When to buy your plane ticket

Timing is the key to saving a bundle on airfare to Italy from North America

In travel planning, as in life, timing is everything. To maximize your vacation dollars, you want to:

Here's more on each:

Travel seasons: High, low, and shoulder

Italy enjoys roughly the same seasonal calendar as North America, with weather most similar to Southern California or a slightly drier version of the American south.

Summer is high season (nicest—or at least most consistently hot—weather, and, since school is out, families can take vacation); winter is low season (with the exception of the popular Christmas break creating a high season bubble); fall and spring are the shoulder seasons (temperate, though moody, weather and moderate crowds).

There are exceptions: Obvious seasonal destinations as beaches (crazy crowded in summer; dead in winter) and ski resorts (booming in winter, shut down tight in June —though the rest of summer sees a moderate flow of tourists there to drive scenic roads or hike mountain trails).

Know thy travel seasons

Jan 7–Mar 31


Apr 1–Jun 14


June 15–Aug 31


Sep 1–Oct 31


Nov 1-Dec 14


Dec 15–Jan 6


For the purposes of pricing airlines tickets (and, especially in beach or resort destinations, hotel rooms), the travel industry basically recognizes three travel seasons: high season (for Italy: June 15–Aug 31 and Dec 15–Jan 6), low season (Nov-Mar, excluding Christmas), and shoulder season (fall and spring).

Not to belabor the obvious, but high season brings the highest prices, largest crowds, least room to bargain (and hottest temperatures; Italy in August can be brutal).

On the plus side, high season is also often when you'll find the most festivals—plus, all the sights, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses of interest to tourists will be open and generally keeping their longest hours.

Low season has the lowest prices, smallest crowds, and most room to bargain. The downsides to low season are a chance for crummy weather—often wet in spring and fall and cold in winter, but not too bad, similar to the American south—and, especially in smaller towns and resort areas, the likelihood that many tourist sights and services will be shut down.

Shoulder season, as you might imagine, falls somewhere in between—not too crowded or too empty, generally pleasant weather, most things open—making it insanely popular among savvy travelers who are able to arrange their calendars to take advantage of it.

» More on when to travel to Italy. » more

Buy at the right time - The sweet spot is 6–8 weeks out

Never buy your plane tickets more than about 2.5 months before your departure date. Why? Because no one is discounting those seats yet, so you'll pay top dollar—which is misleadingly called the "lowest published fare."

But don't wait too long to buy, either. A few years ago, the troubled airlines were throwing near-daily last-minute fire sales of unsold seats in a desperate attempt to avoid flying half-empty planes. These days, the airlines have gotten much better at flying only as many planes as they can fill—which means last minute deals are far less common than flights that sell out.

What's the sweet spot, then? I’d say (a) check out the undiscounted rack rate for your intended flight about three months out, (b) then idly keep track of the fares and keep an eye out for sudden sales, and (c) if no sale comes along by about six to eight weeks out from your travel date, then you go ahead and buy.

That's when airfare consolidators lock in their fares, and most airlines will already be running sales by then if they plan to.

Keep in mind that, as a general rule, the cheapest tickets will sell out more quickly during peak travel season. Last-minute sales will pop up closer to travel dates in low season. In other words, wait a bit longer to buy in winter than you would in summer.

Be flexible

Look into flights leaving or returning a day or two earlier or later for potentially huge savings. Rather than bore you with details, just check out the image below.

Kayak search results

This is a screen grab from a sample search I did using the aggregator Kayak.comPartner. I started checking into fares from New York to Rome on August 15, and it instantly popped up a calendar to the right displaying the fares other users had found in the past 24 hours for travel on every day in August. A quick glance shows me that, to fly on my intended date of Aug. 15 would cost a whopping $1,081. If, however, I shift my trip plans and put off my departure by just two days, to Aug. 17, the price plummets to $607. Wow. Now that's a savings—and an important tool in the savvy traveler's arsenal.

Even if you don't use sites that provide this intel automatically—even if you don't book online at all—always look into alternative travel dates. On other web sites, just test-drive sample dates through the booking engine—it won't take but 10 minutes or so.

If you prefer to book the old fashioned way—in person—tell the travel agent or airline booking agent on the phone that you are flexible with your departure and return dates. If they don't automatically provide the information on alternate dates, just persist politely and ask, "How much would it cost if I left a day or two earlier or later?" If might take them a few minutes of tippy-tapping their keyboards while you wait, but as you can see, the wait can be more than worth it.

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