How to find cheap, last-minute flights

Searching for and booking flights can feel like a cruel game. Airlines hike up the prices on the day you want, the only cheap option has grueling layovers, or you get excited to see a low fare, only to get hit with taxes and fees upon checkout. The flight you booked for $1000 drops to $700 a week later, or you hear your friend bragging about the cheap flights he gets, but you never seem to find them.

Air travel has steadily increased in popularity over the past decades, making it more difficult to score those last-minute deals. Unfortunately, you also can’t try the old trick of showing up super early to fly standby. There are still ways, however, to score a great deal on your next flight, even if you’re not booking far in advance.

Now, a lot of these rules are not “guaranteed strategies” to find a great deal. The cheap-airfare-game doesn’t have a published rulebook anywhere, and many tricks and algorithms that airlines use seem to be completely arbitrary. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but it’s worth it to try a lot of different search and booking methods to increase your chances of landing a bargain.


Rule #1, search for last-minute deals for leisure travel, not necessity travel

If you need to book a flight for a wedding, a conference, or some other big event that is set in stone, do NOT wait until the last minute to score a deal. While it’s entirely possible that you could find a low-cost ticket the week of, it’s not worth it when it’s something you need to attend. If you know you need to go, look at booking 4-6 weeks before the departure date.

When you have flexibility in terms of dates and destination because you’re traveling for pleasure, it’s much less stressful to wait until the week or even day of travel to find a bargain. You’re playing with your own free time, instead of potentially letting people down.


Flexibility is crucial.


Rolling off of rule number one, the more flexible you can be with your travel desires, the more likely you are to succeed in your hunt for economical fares.

If you aren’t locked on a specific location for your trip, you’ll have a lot of fun discovering great deals for lots of different cities. If you’re determined to visit Europe but don’t mind which major city you fly into, pick the cheapest destination that comes up. You can get to other places of interest with inexpensive land travel.

The day you fly on also plays a role in determining the price. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are consistently cheaper than Fridays or Sundays. Sometimes, a less expensive airline only operates a flight route a few times a week. Pay attention to these trends and make a note if you’re picking which days to request your vacation leave on.

Be prepared to depart or arrive at undesirable times. Many budget and low-cost airlines operate at hours that traditional airlines avoid. This means VERY early in the morning or arriving late at night. If you’re willing to set the alarm at an ungodly hour or roll into your hotel in the dead of night, this won’t be a problem for you.

Now, unfortunately, many times when you need to book a last-minute flight, you aren’t embarking on a spontaneous adventure, but instead dealing with misfortune, like flying for an emergency or dealing with a missed flight or other troubles. In this situation, it can be harder to be flexible, but if you have previously purchased travel insurance, you might be able to sort yourself out a lower price on a last-minute flight.


Search destinations that are currently in off-peak or low seasons


The chances of securing a cheap flight to Italy from the US in the middle of summer are slim to none. Everyone wants to get to Europe in the summertime, or to the Caribbean during the Spring Break weeks in March and April. Don’t count on a round-trip to Cabo suddenly dropping right around Easter. Peak season travel is a nightmare even if you have plenty of money to spend because hotels book up and everything goes up in price.

If you don’t mind coping with less-than-ideal weather, you can find incredible deals to some of the top destinations in the world during the off-season. And, traveling in the off-season has another huge bonus – you won’t have to fight annoying crowds to snap the perfect photos, or shell out a lot of money on accommodation or tours.


Book two one-ways instead of one return


Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s always worth it to check if different airlines can provide you with two different tickets that would add up to less than the cost of a round-trip on one airline. Frustratingly, this isn’t a guarantee. Sometimes a round-trip flight costs less than a one-way, which is incredibly annoying if you’re booking flights to multiple destinations. If you only want a one-way, but the round-trip is cheaper, book it and don’t use the return. You can instead continue on one-ways to your other destinations. Keep a calculator handy when jumping through the hoops of exploring all your options, to make sure you’re adding it all up correctly!


Search with an incognito browser.


Some claim that this strategy doesn’t work, but it can’t hurt your expedition to find a good deal on airfare. I’ve also heard mixed reviews on clearing your cookies on your internet history to make sure that past searches don’t have an impact on your quest for cheap flights.

Incognito or private browsers help you to avoid the issue of prices going up after searching for the same flights multiple times. This happens because when the search engine detects multiple searches, prices rise due to the expectation that the trip is popular and could be selling out soon. Don’t let them track you – use an incognito window. You can access private browsing no matter if you use Google Chrome, Firefox, or some other web browser.


Sign up and only use credit cards that will earn you travel points


Now, this tip is only for the financially responsible. If you’ve run yourself into problems with credit cards in the past, maybe stick to your debit account. If you do have a good credit score and no problem managing your finances, credit cards that provide you with travel points and travel benefits are excellent for finding travel deals or even free flights.

When you spend, you accrue a certain amount of points (depending on the card), and over time these can add up to a free roundtrip ticket. Most people who are moderate spenders on their cards can earn at least one free return flight per year. Cards that have higher annual fees can acquire much more, but they come at a more substantial upfront cost. Do some research on various travel credit cards to see which rewards program would be the best for you. Keep in mind too that many of these cards have additional benefits like no foreign transaction fees – which is great if you’re traveling internationally.


Follow as many social media accounts of deal trackers that you can.


If you’re the first to get the alert that flights are on sale or that airlines are having a last-minute deal, you’ll have a better chance of scoring! Get on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and start stalking.

Follow the accounts of the airlines as well as accounts for the booking sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights, Expedia, and others. If you’re routinely checking your social media feeds, you’ll be the first to get the announcement if there is an ongoing sale or last-minute price cuts.  I’ve found this to be especially useful with budget airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, who routinely announce ridiculously low fares on specific routes – sometimes as cheap as €10!

Use Google Flights to research.


If you’re flexible on dates and destinations, Google Flights is the best place to start. You can compare the price differences for various days and times, search where the cheapest places from your origin are, and see pricing trends. You’ll see the cost for each day of the week or the rest of the month so you can pick the cheapest if you don’t have a set date you need to leave.

Another tool you can use with Google Flights, although not ideal for super last-minute bookings, is to use their price tracker to monitor flights of interest. You can click the toggle to watch several routes if you want to hold off on booking for a while. If the flight drops in price suddenly, you’ll get an email alert, or if it starts to increase, you know it’s time to book before it goes up too much.


Use multiple booking websites to compare, but be careful booking.


Everyone has different opinions on 3rd-party booking sites for flights. Some swear by Skyscanner, others claim Expedia is the best, and the crazy ones will say they use Kiwi to book separate legs on multiple airlines to find the best deals. I’d suggest poking around on a few to see what results you get.  Many avid travelers avoid booking through 3rd-party sites as much as possible and prefer to book with the airline directly. Booking direct avoids problems that can arise later on such as flight changes or cancellations. These issues can be difficult to reconcile if you booked through a 3rd-party.

I had one bad experience with Priceline when I had booked a roundtrip flight to Istanbul from Madrid on Iberia. Iberia changed the date of the flight to an entire week later, a week that wouldn’t work for me to travel. For my friends who had booked directly with Iberia, they had no problem sorting out a refund. For me, the airline was very unsympathetic and told me I needed to work it out with Priceline. After a lot of back and forth and being transferred through multiple rounds of customer service agents, I received a refund, but the time-consuming runaround has scared me away from booking through a 3rd-party site again. Sometimes, they are great, but you can run into big problems if you aren’t careful.

When it comes to using booking sites like Kiwi that will find you the cheapest route with various airlines, be aware that if one leg gets canceled, you run the risk of losing out on later flights, which can come at a greater cost than savings. Call it being overly cautious, but if you live in a place that often has bad weather or other reasons to cancel flights, you should avoid this option.

If you’re booking with friends, don’t all book everyone at the same time.


Booking seats separately is crucial for group travel. While it’s annoying and time-consuming, it will pay off since most airlines charge higher fares for groups booking all at once. DON’T have multiple computers or browsers searching at the same time for the same flight – this is guaranteed to get screwed up one way or another. Have one person search and book the individual seats separately instead of as a group. Airlines always show a higher price for couples or groups booking instead of the individual seats. This can be frustrating since it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll sit together, but it’s worth it to save money.


Consider searching in an alternative currency.


If your home currency is particularly strong, you can sometimes find a great deal by booking in a weaker currency. Always make sure you’re using a current tool to show the conversion rate. If the Australian dollar has recently fallen significantly compared to the American in the past few weeks, you might save yourself a chunk of money doing it this way.

Be careful using this method to make sure you’re doing the appropriate calculation and check beforehand that your credit or debit card won’t charge you a fee for booking in a different currency.


Play around with alternative routes


This is a method that requires some research (see #3 on Google Flights) but can be incredibly rewarding. Instead of going straight from your city to your destination, is there a way you could book yourself two flights with an extended stopover for cheaper? Instead of going from Los Angeles to Sydney, would it be cheaper to give yourself a 24-hour layover in Hong Kong? This way, you also get a mini vacation in Hong Kong! It can be fun to get a whirlwind tour of an extra city during a long-haul adventure. If you can find cheaper options that give you these opportunities, definitely take them!

This method comes with the same warning as I gave in #4 – be wary that if there is a cancellation of one leg, you could run into issues rebooking yourself on the next leg of the flight. Also – make sure you’re paying close attention to time changes and dates, as booking multiple different flights at the same time can be very confusing – always double check before you hit “submit payment!”


Consider using a search tool like Skiplagged.


Proceed with caution with this one. The Skiplagged search engine will find you a cheap deal where your final destination will be listed as your layover. So, instead of booking directly from Miami to Chicago, you’ll book a ticket from Miami -> Chicago -> JFK and never use the Chicago -> New York portion of the trip. This is also known as hidden city ticketing, or point beyond ticketing. Airlines are catching on to these tricks, and sometimes imposing penalties for people who use them. Miss too many flights that you’re checked in for, and you can wind up getting on the “naughty list” – losing frequent flyer miles, having privileges revoked, and it doesn’t work for round-trip journeys. When you miss one portion of a multi-stop flight, the return is automatically canceled.

Another issue that can arise with using this “hack” to find ultra-cheap flights is the question of luggage. You CAN NOT check a bag since it would continue to your final destination, and even with carry-on only, you could be forced to gate check your carry on, and yes, they will check it to the final destination listed on your booking. Ask yourself – is it worth the low fare if you have to buy all new stuff once you reach your destination?


Check to see if there are multiple airports for one destination.


If a city has multiple airports, it can be beneficial to edit your search to show all airports, instead of just a specific code. This can be super useful as sometimes budget airlines operate routes to an airport that isn’t the most popular of a city, like Gatwick or Stansted instead of Heathrow in London, or Brussels Charleroi instead of the main Brussels airport.

This method is a great way to get into a city, but be aware that you might have to shell out more money to get into the city center upon arrival. If you save $50, but then the 45-minute train ride to your hotel costs $40. Is it worth it? Always research how you get from the airport to your accommodation, and get an approximation of how much that will cost to make an informed decision.


If you can, check the day of for any last-minute drops.


Booking the same day as the flight doesn’t always result in a drop in price, but if you’re flexible, sometimes you can score. Check in the morning to see if you find any deals, in case the airline is auctioning off empty seats in hopes of landing a few more sales before the flight takes off. It will entirely depend on the route and how full the flight is booked the day of – if they are full, this isn’t going to happen. If it’s a wide-open flight, you’re more likely to get lucky. I’ve heard stories of people finding a roundtrip flight from Ohio to Sydney, Australia, for as low as $700 on the day of, when it usually was twice that price booked in advance.


Be prepared for the acrobatics that comes with flying budget airlines.


Careful research into the rules of each budget airline is essential to avoid surprise charges once you arrive at the airport. Most budget airlines require that you print out your ticket or have access to it on mobile, and they have VERY restrictive carry-on luggage requirements.  Each budget airline is different too. Just because your bag worked on Ryanair doesn’t mean it meets the standards of other carriers.  They also try to sneak in additional fees for small things like picking your seat or even paying on a credit card.

Always take the measurements of your baggage, wear lots of layers to avoid packing too much, bring your food and drinks on board, and accept the fact that you’ll have very little to no leg room!


Don’t spend an entire day trying to find the perfect deal.


In the end, don’t spend too much of your time searching for the absolute cheapest option. Once when I was in a hostel, a bickering couple next to me spent over two hours looking for flights, comparing various deals and clicking through all sorts of search engines to save a few bucks.

In the end, after spending so much time researching, they managed to save $20 off the original price they had found when they first searched. Two hours of fighting to save $20? Not worth it. Don’t waste all your time trying to save a few bucks, if you see a good deal, buy it and then go live your life!


Things to remember – always read the fine print.


When you first see an incredible deal on a flight finder, it’s easy to let excitement carry you away. Maintain focus. Make sure you read the fine print and all the details of the cheap flight. Sometimes, airlines put in all sorts of tricks that can turn your paradise budget trip into a traveling nightmare. Do you have baggage included or will that be an extra charge? Do you have a ridiculously long layover or have to switch airports? Make sure you comb through all the details of what to expect before confirming your booking to ensure that you don’t get yourself into a messy situation.

One of the best ways to be a purveyor of cheap flights is to always be searching for deals, even if you aren’t actively planning on booking. The more you check Google Flights and research various routes and airlines, the more likely you’ll be to stumble upon a great deal. People who score amazingly cheap plane tickets are usually the people who spend a lot of time checking out prices and comparing week-by-week. So, instead of watching dozens of Instagram or SnapChat stories in your free time, jump on Google Flights or Skyscanner and see if you can get lucky!

Happy flying!

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Comments (2)

  • VivaciousVipin 5 years ago Reply

    Hahaha some of really good hacks to get cheap flights. I personally love the incognito method, because I guess most of your privacy is hidden and Airlines couldn’t take advantage of you!

  • ainge747 5 years ago Reply

    Another tip is to subscribe or follow cheap flight deal sites. This will save you a ton of time. Based in Australia, one I follow is http://www.flightfinderau.com

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