When it comes to the dent that last-minute bookings can put in your wallet, all airlines are not created equal. A new study from Upgraded Points recently ranked the five major U.S. airlines — Spirit, United, American, Southwest, and Delta — from most to least affordable for last-minute ticket purchases. Rankings were based on the cost of one-way tickets on the top 10 most popular domestic flight routes in the U.S., based on Google Flights data of average ticket costs over a 10-day period in February 2023. The average cost of a last-minute, one-way ticket for each of the five airlines was then calculated based on each airline and route combination.
Five Major U.S. Airlines
The winners (and losers) as determined by the study:
5. Delta Air Lines Last-minute Flight
Coming in last place for the least expensive last-minute ticket—or first place for the most expensive last-minute ticket, depending on how you look at it —is Delta Airlines Last-Minute Flight. If you wait until close to departure to book on Delta, you’ll pay an average of $369.12 for a ticket. Delta took the prize for the most expensive last-minute fight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles at more than $200, and from Denver to Phoenix, which could set you back a whopping $450 for a last-minute fare.
While usually not the cheapest option, the survey did note Delta is known for punctuality and remains one of the most reliable choices for last-minute flyers. Fares (other than Basic Economy) on Delta also include one carry-on item, Delta seat selection, complimentary snacks and drinks, and in-flight entertainment.
Remember, if you need to take a last-minute flight, you can look beyond the big five airlines. There are other airlines that may offer cheaper fares between your destinations. And, because you might not have time to shop around much, tools like Google Flights or Kayak can be helpful because they do the comparison shopping for you (although some airlines, such as Southwest, don’t generally have fares that appear in outside comparison search engine results). In the end, knowing there are options and which airlines typically offer the best fares for last-minute travel can take some stress out of plans made on the fly (pun intended).
4. American Airlines Last-minute Flight
Coming in fourth on the list, just a notch below United, is American Airlines with an average last-minute ticket price of $282.61. Although both United and American are popular for offering flights between many popular U.S. destinations, you can expect to pay a bit more on average if you wait until the zero hours to book on American.
If you fly any class other than Basic Economy on American Airlines, your carry-on bag, American Airlines seat selection, snacks and drinks, in-flight entertainment, and seat selection are also included.
Taking third place with an average last-minute ticket price of $272.80 is United Airlines, popular for offering a wide array of destinations in the U.S. On the Los Angeles International Airport to San Francisco International Airport route — a favorite among leisure and business travelers because it’s a quick 90-minute flight between Southern and Northern California —United came in tops with the cheapest last-minute ticket at $147.
If you travel any class other than Basic Economy on United, you’ll also be able to bring on a carry-on and select your seat for no additional charge. Flights also include complimentary snacks and beverages, and a wide selection of in-flight entertainment, such as free DirecTV channels and movies on select Boeing 737 aircraft.
Southwest Airlines, likely glad to have some good publicity after a recent string of cancellations due to outdated scheduling systems left thousands of flyers stranded, comes in second with an average ticket price of $233.72. The plus with Southwest: Unless you’re lugging heavy baggage, you won’t pay much beyond the fare you see. That’s because fares on the carrier include a carry-on and up to two checked bags, complimentary snacks and drinks, in-flight entertainment, and the option to change or cancel flights without fees, a rarity in the airline industry.
The one downside of Southwest is that choosing your seat in advance is not an option—you’ll be assigned a boarding group based on your check-in time (you can pay extra for an earlier boarding group), and have to grab an empty seat once you get on the plane.
Although the butt of many a late-night comedy joke, Spirit Airlines tops the charts when it comes to the lowest average last-minute ticket prices, with an average fare of $170.09. Spirit had the cheapest flight from Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas to Los Angeles International Airport at $101.78. The carrier also offered the lowest-cost option from Denver International Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, at $151.14, well under the average of $290.
However, it’s good to keep in mind that when it comes to Spirit, it’s not just about the fare. The airline is known for up-charging on nearly everything from bags and pre-boarding seat selection to in-flight wifi, snacks, and beverages.
How to Get Cheap Last-Minute Flights, According to the Experts
Be flexible with destinations
Travel experts often advise checking to see if flying a day earlier or later or from a nearby airport—options that are now offered on most online search sites—might result in cheaper fares. But for bigger savings, consider extending your flexibility to the destination as well. If your dates are fixed, browse the options on Skyscanner, which allows users to select “explore everywhere” as the destination. Then skim for the best value over a certain timeframe.
Take advantage of waived change fees
Depending on the airline and your situation, you’ll either receive a travel credit or a monetary refund after your change is approved. Airlines will usually waive the change fee and grant a travel credit that can be used within a year of the original booking date.31-Mar-2023
Search for fares individually
It takes some extra time, but searching for a single seat at a time—even if you’re flying with a family of four—can save you big. The reason? Those automated fare systems controlling that alphabet soup of prices are poorly designed and will only look for four seats of the same exact price, returning you a quote of $400 each, perhaps.
Take advantage of the slow rebound of business class
Keep in mind, however, that with travel as a whole returning to normal, “fares are high and demand remains strong, so low fares are not plentiful in the premium cabins the way it was during COVID,” says Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge, which provides air travel assistance, and airline industry blog Cranky Flier. However, Snyder also notes that the reopening of China to the United States should result in “a flood of capacity” to China and Southeast Asia, so if you have your eye on those destinations, you could potentially score a decent deal, even last-minute.
Timing is everything (kind of)
Another good rule of thumb for travelers figuring out how to get cheap last-minute flights: There is no secret time to score the perfect deal. But generally, the best prices tend to drop off once the flight is less than three weeks away.
If it’s 21 days before you plan to travel and you haven’t seen a flight deal to your destination, you’ll want to stop waiting and book the airfare available. That’s because airlines’ automated fare systems are configured to treat later bookings as last-minute business traveler flights and price them accordingly (high, in other words). Keyes watched one trip stay at $489 for weeks, before booking on day 21; just 24 hours later, the same flight cost $630. “The 21-Day Rule is still the gold standard if there’s a flight you’re looking at and it’s getting close and you’re trying to decide whether to book or not,” he says.
Try a last-minute rewards search
Last-minute flights can be a smart time to burn off frequent flier miles, as airlines will sometimes release unsold seats as cheaper-than-normal mileage tickets. Don’t just search online for these, though; sometimes, it may be worth calling the airline’s 1-800 number or chatting online with a rep, even if the rewards app or website shows no redemption opportunities.
Beware of baggage fees
Speaking of those baggage fees: They’ve jumped significantly over the last few years, especially for the cheapest tickets on international flights. Most carriers now charge $150 roundtrip, up from $120 a few years ago, according to Orlando, which can quickly sabotage that sweet deal you just scored. He adds that baggage restrictions and fare rules for South America are even more complicated and “vary dramatically.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for a deal in person
Instead of shelling out big bucks online for an upgrade, try a more human approach—a strategy that paid off big-time for Kimberley Lovato, a travel writer who specializes in France, on a transatlantic flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam about four years ago. At the check-in desk at SFO, Lovato jokingly asked the agent whether anyone had bought one of the $10,000 business class upgrades she’d been monitoring online. No, the agent replied, but did she want one?
Not for $10K, Lovato responded, countering with $400—and, to her surprise, the agent said, “Done!”
“I’m not sure if it was because she was in a good mood or I just got lucky, but it made my flight, for sure,” Lovato says. The moral of the story: “You never know. More times than not, I’ve asked for things that seemed crazy and gotten them.”