Airfares jolt up and down like a plane caught in turbulence. The airlines use computer systems to set ticket prices based on a complicated mix of factors, including competition, demand, the state of the economy, seasonality, taxes, the number of views on a YouTube cat video—you name it. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to predict exactly where ticket prices will fall on any given day of the year, and which will be the cheapest or best days to fly.
Thanks to a handful of websites that compile data based on everything from direct bookings to historical studies of published fares, it’s possible to analyze fare models and get at least a rough idea of the most expensive and cheapest days to fly during the year. Use this information to figure out when a potential flight will cost you top dollar—and when you can fly for a song.
The Worst Days to Fly
Thanks to high demand and correspondingly high fares, the following times of year are usually the most expensive days to fly.
Christmas and New Year’s
The Christmas and New Year’s holiday travel window is more or less a 17-day period that overlaps the two holidays by about five or six days, according to statistics gathered from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Peak days always depend on when the weekends fall in relation to the holidays, since lots of people want to travel over convenient long weekends.
Note that it’s not unusual to see flights departing on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and sometimes the days immediately following or preceding the holidays that are cheaper than departures a few days out, depending on how they fall during the week. If you’re booking a holiday trip, use your booking engine’s flexible dates option to see which days will save you the most money.
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Spring break peak travel dates vary by destination but generally extend from late February through the beginning of April. Most colleges and universities have spring break in March or even late February; meanwhile, families with school-age children vacation around Easter, which is usually in late March or April. Watch out for higher fares to beach and family destinations like Florida and the Caribbean during this time. (See Top 25 Ways to Save on a Caribbean Vacation for more help.)
If you’re visiting a destination that attracts the college set, such as Cancun or Punta Cana, but you’re looking to avoid wet T-shirt contests and noisy parties, here’s a tip. Take a look at this list from STA Travel, which outlines the spring break dates for American colleges and universities each year. Avoid planning your beach vacation around those dates.
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Summer is high season for numerous destinations, and fares are accordingly driven higher by demand. The crest of summer travel is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, during which fares to most U.S., Canadian, and European destinations are at their peak. Three-day weekends around summer holidays like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July are particularly expensive times to fly.
If you can put off your trip until mid-September or go in May instead of June, you’ll likely pay less than you would over the summer (not only for airfares but also for hotels once you arrive).
There are some exceptions to this rule. Summer is low season for U.S. mountain towns, the Caribbean, parts of Mexico, Costa Rica, and many places in the Southern Hemisphere like Australia and New Zealand.
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Peak Thanksgiving travel dates are predictable year after year, as the holiday always falls on the fourth Thursday of November. The period from Wednesday through Sunday around Thanksgiving wins the award for Busiest Travel Time of the Year.
So when’s the best time to depart for the big family feast? The busiest and most expensive days are the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Flying on Thanksgiving Day itself typically offers the cheapest possible fares; the day after is often a pretty good deal as well. As with Christmas and New Year’s, you’ll save by zigging when others zag; while everyone else plans to be back at work the Monday after Thanksgiving, you could save by extending your long weekend and flying home that day instead of Sunday.
The Best (and Cheapest) Days to Fly
So what is the cheapest day to fly? Read on to find out when travel demand tends to be lowest.
Speaking of seasonality, here’s a hard, fast, and simple rule: The cheapest days to fly are low-season, non-holiday travel dates; this will vary based on your destination, largely because of weather. Because summer is the popular tourist season for an abundance of vacation spots, winter is a great time to seek out rock-bottom airfares. Look for amazingly cheap tickets to places that draw big crowds in summer, like Europe, Canada, and most U.S. destinations (except ski towns, Florida, and Hawaii). Excluding spring break and Thanksgiving, spring and autumn are also excellent occasions to find affordable shoulder-season fares to these destinations.
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Tuesdays and Wednesdays
Unless you are the amazing Zoltar, it’s impossible to predict what the single cheapest day to fly will be. Even if you could gauge data from previous years to determine which day offered the lowest prices for your particular route, there’s no telling if the same pattern would happen the following year.
Travel experts generally agree on the cheapest travel days of the week. Fare tracker site Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, notes that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the two best days of the week to fly if you want to save some coin.
Thursdays and Saturdays
The next cheapest days of the week to fly are Thursday and Saturday. Saturday might sound like a popular—hence expensive—day to fly. But in truth, most travelers prefer to come back from vacation on Sunday to maximize their time away. The most popular days for business travelers, meanwhile, are Monday and Friday.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ultimately, your best day to fly all depends on your route and your airline. I see plenty of airfare sales that restrict discounted dates to Tuesdays and Wednesdays only or Mondays through Thursdays. I’ve also seen international fare sales that tack on weekend surcharges and require a Saturday night stay. Airline, seasonality, current demand, and a barrage of other factors can completely overthrow the Tuesday/Wednesday rule of thumb … which brings me to my next point.
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How to Do Your Own Flight Research
There’s that old saying about teaching a man to fish. I can give you scores of statistics, but you’re still going to want to know how to find the least expensive flights that work with your particular travel itinerary. Below are some useful resources to get you started.
SmarterTravel Tips and Advice for Finding Flights
To learn the basics, start with 10 Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare, which offers 10 tricks for grabbing the cheapest possible tickets available. It’s a must-read for flyers. Other useful stories include 7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight and Want the Lowest Fare? Here’s When to Book. SmarterTravel has also put together a list of The 10 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare.
Airfarewatchdog for Fare Alerts
I love Airfarewatchdog because it does the work for you. Sign up for free fare alerts from your local gateway, and the site will send you email notifications when fares for your itinerary drop.
Predictive Services to Determine When to Book
When you search flights on Kayak.com, the site typically offers a prediction for whether you should buy or wait, along with a chart of recent fare trends for that itinerary. The site uses data to predict whether the fare is likely to rise or fall in the next seven days.
The Hopper app (iOS | Android) offers a similar predictive service, telling you to buy or wait once you enter your itinerary. It will alert you when the price drops and its prediction changes from “wait” to “buy.”
What to Wear on Your Flight
Women’s Comfy Outfit to Wear on a Flight with Girlfriend Collective Leggings
More from SmarterTravel:
- What Not to Wear on a Plane (and What’s Perfectly Fine)
- 10 Ways to Get the Best Airplane Seat
- 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.