Champion Traveler recently completed an analysis showing when it’s cheapest to book and when it’s cheapest to fly. We pulled pricing data and flight volume data from every domestic US flight in the last two years. Here’s a summary of our findings.
- The cheapest and least busy time to fly anywhere is from the second week in January to mid February.
- The next-cheapest time for travel is from late October to early December.
- December is the most expensive month, but only due to the massive surge in price and demand during the last two weeks of the year. The start of the month is relatively affordable.
- Christmas and other holiday dates aside, the summer months are the most expensive times to fly. June 1 through the second-to-last week of August are very expensive.
- Those who can’t or don’t want to travel in winter months can find good deals in late spring and early fall: this bargain-hunter warm-weather sweet spot will be the middle of May, the last week of August, and the first week of September.
- Tuesdays and Wednesdays are cheapest for almost all flight destinations. Mondays, Fridays, and weekends are most expensive.
We also discovered some interesting facts that aren’t necessarily price related:
- The best chance for a first-class upgrade is in February. January, March, and September to December.
When Are Airlines Busiest?
Price usually fluctuates with demand, or how many people want to fly. There are exceptions to these rules, but for the most part airlines charge more when they can, which are times when they’ll book flights regardless of whether the competition undercuts them a few dollars. Basic supply and demand aside, airlines also spend extra money maintaining planes and crews for busy seasons in the form of staff overtime, and some airlines pay staff extra on weekends when fewer people want to work.
Flights by Time of the Year
It’s important to understand that looking on a monthly basis will lead you to some wrong conclusions. I.e. while it’s true that December is the most expensive month, that’s only because the Holiday season around Christmas is extraordinary. Travel will be most expensive close to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and during the US summer vacation season. There are two major vacation schedules for schools, but May through the first Wednesday in September will have school out somewhere in the country. You can clearly see these times reflected in the travel volume, and flexible bargain hunters can find travel deals as the summer vacation season opens in late May and comes to a close after Labor Day.
Percent of Flights by Day of the Week
The difference between Tuesdays (the slowest week day) and Mondays/Fridays (the busies days) is .7%. This is largely due to effective pricing from airlines, which create disincentives for people to fly on Mondays and Fridays through higher prices. Passengers with some flexibility are pushed into the mid-week flights through lower pricing. It’s easier to run at a consistent level Monday-Friday than it is to have extra flights throughout the week. Weekends, however, are a different story. Airlines don’t want to pay crews overtime, so they give employees a few days off per week. Naturally employees prefer to take the traditional weekend days off. Because it’s harder or more expensive to staff a plane on weekends, airlines keep prices a little higher to discourage flying.
Some Exceptions to the Rules
Party flights show different patterns than work-centered flights. Las Vegas is the iconic party city in the USA, and it shows a very different trend compared to business-centered flights like Los Angeles to San Francisco or New York to Chicago. We’ll look at San Francisco flights versus flights into Las Vegas. While both flights will still be impacted by national trends (flights are going to be more expensive in July regardless) there are some interesting differences. Everyone wants to be in Las Vegas over the weekend, while business flights run most on Mondays and Fridays taking people into the city instead of out.
Inbound Las Vegas Flights
Inbound San Francisco (SFO) Flights
You can still see the overall trend, which matches the national trend of slower Saturdays. But there are some differences to be seen: people are less likely to fly into Las Vegas in the middle of the week.
The Best Times for First Class
Obviously the least busy flights will generally have the highest upgrade chance. Traveling at inconvenient times and on unpopular dates is one way to get first-class upgrades. We’ve also compiled a rough estimation of your average chances of getting an upgrade by month. This would be for a mid-tier rewards member, for example a Delta Gold Medallion member
Est. Gold-Level (2/4) First-Class Upgrade Chance by Month
Est. First-Class Upgrade Costs
Airlines don’t love when we share this kind of data, but we don’t expect many people to book in a different month for a slightly better chance at an upgrade or a slightly lower first-class ticket price. As you can see, the higher-demand months also reduce the chance of getting an upgrade, but that’s not consistent. For some reason there are more people willing to book first-class tickets in July vs. August, making the chance for an August upgrade on a similarly-priced flight a little better.
More Champion Traveler Tools for the Best Time to Travel
Price is important, but it isn’t everything. Make sure to check out our other travel tools. If you know where you want to go, but aren’t sure when, look up the place in our best time to travel anywhere tool. For example if you want to visit Hawaii, you’d type it into the tool, which would direct you to this post. Our proprietary analysis on tens of millions of weather data points indicates November 5th to June 24th are the best times to visit Hawaii. That’s a large piece of the year where temperatures are nice, there’s limited rain, and things are generally pleasant. You could then look at the prices above and realize you could book any time from October to February, because the entire “cheap season” is withing Hawaii’s “nice weather season.” The bottom line is this: you don’t have to go somewhere cold and miserable to save money!
If you know when you’d like to leave, but want to find a place with nice weather and minimal crowds, check out our where to travel next tool, which will guide you to a destination by week of the year. For example, now that you know February is a cheaper time for flights with fewer crowds overall and a high chance of first-class upgrades, you might want to read the 10 Best Places in late January and early February. This is the cheapest time of the year to fly on average, and it’s also a great time to visit places that might be too hot in the summer. Our recommendations include Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, central Australia, Chile, Hawaii, and parts of the southern US. All of these places are safe for tourists, have excellent weather during these weeks, and aren’t terribly crowded.