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Personal Finance

This is the best time to book your flight for cheaper tickets

It's not the day of the week that matters, but how far in advance you can book and other factors.

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Anton Petrus | Moment | Getty Images

No matter how often you fly, saving money on airfare is always a welcome relief. While there are plenty of travel hacks that can help reduce the cost, some — such as the idea of saving a bundle on airfare by booking it on Tuesday — are slightly misunderstood.

The truth is, booking on a Tuesday for cheaper flights is not accurate. However, it is true that timing impacts the cost of a flight. CNBC Select spoke with Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at flight deal subscription service Going (formerly Scott's Cheap Flights) to understand the origin of the Tuesday misconception and the best approach to booking flights at a cheaper price.  

Why it doesn't matter what day of the week you book

If you're holding off on booking a flight because it's not Tuesday yet, you may want to reconsider this approach.  

Booking on a specific date worked back when airlines used to load their fares weekly at a predetermined time, and customers could book a ticket soon after on a first-come, first-served basis, resulting in affordable fares.  

However, airlines no longer operate this way.  

Instead, Keyes advises people to view fares like the volatility of the stock market. Each year, the stock market has a date where it performs the best but that doesn't mean it will always do well on that exact date.  

The same thing applies to cheap flights. While you may find that airfares look slightly different on a given day, it does not have any predictive power for when they'll drop in the future.  

How can you score cheap airfare? 

Rather than targeting precise dates when hunting for cheap flights, you should instead look for what Keyes calls "the Goldilocks window" — a period of time when cheap fares are most likely to pop up for domestic and international flights. 

"If it's an off-peak season — not middle of summer, Christmas or New Year's — then booking about one to three months in advance is typically when cheap flights have the highest likelihood of popping up," he said. "When you're talking about international travel, two to eight months in advance."  

If you're traveling during peak season, Keyes suggests booking three to seven months in advance for domestic flights and four to 10 months for international.  

He also emphasized that while there's no guarantee you'll get the best deal, the odds are more in your favor during these times.  

Follow the 21-day rule for last-minute travel 

If you're not in a position to book a flight months in advance and still hope to score the cheapest option available, make sure to book sooner rather than later. Keyes suggests booking your ticket at least 21 days before departure (if possible), since airlines have policies that will substantially raise the price of airfare for trips taking place after that deadline.

What is the most affordable day of the week to travel? 

You may not get cheaper airfare by booking on a specific day, but when you plan on flying can affect the price of the ticket. Generally, Mondays and Fridays are more expensive than Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Keyes says this is mainly because business travelers tend to avoid traveling in the middle of the week.  

Early morning flights are also less popular since people usually prefer waking up later for their flight. Keyes says the other benefit of early flights is that they have what's known as a completion factor — a flight's on-time arrival — which tends to be about 25 percentage points higher than afternoon or evening flights. This is because the aircraft for the first flight of the day has been parked in the airport overnight, whereas other planes are coming in from other locations later in the day. 

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When to use airline miles for travel 

If you're looking to use airline miles for your travels, keep in mind that these function differently than regular airfare as airlines release award seats in increments of time. Keyes says that some airlines will make seats available about 11 months in advance, then again in 6 months and then a couple of weeks before departure.  

This means if you have to book last minute, try to use airline miles since many airlines release award seats up until the day of departure. Keyes also recommends using miles when traveling during peak season.  

"If you were to search a flight from New York to Paris in July, you'll see that fares are as high as $1,600 round-trip. If you booked it with miles, they were as low as 24,000 miles round-trip." 

And if you're looking to earn airline miles to redeem for these last-minute flights, consider some of CNBC Select's favorite travel credit cards. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, for example, currently offers a welcome bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within three months after opening your account (see rates and fees).

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

  • Rewards

    5 Miles per dollar on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, 2X miles per dollar on every other purchase

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $95

  • Intro APR

    N/A for purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    19.99% - 29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    $0 at the Transfer APR, 4% of the amount of each transferred balance that posts to your account at a promotional APR that Capital One may offer to you

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

Terms apply.

 

If you're interested in earning points with your travel purchases (and are fine with paying an annual fee of $550), you can use the Chase Sapphire Reserve® to earn 5X points on flights and 10X points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase through Chase Travel℠ (immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually).

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

On Chase’s secure site
  • Rewards

    Earn 5X total points on flights and 10X total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Travel℠ immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3X points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases plus, 10X points on Lyft rides through March 2025

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,125 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

  • Annual fee

    $550

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    22.49% - 29.49% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    5%, minimum $5

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent

  • Terms apply.

 

Bottom line 

When planning for travel and thinking of ways to score the best deals for your travel plans, remember that no fixed date will ensure you the cheapest fare. However, the sooner you book, the better. Be mindful of your departure date and consider Keyes' "Goldilocks window" method to avoid paying more than you have to for your next getaway.  

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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