The Best Way to Find a Deal on Last-minute Flights, According to Experts

Award deals and airline points are your friends.

<p>Azman L./Getty Images</p>

Azman L./Getty Images

Airfare is notoriously volatile — a flight can be $300 one day and $600 the next. All it takes is an increase in demand or a flight to reach a certain percentage of seats sold for the algorithm that determines flight prices to raise the rates.

Prices can be extra unstable for last-minute travelers, as airlines know that business travelers are willing to pay big bucks for the last few seats. Last-minute leisure travelers tend to take the hit — that is, unless they have award miles or airline points to use.

“If you are paying in cash, it can be ridiculously expensive when booking last minute, but paying in points and miles can often see the same award price you would have paid had you booked months in advance — not always, but often," Katy Nastro, a travel expert and company spokesperson for Going, told Travel + Leisure. "When cash prices are high, which is usually last minute, this is really where you get the most bang for your buck when using awards."

As long as there are seats available, Nastro said airlines will typically allow travelers to use their points up until the day of departure. That said, once a flight is close to being filled, the award seats can be limited, and “some airlines also charge close-in booking fees, or increase mileage costs for flights within the next 30 days.”

In short, booking a last-minute flight with points or miles is possible — and typically a better deal than paying cash — but finding a good deal takes some know-how. Here are some tips that Nastro and the Going team suggest you keep in mind.

Airlines typically release award seating a year out, and keep award bookings open until the last minute.

In general, airlines release their flight schedule a year in advance, and their award seating shortly after. Air France, for example, releases its award fares 359 days in advance, while Delta Air Lines waits until 331 days before departure. (The award calendar release date for each airline can be found here.)

If you’re a last-minute traveler, there will likely still be award seats, but they might not be available on a specific flight or in your preferred class of service.

"Airlines typically don’t remove the ability to book a flight with points and miles. You can even book on the day of departure," Nastro and Daniel Burnham, Going’s senior product operations specialist, told T+L. "But because in many cases, there are limited seats available to book with miles, there may or may not be last-minute availability on any specific flight or class of service.”

The best use of your miles or points will likely not be the airline you have them with.

Most airlines belong to one of three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, Oneworld, or Skyteam. United Airlines, for example, is part of Star Alliance so it will cross-sell Lufthansa and Air Canada flights, among others.

The trick is that each airline prices its own flights and its partners’ flights differently, so a United flight might actually be cheaper when booked through Air Canada. It’s even more backward with award travel, where Nastro and Burnham said “the best award price for a specific flight can often only be booked through a different partner airline.”

Yep, you read that right right. They explained that “if you want to fly Delta, booking directly through Delta SkyMiles is frequently the worst available value, although it will have the most available inventory. It's usually lower cost to book the same flights through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.”

That said, most airlines release a limited number of lower-priced award tickets that are bookable through their alliance partners (like in the case of Delta and Virgin Atlantic), and a larger number of higher-priced award tickets that can only be booked through their own loyalty program.

This means last-minute travelers may have to use more miles or points and book directly with the airline — although not always.

If you’re not flying out of a major airport, you might need to do a little flight hacking to find a good award seat.

Nastro noted that if you’re flying out of a smaller airport and connecting through a main hub, like Chicago or New York City, the inclusion of your small, starting airport might limit what award availability you see.

“For example, even if the journey is starting in Indianapolis, you never start an award search from Indianapolis International Airport (IND) since then you may get search engines to hide availability from airports like Chicago, Toronto, or New York City just because they don't match up perfectly with an award from IND to the hub,” she said.

For instance, if you’re flying from Indianapolis to Frankfurt, you might need to book a separate flight between Indianapolis and Chicago in order to get the award fare between Chicago and Frankfurt.

To find the best award fares, check one airline in each alliance or use a site that checks many different reward programs.

Checking the three major U.S. airlines — United, American Airlines, and Delta — is a good place to start your search for an award seat. Each of these airlines is tied to a different alliance, so all the flights on their partner airlines will show up. But, keep in mind that booking through United, American, and Delta is not necessarily the cheapest way to actually book an award flight.

If your points are flexible, you can also use a site like or, which searches most airlines and loyalty programs. If you go that route, Nastro noted that you’ll still want to check directly with the airline since the sites don’t always have the most up-to-date information.

If constantly checking for award flights isn’t realistic for you, there are services that will do it for you.

If consistent searching for award seats (and checking back regularly) isn’t in the cards, check out the “Elite” membership tier with Going. They’ll notify you when a good award fare pops up along with a point breakdown and how-to-book link. They’ll also send you flight deals as regularly as you want them. (Plus, they’re known for digging up “mistake fares,” like a $63 round-trip flight to Chile or a $249 roundtrip to Europe in business class.) 

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