The secrets to cheap last-minute flight deals: Here’s how to save
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If you’ve ever tried to book a flight at the last minute, you’ve probably had the same frustration many of us face. Fares are usually sky-high compared to booking in advance, and availability can be very limited (if not impossible to find). Airlines are happy to charge top dollar to folks who have no choice but to travel at short notice, be it for a family emergency, sudden work trip, or even an opportunity for a spontaneous getaway.
Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to save money on last-minute flights. Having miles and points from the best travel credit cards will help, and knowing where and how to book can sometimes make the difference between an affordable trip and a painfully expensive experience.
I’ll run through some strategies you can use to find cheap last-minute flight deals.
How to get cheap last-minute flight deals
Start with Google Flights to set your expectations
Before you start investigating ways to book your last-minute flight, it’s important to find the baseline on fares airlines are charging for your route and dates right now. Google Flights is an excellent resource, because you can search for the cheapest fares on multiple airlines at once. You never know when you might find a cheap ticket.
Google Flights is also handy if you’ve discovered you’ve got some time off and aren’t picky about where you go, or if you’ve had to wait until the last second to book a vacation because of uncertainties in your schedule. They’ve got a nifty explore function where you can see a map view of all the places you can go from your airport – you just specify the dates and the maximum price you’re willing to pay.
Keep in mind, some low-cost airlines (like Southwest) won’t appear on Google Flights, so you’ll have to search those airlines separately on their own websites. Read our post on how to use Google Flights search like a pro.
Don’t ignore budget airlines
If you’re one of those rare travelers able to travel extremely light, you could make out like a bandit flying low-cost airlines like Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, WestJet, etc. You get what you pay for with these carriers — and you don’t get what you don’t pay for. Many budget airlines charge extra for things like:
- Choosing your own seat
- A carry-on bag
- A checked bag
- Airport boarding passes print-outs
- Onboard refreshments — even water
- Emergency oxygen masks (not really)
As long as you acquaint yourself with these fees before you fly, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Even if you decide to spring for an expensive checked bag, you could still save a fortune over big airlines. Just be sure to price your ticket with all its hidden fees before jumping on a cheap fare.
Search multiple airports at once
Airports can have dramatically different ticket prices. In some cases, a nearby airport (or destination) will sell tickets for hundreds of dollars cheaper. It pays to price the surrounding airports. When you’re looking for alternate airports, Google Flights allows you to search multiple routes at once.
See, many areas have more than one nearby airport. For example:
- Los Angeles:
- Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
- John Wayne Airport (SNA)
- Long Beach Airport (LGB)
- New York City:
- John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
- LaGuardia Airport (LGA)
- Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
- Long Island MacArthur Airport (ISP)
- Washington, DC:
- Washington Dulles Airport (IAD)
- Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA)
- Baltimore/ Washington Airport (BWI)
Search for flights from one or two of the closest airports. You may be able to save big by driving a little farther. For example, if you’re looking for cheap flights from Lexington to Tampa, you can enter multiple airports in both the origin and destination box.
You’ll then be taken to the results page which automatically shows you the cheapest tickets for every permutation of origin and destination. In this case, Cincinnati to Clearwater is $90 cheaper than Lexington to Tampa. You’ll have to weigh if the extra driving is worth the money — but if you’re traveling with family, a $90 savings per person can add up fast.
You can also click “Nearby airports” near the top of the page if you don’t know off-hand which alternate airports surround your destination.
Redeem airline miles for award flights
While we always recommend booking award flights as early as possible to get the most availability, you might not know that some airlines release extra award seats close to the date of departure. Don’t assume you won’t be able to find an award flight just because you’re traveling last minute.
MMS editor Jasmin used airline miles to book a last-minute flight. Her dad’s cousin passed away unexpectedly, and tickets to Calgary for the funeral were over $500 at the last minute. That’s a lot of money for a senior on a fixed income, and he wouldn’t have been able to go. But luckily there were plenty of award seats available, so she redeemed 15,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles for his ticket and he was able to attend, which meant a lot to him.
Meghan redeemed 25,000 United Airlines miles for a last minute, round-trip domestic ticket for her sister when she realized she had a few days off to visit family before starting a new job. That same ticket was selling for over $700, and Meghan was able to quickly transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines to book the flight.
Note:If you have certain Chase United Airlines credit cards, you’ll get access to more available United award seats – even if it’s the last seat on the plane. This includes cards like the United℠ Explorer Card.
The examples above bring up another good reason to collect transferable points. You’re not locked into a specific airline, so if you suddenly have to book a ticket, you can move your points to the frequent flyer program you need if an award seat is available. Here are the major transferable points programs and their partners:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: Transfer to United Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue, British Airways (for American Airlines flights), and Flying Blue (for Delta flights), and more
- AMEX Membership Rewards: Transfer to Delta, Air Canada Aeroplan (for United flights), British Airways (for American Airlines flights), and more
- Citi ThankYou: Transfer to Singapore Airlines (for United flights), Qantas (for American Airlines flights), JetBlue, and more
- Capital One: Transfer for Singapore Airlines or Air Canada Aeroplan (for United flights), Qantas (for American Airlines flights), and more
If you’re having trouble finding seats, be sure to check out award flights on Southwest and JetBlue. With both these airlines, as long as there’s a seat for sale on the airplane, you can book it with points. Keep in mind the price of an award is tied to the cost of a paid ticket, so expensive last-minute tickets will cost more points. It’s still worth it if you absolutely must get on a certain flight.
Use flexible bank points for paid flights without blackout dates
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find award seats – all is not lost if you have flexible bank points in your arsenal. You can still redeem miles and points for paid flights by booking tickets through the bank travel portal, or in some cases directly with your card.
The easiest method is to use a card like Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to pay for your ticket. Once the transaction posts to your account, you can redeem your miles to “erase” the charge within a certain time frame. And it works for just about any airline – even low-cost carriers. Read our full guide for how to use Capital One miles.
With this card, your miles are worth 1 cent each toward paid travel. There’s no minimum redemption amount if you use Capital One Venture miles (unless you’re using miles to partially pay for the ticket, in which case the minimum is 2,500 miles or $25).
You can use Capital One Venture miles to erase airfare charges on your card, even with low-cost airlines. (Photo Credit: Spirit Airlines)
You can get a value of more than 1 cent per point if you have certain cards and redeem your points to book airfare through a bank travel site like the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal or Citi ThankYou Travel Portal. This is my favorite method, because there are no blackout dates, and it can actually get you a better deal than transferring points to an airline to book an award flight if a ticket is inexpensive. It’s easy to do and works similarly to third-party sites like Orbitz or Expedia.
Here’s the Chase points values you’ll get with each eligible card:
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The information for the Chase Freedom has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
I priced out a random one-way coach flight between Indianapolis and Orlando. On the Chase Travel Portal, the cheapest fare is an American Airlines flight for $81, or 6,488 Chase points (with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card). The same flight would cost 10,000 American Airlines miles — so you’re effectively getting the flight for 4,500+ fewer points.
Be sure to compare the airfare you found on Google Flights with the prices on the bank portal. They’re usually the same, but if not, it’s worth a call to see if you can get the same rate.
You can also redeem Amex Membership Rewards points for airfare through the Amex Travel Portal at a rate of 1 cent per point. But here’s another handy trick to save money (and points) if you have The Business Platinum Card® from American Express.
As an Amex Business Platinum cardholder, you get:
- 35% of your points back for ALL first or business class flights booked through the Amex Travel Portal
- 35% of your points back for all flights, including coach tickets, booked with your selected airline through the Amex travel portal
This perk can really soften the blow of having to pay for an expensive last-minute ticket with points.
Here’s one more angle if you have certain Amex Delta cards, like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. Cardholders can use their Delta miles through Pay With Miles at a rate of 1 cent per mile toward paid tickets. It’s handy if you can’t find award seats, but you’ll spend a lot of miles for expensive tickets.
Search online for last-minute deals
This trick is most useful for those who are planning a spontaneous vacation or a family trip at short notice. Perhaps you weren’t able to hammer out plans for summer vacation and are just looking for anywhere cheap to take a trip, or want to book a package deal at a discount.
As with any booking, it’s worth taking a few minutes to compare prices elsewhere just to make sure you’re getting a good deal. And remember, you can “erase” purchases made with online travel agencies with miles from the Capital One Venture.
Or, pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve – you’ll get up to $300 in annual travel credit for purchases with airlines, hotels, online travel agencies, and more.
Try different search engines
Yes, Google Flights is daddy of all flight search tools. But if you put in the extra effort to look at other search platforms, like Momondo and Skyscanner, a pleasant surprise will pop up every once in a while. Not all search engines provide every single available airline. And their prices can occasionally be radically different.
Unfortunately, the best deals are still sometimes directly on the airline website. One of the most popular airlines, Southwest, doesn’t advertise its prices on other platforms. You’ll have to go directly to Southwest and use their search tool to find out how much they’re charging for each route. Don’t forget Southwest!
With some other foreign airlines, it’s possible to get a huge discount on flights simply by purchasing your flight in the airline’s local currency. This sometimes means navigating their website in a foreign language, but the Google Translate extension can solve this problem for you. Flights can be 20%+ cheaper simply by not making the website price your ticket in USD.
Use fare deal sites
You’ve probably heard of sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights and Secret Flying. These sites are mostly useful for international travel, but you’ll also occasionally receive some great domestic alerts. This’ll be hard to maximize for a last-minute deal — all the stars in the firmament would have to align perfectly for a random fare sale for your dates and routes — but they’re worth following and even paying for if you’re anticipating upcoming travel and you don’t want to blow miles and points.
Yes, booking airfare at short notice can be pricey, but with miles and points from the best travel credit cards (and a few tricks), you can save money and get deals on last-minute flights. To score cheap (or free) last-minute airfare, you can take steps such as:
- Don’t assume – start with Google Flights to see if there are still cheap seats (and set your expectations for what airlines are charging)
- Search multiple airports at once to find the cheapest nearby routes
- Redeem airline miles for award flights (if you have transferable points from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you’ll have more flexibility)
- Use flexible bank points to book paid flights with no blackout dates (Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is one of your easiest options)
- Search online for last-minute flight or package deals (ideal if you just want a last-minute getaway and aren’t picky about where) through sites like Orbitz and Expedia.
- Try different search engines — including directly with the airline
Do you have any tips or go-to sites to find last-minute flight deals? Share away in the comments! And subscribe to our newsletter for more tips to traveling cheap delivered to your inbox.
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)