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