpublished Hopper analysis, the average cheapest time to buy a ticket is between midnight Tuesday and 1 a.m. Wednesday. Looking at 20 million searches over the last four months, the company determined that prices during that period were 2.5 percent below average. Unfortunately, the data also revealed that that only applied to 1.6 percent of the markets studied.
Needless to say, that scenario is even less likely to play out during the holidays, when filling empty seats isn’t an issue.
On the other hand, it’s never too early to start thinking about Thanksgiving... 2015.