Does Shopping Time Affect Flight Prices?

Patrick Surry - Jan. 31, 2016

Summary

  • In aggregate, the cheapest airfare occurs on Tuesday around midnight, with savings of about 6% over the most expensive time
  • However, the best time of day to buy varies by market, with less than 2% of US markets actually being cheapest in the Tuesday midnight hour
  • In some markets, passengers can save as much as 20% depending on the day and time when they purchase tickets

Hopper looked at over 20 million flight searches from the past 4 months, and found that, on aggregate, the time at which you book your ticket affects prices by more than 5-6%, or around $20. The aggregate cheapest time to book came between Tuesday at midnight and Wednesday at 1am, when prices were 2.5% below average. While this was the average cheapest time to book, this time was only best in 1.6% of markets, which is not a large amount. Consumers paid the highest premium at 3 am on Fridays, where prices were 3% above average. This variation is probably due to the way airlines manage their sales, often starting early in the work week and ending before the weekend.

*All of the times quoted are in the origin airport’s local time.

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Figure 1: Flight Prices Compared to Average by Day and Time

While Tuesday at midnight has the lowest average price, Sunday at 5 am is the most common time to find the lowest price, with this being the cheapest window for 3.2% of markets. Overall, prices on Sunday at 5 am are 1% higher than average, however markets where this is the cheapest time typically see a savings of 17%. This is still lower, however, than the 18% savings a market with a best time occurring at Tuesday at midnight would find.

While fares vary slightly during the day, flight searching is a whole different story. It turns out that Americans are most likely to  shop for travel while at work, with peak times occurring between 10 am and 3 pm on Tuesday and Wednesdays. You can even see a small, but definite, decrease in activity at noon at each day of the week, as people  are away from their computers during lunch.

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We noticed that of the top origins, people in both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) seemed to search later in the evening than those in New York (JFK), Chicago (ORD), Dallas (DFW), and Baltimore (BWI). We then broke down the search behaviour coast to get a better sense of what was happening.

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Maybe not surprisingly, those on the East Coast get an earlier start to their day than the average American - searches on Monday and Tuesday morning are ~10% higher than the national average. They also search more on Friday afternoons (possibly when other people are checked-out of work already), and less at night and on the weekends.

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People on the West Coast, on the other hand, seem to love searching for flights at night, at almost 20% above the national average. They also consistently have less search activity after lunch, which could be a result of some West Coast companies having to account for East Coast schedules.

Data and Methodology

The data presented in this analysis comes from Hopper’s combined feed of Global Distribution Service (GDS) data sources which includes billions of trips per day.  Demand is represented as the number of queries not actual ticket purchases, and is calibrated across all GDS sources for each market.  Good deal prices are represented by the 10th percentile prices.  For example if the 10th percentile price is $800 dollars it means that only 10% of trips are priced at or below this price.

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