How to find the best price for international flights

 mashable.com  7/13/2018 9:36:17 PM   Lauren EvansMashable Deals

Pinning down the exact right time to buy a flight is a complex science, or maybe it’s more like an art form: An elegant combination of planning ahead, sensing the trends, and knowing the ideal time, day, and alignment of the planets to hit “buy.” Or is it more like gambling? 

The truth is that the right time to get those tickets varies greatly depending on a number of factors. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some tips, tricks and general know-how that won’t make it easier. 

1. Search in “private mode.” 

As with most flight-buying strategies, there is some controversy as to whether using incognito mode to search for flights is actually an effective money-saving tactic. But if there’s a chance there’s validity to it, why not give it a shot, right? The theory is that online travel agencies and booking sites (like Expedia, Hotwire, or Kayak) use cookies to track your search history, and therefore might jack up the price on tickets they know you’re planning to buy. Research on the subject has been largely inconclusive, but a large part of buying plane tickets is knowing you’ve done everything possible to keep costs down. If it makes you feel more comfortable, do it! One thing is for sure: It can’t hurt. 

2. Consider the off-season

The bad news about travel, particularly for Americans, is that we all try to go places at the same time. Peak travel times include summer and winter breaks, and around major holidays, because those are generally the dates when we’re able to snag some coveted time off. The other major fare-driving factor is seasons, meaning we tend to avoid places with severe weather conditions, like Southeast Asia during monsoon season and Canada in the winter. 

Avoiding those high-priced times can result in big savings on everything from plane tickets to accommodations, including both hotels and Airbnbs. Traveling in the off-season also means there will be fewer people to contend with, so major sites will be less clogged with selfie-sticks and knee-sock wearing dads. (No offense to selfie sticks or dads, of course.) 

That said, there’s a reason people tend to travel when they do. If you’ve got kids, your travel times will likely be more restricted to school breaks. If you hate the extreme cold or heat, you might not be happy traipsing around Moscow in February or New Orleans in July. Also be aware that depending on where you’re going, some attractions might be closed or inaccessible for several months out of the year. Do your research, and figure out what you’re willing to put up with. Your diligence will be rewarded. 

Image: Pixabay

3. Let’s talk about award travel

Booking a flight with credit card points or air miles is an entirely different matter than using cold, hard cash. 

In most cases, you’ll want to grab your fares the moment they become available, before everyone else starts sniffing around them. One number often bandied around is “331,” which is the number of days ahead of time several major airlines (like American, Delta, and Alaska Airlines) release their booking calendars. But every carrier creates its own calendar, and furthermore, while some allow you to view the calendar for paid fares, it doesn’t necessary apply to award travel. (If you're looking for a rewards card, I think Chase Sapphire Reserve is by far the best travel card.)

Another wrench in the process is that award availability fluctuates constantly, rising and falling as airlines add and remove space. Is that cruel? Yes, but if there was one easy answer about when to book flights, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. One excellent hack is to use ExpertFlyer, which will alert you when flights or upgrade awards become available on a number of flights and dates. Sure, it’s a pain, but it’s better than checking availability each and every day. And you want to get the most bang for those points, don’t you?

Keep in mind also that some airlines charge an additional fee of around $75 if you book your trip using points within 21 days of traveling. On the flip side, if you’re booking several months in advance, be sure to check the airline’s cancellation and rebooking fee, in case something comes up. 

4. Can you just tell me when to buy my plane ticket, please?

Okay, so you’re buying a ticket the old-fashioned way: With money. While we must remind you, once again, that there are no hard and fast rules about when to buy, the folks over at CheapAir.com did put some real effort into coming up with an answer that doesn’t require divine omniscience. 

The site looked at a total of a million international fares and arrived at some helpful conclusions. First, it identifies a “prime booking window” for different regions around the world, which offers the range of dates where you’re likely to see the lowest fares. (That said, it’s a generalization, so keep things like major festivals, sports events, and holidays in mind when considering your dates.) Based on their research, here’s the breakdown for flights originating from the U.S:

Canada

For flights to Canada, try to book your ticket three weeks to five months ahead of your departure. That’s obviously a pretty serious range, so the site advises that the best time to buy is an average of 66 days from your travel date. The cheapest month to visit is October; the most expensive is July. The least expensive days of the week to fly are Tuesday and Wednesday, as is the case with most on this list. 

Mexico/Central America

Book your tickets to these parts between two weeks and six months before your departure, though the average best time is 70 days out. The cheapest month to head south is September, and the most expensive is, unsurprisingly, December, since who doesn’t love a beach Christmas? Once again, the cheapest days to fly are Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Caribbean

This one is a surprise: The cheapest flights to the Caribbean should be booked an average of 207 days before you leave — that’s almost seven months! That said, the prime window is also huge, with little deviation one month to eleven months beforehand. Fares will still jump in the last month, so try to plan at least a bit ahead. Good news for those angling for a winter escape: The cheapest time to travel is January. (The most expensive is December.) 

Europe

So you want to head across the pond? The best time to buy is, on average, 160 days before departure. Another nice perk of Europe is that in addition to Tuesday and Wednesday, Monday is also one of the best days to travel. July is the most expensive month; March is the cheapest, with an average savings of $371 per ticket. Finally, the full prime window is between 1.5 and eight months ahead of time. Not bad! 

The upshot

There are a lot of factors that go into when you buy a flight, and one of them should be your own peace of mind. If you’re someone who just wants to get the thing over with — even if it will cost you a few extra bucks — keep an eye on prices for a few days and just go for it. If you’re a more obsessive type who considers fare tracking to be a competitive sport, start watching around five to six months ahead of international travel. 

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