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Airfare 101, Part 3: Save a Fortune With Last-Minute Flights

by , SmarterTravel Staff - September 25, 2008

The First installment of Airfare 101 discussed a back-to-basics approach to booking airfare. Part Two explained how to name your own price. This time, find out how to save money by booking last-minute travel.

Lesson #1: Know Where to Look

Although as a general rule I advise against waiting until the | last minute to book, there are exceptions. Airlines often release last-minute sale fares at rock-bottom prices for flights they haven't filled to entice customers to take a spontaneous weekend trip. If you're just looking to get away, this might be an option for you.

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The major airlines (American, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways) and smaller airlines (like Alaska) all release last-minute sale fares on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays for travel in the days and weeks ahead. Last-minute airfares usually depart on Fridays or Saturdays, and return on Sundays through Wednesdays.

Below is a general guideline of the domestic airlines that offer last-minute fares, as well as the days of the week when they release the sale fares.

Mondays

  • Alaska (domestic travel beyond this weekend)
  • Delta (domestic travel for this weekend)

Tuesdays

  • American (domestic and international travel for this weekend, next weekend, and beyond)
  • Continental (domestic travel for this weekend)
  • United (domestic and international travel for this weekend, next weekend, and beyond)

Wednesdays

  • US Airways (domestic travel for this weekend, and international travel for this weekend and beyond)

Most of the airlines mentioned above will send email newsletters with each week's last-minute airfares to flyers who have signed up on their websites. A good way to monitor all of the airlines' last-minute fare sales is to sign up for SmarterTravel.com's free last-minute airfare newsletters. The newsletters collect fares from all of the airlines listed above (and others as they become available), tailored to the departure city of your choice, so you don't have to scour each airline's website every week to find a last-minute fare.

The newsletters are delivered once per week, on Wednesday mornings. An additional international last-minute airfare newsletter is also delivered on Fridays to select cities, so you can keep tabs on the last-minute sales to destinations abroad.

Lesson #2: Act Quickly

Most last-minute airfares don't have an advance-booking requirement, allowing you to book right before you fly. Even so, if you see a fare you like, you should reserve it as soon as possible, as the last-minute specials are very limited and sell out quickly. A fare you see in the morning will often be sold out by the afternoon. Even if you're interested in a fare for next weekend, book it right away, because it most likely won't be available for long.

Lesson #3: Keep Track of Flights

Keep an eye on the last-minute airfares that are released every week for your city, and you'll begin to notice patterns. Competing airlines will generally offer last-minute fares on similar routes. Watch for patterns and know which airlines serve your city, and which cities are | airline hubs. That way, you'll know which airlines are likely to offer low prices on your route.

Lesson #4: Last-Minute Vacations

If you can't find a last-minute airfare that suits your needs, bundling air and hotel is another way to save money. An increasing number of websites are now devoted to offering | last-minute vacation packages at low prices. Packages vary widely: weekend or weeklong; air-and-hotel, air-and-car, or hotel-and-extras; domestic or international. There are dozens of websites offering last-minute packages, and you can compare prices using our vacation package comparison tool.

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