Cheap Flights at the Last Minute: How to Find Them (And There Aren't Many)

how to find extremely cheap last-minute flights
Gather round, children, and I will tell you the tale of what last-minute travel was once like, when finding cheap airfare meant simply showing up at the airport with a suitcase and a dream. When there were whole websites devoted to inexpensive vacation packages leaving within 24 hours. When airlines went to new lows in pricing instead of new lows in service.

On second thought, let's skip that tale. It's ancient history and it hurts to remember what we've lost. Today, airlines have learned to predict capacity with mathematical accuracy, so empty seats are scarce and there's rarely a need to sell off unsold tickets on the cheap. Websites supposedly devoted to "last-minute travel" still exist, but they're really just using the same system that every other booking engine uses. The best way to save money on airfare nowadays is to book early (here are our tips about how to book extremely cheap flights by buying in advance). If you have no choice and must fly within a few days, you'll be looking for crumbs. Fortunately, children, I also have a story about how flyers can find a few of those.

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How to find cheap last-minute airfare: first, establish a baseline Hopper

The first thing to do is find out how much the flight usually costs. That way, you'll know instantly if you run across a good deal later. Choose a search engine that pulls results from a lot of sites—we name our favorite aggregators in The 10 Best (and Worst) Airfare Sites—or use CheapFlightsFinder, which aggregates the aggregators.

Don't forget to do two things. First, check prices for all airports in the area you want to visit—for example, prices to Fort Lauderdale are often much cheaper than ones to Miami, just 30 miles away. Second, turn on flexible date search if you can. You may find your deal simply requires leaving 12 hours later than you'd figured.

Also check the app Hopper (pictured) or the websites Fareness and Skyscanner to get a sense of what the airfare normally costs across the calendar. The map-based GreatEscape.co shows you the lowest upcoming prices plotted on a map of the world. The site is a little tricky to navigate and it only scans a few of the airfare sellers, but again, we're just getting a baseline here. Some people like Google Flights, but honestly, when it comes to finding a last-minute price for a specific city, Google doesn't distinguish itself from the others. (Kayak, the search engine's chief competitor in this regard, claims to do a better job.)

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How to find cheap last-minute airfare: Check the airlines for deals

This method is much better for finding airfare sales ahead of time, but once in a blue moon an airline will email or tweet a deal that's leaving relatively soon. Even if the likelihood of finding a true last-minute fare this way is slim, it's smart to be on the carriers' lists anyway, so you don't miss discounts later. Each airline has its own method of telling customers about sales: JetBlue sends emails; United has a "Deals & Offers" page on the company's website. In either case, find the section on specials or the box for email signups and get on board.

I can't prove it with data, but anecdotally, flights that go between major business centers seem to have fewer last-minute deals than flights between lower-tier cities (say, Jacksonville and Louisville). That makes sense—airlines hold out for big-spending corporate account purchases.

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How to find cheap last-minute airfare: Check big companies for bulk deals

You've tried to find the low-hanging fruit. Now it's time to get creative. Some companies are so huge that they have an inside line on emergency price slashing by their partner sellers. Expedia, for example, maintains a "Deals" page for last-minute package deals (flights, cruises, hotels) for this week or next week. Think round-trip fare from LAX to Dallas for $133 booked two days ahead, or LAX to Miami for $344 including two nights at a hotel (both actual recent offers).

If you're really desperate, you could find a tour company that's selling a marked-down last-minute package tour somewhere, book it, and then just skip out on the tour part. Tour companies are more likely to mark down because they have purchased their flights and hotels in bulk and if they don't sell everything, they take a hit. But all of these methods are better if you're flexible on destination and if you happen to have the good luck of running across the flight you need.

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How to find cheap last-minute airfare: Find a mistake fare

When you're squashed in a brutally designed airline seat, you might forget that airline workers are human. But they are—and they make mistakes. Now and then, they put the wrong fares into the booking system, and there are legions of nerds out there who trawl those systems in search of abnormally low prices, alerting their followers the minute they find one. There are lots of downsides to this method—you have to act with lightning speed before the price is corrected, occasionally the airlines refuse to honor what they've mistakenly sold, your discoveries will pretty much never be to the destination you need to reach, and you'll probably have to pay membership fees up front.

Of the error fare leaders, The Flight Deal is free, but you have to pay if you want the alerts pared down to your home airport. Scott's Cheap Flights is also free, but its best deals are only given to subscribers—membership is around $40 a year. Secret Flying is another option. Follow them all on Twitter and then set your alerts to ping whenever they tweet. If you're open to going somewhere new, error fares can be a boon. If you specifically need to see your Aunt Myrtle in Shaker Heights, then waiting for a goof that specifically suits your needs would be another mistake.

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How to find cheap last-minute airfare: Bereavement fares

If your reason for requiring a last-minute booking is the loss of someone you love, a few airlines allow you to apply for a "bereavement fare" within about 7 days of the death. Documented proof may be requested, which isn't pleasant to have to provide. Keep in mind that bereavement fares are not necessarily the cheapest airfares. They just make sure you get a seat on the plane and give you some scheduling flexibility. Most carriers don't furnish bereavement fares anymore, but some of the airlines that do are Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Lufthansa, and WestJet. In each case, you'll need to book by phone, not online. 

Courier flights are pretty much dead. Businesses once asked for volunteers to hand-carry urgent deliveries on flights, but even in its heyday, it was rare. Security concerns and new digital capabilities have pretty much pushed this concept into extinction.

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How to find cheap last-minute airfare: Award flights

You might also have to resort to using frequent flyer points to avoid having to pay sky-high last-minute rates. But the airlines have thought of that, too, and many of them charge an extra $75 or so if you cash in those awards within three weeks of the flight date. That's dirty. Not every casual vacationer has an account full of points, either, so obviously this isn't a surefire method.

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How to find cheap last-minute airfare: If you fail

Don't feel bad if you can't find something cheap. As I mentioned, the airlines have cut off most of their discounting. If flying remains out of your financial reach, there are often alternatives, depending on the distance you need to travel. Americans think of renting a car first. Europeans usually turn to trains. Both options can potentially work on your own turf. But next time, if at all possible, buy airline tickets way ahead of time. Here's our guide to the best time to book airfare.

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