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Last-minute flights. The real cost of convenience.

Air Traveler Club  ⋅  Last updated: June 7, 2024

Last-minute flights are often touted as a great way to save money, but the reality is far from it. While the allure of spontaneous travel is enticing, waiting for last-minute offers can be a risky gamble. Contrary to popular belief, these flights are typically more expensive as airlines capitalize on the urgency.

“Last-minute deals” are a common draw across various travel websites. However, while these deals are advertised as a great way to fly cheaply, the reality often falls short of expectations.

The convenience of booking a flight spontaneously can be a double-edged sword and rarely works out favorably. In fact, it often results in considerably higher costs compared to booking in advance.

For a smoother and more cost-effective travel experience, planning and booking in advance is usually the best strategy.

The reality of last-minute flight pricing

A common perception is that airlines decrease ticket prices to fill empty seats as the departure date approaches. However, the truth is that airfares depend on demand.

Historically, airlines would drop prices on unsold seats as the departure date approached, viewing any empty seat as lost revenue. This created opportunities for savvy travelers to nab great deals on unsold seats shortly before departure.

However, this practice has largely disappeared. Modern pricing algorithms and the high demand from business travelers—who are willing to pay premium prices for last-minute tickets—have led airlines to increase fares as the departure date nears.

How airlines maximize profits

Based on years of research and current customer data, airlines know what people are willing to pay for specific flights and dates.

They are also well aware that people are willing to pay a premium for flights they must take immediately.

To make the most money, the airline will sell its cheapest fares first and then increase the prices right before the flight to take advantage of business travelers and others willing to pay the premium for late booking.

Why planning ahead pays off

Occasionally, airlines can put some seats on sale to fill the remaining seats—advertising them as “last minute deals”—but these are for unusual times and unpopular places.

Popular destinations and dates around peak travel times tend to sell out quickly.

Planning ahead is vital to securing a good deal on your flight. Last-minute flight deals are hard to come by, so book your flight as soon as you have a tentative travel timeline. The earlier you book, the more likely you are to save money.

If you are looking for a good deal, the best time to book your flight is 2-8 months before the takeoff.

Tips for booking flights on short notice

Sometimes, life throws unexpected travel needs our way, leaving us with no choice but to book flights just a few days—or even hours—before departure.

The good news is that even in these urgent situations, there are strategies and tips that can help you find more affordable last-minute flight options:

  • Be flexible with destinations: Flexibility is critical. Suppose your travel dates are set, but you are flexible regarding destinations. Then tools like Skyscanner’s ‘Everywhere’ function or Google Flights’ map view will help you identify the cheapest destinations on given dates.
  • Check nearby airports: Expanding your search to include nearby airports can reveal cheaper options. For instance, if flying to Tokyo, consider checking flights to Narita International Airport in addition to Haneda Airport. Similarly, if your destination is Kuala Lumpur, you might find more affordable options by looking at flights to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang, which is relatively close to Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
  • Use points and miles: Leveraging frequent flyer miles and points can be a game-changer for last-minute travel. Some airlines release award flight deals a few weeks or even days before departure (though these deals can be snapped up quickly).
  • Consider charter airlines: Charter airlines, which typically sell seats as part of package holidays, may offer discounted flight-only tickets when they have leftover capacity. These deals often appear one to three weeks before departure and can be significantly cheaper than regular airline fares. Check websites like Charter Flight Centre or TUI to find these deals.
  • Set fare alerts: Use the fare alert tools on the Google Flights website to be notified when prices drop for your desired routes.
  • Travel light: Airlines sometimes offer last-minute deals that exclude checked baggage to keep costs low. Traveling with carry-on luggage can save time and money.
  • Bereavement fares: Some airlines offer reduced fares for travelers dealing with the imminent death or death of an immediate family member. These fares often require calling the airline directly and providing specific documentation. Among the airlines that offer bereavement fares are Delta, Air Canada, Air France, and Philippine Airlines.

Conclusion

Last-minute flights are often more expensive as airlines capitalize on travelers’ urgency. While occasional last-minute deals do exist, they are rare.

For a smoother and more cost-effective travel experience, booking your flight as soon as you have a tentative travel timeline is crucial. Plan ahead and secure your tickets 2-8 months before departure—it is the most reliable way to ensure affordable and stress-free flights.