The worst part of flying usually isn't turbulence in the air. It's the turbulence on the ground as you wrestle with how far in advance you should buy a ticket to snag the best price.
"By far the most frequent question we get from travelers is, 'When is the best time to book my ticket?' " said Jeff Klee, CEO of the airfare comparison site CheapAir.com. "That question comes up constantly, even within our company. We have a team of travel agents and everyone has a different opinion."
The company recently analyzed 560 million fare search records in more than 11,000 markets for 2012. On average, the best time to book a domestic flight was 49 days, or seven weeks, in advance.
Not surprisingly, the worst day to buy a ticket was the day before the flight. Two days in advance was the second worst time and three days was the third worst, etc., until 11 days out. At that point, the next worst day was a tie among 208, 209 and 210 days, the furthest out the company analyzed.
In short, the easiest way to get the worst airfare was to buy really late or really early.
The overall trend line showed fares starting out high and steadily decreasing until hitting rock bottom at around seven weeks before the flight. After that, fares started to increase a bit, but stayed pretty steady until about one month out. At that point, they started to spike dramatically.
For international flights, the sweet spot was further out. It was 12 weeks in advance, or 81 days. For holidays and other peak travel times, the best fares also typically were further out than 49 days, Klee said.
He emphasized that low points should only be used as a guideline because the analysis found plenty of variations depending on the market and the trip.
For example, in numerous instances the best fare actually was found one day before the flight.
There also were many examples when the best time to book was the day the flight opened for sale, or 331 days in advance. (CheapAir.com looked at a select number of flights booked that far ahead -- the furthest out airlines allow bookings.)
"We're not telling people to book exactly 49 days out. That's just an average," Klee said.
His best overall advice for nabbing the cheapest ticket?
"As soon as you know you want to take a trip, start checking fares. Get familiar with the market. Check early and check often and get ready to pounce when you see fares drop."
Contrary to the popular belief that it's cheaper to buy tickets Tuesdays and Wednesdays, no particular day consistently had the best deals, the survey found.
While airlines frequently promote systemwide sales Tuesdays and Wednesdays, a large number of unadvertised sales pop up on other days, Klee said.
Still, certain days were cheaper on average. For domestic flights, Tuesdays were the least expensive, followed by Wednesdays. The most expensive days were Sundays and Fridays.
Monday, Thursday and Saturday were in the middle.
The company didn't analyze international flights. Klee said Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays generally have the lowest fares.
People who can be flexible with their travel dates and times can afford to wait longer for fares to drop than people who must travel on a schedule, he said.
The biggest influence on a ticket price for a particular flight is how full it is.
"If you can't be flexible, make sure you buy early," he said. "If you don't, you run the risk of the flight filling up and fares increasing dramatically."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.