The Best Time of Day to Fly for...

The Least Turbulence

The oft-repeated wisdom that a smoother ride comes from flying early in the morning, ahead of potential afternoon thunderstorms, does have legs. Flying very early in the day, before the atmosphere warms up the ground and causes the mixing of differently heated air, fomenting convective activity, is a good idea for those distressed by turbulence. Introducing a counterpoint is Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at University of Reading, who shared with Business Insider that the first flight of the day is actually to be avoided, since pilots are more likely to fly the route using older information: “Avoid flying on the first flight, the first departure from any airport on any route simply because that airspace has been unexplored overnight and we generally have no idea how turbulent that atmosphere has been,” he said.

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Though there is no clear, time-of-day winner, there is a lesson to be learned. Turbulence happens, and though avoiding it is never a sure bet, regardless of how carefully you time your travel, the best you can do is to learn how to calmly ride it out.

Lower Airfares

Business travel trends and demand typically influence the fluctuations in airfare cost, from one flight to another. Why is a weekday flight at two p.m. pricier than the one at 10 a.m.? The simple answer is that the afternoon flight has more passengers already booked on it and fewer remaining lower ticket levels. The popularity can be attributed to businesspeople who have finished morning work and meetings, and are flying out with enough time to make it to their own bed before too late.

One key to hopefully eking out a lower price is to avoid weekdays altogether and focus on Saturday. This first, full weekend day is sweetly positioned on the calendar after the Friday evening rush of both leisure and business travelers getting started on vacations or heading home after a week on the job, and before the next rush, of Sunday into Monday morning.

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Flying around holidays is even trickier, but a new report using data from low-fare-finding app Hopper and InsureMyTrip, states that the best days to “save the most money” around the hectic Thanksgiving travel season this year is by leaving on Monday, November 20 and returning on Wednesday, November 29. Nine days may seem like less a pleasant holiday jaunt and more a serious, request-time-off-a-year-in-advance vacation, but we didn’t say there wouldn’t be sacrifices to getting the cheapest flights possible.

Fewer Delays

“Rolling delay” isn’t a term that’s heard much outside of the air traffic control tower, and yet these two, simple words have the potential to undo even the best-laid travel plans. A rolling delay is when a flight’s arrival or departure time (or both) is repeatedly pushed back, and takeoff time suddenly becomes very uncertain. The airport may be holding flights, waiting for weather conditions to improve, or a maintenance issue might require more (and then more, and even more) time than estimated.

Rolling delays and, indeed, delays of pretty much any type, trickle down to affect the on-time performance of later flights in the day. For example, a rolling delay due to fog at San Francisco that sends a New York-bound flight out two hours later than scheduled means that plane arrives late to New York and, in turn, delays its next flight, even though New York’s weather may be all blue skies. There’s a government department that tracks and reports on such statistics, and it’s called—very creatively—the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). The most recent available data from the BTS notes that 22 percent of flights were delayed in August, with the most frequent reason being late-arriving aircraft, at over 8 percent. By comparison, weather only accounted for 0.61 percent of those delays.

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The BTS also maintains updated lists of “chronically delayed flights,” suffering consistent delays for at least two consecutive months. At the top so far for 2017, with four consecutive months of delays, is the ExpressJet/United Airlines route from Washington D.C.’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) to Newark. In June, it was delayed a whopping 88 percent of the time.

Unfortunately there isn't any specific day or time to avoid if you're looking to cut out the possibility of suffering a rolling delay unless you're okay with writing off flying during winter months, when snow delays can trickle down to affect airports far and wide.

So although there may be no one, perfect hour to fly to score the trifecta of a low fare, an on-time departure, and a smooth flight, at least we've learned that there is something you can do to improve your travel life: think about taking the train from Washington D.C. and Newark, instead.