Where to Find the Cheapest Airlines Tickets? The Zone of Indecision

I’ve always said that Tuesday afternoon is usually the best day to shop for airfare. What I’ve never said is that there is a specific number of days before a flight that is the absolute optimal day to buy a ticket. Others have said this, and while such a specific number of days-in-advance theory may work once – for a single flight – on a particular route – departing at one specific time only – there is no way to generalize this for all flights.

There is however a best timeframe to shop in, and that’s the Zone of Indecision.

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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 ten-week shopping window gives you 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, 7 days, 3 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

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When Not to Buy

Don’t shop too early: If you buy outside the Zone of Indecision – earlier than three-and-a-half months – you’ll probably pay too much since airlines have not started to actively manage prices. They charge what I think of as a “whatever” price to see if anyone will pay it, and some organized souls who do shop early will pay the “whatever” price. Think of “whatever” as a synonym for “overpriced.”

Don’t shop too late: The airlines know that 70 percent of us wait until 30 days before a flight to buy our tickets. They know they have us at that point and charge more.

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Published: March 11, 2014