Last-Minute Flights: Are They Really Cheaper?

Once upon a time, the best way to buy cheap flights was to wait until the last moment. But in 2021, are last-minute flights really cheaper?

Last-Minute Flights: Are They Really Cheaper?

There was a time when, to get a cheap last-minute flight, all you needed to do was show up at the airport and ask for a standby ticket.

Even ten years ago, you could find last-minute tickets for cheap: airlines adamant about flying at maximum capacity were willing to slash prices shortly before departure to prompt impulsive purchases.

It was still the era of budget airlines.

But we now live in  a world of quickly sold-out or even overbooked flights.

And of browser cookies that don’t feed your appetite but the online travel agencies and airline’s appetite for profit. Cookies which track your behavior on their website and lets them measure the probability of purchase for a flight and adapt the ticket price on a user-per-user basis.

So, are last-minute flights really cheaper? The myth is going to have an even harder time in 2021.

In this post, you’re going to learn:

  • Whether last-minute flights are going to be cheaper in 2021
  • How to get a cheap last-minute flight
  • If you should wait until the last minute
  • General tips to save money during your flight search

Did you know that you could get compensation when your flight is disrupted?

Are Last-Minute Flights Cheaper?

Do airlines drop prices at the last minute?

TL;DR: No, not anymore, because they don’t want to encourage people to buy at the last minute. They do it only when desperate, because it’s a short-term solution only.

Airlines used to slash prices a couple of days before the flight. Those flight deals were an attempt to increase the plane’s filling rate, the aim being to fly as close to full capacity as possible.

The goal for airlines has always been to maximize profit. For that, they have to sell as many tickets as possible, to make up for the cost of flying the aircraft. In that sense, it’s better to sell airfares at half the price than not sell them at all, right?

Short-term, the reasoning is valid, but in the long run, not so much.

Travelers - especially frequent fliers and the pioneers of flight hacking - eventually understood that if they waited long enough before buying their airline tickets, they’d be able to score a last-minute flight deal.

Airlines realized that those were people who used to buy their airfare at full price. By dropping prices at the last minute, they had changed booking behaviors and encouraged people to wait until the last moment to purchase their ticket.

In fact, they realized that, on the contrary, they could make more money by jacking up prices at the last minute on certain itineraries, because some business travelers would accept to pay full price for a last-minute flight.

So, to summarize:

  • No, airline don’t cut prices at the last-minute unless they really have to (the filling rate is way too low)
  • Yes, once upon a time, last-minute tickets were cheaper
  • Last-minute price drops are a short-term decision detrimental to maximizing profit in the long run (and airlines want to maximize that profit)
  • Pricing algorithms have determined that increasing prices at the last minute maximizes the airline’s profit, because of last-minute ticket purchases for business travel

Are last-minute flights going to be cheaper in 2021?

TL;DR: It’s hard to say, but this frequent flyer’s opinion is that it’s very unlikely. In fact, 2021 should be a tough year for travelers looking for the cheapest flights.

It would be an understatement to say that airlines have been hit hard by the travel restrictions implemented by governments to curb the spread of COVID-19. As a result of those restrictions, routes have been closed and (much) fewer planes are in the air.

But after close to a year of hindered power to travel, people like you and I are burning to resume flying. The development of several vaccines against coronavirus is also likely to increase the demand of flight tickets: in a survey conducted by ClaimCompass, 45% of respondents claimed they would start travelling again once a vaccine was out.

So, on one side, we have an increased demand for flight tickets and on the other, a still limited offer. Basic economics tells us that it’s unlikely that airfares are going to be cheap in 2021.

And since the only reason for airlines to drop prices at the last minute is a significant number of seats available, it’s unlikely that last-minute flights will be cheaper in 2021.

How to Get a Cheap Last-Minute Flight?

How can I get a cheap last-minute flight?

It all boils down to using the right tools. Provided that they exist, you can get cheap flights even at the last-minute by:

1. Setting up a price alert

You now know that last minute flight deals are rare, so when they do show up, you want to make sure you know about them. And you can’t spend your time refreshing the website page in the hope that the price will drop.

But a machine can.

Websites like Skyscanner have built-in tools that constantly monitor price changes. Head over to their site or app and set up a price alert for the flight or travel date of your choice. If there’s a last-minute price drop, you’ll be the first to know and to be in position to act on it.

2. Being flexible with your destination

Setting up a price alert only works if you know where you’re going. But you might fall under the category of travelers who don’t have a specific destination in mind, only a limited budget. That’s a major advantage for someone relying on last-minute cheap flights to travel.

If you’re always flying with the same airline, head over to their website and check the flights available from your airport on the next day or the one after that.

If you don’t restrict yourself to a single airline, sites like Skyscanner can make the process easier. When searching for flights, set your departure airport; but instead of manually checking several destinations at random, select “Everywhere” in the “to” field. Set the departure date, and Skyscanner will pull a list of destinations automatically sorted by price, from the cheapest flights to the most expensive ones.

Another tip when using Skyscanner: if you don’t particularly care which airport to leave from or arrive to, tick the “nearby airport” box when searching for flights. It will pull results that are not restricted to the airports that you indicated but expanded to airports near those.

3. Being flexible with your flight time

You’ve understood that prices are primarily determined by demand (how many people are booking tickets for a specific flight). It shouldn’t surprise you that most people like to fly at the same times: during the day and before and at the end of the weekend or holidays. Finding cheap last-minute flights at those times will prove near impossible.

But if you don’t mind waking up extra early to catch the plane or flying mid-week, you could increase your chances. In particular, red-eye flights are more likely to have their ticket price drop at the last minute if the plane is far from full when the departure date is close.

For the best prices, you want to book flights without being too picky about the time of the flight. Flight prices change dramatically for the same route, based on when the flight is scheduled to depart.

4. Booking as least “last-minute” as possible

You can always plan ahead of time, but the sooner you can confirm your travel plans, the better. Why?

Because as you get closer to the departure date, every day matters. This means that, in general, booking your plane ticket ten days in advance is cheaper than five days in advance, which is cheaper than two days in advance.

The least last-minute, the better.

5. Use those stored-up miles

Remember those frequent flyer miles you’ve been accumulating? Last-minute flights are a great time to use them if you want to soften the blow of their cost to your wallet.

If you haven’t signed up to a frequent flyer program, you should consider it. They usually come with tons of perks and if you travel often enough, it will be well worth it.

How can I get a cheap same day flight?

The answer is not much different than for last-minute flights. A price alert won’t do you much good here though. I guess there are 2 scenarios:

  • You want to leave today, no matter the destination

That’s the easiest way to get a same-day flight, since you’re flexible on the destination. This happens when you’re simply looking for a getaway destination, for instance. Head over to Skyscanner and select “Everywhere” as your destination to get a list of possible places to fly to from the cheapest to the most expensive. As you can see in the next section, you may also want to give a try to

  • You know where you want to go

If you have a specific destination in mind, the situation is more complex. There are fewer flights for you to consider and no guarantee that there are too many empty seats for the airline to lower prices. In that case, is your best option, but give a try to Skyscanner too. Since they look at prices from many providers at once, you increase your chances of saving money.

Very often, however, same day flights are searched for by business travelers who aren’t as careful about prices as they are about flight times. Since the company’s paying…

What is the best last-minute travel site?

I found that when I had to find last-minute flights, and Skyscanner were the best bets. I searched for 100 flights on both sites and as a rule of thumb, Skyscanner is the best overall.

I need to travel for a funeral: how to find cheap bereavement flights?

TL;DR: Bereavement fares aren’t always the cheapest option available. Do your own research before contacting the airline and asking for one and make sure that they offer you the cheapest price, or simply book on your own.

When disaster strikes and you live far away, you probably don’t have many other options but to hop on a plane to attend the funerals. Only, those aren’t planned much ahead of time, so what can you do to get a cheap flight?

Bereavement fares are discounted tickets offered to passengers who need to travel in order to attend a funeral or be with a sick relative. There was a time when most airlines offered those last minute flight deals, but that is no longer the case. In North America, only a few airlines still offer them, as pointed out by The Points Guy: Air Canada, WestJet, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Lufthansa (should you need to get to Europe for a funeral).

However, as Scott’s Cheap Flights pointed out, when the unthinkable happens, you shouldn’t necessarily ask for a bereavement fare to the airline but do your own research if you want to save money. Indeed, bereavement fares only offer a small discount - and not off the cheapest tickets available, but off a higher fare class.

Bottom line: Even if the airline offers you a bereavement flight ticket, it may not be the cheapest option for you to get to your destination.

Is it better to book a flight last minute?

TL;DR: No, as a rule of thumb, in 2021, you will save money by booking your flight in advance rather than hope for a cheap last-minute flight.

The objective of waiting until the last minute to book airline tickets is to save money. But when you play this hit-or-miss game, you should be prepared to pay more than you would have if you had booked your flight earlier or even not fly at all if the airline increases the price due to a high demand.

The fact is that it’s no longer a one-size-fits-all model. If you were to ask each passenger on the plane how much they paid for their ticket, I’d gamble you’d find that few have paid the same price.

You should know that one of the first things that happens when visiting a website is that this website leaves a cookie on your browser. From then on, they will know how often you visit a specific page or if you’re looking for this flight elsewhere, marking your interest in this flight. If they determine that you’re very interested in this flight, they won’t drop the price for you.

Unless you don’t do any prior online research on your last-minute flight, it’s unlikely that you’ll score a good deal.

How to save money on flights?

Here are some general tips on saving money when booking flight tickets, in no particular order:

  1. Book round trip rather than one-way
  2. Sign up for a frequent flier program to collect miles and pay your airfare with those
  3. Check if your credit card has a similar reward program
  4. Follow the airlines you fly with most often on social media and subscribe to their newsletter for travel deals, special offers, and promo codes
  5. Subscribe to newsletter specializing in airfare deals like Scott’s Cheap Flights or Dollar Flight Club (the service fee is well worth it)
  6. Be flexible with your travel dates and destinations, especially when looking for a last minute trip
  7. Book about 2-4 months in advance for international flights and 1-3 months prior to a domestic flight

Conclusion on Last-Minute Flights

Here’s what you have to remember:

  • Last-minute flights aren’t cheaper: on the contrary, they tend to get more expensive the closer to the departure date
  • If you have no choice but to book at the last minute, use tools like Skyscanner’s “everywhere search” or
  • In general, to find cheap flights, be flexible (with your dates and destination) and subscribe to newsletters: airlines and airfare deals like Scott’s Cheap Flights

Should your flight be disrupted, remember that you can get compensation from the airline:

  • Up to 600€ for flight delays and cancellations as well as boarding denials
  • Up to $3,500 for mishandled luggage