We've all been in a situation where we intended to book a flight for weeks but kept putting it off. Two weeks before the flight, you still don't have tickets. You keep hoping for a last-minute miracle, and the universe keeps returning with higher and more expensive prices.
Last-minute flights = expensive flights
Last-minute discounts should most likely be lower. After all, an empty seat provides no revenue for an airline, so why shouldn't they try to keep lowering the price until take-off approaches? RIGHT? That was the conventional thinking for decades. However, beginning in the early 1970s, airlines recognized that last-minute customers were typically not tourists.
Instead, it was often business people who couldn't meet up months in advance of their trips. While leisure travelers are concerned with airfares, any money they spend on a flight is a dollar that can't be spent on something else, and business travelers aren't too concerned about it. Why should they? It's their company, after all.
Airlines have little motivation to reduce prices if business people reserve last-minute reservations that are irrelevant to them since carriers do not gain from such a system. That makes them the most profitable, even if it means leaving some seats empty. The lesson for leisure travelers: don't expect low-cost last-minute or standby bookings to appear spontaneously. Instead, anticipate that late-notice fares will rise dramatically instead
Not all last-minute flights are equal
We're a broken record when it comes to reservations during Goldilocks Windows because that's when inexpensive flights are most likely to appear. (Domestic fares are one to three months in advance, with international travel taking two to eight months.)
Don't wait too long to book, because rates will go up. But not all last-minute reservations are created equal. A flight booked one month ahead of time will certainly be less expensive than a flight purchased seven days in advance. A flight booked seven days in advance is virtually always cheaper than a flight booked the day before.
So, if there's a flight you need and haven't booked for a month out, your best bet is to buy immediately. Expecting a late price drop is a risk that will almost certainly result in you paying too much.
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Budget airlines are most likely to have reasonable last-minute fares
If you never take bargain airlines like Spirit, the only time to make an exception is if you need a last-minute flight. Consider why last-minute fares are so expensive: it's because airlines want to nickel and dime business travelers.
However, Spirit and other ultra-low-cost carriers aren't popular among business travelers. Frontier, Allegiant, and other low-cost carriers are the same way. As a consequence, budget airlines that cater to leisure passengers have been able to offer last minute flights at lower-costs.
The big pandemic-era exception
The number of people traveling internationally is still down from pandemic levels. Demand for additional seats and flights is outstripping supply, despite growing interest in tourism as countries relax restrictions.
This implies locating good deals last minute for overseas trips is still feasible, especially in Europe. So if you haven't yet booked an international trip this summer, there's still hope (as long as you're willing to move somewhere and when).
Here are some examples of deals we found just this month for summer travel:
- Iceland for $493 nonstop roundtrip all summer
- Myrtle Beach for $138 roundtrip in June and August
- Mexico City for $224 roundtrip all summer
- Hawaii for $381 roundtrip in August
- Chile for $554 roundtrip in August
- Malta for $2,518 roundtrip in business class in July and August
- Amsterdam from $2,390 roundtrip in business class all summer.
Use Private Browsing to Save Money on Flights
Always use a private browser tab when looking to find cheap flights to your vacation destination online.
While last-minute flights can be expensive, there are some ways to get around it. Budget airlines are typically your best bet for finding reasonable rates, and pandemic-era exceptions have made international travel more affordable than usual. Travelers should also remember that booking further in advance is almost always cheaper than waiting until the last minute.