How to Score Cheap Last Minute Flights to Save on Rising Travel Costs

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If you need to get out of Dodge fast, here’s how to score cheap last minute flights!

woman walking through airport

Don’t let last-minute travel prices ruin your plans!

In an ideal world, we’d always be able to follow the best travel timeline to score the most savings while picking a flight. But unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned.

Life happens, and whether it’s a flight that gets canceled last minute, a family emergency, or an impromptu getaway, we’ll all find ourselves in need of a cheap, last-minute flight at one point or another. It’s hard to figure out the best time to buy plane tickets, especially when it’s a last-minute flight, but we’re here to help.

Woman with backpack in airport

These short-notice flights are usually significantly more expensive than the ones you have time to plan way in advance.

Luckily, have some tips and tricks for the best time to buy plane tickets and how to score cheap last minute flights!

1. Instead of booking through a third party, call the airline directly.

gate b 21 sign in airport

Not everyone is traveling for fun or vacation. In some cases, airlines will accommodate certain folks who need a quick flight for bereavement purposes and offer lower fares for those traveling for the loss of a loved one, a funeral, etc. These prices aren’t usually advertised online or while booking through third-party websites, so that’s why it’s best to call the airline itself.

Here are a few airlines that don’t usually advertise those special prices on third-party sites:

  • Southwest Airlines doesn’t advertise its fares on many third-party sites.
  • Allegiant doesn’t offer bookings through Orbitz or Expedia.
  • Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines often show up on Google Flights, but not always on other booking sites.

According to Scott’s Cheap Flights, there are also several Asian airlines you won’t find unless you book directly. These include Air China, China Eastern, Thai Airways, and Philippine Airlines. There’s a good chance there are several more as well.

Note: Most airlines who offer bereavement fares do so in the form of coupons, flat-rate discounts, waived fees, etc. However, each company will have its own unique policies, so be sure to browse their requirements.

2. But also remember to check the third-party sites, just in case!

airport flight list

There are several great sites you can use to find ridiculously cheap “mistake” fares, and if you’re lucky enough to find one going to your destination, you can save a ton!

Some of my favorites are Scott’s Cheap Flights, Secret Flying, and Google Flights – just note the list in tip #1 if you’d like to book through any of those 3rd party sites not advertising fares for specific airlines.

While I find that the first Scott’s Cheap Flights and Secret Flying are generally more useful for people living near larger cities or airline hubs, Google Flights can show you some surprisingly cheap airfare prices if you’re willing to move the dates around by a day or two. And it’s able to find deals departing from anywhere, so it’s super helpful for people who live far away from large airports.

Hip Tip: I’ve been checking Secret Flying and Scott’s Cheap Flights for years, and I see a lot of departures from the D.C., New York City, and Boston areas since I live on the east coast. So if you live in one of those cities, definitely check them out!

3. If you want a last-minute vacation and don’t care where you go, Google Flights Explore is the best tool out there. 

Google Flights Explore page with cheap best time to buy plane tickets deals

I mentioned Google Flights in the last point, but their Explore feature is so neat that it deserves its own section!

While this method probably isn’t the best for those set on a particular destination, it’s absolutely perfect for flexible travelers who want to go on vacation ASAP & don’t have a specific place in mind.

Here’s how it works:

  • Visit the Google Flights Explore page. Note that there’s no Google Flights app, so this is probably easiest to access on a desktop.
  • In the upper left-hand section, determine your travel parameters: round-trip or one-way, number of passengers, departing airport, price range, etc.
  • Click the calendar icon to determine travel dates. You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like. If you want a flight for a specific week, you can add those dates. Or you can go to the “Flexible Dates” section and let Google show you all your options based on the chosen price range.
  • Check out the top filters. You can filter out flights based on the number of stops, travel mode, interests, airlines, carry-on bag restrictions, and more! Of course, the fewer filters you apply, the more likely you are to find more results fitting your price range.

And that’s it! It’s worth it to play around with the features and dates until you hit the sweet spot that fits your budget. We’ve had team members use Google Flights Explore to get super cheap, last-minute (we’re talking like <2 days’ notice 🙃), round-trip tickets to San Juan, Miami, Phoenix, and more. This is especially a steal if you’re located near a smaller airport (though we’ve seen deals for large airports, too).

Plus, we always use this search tool for flights–even ones that aren’t last minute! It’s the perfect tool for figuring out the best time to buy plane tickets no matter what you’re schedule looks like.

4. Check sites like Skiplagged and Hopper for cheap deals.

hopper app on iPhone

Skiplagged is a site many of our readers recommend. It finds crazy good deals on flights that are typically hidden. Many times it’s due to layover flights where the layover may be your destination. Did you know sometimes it’s cheaper to book a flight to Florida with a layover in DC rather than booking a flight directly to DC?!

This isn’t always the case, but Skiplagged is a great resource to find out if this method is the best deal for you. Just note you won’t be able to check a bag if you land one of these layover flights, otherwise your luggage will end up at the final destination without you!

I’ve also used Hopper for flights, hotels, and even car rentals! It has a great feature that tells you whether or not a flight price you should wait for a price drop or buy now. Although I have no idea how they have these spot-on predictions, it’s always been accurate for me. Even if I find a better deal elsewhere, I’ll use Hopper so I know when to buy!

5. When packing light, book with discounted airlines.

spirit airline plane

If you’re traveling with just a personal item and don’t care where you sit, discount airlines such as Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant may be your best friend! These airlines feature a random seat, personal item, and usually a very discounted price.

Note that sometimes additional charges for bags, seats, and more are usually significantly higher than typical airlines, so if you’re planning on purchasing that, it’s best to consider an airline ticket that may already include a seat and carry-on luggage.

6. Consider getting two one-way tickets instead of round-trip.

man holding airline tickets boarding passes best time to buy plane tickets

It might seem strange, but when checking for last-minute flight deals, don’t forget to search the prices of two one-way tickets instead of going straight to round-trip. This is a huge tip for scoring cheap last-minute flights!

You’ll sometimes find that two tickets are actually cheaper than one entire travel plan, especially if you’re browsing between multiple airlines, and this also allows you to extend your trip more easily if need be.

7. Tap into your rewards to get last-minute flight deals.

credit cards inside wallet

If you need to catch a flight like yesterday and don’t have time to fuss around with trying to save a dollar here and there, it’s the perfect moment to tap into your credit card rewards and use up those miles.

Even if the flight is on the pricier side, using your points will likely shave a good chunk off of the total price.

8. If you can avoid it, don’t fly on the weekend.

airplane wing seen from window

This is one of the golden rules of cheap airfare in general, but flights on days like Friday and Sunday are almost always going to be pricier. If you can swing it, book your flights from Monday through Thursday to avoid paying even more on top of the last-minute fare prices.

9. Book flights when no one else wants to.

people in seats in an airplane best time to buy plane tickets

If you don’t have any wiggle room when it comes to the day of departure, try compromising on your takeoff time. Flights that leave either really late at night or super early in the morning are sometimes cheaper than those leaving at a more conventional hour.

That said, it’s sometimes possible to find great deals on cheap, last-minute flights leaving around dinner time (about 5-7 pm), so take a few extra minutes to shop around.

10. Consider splitting up your payment.

cheap, last-minute flights with Southwest

Have you guys heard of Buy Now, Pay Later services? They’re essentially short-term loans that allow you to buy something right now and pay it off in future installments. It’s sort of like a credit card, except the BN/PL services usually nix the interest rates.

For example, one of our Hip readers was able to use PayPal’s Buy Now, Pay Later service to split up payments on a last-minute flight with Southwest!

Several airlines, including Southwest (who now uses Uplift to split payments) and Alternative Airlines, are now allowing folks to use Buy Now, Pay Later services to purchase flights. It’s a really neat service, and while it doesn’t necessarily make flights cheaper, it does remove a bit of the sting that comes from paying more for last-minute flights.

Note: While every airline may not offer this option, Buy Now, Pay Later services are becoming more and more popular, so it’s worth it to call and ask about the service even if it isn’t explicitly offered while booking online.

Hip Tip: Remember to keep up with all of our travel deals to score some unexpected savings like these cheap tickets from Southwest! 😱

11. When you just can’t find cheap last-minute flights, look for savings elsewhere. 

airport stores and hallway with various lights and signs for departures

So maybe you had a family emergency come up, or your work plans changed last minute, and you really need to catch a flight but it’s just not possible to find a deal no matter what you try.

In that case, look into reducing the costs somewhere else!

Plenty of hotel chains, like those owned by Intercontinental Hotels Group or Hyatt Hotels, offer rewards and points for frequent visitors & rewards program members. And if you travel a lot for work, chances are you have some hotel loyalty points saved up. If you can’t avoid paying extra for a flight, try redeeming your hotel points to at least reduce the cost of your stay.

You can also shave the cost of car rentals with similar loyalty programs like those offered by AAA or even Costco!

And lastly, if you’re going on a shorter trip, eliminate luggage costs by only bringing a carry-on bag. This has been a game-changer for Collin! That one step alone can save you anywhere from $35-$50 per person. 🙌

Pssssst! We happen to have some tips to keep you from overpacking. 😉

12. It’s tempting to skip travel insurance, but it can really save your last-minute trip.

airplane after landing waiting to go to gate

Having to up and leave last minute is stressful enough. Spending a little extra for travel insurance is, in many cases, totally worth the peace of mind you get from knowing your plans are protected.

Granted, many airlines significantly loosened their cancelation & rescheduling policies to accommodate travel disruptions due to the pandemic, but travel insurance is still handy to have just in case of an emergency. Plus, it usually won’t set you back too much. Every airline will have different policies, so be sure to check their individual programs to see if travel insurance is worth the cost.

Before taking off, pack in style with a fresh luggage set!

About the writer:

Kaitlyn has a Bachelor's Degree from St. John's University with 2 years of writing experience for LinkedIn, Celeb Magazine, and other various publications.

Join The Discussion

Comments 13

  1. jessh54

    Colin’s travel backpack was mentioned quite awhile ago as well. I bought it then and honestly BEST purchase I’ve ever made. I’ve used it on multiple plane trips as well as road trips! It’s perfect size, so many pockets and comfortable as well! Perfect for moms or solo travel!!!’

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      Yay! SO glad you’ve been loving it for travel too! Thanks a ton for commenting!

    • LilyT

      I don’t remember catching that post. Would you mind giving the link or description of that backpack? Thank you!

      • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

        Hi there! It is linked above in the 2nd and 3rd links in the post. You can find it here.

  2. Maria G

    I use an app called “hopper” to compare flights

  3. bonnie is actually the best site for booking trips.. sometimes it’s cheaper to buy tickets with multiple stops and you just get off on the connection. Example- say I want to fly from Houston to Atlanta- it might be cheaper to fly houston to Tampa with a connection (stop) in Atlanta.. airlines know the direct flight will make them more money so the price based on this- it’s totally legal and we the consumers pay that cost.. this website finds those loop holes and those tickets.. some guy who’s a programmer found those flights and created the website.. he did it as project and side thing to help consumers.. United and some big airlines did sue him but he was able to get funding from a gofund me account and the lawyers stopped the site from going down. United lost their case when they tried but it’s still up. I help people book flights all the time and tell people to use that site.. I love saving money where I can.. you do have to buy one way tickets with the site though because your return flight can be cancelled for not fulfilling the whole first leg of the flight..

    • Nicole (Hip Sidekick)

      Thank you, Bonnie, for all those helpful tips!

  4. Sara

    One of my favorite way to save on flights is when flying the budget airlines Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier, it’s cheaper to purchase at the airline counter at the airport than online. I typically save about $20 each flight, per person. It’s the Passenger Usage Charge that you don’t pay by purchasing at the airport. You can go all the way through the online booking to just before you confirm to see the breakdown to know exactly how much you’ll save. We live super close to the airport so it’s not an inconvenience to drive there. I typically drive and my husband runs in to the ticket counter to make the purchase while I wait in the cell phone lot. Things to keep in mind: These airlines don’t always have their ticket counter staffed so you need to make sure that they have a flight taking off within 2ish hours of when you’ll be there so they’ll have the ticket counter open. Again, we live really close so it’s no big deal to just drive over and check. Also, they are budget airlines for a reason. They charge separate to select your seat, for carry-ons and checked bags as well as for drinks and snacks. We use them for quick weekend trips and have learned to pack lightly using their free personal item to avoid the bag fees. We also check in right at 24 hours and have never had an issue being seated together but go into it knowing that we’re not guaranteed seats together unless we pay for them. We also bring our own snacks if we think we’ll need them and bring an empty water bottle to refill once we get through TSA (I like having my own reusable water bottle for travel anyway.). If you know what you’re getting, the budget airlines can be an amazing deal!

  5. VootFly

    One of my favourite ways to save money on flights is to fly low-cost airlines like Southwest Airlines, Spirit and Jetblue it’s less expensive to buy from the airline counter at the airport rather than buying on the internet. I usually save around $20 per flight per person. This is the passenger usage charge which you do not pay when you purchase at the airport. It is possible to go via the reservation VootFLy online Travel Agency process to just before you confirm , look over the breakdown to find out precisely how much you’ll save. We are located in close proximity to airports, so it’s not a hassle to drive to the airport. I generally drive and my husband walks to the counter for tickets to purchase the ticket while I sit in the cell phone parking lot. Important to remember The airlines might not have their ticket counters manned therefore you must be sure they have flights departing within two hours of the time you’ll be arriving so that they have the counter open. Also, we’re located close to the airport, so it’s not a big issue to drive up to check. Additionally, they’re low-cost airlines with a reason.

  6. Ashley Kenner Nebeker

    If you use skiplagged, make sure you don’t give your frequent flier number. Although it may technically be legal, airlines don’t look kindly on people who do this and can refuse to ticket you in the future. And don’t do it frequently either.

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Thanks for sharing that tip, Ashley! 💕

  7. Tracey

    We’ve started only searching for one way tickets as it almost always ends up being cheaper – usually by using two airlines. Works great for using airline points when you don’t have enough for the entire flight too. Flying midweek is always cheaper too (although with last minute flights, it may not work out.) Last year my DH and I took a trip from a Wednesday – Wednesday and the tickets were so much cheaper. Thanks for all the tips!

    • Claudette (Hip Sidekick)

      Hi Tracey!!! You’re Welcome and thanks for sharing what has worked for you!!❤️

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