If you’ve ever needed to book a last minute flight or were hoping to wait until the last minute in the hope of booking a cheaper flight, you were no doubt disappointed and perhaps even surprised.

Last minute flights are more expensive – often by quite a lot – for several reasons, but it all comes back to increasing airline profits.

Why Last Minute Flights Are More Expensive

1. Fewer Available Seats

As the departure date gets closer, it’s only natural for there to be fewer seats available on a flight.

Due to the forces of supply and demand, flight tickets are more expensive when there are fewer seats available, even though you might think that airlines would price tickets cheaper to fill the seats.

While this used to be the case, airlines realized that they could increase profit by selling last minute flights for more, even though not all the seats would be filled.

2. Business Fliers

Business fliers often have to fly at short notice – and they (or at least their employers) are willing to pay more for flights when they have no choice but to be at their destination at a certain time.

Related: Premium Economy vs. Business Class (Differences & Similarities)

3. Automatic Pricing Algorithms

Long gone are the days when airlines would manually update their prices at a certain time each day or week.

Today, airlines use complex algorithms that take into account:

  • Market conditions
  • Number of flight bookings
  • Seat Availability
  • Number of Routes
  • Seasonality

These algorithms are designed to maximize revenue for airlines, and have made it clear to airlines that increasing ticket prices at the last minute will result in higher profits.

4. Short Term vs. Long term Strategy

While dropping flight ticket prices may increase profit in the short-term, it comes at the cost of long-term profit.

Airlines need to do everything in their power to maximize revenue, as the airline industry is a notoriously challenging one to succeed in.

As owner of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson, once said: “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.”

Why Flights Might Be Cheaper At the Last Minute

It’s possible that flights will be cheaper at the last minute, though this is often due to unforeseen external circumstances.

1. Global Catastrophic Events

Global catastrophic events like the COVID-19 pandemic forced airlines to reduce flight ticket prices due to reduced air travel demand.

2. Airlines Want to Achieve Full Occupancy

Airlines may cut ticket prices at the last minute if their priority is to achieve full occupancy, though this is rarely seen today.

3. Bereavement Fares

Some airlines offer passengers “bereavement fares” in the event that someone needs to book a flight at the last minute due to a death.

This was previously more common than it is today.

4. Flying on Standby

There’s last minute and then there’s really last minute.

Sometimes it’s possible to get cheaper airfares by flying standby by going to the airport without a ticket and trying to buy a ticket at the airport counter on the day of the flight.

If there are open seats, you may be sold a ticket at a reduce price, though this is by no means guaranteed.

Book in Advance to Save Money

The best time to book domestic flights is 1 to 4 months before the departure date.

Airlines release their flight schedules a year in advance and initially charge high rates to ‘lock in’ eager travelers. They then reduce ticket prices between 1 and 4 months before the flight, after which they increase them.

International flights are cheapest between 4 months and three weeks before the departure date.

This is all dependent on other factors like demand during the holidays and peak tourism seasons at the destination, though.

4 Reasons Why Flight Prices Change

Flight prices can change for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. Popularity of the Destination: If a destination becomes more popular, such as during Superbowl weekend or due to seasonality, airlines will increase airfares.
  2. Seats Sold: As mentioned, the price of a flight ticket is unlikely to decrease at the last minute, but to encourage passengers to book a flight, airlines may decrease airfares if there are still a higher number of seats remaining as the departure date approaches.
  3. Historical Analysis: Airlines analyze historical data to better understand when ticket prices for a particular route will change, and will adjust their prices accordingly.
  4. External Circumstances: Unforeseen external events may either increase or decrease flight ticket prices, such as in the event of Covid or strikes and flight cancellations.

Fly on Weekdays to Save Money

Generally, there’s no cheapest day of the week to book a flight.

However, when it comes to actually flying, the data shows that flights on Tuesday and Wednesday flights are generally the cheapest for domestic flight.

Weekday flights are also normally the cheapest days to fly international, too.

Avoid Flying on the Weekend

Generally, the most expensive days to fly domestic and international are usually Friday, Saturday and Sunday because most people prefer flying on the weekends, thereby increasing demand.

Do Flight Prices Go Up the More You Search?

There is no evidence to suggest that flights prices go up the more you search, with other factors being at play for the increase in prices instead.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).