You’ll find different answers if you search for the best time to book travel. Some sites claim the best time is a specific number of days before your departure date, while others believe the time of day matters more.
While these findings may be true when comparing thousands of data points, it’s not practical information for consumers when there are so many factors that influence the cost of your booking.
Travellers wanting to keep their costs down need to know what to look for.
Book as early as you can for airfare
Anyone looking to pay cash for flights should book as soon as possible. At the very least, aim for six to eight months before your travel dates. The reason is simple: When a plane has more available seats, the odds are higher you’ll get a lower price. As seats get purchased and demand increases, so will the prices.
Airline revenue management teams have algorithms and data that they can rely on to predict when and if a flight will sell out. While it’s possible a seat on the flight you’re monitoring could decrease in price the next day, it could just as easily double. Hoping for a price drop is not worth the gamble.
The same applies to using loyalty points tied to a specific airline, such as Air Canada’s Aeroplan. Booking 10 to 12 months out is beneficial since you’ll have access to more inventory. That said, sometimes the cost of a flight on points could drop significantly when booking less than two weeks before your departure date as airlines try to fill up those seats.
However, prices will be high regardless of how early you book if you’re looking to travel during popular periods, such as the winter holidays, spring break or the summer. That’s because airlines have anticipated the demand and priced accordingly.
Be flexible, and don’t obsess
Instead of thinking about the best time to book your travel, consider being flexible, as it’ll give you better results. Generally, it’s cheaper to fly midweek compared with Friday to Monday. Evening flights are also typically more affordable than flights that take off in the morning.
Focusing on the lowest price can also present issues. Low-cost carriers often have great prices, but the savings may be minimal if you pay for all the extras, such as carry-on or checked luggage. Alternatively, booking a flight with a layover to keep costs down compared with a direct one may not be worth it. Not only are you adding time to your journey and the cost of an overnight stay, but if there’s a delay with your initial flight, you may miss your connection.
Also, think about when and what carrier you’re travelling with. Flying during the winter on an airline that only offers one daily flight – compared with one that has multiple flights – can be risky if there are any weather or mechanical delays.
Sales can be worth it, but not always
Generally, airlines and hotels will have a few sales throughout the year, but some are better than others. WestJet and Air Canada Vacations typically offer good deals on vacation packages in September. Waiting until Black Friday or Cyber Monday can also be worth it since almost every travel brand will offer discounts.
Regardless of when the sale is, you need to pay attention to the details. Getting 25 per cent off may sound great, but if it only applies to the base fare of your airfare – before taxes and surcharges – the savings may be minimal. You must also check if the sale has restrictions, such as the destination and travel dates. Waiting for a sale could lower your costs, but if that sale never comes or is not a great deal, you might pay more if prices have increased since your initial search.
What’s interesting is that loyalty point sales tend to be generous. You can save up to 25 per cent on Aeroplan flight redemptions in North America, including Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, when you book by Sept. 29, and travel by March 31, 2024. In addition, Aeroplan credit cardholders get their fourth hotel night free when they book three nights on points by Dec. 31, 2024. In both cases, you can get a deep discount if you have the points.
Getting a deal on hotels is easier
Similar to airfare, the general strategy for hotels is to book as soon as possible. Many hotel chains offer a slight discount when you book at least 90 days out, so that’s one window you can aim for. Booking directly compared with a third-party provider or joining their loyalty program can also save you a little bit since you’ll get access to member pricing.
Although hotels use dynamic pricing for cash and loyalty bookings like airlines, the significant difference is that most hotels offer fully refundable rates. Your strategy should be to book a room immediately and then monitor prices. If your room rate drops, you can rebook without paying any fees.
Whether it be flights or hotels, booking early and being flexible will usually save you money. Once you’ve settled your dates, book right away so you don’t have to worry about any price fluctuations.
Barry Choi is a personal-finance and travel expert at moneywehave.com. He was previously affiliated with Aeroplan and WestJet Rewards, but currently has no relationship with any of the brands.