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For cheap flights, book 54 days ahead

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

NEW YORK — Booking a flight is often confusing, annoying and frustrating. Prices fluctuate so frequently that most vacationers can't tell whether they are getting a good deal.

So when is the best time to book a flight? One travel site dug through the data and has an answer: 54 days in advance. But there are plenty of caveats.

Airlines use sophisticated computer programs to analyze booking trends and constantly change prices to get the most money out of each flight. That's why two passengers in the same row might have paid vastly different fares, depending on when they booked. Complicating matters is a bevy of fees added to help the airlines offset higher jet fuel prices.

For a study published in February, booking site CheapAir.com looked at millions of trip combinations, searching as far as 320 days in advance to one day prior to departure and every possible day between. That's 1.3 billion airfares. The result: 54 days in advance was the best time, on average, to buy domestic tickets. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however.

Airfares to popular vacation destinations tend to go up sooner. So flights to Phoenix, San Diego, Orange County, Calif., as well as Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Pensacola and Orlando were cheapest 75 days in advance, according to CheapAir's study. For Las Vegas, it was 81 days, and for airports in Hawaii it was 87 days.

Confused yet? That's why CheapAir tried to simplify things and develop a more-general rule: The prime booking window is 29 to 104 days before departure.

The formula is completely different for those peak travel periods when everybody wants to fly. So, if you still haven't booked your flights to Europe for this summer, forget about it. The best time to buy those, according to ChaeapAir, was a whopping 319 days in advance.

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