While we generally recommend booking international travel 2-6 months in advance (as this is when you’re likely to find the best deal), we know that’s not always possible. Some travelers prefer to keep firm itineraries at arm’s length and embrace serendipity, and others might have to pull together a trip at the 11th hour to deal with a crisis.
If, by choice or chance, you find yourself scrambling to find a cheap last minute flight, here are some tips to help reduce the cost.
Is it cheaper to book a flight at the last minute?
We’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating at the outset—no, it’s really not cheaper to book a flight at the last minute. Yes, last minute travelers used to score the occasional fare so low it might have induced shock, but that’s no longer the case.
It used to be that airlines saw any empty seat at takeoff as lost potential revenue. But now, as pricing algorithms have gotten more complex and forward-thinking, airlines have realized they make more money by jacking up prices and taking advantage of business travelers willing to pay full price for a last minute or even same-day flight.
The days of spectacularly cheap last minute flights have, for the most part, gone the way of the dodo.
So, what does that mean for the intrepid traveler who hates to plan or the planner who suddenly needs to fly cross-country to visit a sick loved one? It means you’ll either have to give in to paying higher fares or plan ahead as much as you feasibly can.
How far in advance should I book a flight?
Some experts would have you believe that here are certain months, days, and even hours of the day when you should book to save money, but as any Scott’s Cheap Flights member knows, airfare deals pop up year-round, every day of the week, at all times of day—though those deals don’t necessarily include the destination you need.
As a rule, you’ll find the best deals on international fares 2-6 months ahead of your trip (though you should start looking earlier if you’re traveling during the high season or over a holiday). The window for domestic flights is 1-3 months out. Neither of those is very “last minute,” of course.
If you’re looking for a trip and you’ve already passed the ideal window, don’t despair. For travel during off-peak times, you may still find a decent deal as few as six weeks before you need to fly, but any closer to your travel date and cheap fares become more unlikely. Prices start to climb precipitously at around 2-3 weeks out.
I need to travel for a funeral or to be with a sick relative. What about bereavement flights?
Those of us who don’t live within driving distance of our families know that if the unthinkable should happen, we’d have no choice but to hop on a plane—and funerals rarely get planned months in advance.
Once upon a time, most airlines offered “bereavement fares” for just these circumstances; these fares weren’t necessarily dirt cheap, but they also weren’t the typical high last minute price, either. Nowadays, there are only a few airlines left that still offer bereavement fares, and they aren’t always the lowest price, so it’s still wise to do your own search and compare prices. For bereavement fare pricing, the discount is taken off a higher fare class, not the cheapest fare available, and you may find you get a better price on your own.
For example, if the same flight offers a refundable fare for $400 and a deep discount fare at $200, the bereavement discount is taken off the $400 refundable fare, so even if it's a 10% discount, that only brings the price down to $360, which is still higher than the deep discount $200 fare.
Here are the details and requirements for bereavement fares on the airlines that offer them in North America.
- Air Canada: Reduced fares are available for an imminent death or a death in your immediate family (which includes spouses, children, step-children, parents, step-parents, siblings, step- and half-siblings, grandparents, great grandparents, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and some in-laws). You’ll need to phone the airline or visit a ticket counter and have some information at the ready, including the contact information of the attending physician and hospital/hospice or funeral home. The fare only applies within 10 days of travel (for international trips, it’s seven days). If you’ve already made the trip without a bereavement flight, you can also apply for a refund within 90 days of issue date. Complete Air Canada bereavement fare details here.
- Alaska Airlines: A 10% reduction in the lowest available fare is available to Mileage Plan members (it’s free to join) for the death of an immediate family member (which includes spouses, domestic partners, children, step-children, parents, stepparents, siblings, step- and half-siblings, grandparents, great grandparents, grandchildren, great grandchildren, aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, and some in-laws). You must call the airline to get the discount, and it only applies within seven days of travel. Complete Alaska Airlines bereavement fare details here.
- Delta Airlines: Tickets with increased flexibility and no service fees are available to SkyMiles members (it’s free to join) for an imminent death or a death in your immediate family (which includes spouses, domestic partners, children, step-children, parents, step-parents, siblings, step-siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, and some in-laws). These tickets are only available by calling the airline, and you’ll need to provide information like the contact information of the attending physician and hospital/hospice or funeral home. Complete Delta Airlines bereavement fare details here.
- WestJet: Tickets with increased flexibility and no service fees are available for an imminent death or a death in your immediate family (which includes spouses, children, step-children, parents, step-parents, siblings, step-siblings, grandparents, great grandparents, grandchildren, great grandchildren, aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, some in-laws, and the executor of the deceased’s estate). You’ll need to call the airline and these tickets only apply within 14 days of travel. Complete WestJet bereavement fare details here.
The documentation required differs by airline, so although some of that information is listed above, be sure to read through each airline’s policy so you’ve got everything you need on hand before you make the call.
Some other airlines offer tickets with more flexibility than the typical last minute flight or lower-than-normal change fees if a sudden death means you need to cancel or change a planned trip (American Airlines and United Airlines among them).
If the airline with the ticket you need doesn’t have a bereavement flight policy, it doesn’t hurt to call their customer service line or (if they have an active customer service presence on social media) contact them online to find out if there’s anything they’re willing or able to do. Even airlines without specific policies on bereavement fares may be willing to waive fees for you.
Keep in mind that, as mentioned above, a bereavement flight may not be the cheapest fare available. It may be the increased flexibility that’s the real perk. In any event, it’s always a good idea to see what deals you can find on your own to compare them with any bereavement flight options.
If I absolutely must travel last minute, how do I get the lowest airfare?
When advance planning isn’t possible, here are some things to consider to get a cheaper last minute flight.
- As you get closer to your departure date, every day matters. Booking seven days in advance is almost always cheaper than booking four days in advance, which is almost always cheaper than booking one day in advance. If you can firm up your plans even a few days earlier, it can help you save.
- If you’ve got frequent flyer miles at your disposal, find out whether they can help ease the strain on your wallet. You can often get great value from points and miles on last minute flights.
- If you’re flying to another country, especially over an ocean, look for the gateway or hub airport with the cheapest flights—even if it’s not the place you ultimately want to go. From there, you can get to your intended destination with a separate flight on a budget carrier (the two tickets combined can sometimes be a great deal cheaper than one ticket to a less-popular airport), or drive or take a train (check Rome2Rio to find the best options). We love this method for finding cheap international flights whether they’re last minute or not. You can use the map on Google Flights to find the airport with the best deals or use the standard fields to search for tickets to multiple airports at once (we cover all of this in detail in this cheap flight hack article, so don’t miss that).
- If you’re within driving distance of another airport, look at fares departing from there as well as your home airport.
- If you’ll also be booking a hotel room or renting a car, look into what package deals are available. The total price of those packages may be better than anything you’d get buying individually—plus you’ll cover your lodging and transportation in one fell swoop.
- Skiplagged is a great place to look for last minute flights, as they also search hidden-city tickets. Hidden-city ticketing is when you buy a ticket from city A to city C with a layover in city B, and you get off the plane in city B. Just be sure you’re aware of the potential pitfalls of hidden-city ticketing and the extra measures you'll need to take (for example, don't check luggage, and make sure you book one-ways as any legs after the skipped flight will be cancelled).