So, you're planning for an upcoming vacation. You've figured out when you're leaving, and that you're going to travel by plane. Now, the inevitable question: Buy the plane tickets now? Or wait to see if the price changes for the better ... or worse?
Seaney said that what he calls the “zone of indecision” is “a zone that the airlines have. Basically, the way airline tickets are priced, in a very simplistic way, is that airlines look back over the last few years,” he said. “They know exactly when we want to go, they know what days we want to go and times we want to travel. They know their competition, they know if we’re willing to pay $50 more for a non-stop or a more convenient flight.”
Seaney said that with that level of information, airlines “tend to hit us with much higher prices inside of thirty days of the travel date.” While it might seem like most travelers would book well before that, he shared a surprising statistic: about three-quarters of all ticket purchases are inside 30 days of the date of departure. That’s because business travel, which is often last minute, makes up one-half of all air travel.
Airlines are sure that they can charge more when it’s less than a month before the travel date, and they also have an advantage if it's more than about three and a half months before. When it’s that far out, they aren't as worried about being competitive, aren't actively managing the prices as they do when it gets closer to the date, and they aren't concerned about ending up with empty seats. So, travelers will pay more if they shop too early as well.
The sweet spot, according to Seaney, is to start shopping about three months out for a domestic ticket.
The only exception to the advice to not shop too early is around the holidays. Seaney said that when someone is looking to travel for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s, “you can buy your tickets well in advance, because what you’re going to get for holidays is a better bad deal if you shop early.”
Here are specific tips taken from Seaney’s article, “Where to Find the Cheapest Airlines Tickets? The Zone of Indecision ”
Understanding The 'Zone Of Indecision' Timeframe
The "zone of indecision" is usually good for most domestic flights (although it can end sooner for holiday travel).
Zone begins: About 3½ months before departure
Zone ends: About 30 days before departure
This 10-week shopping window gives someone the best shot at the best prices.
During this zone, airlines manage prices by testing to see what we’ll pay. They tweak here and there, trying to find the sweet spot of charging as much as possible without turning off shoppers.
Once that 30-day end-of-zone period arrives, airlines know what will work, and at that point, fares rise at intervals of 30 days before take-off, then -- 21 days, 14 days, 10 days, seven days, three days -- until a final leap for day-of-flight purchases.
Here’s an example of United fares on non-stops from Houston to Los Angeles:
Three months from departure: $442
30 days from departure: $494
Same-day departure: $1,259