If you're even just a semi-regular airline traveler, and you like to hunt for bargains, you've probably heard that you're supposed to buy plane tickets on Tuesdays to get the best deals. But what if you found out that this applies only if you purchase right at midnight, and that it only really matters with 1.6% of domestic U.S. routes?
Turns out, not only do you have to book the right route at exactly midnight to get a deal on Tuesdays … even if you do, you'll be rewarded with a savings of just 6%, or $18 on average.
That's according to new data from Hopper, the aviation insights company whose fare-predicting app is built upon hundreds of billions of airfare data points, all collected since 2013. Haven't heard of it? It's worth a download: The app tells you whether to buy a ticket or hold out for better prices, and its accuracy stands up to tests better than its main competitor, Kayak's price forecaster.
"People want there to be this kind of golden rule you can use to know when to book your airfare," said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper. "But it's hard to have a rule of thumb when the system is adapting in real time." By that, he means airline revenue managers — who used to manually adjust airfare prices to meet weekly targets and goals — are being replaced with computers, so predictable patterns for customers are becoming, well, less predictable. "In the past, there used to be more human intervention where managers could create flash sales, often on Tuesdays and Wednesdays," Mr. Surry said. "These decisions are largely automated now."
Patterns still emerge, and Hopper applies machine learning and big data to find them. So Mr. Surry and his team whipped up new recommendations for when to book — for both domestic U.S. and international flights — along with insights on the potential payoffs.
Book International Flights on Thursdays
Out of 3,500 international routes that Hopper studied, about 900 of them posted their lowest prices on Thursdays — more than on any other day of the week. Savings averaged $20 a ticket. Monday is also a good day to book international flights: An average of 600 routes lower their fares by $30 on that day. (As in, a smaller number of flights offer a discount — but the discount is bigger.) Avoid booking on Sundays, said Mr. Surry. It's when you're least likely to find a good deal.
Don't Hold Your Breath for Big Discounts on Domestic Flights
Compared with international tickets, domestic fares have less variation, and price drops don't often correlate with a particular day of the week. Mr. Surry postulated that this is a direct result of lower route competition: Fewer carriers are racing to connect Boston and Baltimore, for instance, than New York and London. High-volume routes, such as those that cross the Atlantic or connect international hubs, are where the law of supply and demand offers greater fluctuations — and, therefore, wider price fluctuations. In other words: Don't hold your breath for dramatic price drops on domestic U.S. tickets.
But You Might Find Some Savings Domestically by Booking on Thursdays
By all metrics, domestic flights offer their greatest potential savings on Thursdays. Across a large swath of commonly-searched routes, Thursdays show a typical price drop of almost $15; when all 7,500 U.S. routes are considered equal regardless of popularity, the discount drops to just $12, or 3.4% of the average ticket. It's not a big discount, but it's a common one: On Thursdays roughly 3,500 of Hopper's domestic routes drop their prices by that $12 margin.
A close runner-up: Wednesday, when 3,000 routes offer a similar price savings.
As for Tuesday? It's not the worst day to book. (That prize can be shared among Monday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which all offer a combination of low savings and few routes with price drops.) But the second day of the week is hardly what it's chalked up to be, with just one-third of routes offering a pitiful $10 savings on average.
And staying up for a rare chance to save $18 at the stroke of midnight? It might not be worth the caffeine.