Can I take the midnight train going anywhere?
November 15, 2012 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Last minute trip: do airlines offer last-minute "leaves today" flights at rock-bottom rates to fill empty seats?

I have an idea of blocking off some time from work for vacation and then purchasing tickets to somewhere the night before I leave, based on whatever random flight wound up not being full enough.

Terrible idea? Any other ideas on how to incorporate randomness into a planned vacation period?
posted by jsturgill to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, last-minute flights are generally VERY expensive.

(I have to do a lot of day-of and next-day travel bookings for my office.)

I have no idea if the situation would be different if you just showed up at an airport to fly standby, though.
posted by phunniemee at 2:31 PM on November 15, 2012

I dunno about the night before, exactly, but there are deals such as this around. Virgin often has last-minute deals on their Elevate e-blast too.
posted by mykescipark at 2:35 PM on November 15, 2012

Yeah, it might seem a little counter-intuitive, but short of specific promotions and exclusive deals, the price difference between "the night before" (assuming you want to fly on that specific day) and "flying standby" is literally the biggest price difference you can have in travel.
posted by griphus at 2:37 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pretty terrible these days.

You'd be hard pressed to find an empty flight to anywhere any more. Not only that, but you're one cancelled flight away from disaster. Some airlines, like American no longer even let passengers with tickets fly stand-by anymore. You actually have to pay the ticket change charge to take the earlier flight (escandalo!)

The only way I can think of to make it happen would be to get the 5:00 AM flight to wherever, but then you may not be able to get the return. There's no amount of random that would make a 5:00 AM flight palatable.

There are amazing deals on last minute cruises, but the cost of the last-minute flights usually kill off any of the deals.

Now, American Airlines has Last Minute Packages, you usually have to buy them on Wednesday and they're good for the upcoming weekend. Good if you're into a minibreak. Also, they insure that you get the airfare, hotel, car, etc.

Decent deals, but by no means bottom of the barrel.

There are no deals during holiday travel, but in off seasons, you can do pretty well. Europe in November or February for example.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:37 PM on November 15, 2012

I was looking at last minute flights a few weeks ago (as in leaving NOW). Oddly enough, the first class seats were half the price as coach and economy (first class was $600 and coach/economy was around $1500).

A few years ago we paid to fly somewhere on a family trip. I searched and searched for the lowest fares. Finally booked the trip. While at the airport, was talking to a couple who had gotten their tickets the day before for some insane amount - like $100.00 a ticket round-trip.

Even given these scenarios though - you really can't count on it to work that way.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:44 PM on November 15, 2012

Response by poster: Is there a "depart from this airport, arrive in this country or region" price aggregator? I'd really like to take advantage of potential flexibility on my part and turn it into lowered prices + seeing somewhere that I might not have otherwise seen.
posted by jsturgill at 2:49 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Though it seems like it would make sense to offer large discounts on last-minute flights since they are perishable inventory, airlines avoid it because of the existence of fully refundable tickets. Airlines sell these fully refundable tickets at prices that are usually at-least double the normal non-refundable ticket. These tickets can be cancelled right up to the flight time. If the airline offered large discounts on last-minute flights, than these people could buy the refundable ticket to be sure they get on the flight (and give them flexibility), but trade it if there is room for a really cheap last-minute ticket. Airlines make lots of money on refundable tickets, so any thing that could hurt this cash-cow would be bad. Generally you will only see the leisure travel airlines offering real last minute fares and even than it has been fairly rare for years.

ITA's flight matrix will let you search large regions (up to 2000 miles) at a time by using the "Nearby" function. Tickets can not be booked through ITA though, once you find the flight you want you must go to the airline site or a travel agent to book.
posted by cspurrier at 2:56 PM on November 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

You could try

Unless there's a standby option it probably doesn't make a lot of difference if you book the night before or a few days before.

If you are traveling at a not very popular time of year and flexible about where you want to go, you should have a reasonable chance of finding a deal.

In my experience, last-minute flights are generally VERY expensive.

On any given flight, the last minute tickets will be either very expensive or very cheap, depending on whether the plane is nearly full and the airline is holding out the last few seats for business people that need to travel at short notice and will pay whatever it takes, or the plane is half empty and they're happy to sell anything to anyone for whatever they can get.

If you flexible about where you'll go, you have a chance of finding cheap late deals.

I used to work in the airline business, though some time ago now.
posted by philipy at 2:56 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a "depart from this airport, arrive in this country or region" price aggregator?

Yeah. Try Enter your departure city but leave the destination blank.
posted by eugenen at 2:58 PM on November 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Check out Kayak's Flight Map. This is how I choose destinations - pick a continent and find the cheapest flight.
posted by valeries at 3:06 PM on November 15, 2012 [13 favorites]

It may not work in your region, but Adioso does this pretty well.
posted by third word on a random page at 4:13 PM on November 15, 2012

You're not going to find last-minute cheap seats around holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas or other major travel times: they can fill any empty seats too easily to need to slash the prices. Also, nowadays airlines generally fly with far fewer empty seats than they did years ago, and they're likely to fill those with people bumped from previous overbooked flights, last-minute business flyers or standby flyers.

Your best bet is a low travel period to a not-too-popular location..... a Christmas flight to the Caymans? Not gonna happen.
posted by easily confused at 4:34 PM on November 15, 2012

Year ago (late 80s / early 90s), I did tons (3 times a year for 5 or more years) of flying as an air-courier. I would call a few different courier companies early that morning, and they would have immediate departure needs, and I would fly out that evening.

I was not able to take any luggage, just a carry-on. And it was just a single seat, fly alone to a random city. And they determined the city and the number of days I would stay - but the prices were often a tenth of the purchased ticket. (One company, Now Voyager, flew to London a lot, and back then a flight to London was $500, and I would get the ticket for $50. I think Now Voyager is still in business)

I was in NYC at the time. I think courier companies only operate out of major cities. Also, I think today you have to do a bit more pre-screening safety / terror stuff. It is more complex today. But air-courier tickets are still out there.
posted by Flood at 6:30 PM on November 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

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