Summer vacation has its perks, but landing good deals on flights isn’t necessarily one of them. For those who can plan their leisure trips for later in the year, the rewards include smaller crowds, less-steamy weather and better prices on plane tickets.
“Fall is really the best time to travel, period,” Tracy Stewart, content editor at the travel deal site Airfarewatchdog.com, said in an email. “Not only are fares lower, but crowds tend to thin out at major attractions, and temperatures are usually somewhere in the Goldilocks range.”
When is a good time to start booking those fall getaways? Right now, according to the experts.
In a report, the airfare prediction app Hopper forecast domestic round-trip airfare would drop nearly 7% compared with June’s peak prices. Another 5.5% price drop is expected in August, and a smaller dip should follow in September. The forecast calls for prices to stay about the same in October, then tick up about 2% in November.
“The overall pattern is similar to what we see in a typical year in that, as we get into the peak travel season in July, the tickets that people are booking are shifting toward the off-peak prices,” says Patrick Surry, Hopper’s chief data scientist. “We tend to see prices fall throughout the summer and into the end of the year.”
While the forecast is specifically for domestic flights, Surry said the same pattern holds true for European flights.
“If you can sneak in after kids go back to school, it’s always a great time to go,” says Rick Seaney, chairman of the airline ticket comparison website FareCompare. “You’re going to get a pretty hefty price break, especially international tickets.”
He said summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the most expensive times for flights.
Experts say budget-hunting travelers should keep a few tips in mind. Just booking a flight in mid-July doesn’t mean it will be cheap; the travel should take place at least a month out to lock in better prices.
Scott Keyes, founder and CEO of the flight deals site Scott’s Cheap Flights, said travelers should book between one to three months ahead for domestic flights at off-peak times and two to eight months for international flights to have the best chance at low prices.
But beware of the kinds of sales that airlines advertise – which have been making the rounds in the past week from carriers including JetBlue and Southwest. They aren’t always the best prices, and they typically come with limits on routes and days of the week. According to Keyes, “the best fares tend to be unadvertised.”
The price of an airline ticket is tied to four factors, Seaney says: supply (or how much capacity airlines have), demand, competition and fuel prices.
Hopper’s report said capacity for major U.S. carriers was up this month compared with a year earlier, despite the grounding of Boeing 737 Max airplanes. American Airlines, United and Southwest have canceled all flights on that aircraft – hundreds a day – into early November and October. American and United both extended their cancellations in the past few days.
“The only wild card in the deck for fares this year is the effect the Max 737 grounding will have as it drags on longer than airlines initially anticipated,” says Stewart, of Airfarewatchdog. “Airlines have struggled to make it work as best as they could for the busy summer months, but only time will tell.”
Surry said the price of fuel presents another question mark for the longer term. The cost of jet fuel has risen nearly 12% since January of this year, according to Hopper’s report, though it is still lower than a year ago. But fuel prices have been on a general upward trend since a deep dive a few years ago, with occasional fluctuations.
“If oil keeps going up due to the geopolitical instability and so forth, then it will prevent the airlines (from) being able to continue discounting,” Surry says. “We’ve been looking for that point for a while as to when the party will finish for cheap airfare. Maybe prices will start to drift upwards again; it feels like we’re on the cusp of that.”
For July, airfare is expected to be in line with 2018 prices even as it drops from June.
“It’s a great time to look for bargains,” Surry says. “It may be that this time next year we’re going to be telling a much different story if the oil price does continue its upward trajectory.”