The Upsetting Reason Last-Minute Plane Tickets Are Often Wildly Overpriced

Once upon a time, travelers could book last-minute flights without paying a small fortune for their seats. A spontaneous getaway, an emergency trip, a flight to replace a canceled one — the circumstances didn't matter. Regardless of the reason, last-minute plane tickets yielded enviable deals.

That might sound like a fairytale, but that's actually how the commercial aviation industry once worked. Nowadays, it's a different story. Booking a trip shortly before the departure date can be costly, and the "Goldilocks Window" for cheaper flights typically ends weeks or even months before the scheduled flight day. One reason for last-minute price hikes is demand. Airlines use dynamic pricing, where the cost of a plane ticket can be automatically adjusted in real time. Another motivation for expensive last-minute plane tickets is because of the few stragglers who don't — or can't — book until shortly before the travel day.

Carriers expect these travelers, and airlines know that they can make more money by increasing the price on those final last-minute seats. This might appear fair, if you assume that all last-minute fliers are business people or simply too lazy to plan ahead. But the upsetting truth is that some of those who book late do so because of, say, a death in the family or another personal emergency. These travelers likely have few options and would be willing to pay almost any price to board their flight, hence the expensive rates.

Airlines target business travelers when raising fares

If you fly for work, you know that not all last-minute travelers are flying for personal reasons. Business trips are often booked late, too, as Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, shared with The Points Guy. "Airlines realized, 'Oh, you know, we thought we were in the business of killing as many seats as possible,'" Keyes said. "'But in reality, we're in the business of trying to make as much money as possible.'"

In other words, it's financially advantageous for airlines to increase fares the closer it gets to the departure day, even if that means having a handful of seats empty. While this strategy is directed toward business travelers, these fliers don't usually mind booking pricey flights — after all, their company typically foots the bill for them. Unfortunately, this also impacts all fliers, whether they're taking a business trip, booking a leisurely trip to Europe's under-the-radar beaches, or visiting a sick family member.

How to find deals when booking last-minute plane tickets

It's hard to find affordable airfare when your trip is just around the corner. However, a few tried-and-true tips can help you keep costs down. First, try to book a flight at an unpopular time, such as early in the morning or late at night. These windows can be cheaper than flights departing midday. If you still can't find a deal, try searching nearby airports. Departing from or arriving at another hub could unlock less expensive route options, though you might need to factor in a car or train ride to reach your destination. Another method for getting around sky-high fares is booking multiple one-way trips using different airlines rather than one round-trip journey.

If you don't mind taking a risk, a couple of other tricks could work in your favor if you're lucky. First, there's the TikTok last-minute airplane ticket hack that involves purchasing your seats at the airport. While it's not a guarantee, the strategy could help you secure a more reasonable price. If you'd prefer to book from home, keep watching advertised fares until the last day or two before a flight. "Waiting until the very last second before making a move could pay off," Laura Lindsay, global travel trends expert at Skyscanner, told USA Today. "Want to travel on Friday, but can't find the right fare on Tuesday? Don't give up just yet — try Wednesday, Thursday, and the big day itself before you throw in the towel."