How to Get Cheap, Last-Minute Airline Tickets

Finding plane tickets the day before takeoff isn't a complete shot in the dark.

July 20, 2011— -- Here's the situation: You've got to get on a plane, pronto. Maybe there's been a death in the family or perhaps your daughter just went into labor and the grandchild won't wait. No matter. All you know is you have to fly.

Are you stuck paying hundreds in airfare?

Maybe not. I've got some step-by-step suggestions that might get you to your "urgent" destination for less than you think. Believe me, it's worth a try.

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When's the last time you looked to see what a "tomorrow" airline ticket costs? Allow me to enlighten you. Say you need to fly from Dallas to Chicago. I just checked my website to find the cheapest fares and if you can wait until August, you can fly for a mere $125 round trip. If you have to go tomorrow, though (as of this writing), it'll cost you $626 round trip. A better example is the "next day" fare from Burbank to Miami; the cheapest round trip price I could find was $998.

Forget that. But how to get from Point A to Point B for less at the last minute? Try these ideas, and in this order:

1. Use Your Miles (or someone else's)

The best time to use miles is when they are most cost-effective, and a last-minute bind fits the bill. If you personally don't have enough, many airline programs allow you to buy more to top off your account and some even offer partial miles and cash payment options. Plus, your friends and family can often redeem miles with you as the ticket holder, so barter with them if you have to.

2. Call the Airline (it might be worth it)

In case you haven't flown in a while, what used to be called bereavement fares are largely an anachronism, especially among discount carriers. However, United still offers a 10 percent discounted "compassion fare," but American's website is somewhat ambiguous: It states that the airline "may" offer bereavement fares, but you have to call to find out. Be aware that the call could cost you a $25 phone fee, but it may be worth it, as some airlines allow their agents to make decisions in such situations. It's a crapshoot but may be worth a try.

3. Check for Vacation Packages (even if you don't need a hotel)

Trip packagers typically negotiate fixed-prices that don't fit the "stick it to last-minute business traveler" model, so sometimes an air+car or air+hotel combo can be cheaper than the cost of an a la carte last-minute airline ticket. Don't need the car or hotel? Just toss them.

4. Stay a Few Days (especially a Saturday night)

For their cheapest airfares, the airlines often add a minimum-stay requirement of one or two nights, and sometimes a Saturday night stay. If your itinerary calls for a quick turnaround of a single night's stay, you could wind up paying a hefty premium.

5. Check Prices on Low-Cost Airlines (for better last-minute fares)

This sounds like a no-brainer, and it is, but in times of stress, such as last-minute emergencies, we don't always think straight. In general, low-cost airlines have a lower base-price for last-minute travelers, although it has lifted some in recent years. Nevertheless, check out the prices on the discount carriers. Bonus: Some of these airlines offer one-way pricing, which affords you greater flexibility if your return date is unknown.

What most discount carriers won't offer is old school bereavement pricing. As JetBlue's website states: "Because our fares are already discounted to all customers, we do not offer additional discounts…"

6. Get the Most Out of Expensive Airfare (look for refundable fares and first class)

If all else fails and you find yourself having to pay the sky-high price of a last-minute coach fare, consider the usually pricey option of a refundable fare, which is especially useful if you need to be flexible or end up not going. Another option: Fly first class. Believe it or not, it is often cheaper than a last-minute full-fare coach price, and since you're already paying an arm and a leg, why not be comfortable?

A final thought: If you can conduct your urgent business over the course of a long weekend, you can sometimes find really good weekend or getaway fares promoted by airlines as last-minute or getaway specials. American, United, US Airways and others offer such discounts nearly every week. These deals are usually available for Friday/ Saturday departures while specifically requiring you to return on Monday or Tuesday.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.