UPDATE (3/11/15): Best Time to Buy International Air Tickets

By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

UPDATE (4/15/15): Because the boredom of weekly tracking was almost terminal, our correspondent fell into a deep funk. Due to this unfortunate course of events, we can offer only a brief and somewhat vague synopsis of the final weeks of tracking. Up until about three weeks before the departure date, the price hovered around the mid-$1,400s. Then, it jumped up to about $1,600, where it remained until two days prior to departure. What happened after that is a mystery. The lowest price for a SEA – FLR ticket tomorrow (4/16/15, on Air Berlin with two stops) is $1,888. (In Chinese culture, that is a very auspicious number, as 8 is considered lucky.) In May, we will begin an eleven-month project tracking airfares to Berlin, our study abroad destination for next spring quarter. This will provide a longer data set and possibly enable us to get somewhat closer to an answer to the question: When is the best time to buy international air tickets? We will rouse our currently defunct correspondent and set him once more to the task (after, of course, a much-needed vacation).

UPDATE (3/11/15): Currently at $1,439.

UPDATE (3/4/15): Back up to $1,440.

UPDATE (3/2/15): I guess I spoke too soon. Since there was a pretty sharp drop in price yesterday, I had to see if there was a sudden jump back up to non-Sunday prices, but the decline continued. As of today at 10:30 a.m., the low is $1,409.

UPDATE (3/1/15): Decided to check on a Sunday, the cheapest day of the week. And yes: $1,456. Why am I working on a Sunday, you ask? I was also wondering about that. So goodbye.

UPDATE (2/26/15): As of Wednesday, the price was still sitting at $1,490. That fare was only coming from Alitalia last week, but yesterday Delta matched it. Due to the lateness of my actually getting around to posting yesterday’s price, I went ahead and checked today (Thursday) as well, and it’s come down again. Now there’s a low of $1,474, with other fares at $1,482. These are all being offered by Air Canada, Lufthansa, and a combination of the two.

UPDATE (2/17/15): 8:00 a.m. – $1,490. 9:00 a.m. – $1,490. 10:00 a.m. – $1,490. 11:00 a.m. – $1,490. 12:00 p.m. – $1,490. 1:00 p.m. – $1,490. 2:00 p.m. $1,490. 3:00 p.m. – $1,490. 4:00 p.m. – $1,490. 5:00 p.m. – $1,490. [Editor’s note: At this point, our writer gave up entirely and abandoned the project. We checked later in the evening, around 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and found that the price had remained at $1,490.]

UPDATE (2/9 – 2/13/15): The lowest fare on Monday at 12:00 p.m. is $1,493. Tuesday is $1,486. Wednesday is $1,488. Thursday is $1,488. Friday is $1,490.

UPDATE (2/4/15): The lowest fare (again, on Kayak.com) this Wednesday has actually gone down, if only by a pretty insignificant amount: $1,494. My student said that she found (yesterday, I believe) a fare on STA for about $1,380. I just checked STA and the lowest I found there was about $1,506. I guess this adds credence to the data which suggests that Tuesday is the best day to buy plane tickets. Next week, just to change things up, I’ll be checking the fare at the same time every day (beginning Monday and ending Friday) and posting it. We’ll see how the price moves on a day-to-day basis. The following Tuesday, I’ll check every hour (from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.) to see how the prices changes over the course of a day.

UPDATE (1/28/15): As of Wednesday (the same day of the week that I’d originally searched for fares) January 28, the lowest fare for the Florence study abroad program dates is unchanged (with a return flight on a Tuesday) at $1,497. I’ll be adding an update each week to keep a record of the price fluctuation as we get closer to the departure date.

Conventional wisdom (and data and the Wall Street Journal) says that in general, when buying international air tickets, earlier is better. That WSJ article linked above is a recent story that mostly discusses a recent report showing that conventional wisdom about domestic tickets turns out to have changed. Tuesday is apparently no longer the best day to buy tickets; Sunday is. Tuesday is still the best weekday to buy tickets, though.

They also report that, for domestic flights, the best time to buy tickets is 57 days in advance of your departure. (It doesn’t, however, say what to do if 57 days before you want to leave turns out to be a Thursday rather than a Sunday.)  People flying internationally have to plan much, much farther in advance: the best time to buy tickets is 171 days before your flight. I’m no mathematician, but that seems to work out to between 5 and 6 months. That’s some serious thinking ahead.

Because Shoreline has a student going to study in Florence, Italy this spring quarter (sorry guys, application deadline is already gone for this program), we here at Shoreline Study Abroad have been looking into ticket prices. A search (on Kayak.com) for what should be the approximate departure date, April 1, and a return flight in mid-June, returns a cheapest fare of $1,518. (The original return date I chose was a Friday—if I change this to the following Tuesday, the cheapest fare is $1,497.) This is roughly (again, not a mathematician) 70 days ahead of the departure date.

When I check a departure date even closer in, March 4 (also with a return on a Tuesday in mid-June), the price should be higher, right? Nope. Lowest fare: $1,286. And actually, as I (out of curiosity, and always using a Wednesday as a departure date for consistency’s sake) got closer and closer to today, the flights stayed under $1,300 all the way to only two weeks from now. At one week, they jump up to still slightly cheaper than that original April 1 departure date. So advance planning doesn’t always work.

Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing, then. In checking historical average prices (at faredetective.com), I found no data for Seattle to Florence (it turns out that data on price trends in the airline industry is extremely difficult to find). But the San Francisco to Florence data (yes, I know this word is technically plural, but I don’t care) from 2014 does (see how little I care?) show a steady rise through March and into April. But the rest of their data didn’t show much correlation to the prices that I found.

Mid-May is decidedly sooner than mid-June but still cheaper. Probably because mid-June is summer right? Maybe, but mid-May is also still cheaper than mid-October (that’s where the faredetective.com data started falling apart), which is pretty far out there, and not during any holidays that I can think of. It appears that seasonal fluctuations don’t explain everything either.

I guess the lesson here is that the secret to getting a good price on an international flight (at least one from Seattle to Florence) is luck. Or fate. Or some combination of the two. Also, winter seems more or less to be the cheapest time to fly, and summer the most expensive. So the question now is: Should my student wait to purchase her ticket and see if that April fare goes down? Seems like a gamble to me. But maybe she’s a gamblin’ woman.

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