Getting Started: Why you should book your flight early for travel in 2016

If you’re making travel plans for 2016, or even just thinking about taking a trip next year, it may be a good idea to book your airfare sooner rather than later.

Fare sales are raming up this month after a record number of airline deals in the fall, according to Hopper, an app that tracks airfare trends and predicts when to get the best price on a plane ticket.

“September was by far the strongest we’ve seen for sales,” said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper. “In October, the number of sales was up about 50 percent from the same period last year, and December could be another good month.”

To take advantage of the discounts, here’s what you need to know:

��Book for winter or spring travel. According to Hopper’s Consumer Airfare Index, the average round-trip domestic airline ticket booked in December for travel during off-peak times – generally from January until just before the start of the summer travel season in May or June – is expected to cost just $205. Last year, the average was $245.

The index measures the “good-deal” price a consumer would typically pay for domestic travel (and so excludes last-minute ticket purchases for business travel that usually are far more expensive).

Surry said one reason for the greater frequency of sales has to do with the sharp decline in oil prices.

“Fuel costs have gone down a lot, so airlines have a little more room to fight each other on prices,” he said.

In addition, most flights for holiday travel are already booked by the start of December. With consumers focused on completing their holiday shopping at the mall, rather than buying plane tickets, airlines start cutting fares.

��Search midweek. You’re likely to find the best flash sales on Wednesdays and Thursdays. A flash sale is a fare drop of 20 percent or more below prevailing ticket prices.

“Sales are driven by people at the airlines,” Surry said. “As the workweek starts, they’ll decide if they need to run a sale in order to fill more seats.” As a result, Surry said, sales usually finish as the workweek wraps up and are all but nonexistent during holidays and weekends, when airline executives are not in the office.

��Pick a popular destination. The best deals will be found if you depart from a city that is served by more than a couple of competing airlines. Those cities include Atlanta, Chicago, Denver and Philadelphia. The same is true if you travel to popular destinations in the U.S., such as Las Vegas and Orlando, and for overseas trips to cities such as Cancun, Mexico; London; and San Jose, Costa Rica.

“You tend to find the best sales at airports that have multiple carriers,” Surry said. “So Boston, which is served by a lot of airlines, will have a lot more competitive price movement than a place like Detroit will.”

��Be flexible. Fare sales don’t last long, often ending the same day that they started. And the biggest discounts will be snagged by travelers who can be flexible about their travel dates and times.

“Our advice is to keep an eye on destinations that you might be interested in,” Surry said. “If you see a deal, act quickly.”


Carolyn Bigda writes Getting Started for the Chicago Tribune.