When should I book a flight?

A few weeks back we had a guest lecturer come round the office who specializes in travel hacking. Over the years our family has had a running discussion around when, exactly, is the best time to purchase a plane ticket (Sarah and I figured, not too early, and not too late was best) so I thought I’d ask and get the right answer.

The short version:
If you are paying cash, book the ticket as far ahead as you can.

Longer version:
When you go to book a ticket, you normally only consider which kind of fare it is: economy, premium economy, business, first, etc. However, within each fare type, there are several different fare classes. For example, on a particular airline, there might be 6 different economy tickets, each with different prices and restrictions. The most expensive, known as full-fare economy (the Latitude fare on Air Canada) is often more expensive than the cheapest business class, but it comes with features like return, exchange and upgradability.

Anyhow, these different fare classes are always available on a flight, but they have two restrictions. First, only so many tickets of each class is made available for each flight (so, maybe there are only 4 tickets available for the cheapest economy fare). Second, each fare class has an expiry date that kicks in a few days before the flight takes off. The magic cut off days are 50, 21, 7 and 3 days. So, until 50 days before a flight you can book all classes, and 49 days before some kinds of tickets become unavailable.

This means that booking a ticket way in advance should prevent any issues with the fare cut offs, and is likely to make it easier to get one of the limited availability cheap seats.

There are only two possible downsides to booking a ticket as far in advance as possible.

First, it’s possible that by waiting you might find a seat sale that’s made available at a later date. This is a bit of a gamble though.

Second, if you are booking on points, seats are all in the same category – and actually some seats will open up the closer you get to the flight date. In particular, he said if you want business class seats, they tend to open within 3 days of flying (that’s too close for me though).

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