The days of scoring deals on last-minute flights are long, long gone.
Today, airlines know who is buying flights just before departure, and they make these business travelers and can’t-miss-it people pay an arm and a leg for it. That’s why we always encourage travelers to buy flights at least 30-45 days in advance.
But that’s not always possible. Whether it’s an unexpected schedule change, a death in the family, or something else, sometimes last-minute travel is a necessity.
Here are a few quick tips to find the cheapest flight you can when life happens.
Book as Soon As You Can
Plans change. Things come up. It happens.
But when you find out you need to hop on a plane short notice, don’t wait. Booking your flight as soon as you can nail down your plans may save you from paying even more days down the line. Within three or four weeks of departure, flight prices will likely only increase as your flight draws closer.
When time is short, it never pays to wait. That high price you see for a last-minute flight isn’t going to decrease. Book it ASAP.
Start With Google Flights
Just as with your normal travel planning, you should always start your searches with Google Flights.
Google Flights will show you an array of options for the best airlines, itineraries, and prices without having to price check multiple sources. Thanks to some new features, Google will even show you if adjusting your schedule by just a day or two can drop your costs.
Just seeking a last-minute getaway? Use Google Flights’ Explore feature to find the best deals when you don’t care where you’re flying.
Read our guide to all things Google Flights and you’ll see why it’s easily the best search tool out there.
Investigate Bereavement Fares
If you’re traveling for a funeral or looming death in the family, airlines may help you out. They’re called bereavement fares.
While the number of airlines that still offer bereavement fares has declined, a handful of airlines will still sell them: Delta, Air Canada, WestJet, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian, and a few others.
Just how much of a discount you may get is largely a mystery, but it’s worth calling into an airline. Be prepared to provide a copy of a death certificate or doctor’s note. Although it’s a large hurdle during a difficult time, it could result in some substantial savings when you need to get somewhere.
Lean on Your Points and Miles
When cash prices are high, your stash of points and miles can be a savior.
It’s getting harder and harder to get outsized value from frequent flyer miles on flights within the U.S. That’s because airlines like Delta, American, and United have transitioned to dynamic award pricing, which means they often charge far more points when cash prices rise closer to departure.
Still, it’s worth exploring what you can find using your miles. It could save you big time.
Book Two One-Ways
When time is short, you may need to get creative.
Booking two one-way fares rather than a traditional round-trip can give you a lot of flexibility. Maybe you can choose different airlines, combine a points redemption with a cash fare, or mix up which airport you fly into and depart from. Anything to save a few dozen (or few hundred) bucks!
On a recent trip from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Philadelphia, I was able to pay cash to fly there for just $44 on American. Miraculously, this fare was available just six days before departure. Then I booked a separate one-way back on Delta using SkyMiles. This strategy saved me close to $500 round trip on what was otherwise a very expensive time to travel!
Check Surrounding Airports
This option won’t work everywhere. But when it does, it can make all the difference.
Heading to New York City? Be sure to check Newark (EWR), LaGuardia (LGA), and JFK, too. Weekend in Miami (MIA)? It’s worth considering flying into Fort Lauderdale (FLL). When traveling to or from our nation’s capital, you’ve got three options: Washington, D.C.-Reagan (DCA), Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD), and Baltimore (BWI).
Thrifty Tip: Google Flights allows you to search for up to five origin and destination airports at once, pulling up the lowest fare possible among your options.
Here’s a great example: Searching for a last-minute fare one-way fare from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Washington, D.C.-Reagan (DCA) next week, you’d have to pay a whopping $387. But by broadening your search to include Baltimore (BWI) – a short train ride away – you can drop that to just $89! We’re not kidding when we say that checking surrounding airports can save you $300.
Sometimes even mixing and matching local airports on the same itinerary can help bring your costs down. And if you’re really running into issues finding an affordable option, it’s worth considering flying into an airport a few hours from your destination and renting a car. Whatever it takes!
Last-minute travel can be inconvenient, but sometimes necessary. Getting creative and finding alternatives to your typical flight-booking routine can be the key to savings when finding a good deal feels tough. Want to learn more of our best cheap travel tips and tricks? Start learning with our Thrifty Traveler University online lessons.