New study reveals the airlines with the best last-minute fares

Photo (c) Izusek - Getty Images

Careful, though – experts say you need to make the extra 'click' to see what’s on top of those cheap prices

It’s a Friday morning, the weather is starting to finally break, and you decide to jump on an airplane, go somewhere, and celebrate your first chance to shake the winter blues. But where do you go? More importantly, where do you go that’s a good price match for your last-minute jonesing?

Upgraded Points' just published a study analyzing last-minute booking costs for some of the most popular domestic flight routes in the country from the five largest domestic airlines – Spirit, United, American, Southwest, and Delta. The study used data sourced from the Official Airline Guide for the 10 most popular domestic flight routes in America and, for prices, depended on Google Flights as the primary source.

"Last-minute trips are actually pretty common," said Alex Miller, Upgraded Points' founder. "But unfortunately, most airlines charge a premium for not planning well in advance, so it can really cost you if you're not looking in the right places."

Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky

The airline with the most affordable last-minute flights was Spirit Airlines with an average price of $170.09 across the 10 routes studied. That’s good news for last-minute wander lusters especially in the South and Southwest where the analysts found these great deals:

  • Denver International Airport to Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas: $88.10

  • Harry Reid International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport: $101.78

  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport: $108.88

  • Denver International Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport: $151.14

  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Orlando International Airport: $162.38

  • Los Angeles International Airport to O'Hare International Airport: $247.33

Southwest Airlines came in with the second-best single deal on last-minute flights – Los Angeles International Airport to Kahului Airport, at $174.50 a pop. Southwest also had the second-most affordable last-minute fares overall at an average ticket price of $233.72l.

United Airlines: The researchers said travelers could save the most by flying United Airlines on last-minute jaunts from Los Angeles International Airport to San Francisco International Airport, at $146.78, followed closely by New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport, at $189.56. Overall, United Airlines’ average last-minute fares cost $272.80 each.

American Airlines: If you want to fly across the country and you live in New York City, then American Airlines is your go-to for the most affordable last-minute flights. You can get from John F. Kennedy International to Los Angeles International for about $366.60.

Delta Air Lines: The study showed that of the five airlines studied, Delta was the most expensive option to buy a last-minute ticket with an average last-minute ticket price of $369.12.

'Average' is a decent indicator, but what’s important is the 'now' price

Scott Keyes of (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) thinks that in the final analysis, average cost doesn’t really matter.

“We always say the main issue with looking at the average is that it isn’t an accurate representation of what a person actually pays for their flight. You can’t book the average price of a plane ticket—you can only book the available price,” Keyes told ConsumerAffairs.

“Imagine this scenario: You and the guy next to you on the plane are traveling to Europe this summer. You spent $300 roundtrip on your ticket. He paid $900 roundtrip. The average is $600, but neither of you actually spent that much on your ticket. Yours was half the price; that guy just overpaid for his ticket and jacked up the average fare.”

And watch out for the 'hidden' prices

Remember the SNL sketch where the flight attendant told passengers that they’d have to “pay for air” if they didn’t bring their own oxygen tank? Airlines haven’t gone that far, yet, but when ConsumerAffairs was scratching our heads recently over Chicago to Miami fares that ranged from $155-$248 for the same times and same flight, Mary DeSpain, president at Destination CLEs, reminded us that if we would’ve made one or two more clicks for the specific details of the flight, we would’ve found the reason behind that disparity.

“Pricing is influenced by many factors and finding the best deal is often frustrating. For example, the low-cost carriers commonly have extra fees for bags or other inflight services [‘below’ the price listed] while the higher priced fares from airlines may have included those services in the price!” she said.

“The ‘hidden’ costs are the airlines’ way of saying ‘surprise’ with a not-so-pleasant bill at the end of your flight. But as someone once told me, ‘you get what you pay for.’ And maybe those extra charges are worth it if it means not having to fly with chickens in the cabin.”

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