Book With These Airlines For The Lowest Last-Minute Flight Prices

Many of us have a long list of considerations when booking flights. Some want to sit in the right spot to avoid getting motion sickness on their flight, while others obsess about scoring the best seat for getting work done. Timing matters, too, as you definitely want to avoid flying on the worst days of the year to save your sanity. But all of these calculated decisions fly out the window when booking last-minute flights. Whether it's for a sudden business meeting or an unmissable family event, sometimes you just have to hold your breath and hit "book now" on a painfully expensive flight. Sadly, last-minute tickets are often notoriously costly, but the good news is choosing airlines like Spirit, Southwest, United, American, and Delta may spare the blow on your wallet, according to a 2023 study from the travel website Upgraded Points.

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There's a persistent myth suggesting that last-minute flights are a bargain, thanks to an era when airlines would drop prices dramatically to fill every seat. But carriers have since stuck to deploying complex algorithms to dictate pricing, leaving little room for spontaneous savings. "The bygone era of cheap last-minute standby flights has not existed for a long time," travel expert Scott Keyes shared with CNBC. "[Waiting] is a recipe for disaster. You want to make sure your strategy is grounded in actual best practices." If you find yourself having to book at the last minute, however, choosing airlines known for their relatively reasonable last-minute fares might just mitigate financial shock.

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Book Spirit, Southwest, United, American, and Delta

Before anything else, it's worth keeping in mind that booking last-minute flights is often expensive no matter how you look at it, but booking certain airlines at least minimizes the sting. According to the 2023 Upgraded Points study, you can stand to save the most bucks if you book Spirit Airlines, which, on average, charges $170.09 for a one-way last-minute ticket. Sure, it's a budget airline, and the lack of perks — think no checked bags included, no free Wi-Fi, and definitely no complimentary snacks — might make you hesitate. But if you're not one to fuss over amenities, Spirit is your best bet.

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Next on the list is Southwest, where you can expect to drop around $233.72 for a one-way last-minute flight. It's considerably more expensive than Spirit, but it may be the best value for money as each ticket includes free checked bags — two to be exact. United Airlines isn't far behind, asking about $272.80 for one-way last-minute tickets, followed by American Airlines at $282.61. Both are definitely pricier, but they cover a vast network of destinations, which could mean more direct flights and fewer hassles.

Rounding up the list is Delta Airlines, where a one-way ticket will run you about $369.12, meaning you could potentially pay over $700 for a roundtrip fare. But as noted by the study, Delta's reputation for excellent customer service might justify the expense, ensuring a stress-free travel experience — precisely what you need when facing the urgency of a last-minute trip.

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You can also try to use your credit card points or miles

If the sticker shock of last-minute airfares is too much for you, there's another strategy: Dip into your stash of points or miles. By redeeming these, you could secure your seat without putting a damper on your checking account, as you get to cover the airfare with your accumulated rewards and only shell out for taxes and surcharges.

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Just be smart about using your points so you're actually getting a good deal instead of being stiffed out of your hard-earned credits. "In general, you should be looking to get over one cent per mile in value," travel expert Brian Kelly told The Washington Post, adding that for flights costing less than $100, it's better to just use cash instead of points. "So if a flight is 25,000 miles to redeem your points, if it's $250 or more to buy in general, I would say use your miles."

The kicker, however, is that finding a seat via rewards is not a guarantee. Airlines release reward seats according to their own unpredictable schedules, but more often than not, they release seats nearer the departure date. With many travelers on the prowl for these deals, there's always a chance that nothing will be available when you need it. Still, it's a strategy worth considering if you're trying to dodge those steep last-minute fares.

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