Qtrip News

The Qtrip Annual Airfare Study: Domestic Flights

February 18, 2020

So often these days, travelers feel captive to the whims of the airlines.

qtrip when to buy study boarding pass

Flight prices, what’s included with your ticket, what’s considered an add-on, even whether or not you can bring a carry-on – it can be confusing and frustrating. Qtrip aims to simplify this process for travelers, and one way we can help is to be transparent and provide insights into the best time to buy an airline ticket.

For the Qtrip Airfare Study we analyzed more than 917 million airfares across 8,000 markets, and we’re sharing our expertise in three parts, starting with domestic U.S. flights.

The goal: to uncover insights and provide advice so you can make an informed choice when you shop for travel.

This airfare study will cover:

• The best day to buy a flight, on average

• The “Qtrip Prime Booking Window” – when flight prices are within 5% of the lowest fare

• The various flight Booking “Zones” and which one is best for your purchase

• Which days of the week to fly based on price

• The best and worst months to travel

• How seasonality affects airfare

Based on data from the past year, we find that the average best day to buy a flight is 77 days in advance of your travel date (for domestic U.S. travel). This is an average finding, so it’s best to think of a range of dates.

We classify the range of dates in which you can buy an airline ticket, and call them Booking Zones. There are 6 Airfare Booking Zones:

qtrip airfare study domestic booking zones

First Dibs
315 to 202 days in advance
Approximately 10 to 6.5 months
If you are a traveler who appreciates having the most options, you’ll likely find the First Dibs zone ideal. The most choice in seats, specific flight times, and even classes of service occur when you buy early. If you buy in this early bird zone, you’ll spend around $50 more than if you wait to buy in the “Prime Booking Window.” It’s money well spent, if you prefer to have all the choices.

Peace of Mind
201 to 128 days in advance
Approximately 6.5 to 4 months
The Peace of Mind zone is best for travelers who like to keep a balance between choice and value. It’s early enough that you’ll still have options, and it’s not quite as expensive as First Dibs (you’ll save about $30 on average compared to First Dibs).

Qtrip’s Prime Booking Window
127 to 21 days in advance
Approximately 4 months to 3 weeks
This is where you want to be if budget takes precedence in your decision-making. Year over year, this prime booking zone consistently yields the lowest prices for travelers (within 5% of the lowest ticket price). You’re likely going to trade in some of that choice we mentioned earlier, but if cost is the main consideration, there is no better zone for you.

Push Your Luck
20 to 14 days in advance
Approximately 3 – 2 weeks
Here’s where things can get dicey. Inside of 3 weeks, the odds are prices will go up, and choice gets limited. This is a zone best left to gamblers, Sometimes you can find a great deal in the Push Your Luck zone, but it’s not a sure thing.

Playing with Fire
13 to 7 days in advance
2 weeks to 1 week
Real risk takers dwell in the Playing with Fire zone – these are travelers who can’t help but wait until nearly the last minute to buy tickets. The truth is that playing with fire will often leave singe marks on your wallet. There’s usually much less choice and the prices are even higher.

Hail Mary
6 to 0 days in advance
Less than a week
Most people find themselves in the “Hail Mary” zone out of necessity (family emergency or unexpected trip), rather than a premeditated choice. If you hope to save money OR like choice, there’s little to recommend buying here. If you have to do so, you’ll likely pay about $200 more, on average, than you would if you shopped in the Prime Booking Window. Should you find yourself here, you do have options. Qtrip offers monthly payments for travelers.

Days of the Week

Purchase Day of Week
Don’t sweat the day of week you choose to make your purchase. For most flights, there is little to no effect on ticket price depending on what day you buy. In fact, the average low fare only varies by about $1, no matter the day of the week.

Travel Day of Week
The day of the week you choose to fly is another story. Mid-week flights (Tuesday and Wednesday) offer the best value and choice most of the time, while the weekends (especially Friday and Sunday) will almost always cost more. Tuesday has a very slight edge over Wednesday, winning top “value” day to fly. You’ll save nearly $100 on average if you fly mid-week over Sunday, the hands down most expensive day of the week to travel.

qtrip airfares by day of the week

Best (and Worst) Months to Travel
Based on price, there are some considerations to weigh when choosing a month to travel domestically. The winter months (other than the December holidays) offer some of the best pricing, along with early Autumn travel in September and October. Peak summer, spring break weeks, and holiday travel will set you back the most.

qtrip average airfares by month

Seasonality Insights
Depending on the season, you’ll want to adjust the time frame you buy. Here’s a quick snapshot to help with planning:

qtrip seasons when to buy airfare

So what have we learned?

Buying an airline ticket very early will give you the most choice but cost a bit more, while waiting until you’re about to travel means you can expect to pay more for a more limited set of flight options across the board.

Qtrip recommends travelers land somewhere in the middle – optimally in what we’ve coined the Prime Booking Window – where you get the best-priced airline tickets and a reasonable amount of choice.

Qtrip is committed to offering help for travelers, and we pride ourselves on giving you the transparency to know what you’re buying, the data to make smart choices, the flexibility to pay on your terms, and the support to deal with the unexpected. Please reach out in the comments below and let us know how we’re doing!

Read the International Flights Study here.

*We cover the best time to buy Hawaii flights separately as it has its own set of characteristics that call for a unique approach.


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