How to Find Deals on Last Minute Airfares

A primary piece of advice for people seeking deals on last minutes airfares is to find out which flights have empty seats.

But how is such information obtained? It's unlikely airlines would share such precious information with you, a mere consumer.

You won't get a direct answer to that question, but the airlines indirectly tell you where seats are empty by discounting selected routes and posting them with market-driven names like "special deals," or "hot deals" or "last-minute deals."

These gaudy titles often are splashed across the home pages of your favorite airlines. Usually it's a link that you'll click that sends you to a page with time-sensitive deals. Whether or not any of these deals interest you, it's often safe to assume that the routes have some seats empty on certain days, and it's time to fill those seats as quickly as possible. 

Just as Priceline operates on the principle that getting something for an otherwise empty hotel room is better than getting no revenue at all, airlines would rather slash their rates at the last minute rather than have empty seats when the plane leaves the gate.

What follows are links to special offer pages for airlines based on all continents. They are worth scanning at the start of your shopping experience.

01 of 05

North America and Central America

The Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, New York City, NY, USA
Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

This is the continent with the most far-reaching airline network on earth. On a given route, you are likely to have several airline choices, even in small-market cities.

The major airlines here make special offers on webpages pages that are updated frequently, and many will honor requests for weekly email blasts announcing the fare cuts that exist for only hours at a time.

North American travelers with flexible schedules often pay a fraction of what someone on a business trip forks over, so try to free up a cushion of time as you plan North American air travel, and consider using a web service such as Yapta that will alert you if that great airfare falls even lower after your purchase is completed.

Major airlines are feeling pressure from budget carriers, so they'll sometimes cut fares to compete. Even at slightly higher prices, the majors often win, since so many travelers benefit from loyalty programs and don't like paying a la carte charges with budget airlines for everything from pillows to boarding passes.

Beware: the lower fares don't last long. Once a budget carrier has been vanquished, the majors will increase their prices again.

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Caribbean and South America

The Andes Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop for street scenes in Cotacachi, Ecuador.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

New resorts are springing up across the Caribbean to mixed reviews. But all those new rooms, restaurants, and golf courses signal a strong interest in visiting the region, and airlines connect visitors with more Caribbean destinations than ever.

Some Caribbean islands are just now developing the infrastructure needed to compete in the new vacation marketplace, but affordable airfares might take even longer to materialize. As a rule of thumb, the more limited an island's airport infrastructure, the more expensive the flight.

South American airlines cover the vast distances in large nations such as Brazil and Argentina, and it's possible to find seasonal airfare deals. These places are catering to European tourists in growing numbers. Quito, Ecuador built an all-new airport outside the city with hopes of attracting more international tourism. Look for lower airfares on occasion to such cities.

Another country where airfare deals appear is Colombia, which has suffered through years of adverse publicity due to drug wars. Cities such as Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena sometimes can be reached at reasonable round-trip rates from U.S. and European airports.

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The architecture of Vienna is among the most breathtaking in Europe.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

A generation ago, flying within Europe was considered one of the most basic mistakes a budget traveler could make.

But that situation has turned around significantly. Europe has become the world's most competitive airline market, with a host of budget airlines providing rock-bottom one-way fares between major cities. Many of these fares are highly competitive with the venerable train ticket option.

Some of the budget carriers have become large and very well established, while others wither and die amid the white-hot market conditions.

It's best to begin your search with major budget air hubs such as London, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam. But deals also are available from smaller hubs across the continent. 

04 of 05


Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

On a continent where ground transportation can be difficult to arrange and impractical to use, airlines provide the only real options for many travelers.

Distances here are large, and roads, when they exist at all, sometimes prove challenging to navigate. Many airlines in Africa are small and face less intense competition than what is found in Europe and North America. The splashy, attention-getting deals language is far less common in Africa, but bargains do exist, so look through airline web links and find a few that will offer solid discounts.

Continue to 5 of 5 below.
05 of 05

Asia and Australia

The Great Wall of China is among the most popular attractions for budget travelers in Asia.
China Photo Press/Getty Images News

In terms of quality and personal service, some of the world's best airlines operate in Asia and Oceania. Many will offer discounts to fill seats on costly long-haul flights, and there are many to consider with such far-flung hubs as Singapore, Sydney, Beijing, and Tokyo. 

Study the terms carefully and plan your itinerary to take advantage of the best prices, remembering that most of these deals have very short shelf lives.

This is also a place to find great deals through air passes. Similar to the rail passes so popular in Europe, air passes enable budget travel to a series of cities within a given time period for one price. 

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