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How to get that last-minute fare: An insider’s guide to traveling on a whim

SmarterTravel

One of the best ways to fly on the cheap is by booking a last-minute airfare. Most of the major U.S. airlines and some international airlines release last-minute fares every week. These fares are often much cheaper than both regular prices and typical walk-up (no advance-purchase) fares because the airlines are attempting to fill seats that would otherwise go empty.

Often, however, travelers will see a low price and try to book it on the airline’s website, only to have the fare come up hundreds of dollars more expensive. Are these last-minute airfares actually available? We’ve analyzed more than 50 recent routes, and have come up with strategies to help you get that low last-minute airfare.

Where to find last-minute fares

We checked last-minute airfares from 10 airlines, and found that we could book the advertised fare (plus taxes and fees) on about half of the routes. However, some airlines had better availability than others, while some airlines’ websites were easier to use than others.

When we searched, the airlines with the best availability were Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Spirit, and US Airways. We had more difficulty finding some of America West’s fares, and had to try several date ranges before finding the listed price. It was most difficult to find United’s fares.

And, we also tried booking on two international airlines’ websites: Aeromexico and Mexicana. We had to try several dates before we could find Aeromexico’s listed fares, and we were unable to find many of Mexicana’s, because its website was slow and difficult to use.

  • Alaska: Alaska offers domestic fares for the upcoming weekend. We were able to find the advertised prices on all of the routes we checked
  • America West: America West offers domestic fares for the upcoming weekend (regular fares and “sports” fares), as well as fares for one weekend beyond. We were able to find the sports fares at the advertised prices; however, it was much more difficult to find the other fares. To get the advertised prices for the upcoming weekend fares, we had to choose alternate dates.
  • American: American offers last-minute domestic airfares for the upcoming weekend, and one weekend beyond, as well as international airfares for one weekend beyond. We found that American’s base prices (prices before taxes and fees) were even lower than advertised on most routes.
  • Continental: When we checked, Continental only offered a few domestic and international fares (less than most airlines) for the upcoming weekend. However, we did find all of the advertised fares.
  • Delta: Delta offers domestic fares for the upcoming weekend. We were able to find all of the advertised fares we checked.
  • Spirit: Spirit offers domestic and international fares for several upcoming weekends. We found all of the advertised prices.
  • United: United offers significantly more fares than most of the other airlines. Its selection of thousands of fares includes domestic and international fares for the upcoming weekend and weekends beyond. We were able to find about half of the fares we searched. In some cases, by trying numerous dates, we were able to find the advertised prices, but on other routes we received a “No qualifying flights available” error message.
  • US Airways: US Airways offers domestic fares for the upcoming weekend and international fares for the weekends beyond. We were able to find the advertised prices on all of the routes we searched.

Ways to save

To increase your chances of finding a low advertised price, be sure to follow some basic guidelines.

It’s smart to sign up for last-minute airfares e-mail newsletters from your preferred airline. If you’re not a frequent flyer, or if you want access to hundreds of different fare options, consider signing up for SmarterTravel.com’s weekly last-minute airfares e-mail newsletter, which will notify you of all discounted last-minute flights departing from your preferred city.

For the best availability, you should be ready to book as soon as you see a fare you like (in an e-mail newsletter from SmarterTravel.com or your airline). Or, if you’re an early riser, try booking directly on the airline’s website as soon as it is updated, usually around midnight on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Be sure to read the booking restrictions. Last-minute airfares often have a very limited booking window and restricted travel dates. Make sure you book on valid travel days, or you won’t be eligible for the last-minute price. And, be sure that you plan to stay for the required amount of days.

If you can’t find the advertised price, try departing or arriving on the day before or after the day you selected (unless the alternate dates do not apply for the last-minute price). When we searched on America West, for example, we could have saved about $10 to $100 by traveling on alternate dates.

As we found in our searches, low last-minute airfares are available, but they aren’t always easy to book. But, by using our guide and following these ways to save, you’ll have a better chance of finding that low last-minute fare the next time you want to fly on a whim.

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