Why Last-minute Flights Are so Expensive — and How to Save Anyway

If you’ve ever looked at flights for last-minute travel, you’ve probably been shocked by the higher-than-usual costs. “Based on Expedia flight bookings from last summer, travelers who booked domestic travel zero to six days out from departure paid $100 more on average than those who booked around a month in advance,” Expedia travel expert Christie Hudson tells Travel + Leisure.

You wouldn’t be alone if you wondered why airlines wouldn’t lower their prices to fill any empty seats. So, why do prices typically go up in the days leading up to departure? “This is actually quite a nuanced question,” says Hudson. Read on to decode the mysteries behind the pricing of last-minute airfare — and to find out how you can still score a cheap flight.

How does flight pricing work?

Airlines use dynamic pricing for airfare, which means computers are constantly crunching factors to determine the price of a plane ticket. As such, prices can change multiple times per day. That’s why it’s a good idea to track flight prices over time — you can see what numbers are considered high or low for various flights. Numerous websites offer such tools, from Expedia to Google Flights to Skyscanner.

What counts as a last-minute flight?

There’s no textbook definition of a last-minute flight. “‘Last-minute’ when booking flights can mean different things, but generally, we think of last-minute as booking zero to six days from departure,” says Hudson. “If you’re booking within 24 hours of the flight, that’s the ultimate last-minute. In these short timeframes, airlines are targeting business travelers or people who need to travel regardless of the price.” As Hudson noted, booking flights within a week of departure costs an average of $100 more than booking a month in advance.

Why are last-minute flights so expensive?

“Bottom line, airfare is demand-driven and very dynamic, so you can easily pay a lot more by waiting too long, especially if the destination is seeing high demand and availability is low,” says Hudson. “As the departure date approaches, airlines can raise prices because last-minute travelers typically have less flexibility, fewer options to choose from, and a higher urgency, and thus are willing to pay the going rate.” 

Along those lines, last-minute travelers tend to be business travelers for whom price is less of an obstacle — or those traveling for an emergency, who might not have a choice.

But if you’re seeking a last-minute getaway, not all hope is lost. “There are some instances where the data shows prices for booked tickets drop a little at the last second,” adds Hudson. “However, what the data doesn’t show is whether those savings are because those last-minute bookers are booking more restrictive, ‘no frills’ fares or selecting routes with multiple layovers, which are generally cheaper than direct flights.”

Margot Cavin/Travel + Leisure

How to Find Cheap Last-minute Flights

Scoring a good airfare deal always comes down to one thing: flexibility. Here are a few tips for finding the best deals when booking last-minute flights.

Pick your destination wisely.

“If your destination is flexible, you’re more likely to find a decent price when you pick a destination that your airport flies to frequently,” says Hudson. “For example, there are five airlines that run daily flights to Miami from Atlanta, with an average of 12 flights per day. The more options you can give yourself, the more you can shop around for the best price.”

Take a layover or two.

Many travelers prefer nonstop flights to travel itineraries with layovers. Following the rules of supply and demand, a route with a layover might be cheaper than a nonstop flight. You might have to tinker around with your options to find the best deal, but if you’re willing to deal with a less convenient travel day, you might score a better price on your flights.

Search for flights to and from multiple airports.

See if there are multiple airports servicing your local area and your destination. For instance, if you’re flying out of New York, look beyond JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark to smaller airports like Stewart International Airport (SWF) in New Windsor, New York, and Bradley International Airport (BDL) in Windsor Locks, Connecticut — you might just find a deal. 

Change your departure dates.

“To save on airfare, consider departing on a Thursday, as you can save up to 16 percent compared to other days, based on Expedia’s annual Air Travel Hacks Report,” says Hudson. “It’s best to avoid starting your trip on a Sunday, which tends to be the most expensive day to fly.”

Book your flight on a Sunday.

While there’s no magic date and time that airlines release the cheapest fares, the data does show that one day is better for booking flights (at least according to Expedia). “When it comes to booking your flights, try doing it on a Sunday. This can save you up to 13 percent overall versus booking on a Friday,” says Hudson.

Use points or miles.

Even if a last-minute flight costs an absurdly high number of miles or points, at least the flights will technically be “free,” less taxes and fees. While your stash of miles or points might take a big hit, your wallet won’t.

Best Time to Book a Flight

“According to data gathered for the annual Expedia Air Travel Hacks Report, which looks at millions of data points for flight bookings, the best time to book a flight is around one month out,” says Hudson. This does, of course, vary per airline, destination, and date of travel. You’re best off using a price-tracking tool to set price alerts for your desired route — do so as far in advance of your trip as possible to give yourself the best chance at scoring a low price.

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