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Tips for Getting Cheap, Last-Minute Flights

Last-minute flights are never the best way to travel, but life doesn’t always cooperate with planning ahead. There’s a saying that goes something like, “When you make plans, the universe laughs.” And that can hold true when travelling. Unexpected events can happen – but when they do, you can be prepared by knowing how to get last-minute flights and still find great deals.

Some of these tips are good no matter when you book, for example, knowing the best days and times to fly. We’ve also included the latest information on standby flights and bereavement flights, two discount options that are always changing in today’s fluctuating market. We’ll get down to the nitty-gritty and give you pro tips for searching, booking and finding last-minute cheap flights to anywhere in the world. Let’s get started!

Know When to Fly (and When to Book)

It’s always cheapest to book your flight 90 to 120 days in advance. But sometimes that’s just not possible. If you have to take a trip right now, it’s important to know how to get last-minute flights at the cheapest possible price.

The cheapest days to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, depending on whether you want a domestic or international flight. For short trips, leaving on Saturday and returning on Tuesday or Wednesday is a good bet. For long trips, leave mid-week and return on a Tuesday. Mid-day flights are the most in-demand, so flying early in the morning or around dinner time will score you at prices.

As for booking, it’s typically cheapest on Tuesdays at 3:00 p.m. Check out our Cheat Sheet for the Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets for an in-depth dive into when to buy tickets.

Know Where to Fly

people flying on a plane with cheap last minute flights

For international flights, you may find better last-minute deals on flights that don’t go to popular business centers. So it’s possible to save your vacation to Berlin or Milan for a time when you’re better able to plan and try Düsseldorf or Bologna instead. You’ll get to explore a lesser-known city, and from there, flights to larger European destinations will most likely be cheaper.

For domestic flights, try smaller airports that are away from the major hubs. For example, instead of flying into New York City or Boston, check out Bradley International in Hartford, CT or T.F. Greene Airport in Providence, RI.

There are downsides to last-minute cheap flights to smaller domestic airports: Because they’re not as central to bigger cities, you may pay more for transportation to your final destination. Make sure you include those costs to determine if you’re really saving money.

But for both international and domestic last-minute flights, there’s also a bonus: You’ll get to discover new, small cities that have just as much fun and character as their larger cousins. You’ll become a true world traveler – not just a tourist.

Check for Special Fares

Flying standby is a popular choice for last-minute cheap flights. There are two ways to fly standby: If you have a family member or friend who is an airline employee, they can get you a standby ticket. The other option is to purchase a cheap ticket and then elect to standby.

But be careful – some tickets aren’t eligible for standby, and some airlines charge fees. Even if you have a standby ticket from a friend or family member, you could end up waiting a while at the airport for a seat to open up. And, you might be subject to luggage fees and other fees charged by the airline, making your airfare not so cheap after all.

If your last-minute flight is to attend a wake or funeral or to be with a terminally ill loved one, you may be able to find bereavement flights. This used to be a common practice, but today the number of airlines offering bereavement flights is declining. You can still find them on WestJet, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Alaska Air, Virgin America and Delta Airlines, but you must be an immediate family member and provide certain information.

Even if they don’t provide official bereavement flights, many airlines will offer other benefits, like waiving fees or helping you find the lowest fare. It’s always worth it to ask customer service about how to get last-minute flights on their airline.

Check Out One-Way Flights

Just because you want a round-trip flight from one city to another, doesn’t mean you have to search for it that way. Try searching one-way flights only and see if you can find last-minute cheap flights by booking each direction on a separate airline.

You can even book one leg at a time: Search for a full one-way trip and note the most common airports with layovers. Then search for each leg individually. So you might look at France to Barcelona, Lisbon or the UK, and then from there to your final destination.

Another search tip: If you’re travelling in a group, keep the “number of tickets” in your search to 1. You may be able to find just one seat at a lower price, which will save some money. And for international flights, if you’re willing to have a long layover, you can usually snag cheaper last-minute flights.

Book Like a Pro

You know when, where and how to get last-minute flights. But do you have all the tools you need to get them as cheaply as possible? Like most other things in life, there’s an app for that. Using flight-tracking apps like Hopper or Kiwi is a low-effort way to find last-minute cheap flights. Just make sure you give yourself a little bit of time – trying to book a week out is better than 4 days, which is better than 1 day!

Another pro tip is to follow airlines on Twitter. They often post discount flights and last-minute flight deals that you won’t find anywhere else.

Finally, use your points. Even if you don’t fly frequently, the need for last-minute flights is one of the best reasons to use an airline credit card. You can often use points for your flight and being a preferred member can get you other benefits, too, like the ability to standby or to be preferred for standby flights.

It’s always ideal to plan ahead, but we understand that sometimes life happens. Last-minute travel isn’t always for the best reasons, and expensive flights can add even more pressure. You can take away some of the stress when you know how to get last-minute flights at the cheapest prices. Follow these tips and you’ll soon be a pro at booking last-minute flights.

If there happens to be a mishap with your travels, you can claim flight compensation with TravelRefund to get you the money you deserve.