When Is Booking Last-Minute Flights Worth It? It Can Save You Lots Of Money… If Done Right

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Although some people book airline tickets several months in advance, others wait until just weeks or days before they want to leave. There are several reasons someone may do the latter, from waiting to see when they can get time off to spontaneously deciding to travel someplace. Even though there are several flight aggregator websites available these days, when is it worth it to book tickets for flights last-minute? Of course, doing so may cost you more money … but sometimes, it can save you money as well. It just depends on how you do it.

Last-minute travel is becoming more popular overall,” Justine McDonald, senior manager at CheapTickets, tells Bustle. “But waiting until the last minute for standalone flights can be a gamble.”

She says that if you’re looking for a deal, it’s best to start with downloading mobile apps and signing up for email travel sites’ email lists.

“It sounds old school, but online travel agencies and even the airlines themselves often run limited-time sales that offer great fares,” she says. “For instance, CheapTickets has curated pages that pull in last-minute flight deals and flights under $149, both of which are great ways to identify affordable flights within your budget.”

First, Define “Last-Minute”

Of course, “last-minute” may be subjective — to one person, it could be a few days in advance; to another, it could be a month (or more). Steve Sintra, regional director of North America at KAYAK, tells Bustle that if you know where you want to travel, KAYAK’s “When to Book” section of their 2019 Travel Hacker Guide can help.

“It breaks down our recommendations on how far in advance to book based on the region you’re interested in traveling to,” he says. “For example, our data shows that if you’re planning a trip a bit closer to home — North America, the Caribbean, or even South America — booking one month in advance is the sweet spot.”

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Mariel Clark, VP of home and travel digital at Discovery Inc., agrees about defining “last-minute.” “If you’re planning travel around a specific event or are hoping to fly on your preferred airline, you should ideally book two months out for domestic travel and six months out for international travel,” she says. “There’s no guarantee, but those windows will typically allow you to snag more affordable tickets without the concerns of airfares skyrocketing or selling out.”

Below, travel experts reveal their inside knowledge about booking plane tickets at the last minute — and when to do so.

1. Fly During The Shoulder Season Or Winter Months

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While you may want to go somewhere hot and sunny, it may be better for your budget if you go when it’s cooler instead. “If you truly want the best rates, especially when traveling internationally, visit during the shoulder season [between high and low seasons] or winter months,” says McDonald. “We’ve seen some rock-bottom deals on quality airlines to parts of Europe, London, and Nordic countries from January through March.” She adds that London, Barcelona, and Dublin were on CheapTickets’ list of cheapest places to travel to in the New Year because of their low airfares and vacation package prices in the first part of the year.

A Skyscanner spokesperson agrees, telling Bustle that, domestically, January is almost always the cheapest time to fly. “Airlines always have sales in January — because everyone has usually overspent on Christmas, so flights need to be lowered to incentivize people to fly,” they tell Bustle. “It’s no surprise that some colder northern destinations (Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, NYC, Minneapolis, and Portland) have their best flight prices of the year in January, and February and September are also good.” For instance, they say that many cities in the South (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, and Honolulu) have their lowest flight prices in the late summer (September) since fewer people can handle the heat.

Internationally, too, Skyscanner says that the cheapest times to fly have been in winter months — January and February — as well as the shoulder season before fall — September and October. “So knowing that these months have historically lower-than-average-prices, it would be worth it to book last-minute to get those fares,” they say.

2. Try Booking A Vacation Package Versus Just A Flight

McDonald says that if you’re looking at last-minute flights, you may save more if you book a vacation package instead. “Travelers can save up to 40 percent or more, on average, by booking flights and hotels together, and that’s where the best last-minute savings can be found,” she says. “In fact, for anyone booking summer travel now through the end of September, our pricing data is showing that buying a vacation package just one week out is actually the best time to save.”

3. Try Flying To A Nearby Airport Or City, Not Your Final Destination

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McDonald says that traveling to Europe (or really anywhere) during the high season will certainly cost you more, but she has a solution. “Research flights to cities outside of the traditional hubs, such as Nice instead of Paris,” she says. Then, you can take alternate transportation to your final destination, such as a bus, train, or long-distance rideshare service (such as BlaBlaCar).

McDonald also suggests flying to a different country altogether. “Starting or ending your trip in Eastern European cities like Budapest or Warsaw can also be a great way to save on the international fare part of your budget since prices tend to trend lower,” she says.

4. Be Flexible About Your Travel Dates — And Use Search Engines And Flight Comparison Sites

Whether you use Google Flights to search exact travel dates or Skyscanner and use their “whole month” feature to see what day of a certain month offers the cheapest flights, flight comparison sites are ideal when it comes to last-minute bookings.

“Using search engines can be helpful for getting an idea of what you might expect to pay for different destinations throughout the year,” says McDonald. “But when it comes down to booking, I do recommend using an online travel site like CheapTickets.”

Similarly, if you really want to go to Paris in the summer, you can try searching for flights leaving mid-week versus the weekend, she says.

Sintra seconds the idea of being flexible with your travel dates if you want to find lower last-minute prices. “Even a day or two can make a difference,” he tells Bustle. “Check out KAYAK’s Flex Search, which shows you how flight prices change if you leave +/- three days from your planned arrival and departure dates.”

5. Look At Various Travel Sites’ Perks

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Online travel sites can also help you save money in other ways. For instance, when travelers book airfare on CheapTickets right now, they’ll earn $10 in CheapCash travel dollars that they can apply toward a hotel. “Plus, every day on our site, travelers can find promo codes, such as 16 percent off hotels,” says McDonald. “In the end, racking up some of these extra deals can save travelers money.”

KAYAK, too, can help when it comes to booking a flight, as well as the travel budget you have in mind. “If you’re flexible with when or where you travel, KAYAK offers several tools which can help you score a last-minute deal,” says Sintra. “For instance, if your heart isn’t set on a particular destination, our Explore tool is a great hack to help you make the most of your money.” He says you just put in your home airport and how much you want to spend on a flight (say, $200), and KAYAK will show you all the places you can go within that budget.

Similarly, with Skyscanner, if you don’t have a particular destination in mind — but you know you’re traveling from Chicago — you can choose “Everywhere” as the destination and see what comes up. You never know, and could end up going to an amazing place that hadn’t crossed your mind before.

6. Sign Up For Travel Alerts

Now that you’ve searched travel prices and various dates, make sure to sign up for flight alerts so you don’t have to keep checking websites on your own. That way, the sites will do the work for you — when your ideal flight goes up or down in price, you’ll be notified. “I suggest monitoring ticket availability and price changes with the help of notification services, such as Google alerts, Hopper, or KAYAK,” says Clark.

7. Keep Hidden Fees In Mind, Like Baggage

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Especially when booking a last-minute ticket, McDonald says not to forget about hidden fees, like seating choice and the flight’s baggage allotment. “Online travel sites like ours will notify customers throughout the booking process about what is and isn’t included in a ticket,” she says. “That’s important because, while a round-trip flight from Austin to Denver for less than $100 may sound like a good deal, if you end up paying for bags and seat assignments later, you may not be saving all that much.”

8. Really Research A Ticket For A Last-Minute Trip Over The Holidays

You may be wondering if it’s ever worth it to get a last-minute flight over the holidays. “Most holidays, we see that booking last minute is not worth it at all and has high prices,” a Skyscanner spokesperson says. “Going through historical data for the holidays, some select destinations and holidays can make it worth it to book last minute, and some only require a couple weeks out versus a couple months. Surprisingly, there were some domestic deals for Christmas and New Year’s Eve two weeks out.”

If you want to go home for the holidays and need to be a in certain city, Skyscanner says it’s likely not worth it to wait. “But if people are open to rolling the dice, there may be domestic deals around the holidays with just a week or two notice in advance,” they say.

For spring break, Skyscanner says that in 2018, they saw that it would not be worth it to book last-minute if you’re hoping for an international destination. “To score good prices, booking 90 days in advance in recommended; however, some domestic deals could be found around 30 days in advance,” they say. But if you want to go to Mexico for spring break, there were great last-minute deals, Skyscanner says, even if only booking a week out.

As for Thanksgiving, Skyscanner says their research found that it was not worth it to book last-minute if you were flying domestically. “Booking at least one month in advance is needed, but booking around 2-3 months is even better,” they say. Similarly, waiting to book a flight a week before Christmas is not a good idea either. But two or three weeks in advance can still offer some decent prices for the week of Christmas, they say.

New Year’s Eve naturally follows Christmas, and Skyscanner found that NYE prices are best no less than two to three weeks out. “For a full week vacation combining Christmas and NYE, we sliced this data by domestic and international,” they say. “Domestically, it is best to book 2-3 weeks in advance; internationally, it’s no surprise that it’s not worth it to book last-minute, and people should be booking 2-3 months in advance.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all formula to booking flights at the last minute, there are certainly ways to do so, especially given the above. Plus, once you define “last-minute” and the purpose of your trip, it’ll make things even easier and you can focus more on the destination, not the journey.

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