How to Get Cheap Last-Minute Flights, According to the Experts

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Taking a spontaneous trip is one of the most rewarding forms of travel. Finding cheap last-minute flights, on the other hand, can feel like an impossible barrier to flying by the seat of your pants. But booking with low-cost carriers isn't the only way to avoid forking over exorbitant fares. There are last-minute deals to be found—if you know where and how to look.

Before you get started, having a basic grasp of how airlines determine their ticket prices can be helpful. Increasingly, airlines are implementing what’s known as dynamic pricing, a model used by hotels and other segments across the travel industry. With dynamic pricing, airfare costs go up or down depending on market conditions, which means the same seats on the same flight can be sold for many different prices at different times depending on the specific airline's pricing algorithm.

Fortunately, a growing selection of technological tools with predictive features take the guesswork out of knowing when the best time to buy flights is—or when you should wait it out. Along with a few time-tested guidelines, getting the best deal doesn’t have to be a stressful, time-consuming task.

If you feel like you're the only flier still paying full-price for airfare–or feeling overwhelmed by all the newsletters and flight deals to keep track of—don’t fret. We've assembled the best tips and tricks from frequent travelers and budget travel gurus to ensure you can take those spontaneous trips without breaking the bank.

Take advantage of tech tools

Tech tools can be a traveler’s secret weapon to scoring a cheap flight—and there are more options than ever to choose from.

Already a favorite for its functionality, Google Flights upgraded its ability to tell passengers exactly when to buy tickets (or wait) with a feature it launched in August 2023 backed by trends data on and around the flight route and trip dates. Google Flights also has a handy tracking feature that notifies you by email when prices drop on routes that you have specified. In fact, Google is so confident in its predictive data that it will guarantee the lowest fare on select flights; if you buy a flight marked with the colorful price guarantee badge, Google Flights will pay you the difference (up to $500 per year) if the airfare decreases after you book.

Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) is another fan favorite for its ability to deliver excellent flight deals straight to your inbox. There’s a free option, but for the most serious savings, consider the Premium or Elite membership options, the latter of which also includes some great deals on business class fares.

Other platforms, including Hopper and KAYAK, also have features that notify passengers via email when prices drop on preferred routes. Via Hopper’s “Price Prediction” tool, passengers can choose whether to “book now” or “watch this trip.”

Avoid peak travel periods

A virtually guaranteed way to save money on flights (and battle with fewer tourists at your destination)? Avoid flying to destinations during peak travel times.

Times depend on the destination, but passengers can keep in mind a few general rules of thumb. For example, flying to Europe during the summer months of June, July, and August in Europe is almost always more expensive than a trip during the fall or winter (except around Christmas, another peak travel period). Similarly, the Caribbean heats up with visitors during the cold weather months, followed by spring break crowds, from December through April.

The bottom line: aim for the offseason whenever you can for more affordable flights and an unforgettable experience.

Be flexible with destinations and dates

Travel experts often advise checking to see if flying a day earlier or later or from a nearby airport—options that are now offered on most online search sites—might result in cheaper fares. But for bigger savings, consider extending your flexibility to the destination as well. If your dates are fixed, browse the options on Skyscanner, which allows users to select “explore everywhere” as the destination. Then skim for the best value over a certain timeframe.

When flying to Europe, remember that you don’t need your ultimate destination to be your first stop. If direct flights to Paris are pricey, look around and see if routes to, say, Amsterdam are cheaper on those dates. Then, you can take a budget airline for the final leg—instead of sacrificing your comfort for the entire long-haul journey.

Huw Owen, cofounder of TravelLocal, an agency that specializes in creating uniquely local trips, also advises looking at “secondary and tertiary cities” throughout Europe. “This is a great option for those who are doing a week- or two-weeklong itinerary in a particular country, where it doesn't matter where you land and you can have your local operator collect you and start the adventure from there,” Owen explains. “We're seeing this above all in Europe, where the competition with low-cost airlines has allowed secondary cities to become the new gateways to a destination, for example flying into Porto instead of Lisbon in Portugal. And in Georgia you can now fly to the historical city of Kutaisi, which is a lot cheaper than flying into the capital, Tbilisi.”

Take advantage of waived change fees

One traveler-friendly benefit from the pandemic: Many airlines finally scrapped those dreaded change fees once and for all—hallelujah! So if you see a too-good-to-pass-up deal, grab it while it’s still available—and if you do end up changing it, you won’t take as big of a hit. “The reason this is beneficial for last-minute bookings is if you're especially worried that the fare might drop after you book, now you're covered,” explains Scott Keyes, founder of Going. “If you pay $300 for your flight and a few days after booking the price drops to $200, you can rebook it at the new price and get the $100 difference back in flight credit.”

Search for fares individually

It takes some extra time, but searching for a single seat—even if you’re flying with a family of four—can save you big. The reason? Airlines’ automated pricing systems are poorly designed and will only look for four seats of the same exact price, returning you a quote of $400 each, perhaps.

If there’s one or more in a lower fare class—a seat priced at $320, say—the system will overlook that in favor of consistency as it can’t divide up the query. Search by single seat, though, and the system will find that cheaper seat—savings that can really add up when you’re traveling with a group. Just make sure to link the reservations together after you finish booking so the airline knows you’re all flying together. “Most airline phone agents should be able to walk you through this, though any travel agent can do it quicker and easier,” says Brandon Berkson, founder of trip-planning service HAP Concierge.

In the same way, always check one-way flights alongside returns, especially on domestic trips, since stitching together an itinerary by taking one carrier outbound and another return could offer some savings, too. And if you’re looking at different seat prices within the same class, keep in mind that airlines' clunky systems struggle with combining different classes on the same itinerary. Say you want to take an economy round-trip flight, but only premium economy seats are left on one leg. The booking system will adjust the price or force you into the higher category to reflect that difference. Book each leg separately, and you can avoid that risk.

Timing is everything (kind of)

Another good rule of thumb for cheap last-minute flights: There is no secret time to score the perfect deal. While some research says flights are cheaper on certain days of the week (a 2024 report by Expedia found airfare is, on average, the least expensive on Sundays and the most expensive on Fridays), it usually isn't that simple.

Generally, the best prices tend to drop off once the flight is less than three weeks out. If it’s 21 days before you plan to travel and you haven’t seen a flight deal to your destination, go ahead and book. That’s because airlines’ automated fare systems are configured to treat later bookings as last-minute business traveler flights and price them accordingly (high, in other words). Case in point: Going’s Keyes watched one trip stay at $489 for weeks, before booking on day 21; just 24 hours later, the same flight cost $630. “The 21-Day Rule is still the gold standard if there's a flight you're looking at and it's getting close and you're trying to decide whether to book or not,” he says.

To get a jump on booking for winter holidays in 2024, consider that most airlines release their tickets between six and 11 months out—so it’s never too early to keep an eye on fares to snag early deals (and the best selection). But according to Google Flights, for mid-December trips, it could pay off to wait a little closer to booking, as average prices tended to be lowest 71 days before departure, based on the most recent data.

If you haven’t yet firmed up your summer vacation plans for 2024, it’s time to get moving—especially if you have your eyes set on Europe. Per Google Flights, the best time to book flights from the US to Europe is at least 72 days prior to departure. And flights to Europe tend to increase over time, especially at about 10 weeks prior to departure.

Try a last-minute rewards search

Last-minute flights can be a smart time to burn off frequent flier miles, as airlines will sometimes release unsold seats as cheaper-than-normal mileage tickets. Don’t just search online for these, though; sometimes, it may be worth calling the airline’s customer service number or chatting online with a rep, even if the rewards app or website shows no redemption opportunities.

This is also a good time to make sure you’re using the right credit card for your travel habits and airline loyalty, which can easily pay for flights through points. There’s a learning curve involved, but it’s never a bad time to get started, especially since most major credit cards offer significant sign-up bonuses several times a year. All major airlines have their own credit card (or one that’s co-branded with a bank), and most major banks, including Chase, CitiBank, and Bank of America, also offer travel-specific cards that can offer big-time savings on flights (plus hotels and more travel expenses). Take a peek at the deals on offer—and how you can snag them—with our monthly Points and Miles Travel Deals column.

Consider fifth freedom flights

Fifth freedom flights, in which an airline offers service between two countries outside of its home base, can be a boon to budget-minded travelers for several reasons. First of all, they’re often serviced by larger aircraft on popular international routes, which means more competition and lower prices, and they also sometimes offer overlooked frequent-flier availability—all of which can translate into significant savings, not to mention a superior onboard experience.

Beware of ‘skiplagging’

Say you need to fly from DC to Dallas, but the price is too high. Since booking a longer flight with a layover is usually significantly cheaper than a non-stop route, some passengers might book a flight from DC to Los Angeles via Dallas, and deplane in Dallas with no intention of traveling on the next leg. This controversial tactic is known as a “hidden-city ticket” or “skiplagging."

Skiplagged is the best-known search engine for this workaround, but be super careful if you decide to give it a go. The tactic is strictly prohibited in many airlines’ contracts of carriage, so if they catch you flying this way, your ticket could be invalidated—or even worse, you could be sued. United Airlines and American Airlines have both cracked down on passengers taking advantage of hidden city booking in recent years.

Hidden-city tickets "can get travelers cheaper fares, but there are significant potential problems if you're caught," says Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge. "It's just not worth it, especially for the casual traveler who won't really fully understand the potential ramifications.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for a deal in person

Instead of shelling out big bucks online for an upgrade, try a more human approach—a strategy that paid off big-time for Kimberley Lovato, a travel writer who specializes in France, on a transatlantic flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam about five years ago. At the check-in desk at SFO, Lovato jokingly asked the agent whether anyone had bought one of the $10,000 business class upgrades she’d been monitoring online. No, the agent replied, but did she want one?

Not for $10K, Lovato responded, countering with $400—and, to her surprise, the agent said, “Done!”

“I’m not sure if it was because she was in a good mood or I just got lucky, but it made my flight, for sure,” Lovato says. The moral of the story: “You never know. More times than not, I’ve asked for things that seemed crazy and gotten them.”

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler