The Airline 'Zone of Uncertainty' – Best Time to Shop for Flights

In the past several days, we’ve seen a number of “scientific” studies claiming to have the answers when it comes to best or cheapest time to buy a ticket or cheapest days to travel. Many of these reports don’t mean anything to the average traveler.

My advice: Shop in the zone. But first, a bit of background.

Airfare Data is Not One-Size-Fits-All

The problem with statistics – and I have access to a virtual mountain of data I pore over on a regular basis – is that statistics are not “one size fits all.” Such data may lend itself to a prediction for one route but not another, or it may be useful determining a good time to buy for one destination but not a city 50 miles away, or it can tell you a cheap day to fly during one season but not during a holiday period. That said, there is a good time to buy.

Zone of Uncertainty

The best time to buy airfare is during what I call the airlines’ Zone of Uncertainty. Here are zone time frames:

  • U.S. domestic flights: From three-and-a-half months to 30 days before a flight.
  • Flights to Europe: From five-and-a-half months to 45 days before a flight.

And here’s why these zones are important:

Shop before the zone kicks in and chances are you’ll pay a higher mid-range price, because airlines don’t begin actively managing their prices until the zone starts. Shop after the zone ends – as 70 percent of travelers do – and you’ll also most likely pay more.

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Airlines Tweak Prices During Zones

During Zone of Uncertainty windows, airlines are trying to figure out how to get the most airfare dollars from passengers by seeing how much they are willing to pay. So they tweak prices up when seats are moving, and down if they have no takers. When a zone ends, airlines pretty much know what people will pay, but even then they do not offer a single price for a single route from that point on – they continue to tweak prices. So at the 30-days-before-take-off mark, they will offer the best available fares (which were likely cheaper during the Zone of Uncertainty), then gradually raise prices week by week until the procrastinators who shop at the last minute or the well-heeled business travelers will pay top dollar.

Bottom Line for Savings

Don’t shop too early. And don’t shop too late. Shop in the zone.

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Published: March 4, 2014