Last-Minute Flights: How to Find the Cheapest and Best Fares Available

Personal Finance
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When it comes to finding last-minute flights, what you should know is outweighed by what you shouldn’t know: where you’re going and when you’re getting there. If you can be flexible on where you travel and what time you fly, the better your chances of getting a good deal.

Still, timing is everything. Most major carriers have last-minute offers during the week (Monday through Wednesday, depending on the airline) for cheap travel over the weekend. A number of apps and services can also help you snag bargain-basement deals.

In this article:

When to book
Tips for snagging cheap flights
Watch out for fees!
The arsenal: Tools to help you beat high prices
Students, military and seniors: Find extra discounts

When to book

Whenever you travel, booking too far ahead of time or too close to departure is likely to cost more, FareCompare says. It suggests booking between 30 days and three months out for domestic travel, and 1.5 to 5.5 months out for international travel. But if you’re traveling during a peak season, consider booking about two months out.

However, you can get some bargains by waiting till the last minute. Most airlines try to offload undersold flights for the next weekend early in the week. Though many release their deals on Monday, the best time to book cheap is on Tuesday at 3 p.m. Eastern, when they try to match the prices of the other airlines.

Another way to find cheap fares is to follow the airlines’ Twitter accounts for posts on last-minute deals. Here’s a chart of major domestic airlines’ deal pages and Twitter or Snapchat handles:

Airline websiteTwitter or Snapchat handle
Alaska Airlines@AlaskaAir
American@AmericanAir
Delta@Delta
Frontier@FlyFrontier
JetBlue@JetBlueCheeps – check for last minute deals every Tuesday
Southwest@SouthwestAir
United@United

And of course, check the websites that specialize in last-minute and low-cost travel: Cheapoair.com or Hotwire.com, for instance.

Tips for snagging cheap flights

Fly on off-peak days: The cheapest days to fly are often Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Many of the airlines’ last-minute deals necessitate that you fly out on certain days. For example, most of Delta’s grabs require that you fly out that coming Saturday and return the next Monday or Tuesday.

The early bird gets the worm: Flights that are either the first or last one out tend to be the cheapest and tend to have unfilled seats. Look for flights at ungodly hours of the morning and night for your best deal. Red-eyes have the advantage of being a time-saving and money-saving means of getting to your destination.

Bundle up: Many online travel agencies and brick-and-mortar agencies will offer last-minute packages that bundle air and hotel stays at prices thousands below their normal going rate. Ever wonder why so many retired folk frequent the cruise circuit? Cruise packages are similar to vacation packages in that they start out high and drastically drop up till to the moment before departure. Keep an eye out for travel packages and cruise deals on Lastminute.com.

Use your miles: If you are looking at a hefty price tag for your flight, it may be a good time to consider trading in your miles to subsidize your fare. But as we’ll describe later, beware of late award reservation fees: Some airlines charge extra for travel booked less than three weeks out.

Watch out for last-minute-travel scams: Watch out for travel agents or websites that might try to con you out of your ticket. While you’re generally pretty safe if you go direct, be wary of third parties that ask you to conduct your business over the phone, pay in advance without a written contract, or refuse to use the postal service.

Make it a weeklong stay: If your original plan was to do a quick weekend jaunt down to Texas, consider spending the week to properly explore the Southwest. Fares are often cheaper on weekdays so staying a few days longer can get you a cheaper flight on your return home.

Bid on it: When airlines have flights with unsold seats they will let bid sites like Priceline or Hotwire sell off remaining seats at low prices.

Watch out for fees!

Always keep in mind the additional fees that airlines increasingly charge. Wi-Fi, checked bags, you name it — if you need anything more than the bare minimum, include the airline’s fees in your cost assessment.

And while redeeming award miles might save you big on last-minute travel, be wary of late booking surcharges. Some airlines charge up to $75 if you book within 21 days of your travel date, and some have extra fees if you travel on a partner airline.

The arsenal: Tools to help you beat high prices

Everyone’s heard of Kayak and Expedia, but here are some lesser-known but incredibly helpful flight comparison tools and apps:

  • Airfarewatchdog lets you set up alerts to find out about deals to certain destinations.
  • RouteHappy takes into account a “happiness score,” including roominess, internet access and high customer ratings. If you have minimum standards for comfort, its filtering mechanism lets you find the cheapest flights with, say, extra legroom.
  • SkyScanner lets you input a departure airport and find the cheapest destination, and vice versa. For example, if you enter SFO for departure and United States for destination, you’ll see the cheapest domestic flights coming out of San Francisco. You can also specify “everywhere” to see worldwide destinations.
  • Yapta has a price comparison service that lets you know if your fare has dropped. It takes into account rebooking fees and will alert you only if your savings outweigh the fees.

Students, military and seniors: Check for affiliation discounts

Military: Many airlines offer discounts for active military and veterans. In addition, you may get a break on advanced purchase requirements and change fees, priority boarding or discounted fares for dependents. Check the individual airline’s rules; some require you to book through an agent while others require online booking, for instance. And always compare the fare against deals open to anyone; military discounts are off regular airfares and may still be higher than online deals.

Students: Some airlines offer special deals for students. There are also travel agencies catering to students that offer special last-minute deals:

Seniors: Call up your local airline to find out if it has senior discounts; many aren’t offered online. Organizations like the AARP also offer deals on flights.

The article was updated Aug. 26, 2016. 

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