At some point in our lives, last minute travel is often a reality. A family or friend's health emergency, a death or an unforeseen business-related event are just a few of the reasons we might find ourselves in the air at the last minute. Most of the time, booking an airline ticket at the last minute is an expensive endeavor, but in a world where airlines can't afford to have empty seats, finding a last minute travel deal is sometimes possible. (For more money saving tips for your vacation, check out 10 Tips For A Cheaper, Better Vacation.)
TUTORIAL: Budgeting Basics
How "Last" is Last Minute?
If today's events have caused you to make travel arrangements for today, you will probably be at the mercy of the airlines. If you're even a little flexible with your travel plans, you may be able to find a deal that doesn't break the bank.
You can never plan for an emergency, but if you are in a career where last minute travel happens often, a little bit of preparedness is well advised. One place to start is your Twitter feed. Accounts like @Airfarewatchdogs and @farecomparedeals are just two of the many that should be in one of your feeds if you're watching for last-minute deals. In addition, popular travel sites and even some airlines have e-mail lists that send daily, weekly or monthly specials.
The Obvious May Pay Off
Search the last minute travel sites. Lastminutetravel.com as well as Expedia, Orbit and Travelzoo are places to check. As the sites have become larger some are no longer the goldmine of travel deals that they used to be, but even if they aren't the cheapest, you can get an idea of what would be a normal price so you have a basis of comparison.
The one less obvious place to look are travel sites that cater to local areas. For example, Airtech.com offers last minute deals to Europe and Hawaii. Sites like this may be harder to find, but the best way to find these sites is sometimes through local connections.
According to the Washington Post, the cheapest travel day is Wednesday. Your best bet is to avoid weekend travel. Try to leave on a weekday and return on a weekday if possible. Also be flexible with your airport choice. For some travelers, there are multiple airports within a few hours from home. If you can travel to a larger airport where discount carriers have service, you may be able to save a substantial amount of money. Finally, leave late at night or early in the morning. Those less desirable travel times have more flexibility in their pricing. (For more saving ideas, read 6 Tips For Saving Money At The Airport.)
If you have to travel as a group or family, you are at the mercy of the airlines. Because airlines have reduced their total number of flights in order to keep all planes full, finding a good price for a group is difficult. Flying alone allows you to take advantage of a single last-minute seat that may have come available due to a cancellation or an unsold ticket.
Forget Courier Travel
Want to fly to Europe for $100? How about Mexico for free? In the past you could do this by becoming a courier. A courier used their cargo allowance to ship important documents or small parcel to a certain destination on a commercial airline. The courier was often hired on a temporary basis and once they delivered the items, they were free to explore the destination. It was perfectly legal and a great way to go on a short-term, last-minute adventure for very little or no money out of pocket.
Those days are over. Enhanced security regulations as well as new airline regulations no longer make this a good value for courier companies. In addition, although some airlines still advertise courier rates, they are no longer the deals they once were. In fact, courier rates are often the same or even slightly higher than normal airfare.
Don't Forget Travel Agents
It's true that travel agents will charge a premium to book your travel for you, but they often have access to discount travel deals that aren't published online. This doesn't just include airline tickets; hotels and rental cars are worth discussing with an agent.
Hotels and Cars
Sites where you can name a price you're willing to pay for a hotel, airline ticket or rental car sometimes net consumers fantastic rates at the last minute. Make sure you shop around before bidding so you don't end up bidding higher than another site's regular price.
The Bottom Line
It won't work every time - sometimes you have to take a financial hit. Depending on your reason for traveling at the last minute, price may be secondary to getting to your destination quickly. If you can travel in coach at all hours of the morning with multiple stops, on a weekend with only a carry-on and probably no pretzels or peanuts, great deals are out there for you. (For more on vacation destination, check out 4 Summer Vacation Ideas On A Shoestring Budget.)