The short answer is now through early November, with the very best times five to six weeks before you want to fly. Prior to Internet days, you never had any hard data on trends in the lowest available airfares—at best, you had average fares, and, as everybody knows: “A statistician is someone who drowns wading a river that is three feet deep.” But now, the big online travel agencies (OTAs) are able to mine millions of transactions and compute exactly when fares are lowest for any given route.
Although details differ, most published reports conform to a similar pattern. When first posted (10 to 11 months in advance) fares are what airlines would like to charge, not what they will realistically be able to charge. Fares decline gradually to a point around five to six weeks before departure, rise gradually until about two to three weeks before departure, then rise rapidly up to departure date. Individual sources vary only a little bit. Cheap Tickets says domestic Thanksgiving fares hit their low point 54 days before departure and Orbitz says 47 days; Kayak and Skyscanner say you’re OK through early November. Best days for international tickets are earlier: Cheap Tickets says 75 days to Canada and Mexico, 120 days to Europe, and 320 days for the Caribbean.
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Regardless of source, most data from the OTAs indicate that the actual fare differences are relatively small for a month or so in advance of the best date, and a month or so after the best date. So if you search carefully, you can come close to getting the lowest fare until relatively late.But for holiday travel, when you fly is much more important than when you buy. Airlines know which dates will be the busiest, and they price tickets for those days at top levels from the get-go. At Thanksgiving, the highest-fare days are almost always the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after. The comparatively lower-fare days are Thanksgiving Day and the Friday and Saturday after it, along with the weekdays before and after the holiday weekend.
If you haven’t already bought your tickets, you have several options:
Beyond the questions of timing, the various recommendations on finding the best holiday fares typically include the “usual suspects” of checking alternate airports, finding connecting fares lower than non-stops, and looking for deals at inconvenient hours. But the best “tip” we can offer comes from our colleague George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog: “When you find a good deal, pounce.”