How to Find Cheaper Last-Minute Flights

Alisha McDarrisDecember 24, 2019
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Most savvy travelers know the best way to find cheap flights is to be flexible and plan ahead.

But sometimes things come up — be it pressing business, a family emergency or a spontaneous vacation — and you have to pack your bags within mere days or even hours of flying. Fortunately, there are several tips and tricks for finding a better deal on impromptu airfare. Here’s how to find cheaper last-minute flights no matter when and where you’re flying.

Check prices at nearby airports

If you’re booking a last-minute flight, don’t just search for the airports closest to your current location and destination. Instead, widen your search to include nearby airports. Decide how far you’re willing to travel before you take off and after you land, and include any airports that fall into that radius in search results.

For example, if you’re flying to New York City, you may think JFK is the obvious option, but Newark or La Guardia are sometimes cheaper. Likewise, there are more than five airports in and around London. The one closest to your final destination may not be the cheapest, so check ticket prices for the other airports, too.

There are a few downsides to consider when flying into a cheaper airport that might be farther away. It will likely take longer to get from the airport to your hotel or office if you choose a cheaper flight that goes into a less convenient airport. And don’t forget to factor in the cost of transportation for that increased distance.

In a destination like New York City or London, ubiquitous and inexpensive public transportation options like buses, subways and trains may still be cheaper than an expensive last-minute flight to your intended destination. But in less popular tourist destinations, it may wind up costing you more once you land to save a little bit of cash on your flight.

Platforms like Google Flights or Expedia often offer the option to include nearby airports when searching.

Search for one-way flights

Another option is to search for one-way flights instead of round-trip. Most airlines price their flights like this anyway for domestic flights at least, but if you search multiple airlines at once, you may just find a good deal on two one-way flights on different airlines. This allows you to choose the cheapest one-way flight in both directions, which has the potential to save you cash.

The downsides may include having to pay for luggage on several different airlines. If, for example, you flew one-way with Southwest (which allows two checked bags per passenger for all flights) and flew with Spirit on the way back, you would have to pay for your checked luggage and your carry-on during the second leg. So be aware that airline luggage policies differ (sometimes vastly).

Google Flights and Skyscanner offer the option to show separate tickets in search results. As you can see, separate tickets can save you $100 in this example from Dallas to Calgary.

Search for single legs

A more complicated approach to the above is searching for and booking flights one leg at a time. For example, if you have to book a last-minute flight from Austin to Cincinnati and can only find expensive connecting flights, try searching for flights from Austin to Denver and then Denver to Cincinnati. Since Denver (or Atlanta, Chicago, etc.) is a major airport, there’s the potential to find cheap and direct one-way flights from one destination to the next.

As you can see, a direct flight costs $254 while booking two separate single legs costs as little as $200. The amount you could save will vary by destination.

This practice is risky, however, for multiple reasons. First, even if you do save on airfare, you could run into the same problem with luggage fees as booking one-way flights, even if all your travel legs are on the same airline (you’ll have to pay for luggage for each individual booking). But more importantly, if you miss your second flight because the first was delayed, the airline isn’t responsible — which means you could pay more if you have to rebook your final flight.

That said, searching for single legs of travel to find cheaper last-minute flights is best saved for when you can budget several hours or more between connecting flights.

Search for individual tickets if traveling in a group

Another way to potentially save money on last-minute flights (or any flights, for that matter), is to search for individual tickets even if you’re traveling in a group of two or more. Occasionally, you’ll be able to find a lower price on one seat if there’s only one left at that price point. But you’ll only see it if you search for single seats. If you search for flights for two or more, that lower-priced single seat won’t show up.

As you can see in the first image, more lower-cost flights are available when searching for seats for one person than a family of four (second image).

If you do find a lower-priced single seat on a flight, book it first, then go back for the other seats and book them separately. As you can see, this could save a fair amount on at least one ticket.

However, know that you probably won’t be sitting together since you booked separately.

The bottom line

While last-minute flights will frequently cost more than those booked in advance with flexible travel dates, there are ways to find cheaper last-minute flights. Check nearby airports, search for one-way flights, and consider booking one ticket at a time in order to save cash on impromptu travel plans.

Frequently asked questions

Many domestic airlines allow you to book a flight online up to two hours before departure, but the policy varies from airline to airline. If you’re cutting it close, you can try calling the airline’s reservation line on the way to the airport. The best option, though, is to go straight to the airport ticket counter where they’ll be able to book you on the next available flight. Keep in mind there may be extra fees (in the $25 to $50 range) for booking over the phone or in person at the airport.

Last-minute flight deals are hard to come by. Conventional wisdom might lead you to believe that airlines drop prices to fill seats as it gets closer to the departure date, but the reality is demand is usually strong enough for airlines to overbook many of their flights. Instead of offering last-minute flight deals, airlines can usually sell their cheapest fares first. Then they increase the prices right before the flight to take advantage of business travelers and others who need to fly immediately and are willing to pay for it.

Search for last-minute flights on aggregators like Google Flights for upcoming flights. If you are flexible about where to go, only input the dates you want to travel and leave the destination field blank to see a map of some of the best deals. You might also want to consider flying at off-hours or to a different airport.

Flying standby allows a ticketed passenger to take a different flight, usually on the same day and to the same destination as the original flight. Depending on the airline, you may be able to call to find out about seat availability and show up early to the airport and put your name on the standby list for your desired flight. If you get onboard this way, you may be able to do this without paying extra fees, particularly if you are an elite member of the airline’s loyalty program. Some airlines also allow you to get a confirmed ticket on a different flight for a same-day travel change fee.

Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines both offer bereavement fares in case you have to fly for the death or imminent death of a family member. You must call to book this type of flexible ticket on Delta, but check the published fares first; those still might be cheaper than the bereavement fare. Alaska Airlines offers a 10% discount on published fares for those flying to take care of the passing of an immediate family member. You must call to book, and it only applies for travel starting in the next seven days.

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