When is the Best Time to Buy an Airline Ticket?

Airline pricing took on its weekly cadence many years ago, when sales were announced in daily newspaper ads and most travelers bought tickets when travel agencies were open for business Monday-Friday. On Monday, pricing executives looked at inventory and booking trends and decided whether to offer a sale, putting together big newspaper ads for Tuesday editions. Airlines wanted sales out early in the week to generate buzz while customers could buy from travel agencies. Sales launched on Friday may not get noticed.

These days, the Internet makes ticket-buying available any time, and announcements of sales can be zapped to potential buyers electronically. Nonetheless, the pattern still remains in place.

Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, studied three years worth of airline prices and concluded that 3 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday was the best time to buy. “That's when the maximum number of cheapest seats are in the marketplace,” he said.

Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, the three big online ticket-sellers, all say their busiest day for bookings is Tuesday and the slowest day is Saturday. Expedia says Saturdays have about half the volume of Tuesdays.

…But the dynamic may change. Some airlines say that social-media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook, are beginning to disrupt the cycle. Some airlines are sending sales out directly to customers at all hours, making pricing far less predictable each day. Or carriers may tweet an hour-long sale. As a result, airlines can match competitors more nimbly, sneak sales under the radar of competitors and send deeply discounted offers anytime to customers who sign up for fare alerts.