Air travel is tricky these days. Airports are uncommonly crowded due to a surge in demand for travel, pent up during the earlier stages of the pandemic. Meanwhile, staffing shortages lead to canceled and delayed flights, not to mention seemingly endless lines at security screening checkpoints. You might even get to your gate only to find that your flight is oversold. But there’s one simple and straightforward thing you can do to make your travel easier and more affordable. Read on to find out the trick that will help you book the cheapest airline tickets available.
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To get the best price on a flight for an upcoming trip, you can set fare alerts on platforms like Google Flights or Kayak. But you should also set a calendar alert for 21 days before your trip, Scott Keyes, flight expert and founder of the flight-intel platform Scott’s Cheap Flights, tells subscribers to his newsletter. That way, you can jump on a rate that inspires you to book if you see a great deal, but if not, 21 days before your flight will be the smartest time to hit the purchase button. After that, you can expect the price to rise, Keyes explains.
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The strategy pays off because of airlines’ fare rules. “Every time you purchase a flight, the ticket has fine print dictating, among other things, how it’s priced. These are known as ‘fare rules’ and tickets are lumped in many different ‘fare buckets,'” Keyes explains in his newsletter. “One of the most common fare rule items is an advance purchase requirement, which mandates that a particular fare bucket is only available if booked, say, 21 days or more in advance of travel.”
Also common, he says, are 14-day and seven-day advance purchase requirements.
The reason airlines use advance purchase requirements is to get as much money as possible out of business travelers, who tend to book flights late compared to their leisure-travel counterparts. And business travelers tend not to care how expensive their flights are—since their companies are paying for them. With that in mind, airlines raise fares on the type of tickets business travelers buy, including ones booked at the last minute.
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Setting a 21-day deadline is a smart strategy if you want to book the cheapest ticket for a trip coming up soon. But if you have plenty of time, plan to book even further ahead. Keyes says the “Goldilocks window”—or the perfect time to book cheap flights—is one to three months in advance of domestic flights, or two to eight months in advance for international travel. (Add several months if you’re booking during peak seasons or dates, like summer vacation or the winter holidays.)
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