We often get questions about how far ahead of time is “best” to purchase multi-stop tickets. The Fears: book too early, and possibly over-pay for your ticket; wait to book, and risk not being able to get a seat on flights that you want.
If you want the standard answer to the question of how far ahead to book, here it is: Four to six months ahead of time. (No need to read any further.)
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But if you’d like to consider the many different issues involved in helping you decide when’s the best time for you to purchase your tickets, then please read on.
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In our current climate, airlines are adding ever-increasing fuel surcharges on top of their fares. No matter whether you think airfares may go down or if they will roll-out their suicidal, semi-annual sales later this year, one thing remains certain: these fuel surcharges are here to stay (at least until the airlines feel passengers are over the sticker-shock and they can roll them into the fare). With these surcharges bringing tickets costs up hundreds of dollars, sometimes overnight, our advice: Buy tickets now. Lock in your transportation costs.
There are many other considerations to take into account regarding the best time to purchase your tickets:
There are some basic fundamentals about airline reservations and ticket validity that you need to keep in mind:
- Tickets are valid for various lengths of time. The longest a ticket can be valid for is one year, and that date is usually measured from the date your ticket is issued, not the first date of travel on your ticket.
- The computer reservations systems (CRS) that are used to make flight reservations only allow us to book flights 330 days in advance. We cannot book a flight in September 2008 for travel in September 2009.
- Discounted airfares and the accompanying seats are often only released about six months ahead of time. (There are many exceptions to this and AirTreks does have airline contracts that are valid more than a year ahead of time.)
Peak Season Travel and/or Travel Dates Set in Stone
There are certain times of year, events and your own flexibility to consider, when you’re booking your flights:
- If you are planning to travel someplace where there is a major world event planned (i.e., the Olympics, the turn-over of Hong Kong to China, etc.), then you should probably book as far ahead of time as you possibly can.
- If your travel dates are set in stone by some event, (i.e., a wedding, an expensive, non-refundable land tour, etc.) then you should book your travel far ahead of time as well.
- If you are traveling in a peak, peak season, (i.e., the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day), then you will need to book as far ahead of time as you possibly can. It used to be that you could wait until August to book your travel plans for Christmas, but this year many of the flights were fully booked by the beginning of July. And to add more pain to this topic please read “Christmas Travel Will Experience Cut of 60 Million Airline Seats.”
- If you are trying to match another travelers’ already-purchased flights, then booking ahead makes sense.
Flexibility on Dates/ Willingness to Gamble:
All of this comes down to your willingness to take a risk:
- If you are flexible in your travel dates, you could conceivably wait a bit longer before you purchase your tickets. But your flexibility has to be real and you might need a window of as much as a week or more to get the flights you want. Saying that you would be willing to end your trip on either January 2nd or 3rd won’t make much difference.
- If you like to gamble and would be willing to either postpone your trip or pay considerably more for your ticket, then waiting to the last minute might pay off for you.
Other Things to take into consideration:
- If an airline has a monopoly on a route that you need to fly, there is little or no reason to wait to purchase those tickets. Airlines reduce prices based on competition. If there is no competition on your routing, the airlines’ fares have only one direction to go, and it isn’t down.
- Booking your flights months ahead of time also carries the risks of schedule changes. While this is completely normal in the airline industry and is becoming even more common-place as airlines reduce the number of their flights and drop routes, it becomes much more of a concern for multi-stop international travelers. One schedule change could domino into problems for connecting or subsequent flights. (This is why it is better for you to book these kinds of flights through a reputable travel agency, like AirTreks, rather than by yourself.)
- Though it is not a cheery topic, there is also the specter of airline insolvency looming when you purchase your airline tickets months in advance. (We try to offset the problem by keeping an eye on the cash positions of airlines and not selling those carriers in a bad position and we have worked out an unprecedented insurance offering that does cover airline bankruptcies.)
- If you are planning on traveling for more than a year or you are not certain of your destinations in the latter stages of your trip, you should probably break up your trip into stages. Let us know your entire routing and the routing you are confident to travel within the one year time frame and we can work up an estimate for both. Many people buy tickets for an extended trip in stages, either to be able to travel for a longer time, or to keep flexibility as to their route for the latter portion of their trip. You can then buy tickets for the later stage of your trip either locally or from us.
We hope that armed with a little bit of knowledge, you can make a better informed decision as to the best time for you to purchase your tickets.