Lots of ink and pixels have been devoted to the quest for an answer to the question, "When is the best time to buy airline tickets?"
My pat answer has always been, "When they're on sale," but you can't predict the next sale. Nevertheless, folks keep trying, and you might want to check out the possibilities.
The latest information comes from the online travel agency, CheapAir.com, focused on how far in advance the optimum time to buy might be. CheapAir's data are based on extensive mining of its own purchase records:
For international tickets, the "sweet spot" was 81 days, with good deals available 11 to 12 weeks in advance. CheapAir's findings generally track with others: The Economist reported an "eight-week" rule, and Angie's list cites a report from the Airlines Reporting Corp. with six weeks as the optimum.
Two online outfits -- Bing Travel and Kayak -- boast a different approach: "buy or wait a week" airfare predictors on their search engines. I'm testing them and will report results soon.
Beyond trying to pick the best periods to buy, you have the option of tracking fares and the possibility of getting a refund if a fare drops after you buy. CheapAir has what appears to be the one of the best such programs: "Price Drop Payback" promises that if you buy a ticket through CheapAir and the fare subsequently goes down, the agency will issue a credit in the amount of the difference, up to a maximum of $100. The deal applies only to online purchases of nonrefundable economy-class tickets, and only to fare drops posted on CheapAir for the exact same itinerary.
Other big online travel agencies (OTAs) provide somewhat similar programs. Orbitz offers a credit up to 110 percent of the difference, but only if someone else actually books the identical itinerary on Orbitz. Expedia offers a guarantee, but only for price drops that occur within 24 hours of purchase.
Another approach is to request an alert whenever a fare drops on some route you want to fly. Here, you have lots of options: Most big OTAs offer such a service, some airlines offer it, and some independent third-party travel information sites, including SmarterTravel.com. Most third-party agencies do not include Allegiant and Southwest, two lines that block "screen scraping" by external agencies, but George Hobica's human-powered AirfareWatchdog.com does cover these lines. You enter one or more routes and your email address and the source notifies you of a fare drop.
Contact Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.