3 ways to find cheap last-minute flights for spur-of-the-moment vacations

Some of us know our schedules months in advance, while the rest of us live spontaneously. But no matter which camp we fall into, there will likely come a time in our lives when we’ll all need to book a trip, like, yesterday. Sometimes you’ll need to visit a relative out of town, and other times your sanity relies on a week on a beach with a colorful drink in hand. And that’s okay.

Old wisdom suggested that the longer you wait to buy, the more expensive your seats. But a 2018 study from CreditCards.com found financial incentives in procrastinating, with one-way flights available for under 12,500 miles to major destinations when you book last-minute. That, by the way, is considered a steal, given that ValuePenguin found some one-way economy flights will set you back as much as 30,000 points. (Given that ValuePenguin also found the average air mile is worth 1.3 cents, you’re looking at savings of $227.50.)

Ready to pack your bags? Here, three ways find cheap last-minute flights.

1. Avoid business routes

Ever fly from, say, Boston to Chicago only to see that every passenger is decked out in a three-piece suit? That’s because you’re flying on what’s called a business route, which is popular among working professionals.

“It used to be that you could find an amazing last-minute deal because the airlines would try to discount unsold seats. The airlines’ algorithms are doing a much better job at making sure the planes are close to full so they can charge a premium to those last-minute business travelers,” said Liana Corwin, consumer travel expert at Hopper. In fact, research from the journal Tourism Management confirms these findings: On top of the price of the business route is the extra cost of morning and evening flights, which are especially appealing to working professionals with tight schedules.

How corporate travel often works is that employees will pay for the flight knowing their employer will reimburse them. An extra few hundred dollars to fly a business route is unlikely to make a dent in the pocket of a major corporation in the same way it might to an individual, so airlines know they can get away with price increase.

Your best bet? Book a leisure route like Boston to Honolulu instead of Boston to San Francisco, ideally during mid-day or overnight. See? It pays to relax.

2. Book a package

Unless you’re crashing on a friend’s couch, chances are you’re staying in a hotel. According to Justine McDonald, travel expert at CheapTickets, passengers can save up to 43 percent more by booking a flight and hotel together vs. booking them separately, as per in-house research.

On top of that, you’re lucky if you’ve been procrastinating on booking spring break: she said the cheapest time to buy before spring break is approximately one week before your departure date. Why? “Last-minute travel is becoming more popular overall, and lots of travel providers are catering to meet the growing demand,” she said.

3. Subscribe to newsletters

It might be time to switch your Gmail settings to ensure your newsletters actually make it to your primary inbox. As a perk of opting in to their newsletters, airlines and travel booking agencies send their best last-minute (and time-limited) deals to subscribers. You might see it in the form of a coupon code or a reduced price altogether. “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,” McDonald said.