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. The more flexibility you have 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

Most airlines try to offload undersold flights for the next weekend early on in the week. Though many release their deals on Monday, the best time to book cheap is on Tuesday at 3pm 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 handles:

Airline and Website Twitter Handle
Alaska Airlines @AlaskaAir
American @AmericanAir
Delta @Delta
JetBlue @JetBlueCheeps – check for last minute deals every Tuesday
Southwest @SouthwestAir
United @United
US Airways @USAirways

Watch out for award ticket late booking fees: both American and United charge $75 for award flights booked less than 21 days in advance, though this fee is discounted or waived for some levels of elite fliers.

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. If you manage to get a good night’s sleep on board, you’ve saved yourself the cost of a night at a hotel and are left with the whole day to explore upon arrival.

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

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, you need to beware of late award flight fees: Some airlines charge up to $75 for travel booked less than three weeks out.
Watch out for last-minute travel scams

Watch out for travel agents or websites who might try to con you out of your ticket. While you’re generally pretty safe if you go direct, be wary of third parties who 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 the weekdays so staying a few days longer can get you a cheaper fare on your return flight 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. Check out Priceline’s Inside Tracker to see how much fellow customers are offering up on recent bids.

Watch out for fees!

Always keep in mind the additional fees that airlines are so fond of tacking on. Wifi, 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 don’t book 21 days out or more or book on another airline:

Airline Fee Cutoff Date Remarks
Alaska $12.50 partner award booking fee N/A Charged each way, per award
American $75 <21 days Waived for Platinum, Executive Platinum and Gold
United $75 <21 days Discounted to $50 for Premier Silver and $25 for Premier Gold, waived for elite status above Gold
US Airways $75 <21 days Additional $25 award processing fee for domestic travel, waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred status

The arsenal: Unusual 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:

  • The Bing Price Predictor graphs flight prices for a given route, and lets you compare up to five flights to see which prices are on the move. They also give you a buy or wait signal, plus their confidence level, based on whether their model says the airfare will rise or fall.
  • RouteHappy takes into account a “happiness score,” including roominess, Internet access, high customer ratings and more. 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.
  • The TravelNerd airline fee comparison tool can help you factor in baggage, ticketing and other surcharges for a more comprehensive picture of a ticket’s cost.
  • Yapta has a price comparison service that lets you know if your fare has dropped. It takes into account rebooking fees and will only alert you if your savings outweigh the fees.

Students, military and seniors: Check for affiliation discounts

Military: Many airlines offer discounts for the military, though some require that you book online to take advantage of the lower fares. Some even offer waived advanced purchasing requirements, priority boarding, or discounted fares for dependents. There are a couple airline-specific perks, too:

  • American Airlines: Servicemembers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan can visit the American Airlines Admiral’s Club lounges in airports.
  • Delta: Active duty members traveling on orders can check 4 bags free in economy class and 5 in higher classes; on personal travel, they can check 2 and 3 bags free respectively. Plus, those in the Delta SkyMiles programs visiting wounded military relatives at military hospitals are eligible for emergency medical fares.

Students: Some airlines, like American, offer special deals for students. There are also travel agencies that cater to students in particular that offer special last minute deals:

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

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