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Frequent travelers have gamed the airfare system and discovered how to get cheap last-minute flights ever since they could search for their own direct flights. Historically, airlines have followed what is often referred to as the “21-day rule” in pricing their flights.

Flights typically open for booking 331 days in advance, and from then until about 21 days before departure, the price is the least expensive you’ll find — after which they raise ticket prices at 14 days, and again at seven days. Research shows that the sweet spot for finding low fares is 44 days before your flight. But last-minute flight deals are out there — you just need to know where to look.

1. How airfare pricing works

Oval-shaped airplane portholes with the shades drawn up, showing a beautiful cloudscape.

Statistically, airlines do tend to mark up their fares as you get closer to your flight time. The idea is that the airlines anticipate capturing different types of customers further out from a flight than they do at the last minute.

Budget-minded flyers might go for those earlier-selling tickets, while business travelers who are booking on the company dime are less concerned about price and might be more likely to book closer to the date.

The airlines’ fare structures plan for certain types of travelers, pricing one bucket of seats for the planners, another for the less price-conscious travelers, another for mileage upgrades and so on. But more and more, airlines are moving toward a dynamic pricing model; in other words, their fares may change dozens of times a day, based on factors like market conditions, how customers are booking and how the flight is selling at a given time.

While you’re generally more likely to get a good deal the further out you book, there are still last-minute deals to be had. And by using a combination of good strategy and search tools, you can find cheap flights.

2. Be flexible with timing

If you can be flexible with your travel dates, your savings can be significant. For instance, let’s say you want to travel from Sacramento to Atlanta around a certain time, but you’re not committed to exact dates. You can go to the KAYAK Flight Search and enter your cities and date, but before you hit the search key, click on the calendar icon next to the date you’re searching. You’ll get a pulldown calendar of dates that will show you which dates the flights are cheapest (on the dates we searched we found more than $120 difference between days).

You can pick from those or go to the upper right-hand corner of the date picker calendar and click on the arrow next to “Departure.” If you have flexibility, choose up to “±3 days” from the pull-down list. It will reveal the fares on either side of your dates. Don’t click out just yet: Make sure you check out “Our Advice” on the left of the fares, where the Price Forecast recommends whether to book now or wait.

3. Look for alternate cities

Let’s say you’re going to Salem, OR. The nearest large airport is Portland Airport (PDX), which is 50 miles north. Try searching flights to Eugene (EUG), instead: it’s 58 miles south, and depending on where you’re arriving from, flights can be far cheaper. (Keep in mind that you may need to be willing to make a stop.) Consider alternate cities in or near your destination if you’re looking for a deal.

For instance, in addition to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, search the smaller Orly Airport (ORY).

KAYAK suggests all nearby airports within a 70-100-mile radius of your origin/or destination (for instance, search for London and you’ll come up with Heathrow (LHR), Gatwick (LGW), and London City (LCY)). 

Just select “Nearby airports” on your flight search. Here’s how to do it.

4. Search for a whole new trip

If you’ve ever just needed to get away at the last minute, and you’re willing to go anywhere your budget will take you, you can go to the KAYAK Explore. Just enter your departure city, and find amazing places you can fly within your price range.

Use the slide tools to filter for budget and flight length, as well as the type of trip (Flexible? Check “anything”) and how many stops you’re willing to take. You can search within a date range or any time, any duration, and discover a deal you never even thought about.

5. Hack your flight: how to get cheap last-minute flights

For years, resourceful travelers have hacked their flights by searching for one-way fares and then combining them to create an itinerary. The idea is that rather than booking a roundtrip fare, you can book two one-way fares, each on a different airline. You don’t even need to put the work in, because the KAYAK Hacker Fares do it for you automatically. If you don’t see the hacker fare immediately, you can look for it specifically in the “flight quality” filter on the left side of your screen.

6. Set a price alert

If you’ve got a specific destination in mind, you could do what lots of people do: search for it over and over again, or at funky times of day like 12:01 am. But these strategies are hit or miss. The easier way is to set a Price Alert for yourself. Perform a flight search, then click on the bell icon next to it. KAYAK will continuously search for you. When the price changes, we’ll notify you via email or push notification. You can use this tool in a couple of different ways. Search airfare for an exact date range; monitor it for a destination (with Flexible Dates), or even set up a Top 25 Cities Price Alert that will let you know when there’s a deal to one of the most popular cities.

Finding cheap last-minute plane tickets can be a full-time job – or you can do your own expert searching by filtering your searches and letting KAYAK do the work for you. Still undecided as to your destination? KAYAK helps you! Check out the latest travel tips and news or inspiration.

The backside of an airplane in flight against the backdrop of a sunset sky.

Some of our top flight routes

Cheap last-minute flights FAQ

Generally, booking last minute is not cheaper, and booking closer to the departure is typically more expensive than booking in advance.

Airlines will occasionally put seats on sale to fill remaining spots on flights.

Prices fluctuate with demand, so booking on a certain day won’t increase your chances of landing a cheap last-minute fare. Check KAYAK’s most recent addition to the line of money-saving tools, the Best Time to Travel, and nail down your trip dates.

About the author

Andrea BennettAndrea Bennett is the former editor-in-chief of Vegas magazine and group editor-in-chief of several city and custom magazines for Modern Luxury. She counts her years as an anonymous hotel critic for The New York Post as her very favorite. Among her years in New York City, Kuwait, Atlanta, and San Diego, she has moved to Las Vegas three times.

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