Booking a flight at the last minute can be exhausting.
Everything is more expensive and, often, nearly every single seat is full. You’re stuck constantly refreshing all the airlines’ websites or conducting Google search after Google search. Looking for something at the last minute can feel like a full-time job.
However, finding a good deal on a flight doesn’t have to feel impossible. We’ve rounded up some insights and tips from expert flyers so you’re not stuck paying exorbitant fares for flights — even if you book at the last minute.
Why do fares get more expensive the longer you wait?
You’d think everything would get cheaper as airlines try to sell off as many seats as possible, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, it’s the opposite. Airfare becomes notoriously expensive at the last minute. So, if you are overpaying for airfare, it’s important to understand why flights are even more expensive the longer you wait to book.
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Chuck Thackston, the managing director of data science at Airlines Reporting Corporation, said that each airline has its own process for setting fares.
“Airlines will tend to put flights onto their schedule and set a fare for that flight way out,” Thackston said. “They don’t do a whole lot of changes or active management of that for quite a while, up until it gets a little bit closer to departure.”
That’s when airlines know business travelers are booking, and they can often charge the highest fares at the last minute.
Historically, fares used to be cheaper at the last minute as airlines figured any unfilled seats on a flight were lost revenue. However, a decades-old study by the British Overseas Airways Corporation, the predecessor to British Airways, found that the people who were buying last-minute seats on flights weren’t typically leisure travelers — they were business travelers, according to Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.
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Business travelers are willing to spend as much as necessary on airfare since the money is not directly coming out of their pockets. So, those expensive fares you see on airlines’ websites starting a couple of weeks before your travel date are designed to target business travelers, not leisure ones.
“Airlines realized, ‘Oh, you know, we thought we were in the business of killing as many seats as possible,’” Keyes said. “‘But in reality, we’re in the business of trying to make as much money as possible. And what’s going to make the most money is not to slash the price on last-minute flights. It’s actually to jack up the price on last-minute flights.’’”
When’s the sweet spot to book my tickets?
All the travel experts we spoke to said the best time to book your flights is about one to four months in advance for domestic flights and at least six months for international flights.
The data confirms that. According to the ARC, there isn’t much variation among fares in the 120 to 30 days before you travel. The organization also found that if you booked international travel at least six months ahead, you could save up to 10% in airfare.
Hayley Berg, an economist at Hopper, said prices are at their lowest one to two months before, as people may be searching for flight tickets but not actually booking; the low prices incentivize passengers to book their tickets rather than wait. As those flights slowly begin to fill, airlines can charge more for the remaining seats on the flight. Then, those who don’t have much flexibility with their travel dates will have no choice but to book the most expensive fare.
“Typically, you see lower prices because not many people have booked yet,” Berg said.
Keyes called the one-to-three-month window for booking the “Goldilocks window” for domestic flights. For international flights, that “Goldilocks window” is two to eight months in advance, he added.
If you’re looking to book flights for Christmas or Thanksgiving, the same rules don’t necessarily apply — you have to book those tickets even earlier. At least with Christmas travel, the rule is to book those flights by Thanksgiving, but it’s always best to book those as soon as possible.
But remember the earliest bird doesn’t necessarily get the worm, either. You won’t find the cheapest deal if you book your flights a year in advance — in fact, fares will be higher.
“Airfares first start getting sold about 11 months or so before travel on most airlines,” Keyes said. “And typically speaking, the fares that airlines offer when they first start putting tickets up 11 months out is not actually gonna be a good deal.”
How much does timing matter?
Timing is probably the most important factor in booking flights.
Your travel dates and the specific day when you book your flight have the most influence on airfare. Berg said flights with departure dates on a Tuesday or a Wednesday are a “sweet spot” for a deal.
Thackston also added that average fare prices for leisure travel tend to be lower on the weekends because more leisure travel tickets have been purchased and customers are more likely to be scouring for deals.
The popularity of a destination during a specific time of year can also cause fares to surge. For example, visiting New Orleans in February during Mardi Gras or flying to New York City in December to see the holiday decorations can make it harder to find a good, last-minute deal.
“It really is as simple as supply and demand,” Thackston said. “If you want to fly to a popular destination during a popular time, then those flights tend to fill up and you won’t get as good of a deal as it approaches departure day.”
If you book your flights during the less popular travel times — say, the middle of January versus right before Christmas — you’re also more likely to find a good deal last minute.
“A cheap, last-minute Christmas flight is essentially an oxymoron, they just really don’t exist,” Keyes said. “I mean, it’s very, very rare. But for a cheap last-minute flight in January or February, you know, they are the two least popular months of the year for travel … it is actually much much more possible to get some cheap, last-minute flights.”
Is the destination important?
One of the factors that determine airfare prices is competition. For example, a popular route such as New York City to Miami may be relatively cheap as airlines are vying for as many customers as possible. A less common route, such as Akron, Ohio, to New York City may be more expensive.
So you’d be more likely to find a last-minute deal from New York City to Miami than from Akron to New York City since the former is a far more popular route than the latter. The odds of finding a deal on a domestic flight rather than an international one are also higher.
However, Berg said it can still be difficult to find a last-minute deal for leisure destinations such as Cancun, Mexico, because the passengers who booked those tickets most likely did so in advance and planned a vacation. Consequently, airlines have fewer seats left on their flights, so they’re more likely to increase the prices as more people are interested in booking.
Keyes recommended flying with a budget airline such as Frontier or Spirit to avoid overpaying for tickets to leisure destinations at the last minute. Since budget airlines cater to leisure travelers, they don’t necessarily have the same power to drastically increase fares like Delta Air Lines or American Airlines does.
“Last-minute flights tend to be expensive largely because airlines are trying to gouge business travelers,” Keyes said. “All the budget airlines tend to have an almost exclusively leisure travel clientele. And so, as a result, they just don’t have the same pricing power to be able to jack up last-minute fares the way United, American and Delta do.”
What about ‘hidden-city’ booking?
“Hidden-city” booking is a tactic where travelers book a flight that has a layover in the city they actually want to visit. Once the flight reaches the layover city, these passengers don’t board the next segment.
For example, you want to visit Charlotte, but somehow find a better deal for a flight from Newark to Austin, with a layover in Charlotte. So, once the plane lands in Charlotte, all you would do is leave the plane and not board the next flight from Charlotte to Austin.
None of the experts recommended the hidden city method, especially for novice travelers, because it comes with many caveats.
First, you can’t check a bag — you can only bring a carry-on since checked baggage goes to the destination printed on your ticket, not the layover stop.
You also can’t book round-trip tickets because if you miss a segment on the flight, then the whole round-trip ticket will be canceled. Plus, if the layover destination changes from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., then you can’t really explain to an airline agent why you need to be in Charlotte instead.
If you use this tactic too frequently and an airline happens to find out, it could ask you to pay more for your flight, strip you of your frequent flyer miles or even ban you.
Berg and Thackston recommended booking flights with a travel agency rather than resorting to tactics like hidden-city booking.
“Shopping for airfares can be tricky sometimes if you’re not sort of used to the way that the process is done,” Thackston said. “So you using a professional travel agent or an online travel agent such as Expedia or somebody like that is usually a really good way to find those best deals.”
Can you find a last-minute deal using miles and rewards?
Potentially, but it’s not easy.
It’s now more common for mileage values to be closely correlated with cash prices, so finding a bargain in miles — especially at the last minute — is a lot harder, according to Keyes.
“The opportunities for value are, I think, more limited now than they used to be,” Keyes said.
Still, it’s worth checking to see if there’s anything in the awards space. For example, we recently reported on United and Delta offering discounted, last-minute flights to Hawaii in miles for the holidays. Deals in miles can pop up at any moment, but you do have to act fast on those, as mileage deals are also more likely to change frequently.
Berg said having status with a certain credit card or mileage program can be a plus, as you can potentially book a basic economy ticket with airline status and have your bags checked in for free.
“Thinking about the total cost of your trip is also important because you might get a really great deal on airfare but end up paying a ton of fees,” Berg said. “Whereas you know, if you have a particular credit card or you bought that economy ticket, you get a bag or two free depending on the airline.”
Other tips for booking last-minute fares
All the experts we spoke to offered a range of tips if you have to book a flight at the last minute.
Thackston said it’s important to book a good deal on a fare the moment you see it — the longer you wait, the more likely the fares will rise. The timing of when you book matters, too. Travelers who book on Sundays are more likely to save around 5% on domestic flights and up to 15% on international flights, according to ARC data.
The organization also found that Wednesdays are cheaper days to depart, and travelers can save up to 15% on airfare. Departing anywhere from Saturday to Monday tends to be the priciest.
Keyes recommended booking flights under what he calls a “21-day rule,” which means that the latest you can book your flight and still get a good deal is at least 21 days in advance.
“[Airlines] say, ‘This fare is only available up to 21 days before travel.’ On day 20, that fare expires,” Keyes said. “It’s no longer available for purchase, and the new cheapest flight is actually going to be $100 to $200 more expensive.”
Berg said it’s important to be flexible for last-minute flights regarding where you want to go and where you can fly from.
“If you really want to get a good deal, be flexible and you can typically find something doable,” she said. “That’s really the key to unlocking good deals.”
Many factors — from location to timing — influence fare prices, so finding a last-minute deal can be difficult.
It’s always best to book your flights once you spot a good deal, rather than putting it off.
Even though it’s sometimes possible to find good deals days before departure, you’ll often find yourself settling for a less desirable destination or ticket. Many tactics, such as hidden-city booking, can have too many complications, even for the more seasoned traveler.
Your best bet for finding deals on airfare is to be flexible, book deals when you see them or try to book them at least 21 days before your departure date. That way you’re not stuck overpaying for flights. But keep in mind that the chances of finding cheap, last-minute flights are slim.