Last-minute flights 101

Travelling last-minute can often be exciting. It’s a great way to shake up your routine, inject some spontaneity into your life and there’s potential for big savings depending on when and where you’re travelling. In many other cases, you might end up having to travel somewhere with minimal advance notice, leaving you with no choice but to try and find a last-minute flight. Whether you’re able to travel on a whim, or you need to grab a ticket somewhere (after finding a great flight on, of course) you didn’t have the luxury of planning in advance for, here’s how to go about booking – and ideally saving – on your next last-minute flight.

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Toss out the book on the old way of thinking

First things first; the rule book on last-minute flights has changed over the last decade. At one point, it was possible to save money on a last-minute flight simply by showing up at the airport with bags packed and a willingness to go wherever seats were cheapest by way of a stand-by flight. That situation no longer holds true and stand-by flights only happen if you miss your flight or already have a ticket and hope to snag an earlier departure. In addition, the current landscape for last-minute travel has changed, requiring more research and forethought on the part of travellers. Rather than just showing up at the airport, now it’s up to you to see what flight options are out there and which ones might work best for your travel circumstances.

Be flexible with date and location


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Getting a wallet-friendly last-minute flight really comes down to how flexible you are with travel dates. The more date combinations you can search, the more chances you have at nabbing a well-priced last-minute fare. Fixed dates can box you in and you’ll likely end up having to spend more. The same goes for location. Searching for flights to multiple destinations only increases your odds of hitting on a good last-minute flight deal. In terms of dates, think too about travelling to destinations during their off-season. If, for example, you’ve got Paris on the brain, looking for a last-minute flight in October would likely cost much less than if you were searching for July.

Book for want, not need

When it comes to booking a last-minute flight it’s best to do it when you don’t have to be somewhere, but rather just want to go somewhere. Waiting to book a last-minute flight for something set in stone (a conference you need to attend, a friend’s wedding) means you have zero flexibility and will likely end up spending more than you want to. In instances where you have to be somewhere at a specific time, it’s best to book in advance.

Be willing to fly really late (or really early)


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Being willing to fly at undesirable times can often help you find last-minute flights at desirable prices. Not everyone wants to get on a red-eye or a flight leaving at 6 a.m. – but if you can handle the sleep disruption or you’re actually fine getting some substantial shut-eye in-flight, booking something during a time other travellers might pass on can help you save money and get you where you want to go despite doing so last-minute. Red-eye flights are almost always cheaper than flying during the day.

Use your air miles

Anyone who collects air miles can potentially use them to book last-minute flights. If you use the loyalty program Aeroplan Miles for example, you can search their last-minute travel listings based on your departure location, and then find out where  your miles can take you (including Canada, United States, Florida and other sunny destinations)and exactly how many miles you need to get there.

You can also get some help figuring out where your miles can take you with a site like UsingMiles. The site allows you to add all of your loyalty programs to your personal dashboard, at which point UsingMiles manages them for you all in the same place. But in terms of travel, search for a flight or a hotel room and the site will show you the lowest paid flights and hotel rooms as well as award availability in all of your programs.

Avoid major holidays

Waiting until the last minute to book your trip home for Christmas or to plan your spring break vacation is likely going to work against you. In addition to being flexible with your travel dates, avoid trying to find a last-minute flight during the most popular travel times. Flights (and not to mention hotel rooms) will be full and there will be much less chance of a deal being found. It can also be helpful to search for last-minute flights during a destination’s low season when airlines will want to fill seats. That being said, flying on an actual holiday (versus a few days before it) can potentially save you money since the majority of travellers plan on reaching their destination prior to, say, Christmas Day.

Be an airline stalker (on social media)


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Getting social media savvy may help if you want to increase your odds of finding a last-minute flight. So can signing up for newsletters. In both cases you’ll be the first to know if there are last-minute deals to be had. For starters, add Cheapflights, Delta, United, American Airlines, Air Canada, WestJet and JetBlue to your must-follow Twitter list. And if you’re already abroad and itching for a change of scenery (say, from Paris to Barcelona or Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur), think about following Air Asia or Ryanair.

Use an app to find a last-minute flight

In addition to searching Cheapflights to find a last-minute flight, you can try the Cheapflights app, or the apps of other travel tools.

  • Fareness, for example, indicate where you’re flying from and where you want to go, how long you want to travel for, then choose your desired date ranges (anything from this weekend only or the next two weeks only, to an entire month) and then let the system do the work.
  • Get the Flight Out (GTFO) is another app (and website) that helps aspiring travellers be more spontaneous by helping them find the best-priced round-trip flights leaving from their location today or tomorrow morning. Simply enter your home airport to discover last-minute flights to both domestic and international destinations. Flights are updated all the time, so you’ll always have ample options to escape. Just keep in mind that there are currently only a limited number of U.S. departure cities, with plans to add more as demand increases.
  •  Last Minute Travel, while not an app, allows you to search for last-minute flights, as well as hotel rooms, cruises, vacation packages and activities.

Hunt down a package deal


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Often, when you’re searching for last-minute flights, the most significant savings are in accommodations and package vacations rather than stand-alone airfare. Cheap last-minute flights are out there, but it might be easier to find deals with packages, rather than flights alone. It’s important to note, however, that if you are in the market for a last-minute vacation package, pay attention to the details of what that package entails and what you might have to pay extra for (i.e.: airport transfers, all meals or just breakfast, etc.)

Do your research

Even though you’re working on a last-minute deadline, know what you’re getting yourself into. Found an amazing last-minute flight that sounds too good to be true? Make sure it isn’t by doing some sleuthing before you book.Ask yourself the following questions, and more:

  • Does the airline in question get decent reviews?
  • What do previous users have to say about the service?
  • What can you expect from the experience?

Doing some due diligence prior to booking can save you some hassle and frustration in the long run.

Travel (or at least book) solo

Finding one well-priced last-minute flight is one thing, finding two or three is going to be tough, so your best bet for a spontaneous getaway that won’t break the bank is to go (or at least book) solo. You might not get seats together, but you may be more likely to all get on the same last-minute flight. Alternatively, for groups who want to get away together, packaged vacations might be a better bet since they’re more commonly discounted last-minute than flights alone. If there are a few of you looking to travel last-minute, you’ll have the best luck if all of you can be flexible with dates and locations.

Lastly, when you do see a good last-minute travel deal, it’s a good idea to snap it up as soon as you see it assuming you’re ready to pack your bags. Who knows when and if something better will come along.

Have you ever booked a last-minute flight? Let us know in the comments below. And when you’re ready to head off somewhere with short notice, let help you find a budget-friendly option.

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Main photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash.
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