There’s no sugarcoating it: Airfare is expensive. And while waiting until the last minute might sound like a good idea, it typically is cheaper to book your flights in advance. “We are seeing fewer last-minute deals than in years past, especially when it comes to flights,” a Kayak spokesperson tells Travel + Leisure. That’s not to say last-minute airfare deals are non-existent, though. It’s definitely possible to score a cheap last-minute flight — if you’re flexible. Here are our best tips for finding cheap last-minute flights.
Related: The Best Time to Book a Flight for Domestic, International, and Summer Travel
1. Keep your list of destinations broad if you’re set on dates.
Did we mention you need to be flexible? For the absolute best deals for a specific time period, you’re going to want to cast the widest net possible in terms of your destination. You’re not likely to find a great last-minute deal to one specific destination, but you might find a deal for some destination.
2. But if you’re set on a destination, keep your timing flexible.
If there’s only one place you want to go, you’ll need to be flexible with your timing. You can never be sure when a good airfare deal to a specific destination might pop up, so you have to keep your calendar open.
3. Check departures from multiple airports.
On the note of flexibility, be sure to check all nearby airports, even smaller regional ones. And if you broaden your search to major domestic hubs, your chances of finding a good deal increase. Just keep in mind you’ll also have to travel to that hub airport if it’s farther away, so factor that into your budget. Still, the cost of two flights can sometimes be cheaper than one flight from your home airport.
4. Try to book before the week prior to travel.
“Last-minute” has a different meaning to everyone. If you’re a big planner, last-minute might be a month before a trip. If you’re more inclined to wing it, you might be willing to book a trip a day in advance. In an ideal world, you should try to book flights at least a week in advance. “Our data is showing that on average, we see the biggest price hikes for both domestic and international flights within seven (or fewer) days from departure,” says a Kayak spokesperson.
5. Search for just one ticket at a time.
Even if you’re traveling in a group, you should always search for a single ticket. In some cases, there may only be one or two tickets at the lowest fare — if you’re searching for three tickets, you’ll only see the price of the more expensive fare. In this case, you may need to book the two tickets at the cheap price and one ticket at the full price, but if you’re willing to split the cost evenly amongst the group, you’re still looking at a deal. Just be sure to link your reservations so the airline knows you’re traveling together; you can do so by calling your airline.
6. Set price alerts or subscribe to a flight deal service.
Let a service do the heavy lifting for you. Kayak, for instance, has a price alert tool that will notify you if a flight deal pops up within your search parameters. Skyscanner and Google Flights have similar services. You can also subscribe to services like Dollar Flight Club or Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) that share cheap airfare deals with members.
Related: 5 Best Flight Search Engines for Finding the Cheapest Flights
7. Investigate upgrade availability at check-in.
This isn’t so much a tip for finding a deal on a flight itself, but rather for an upgrade. Whereas a business-class seat may cost thousands of dollars if you’re booking it outright, you may be able to get a deal before you check in. Check your airline’s app or website for upgrade offers, and you might be able to score one for just a few hundred dollars. You can also ask an airline agent at the check-in desk about any available paid upgrades. Plus, some airlines actually allow you to bid on upgrades, so be sure to check out your airline’s fine print.
8. Search for one-way flights instead of round-trip flights.
In some cases, it may be cheaper to book two one-way tickets than one round-trip ticket, especially if you mix and match airports. It requires a fair bit of extra research, but the potential savings might be worth it.
9. Avoid holiday travel.
Forget about finding last-minute flights during holiday or peak travel periods, such as the end of December or spring break. Instead, look into traveling on a Tuesday or Wednesday, which are traditionally the cheapest days of the week to fly.
10. Check to see if the price of your already-booked flight has dropped.
Because most airlines have eliminated change fees, checking on the current price of your already-booked flights might score you a refund. Say you booked a flight at $500, but the current price is $400 — you might be able to cancel your current flight for an e-credit (not a refund), then book the new one at the lower rate. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to use that e-credit for another flight within a year (depending on the airline).