Travel SOS – when is the best time to book airline tickets?

Booking airfares can be a confusing business.

Travel SOS – when is the best time to book airline tickets?

Lee Mylne has managed to combine her two passions – travelling and writing – into a long and successful career as a travel journalist. Her work is published in newspapers, magazines, websites and travel apps in Australia and around the world.

Booking airfares can be a confusing business and Roger wonders when is the best time to book in order to snare the best fares. But as Lee Mylne discovers, there’s no easy answer.

Q. Roger
I’m trying to book flights online to go to Europe. I’ve noticed that the prices vary depending on the day or even time I’m researching flights. I’ve also noticed that the price of a flight increases the next time I view it. Why does this happen? And is there a better time to book online?

A. There’s no easy answer to this one, Roger. Airline ticket pricing is determined using a complex system called ‘yield management’. Obviously, an airline makes more money when the flight is full, so the aim is to maximise revenue by selling as many seats as it can at the full price.

For each flight, the airline has a set of available price levels – from the most expensive fully-refundable fare to the cheapest discounted non-refundable price. In the travel industry, these price groupings are called ‘buckets’ – you may have heard the term ‘bucket shops’ used to describe agencies that sell cheap fares. Then, the airline seats are allocated among the different ‘price buckets’.

Initial allocation of seats between the price buckets is based on data that indicates how well a certain flight usually sells, often determined by the time of year (i.e., if it’s a peak holiday season). As the seats on a flight sell, yield managers monitor and adjust the seat allocation. If sales are slow, some seats might be moved to lower-priced buckets and this will show up as a drop in price. But in most cases, prices rise the closer you get to the departure date as the cheaper seats sell out – and this is when you’ll see the price go up the next time you look. 

Unfortunately, there’s no particular time of day or day of the week when you can be sure you’ll get the best price. Although airline yield managers are constantly looking at flight bookings from the time they become available for sale, they do increase their focus on a flight about three months before the departure date. Studies show that to start with, the cheapest price buckets are empty, and yield managers may move seats into those buckets a couple of months before the departure date if the flight is emptier than expected.

Two to three weeks before the flight date, the prices start increasing. This is also the time when one can find significant differences between price quotes, depending on where you look and what contract that booking agency has with the airline.

So, if you are planning to travel during a peak period (say, the European summer), it is generally better not to delay buying your ticket. The best strategy for booking within the last couple of weeks before the flight is to try getting quotes from several sources, including the airlines themselves or a website that allows you to compare the prices, such as Webjet, Kayak or Skyscanner.



    To make a comment, please register or login
    7th Jan 2017
    Good article and yes ticket prices are tough to pick. Our experience indicates that airlines have a sale 6 to 9 months before international departures and then bring process back to their norm.
    Some airlines have a fire sale shortly before the flight is due to depart and others don't. We used to fly Virgin to the US and it was common place for the plane to be only two thirds full because Virgin refused to drop their prices. That's why the airline in now in financial trouble. I recall for years trying to get cheaper flights out of Virgin arguing that we were regular overseas travellers. The response was a brick wall and we now fly with other carriers.
    It's a lottery and our best advice is to start looking 9 months ahead (for international) and jump when the deal is good. That seems to almost always work but it requires an investment of time and energy so not suitable for all.
    7th Jan 2017
    There was also another important part to the question that remained unanswered!! "I’ve also noticed that the price of a flight increases the next time I view it. Why does this happen?"

    This is because you have cookies on your computer!! They remember that you had looked at flights to say Thailand. If you then go to another site to compare the price, then go back to the original site it usually increases by around $5. Also, once you show an interest in something, take notice of the adds that start to appear. All of a sudden you will start seeing package deals to Thailand or flight deals, or hotel deals.
    So every time you search for something, regardless whether it is travel, tyres or shoes, remember to clear your cookie cache. I am sure there are plenty of you out there that have asked yourself, how did they know I wanted to go to Thailand, or why is that company sending me information on tyres?
    I hope this answers your question!

    Internet browsers allow you to change your cookie settings. These settings are usually found in the 'options' or 'preferences' menu of your internet browser. In order to understand these settings, the following links may be helpful. Otherwise you should use the 'Help' option in your internet browser for more details.

    BTW if you are planning any flying trip (domestic or international), sign up to all the carriers websites that you feel you would travel with, eg:, Red Email (Qantas site). Most will send you an email alert when they have 24 hour sales, worth it if you are definitely travelling!


    7th Jan 2017
    We use a travel agent who is most helpful. The first time we were travelling to Europe, we gave her the dates that suited us and she rattled around with the computer for a while and then asked if the dates we chose were fixed or movable. She altered the dates by only a couple of days and saved us quite an amount. It seems that there are peak days when most people choose to travel and days which are not as popular. As we are so far from anywhere, an airfare usually is the most expensive part of a trip and it's easy to book internal travel and accommodation after settling the air component from Australia.

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