How to Book Airfare on Short Notice

It’s a common myth, yet at first glance it doesn’t make sense: booking plane tickets on short notice should be cheap. If there are empty seats, why wouldn’t the airline discount them as the flight approaches?

But as you may have discovered if you’ve ever tried to jet off on a whim somewhere, you’re inclined to experience sticker shock. In many cases, the longer you wait, the more expensive the ticket.

Airlines are smart about pricing. They know that people booking tickets on short notice often have to travel and have limited flexibility, as opposed to those who simply want to travel and can consider numerous options.

Sure, you can check budget airlines like Southwest and Frontier (or Westjet for our friends up north, or numerous budget carriers for people elsewhere). Sometimes these are better than the major carriers, because prices don’t always increase as much.

But there’s a much better solution for most people, most of the time. When you find yourself in need of airfare on short notice, award tickets are often a great option.

Maintain a Mileage Balance for Last-Minute Tickets

As I often preach advise, miles are for spending. You shouldn’t hoard miles! Put them to good use.

However, it’s good to hang on to some miles. I try to keep at least 50,000-100,000 miles in most of my main accounts at all times. This way, whenever I need to go somewhere, there’s always an option.

Last week I used Virgin Atlantic miles to book a round-trip award on Virgin America from LAX to PDX.

This week I had a quick trip to New York I booked with Delta SkyMiles—not usually the best airline currency, but I have plenty of them so it made sense to me.

When in Australia recently I hopped down to Melbourne from Sydney—a steal at only 20,000 American miles in Business Class (10,000 miles for Peasant Class).

When booking last-minute, it’s often better to use award tickets than to pay with cash. On many carriers, availability is much less of an issue as airlines open up unsold seats for redemptions.

If you have elite status, you can also change or cancel your plans all the way up to the last-minute. More than once I’ve changed my flights on the way to the airport or even at the gate itself. To me this is one of the most important benefits of maintaining elite status.

If you’re booking a trip last-minute, don’t forget about miles! They’re often much better than hunting around in vain for an affordable airfare price.

Earning Miles

So, you need miles? Here’s a quick refresher on how to get them.

First, credit card signup bonuses and ongoing points from spending have allowed me to go all over the world. I’ve documented the process many times on the blog, especially through the Frequent Flyer Challenge and other travel hacking posts.

I know some people find the process of deciphering which cards to get (and how to best use them) somewhat overwhelming. Here are my current top five.

If you’re eligible for this card, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have it. I use it every day and it takes up the most-used space in my wallet.

Along with its cousin, the Chase Ink Bold, the Ink Plus provides an even bigger bonus than the Sapphire (50,000 points) and also earns 5x points on certain spending categories.

The personal version of this card was my very first travel hacking companion. I’ve had it for more than a decade now (yeah, I’m old). I added the business version a while back for an additional signup bonus, and ended up keeping it because it helps me get closer to Starwood Platinum status each year.

Every year, this card offers a benefit where you can receive a $200 statement credit on the airline of your choice. Most people use the benefit to receive reimbursements for checked baggage fees or on-board purchases—but that’s not usually the most optimal use of the rebate.

I don’t have much need for baggage fees (I never check bags, and thanks to elite status they’d be free if I did), but I do purchase plenty of American Airlines flights. Every year for the past three, I’ve gone to and purchased four $50 gift cards. Less than a week later, a $200 credit has appeared on my statement. Boom!

It’s like an annual rebate of almost half the fee. You can also now get free Amazon Prime for the first year, as well as a rebate of your Global Entry fee. Even though this card carries a hefty annual fee, for me it’s worth it.

Earn the U.S. Airways miles from this card, and by the end of the year they’ll roll over into American Airlines miles thanks to the merger. By most accounts, including my own experience, you can receive the bonus for this card multiple times. At some point the card will go away—but your miles won’t.

Disclaimer: The card links on this page are kept updated by our partner site, I personally have (and use!) all of the cards that are mentioned here, and I try to share the best available links. You should always be responsible and manage your credit for the long-term.

Other Things to Do

Search the AONC archives or join the Travel Hacking Cartel to tell you exactly what to do.

You can earn miles when you eat at any one of thousands of restaurants.

You can earn miles for things you already purchase by using a mileage mall.

You can earn 1,000 miles a month from Amazon payments at no cost whatsoever.

In short, there’s never been a better time to earn miles—and put them to use for plane tickets on short notice or anything else.

Pioneer Nation: Three Weeks and Counting

By the way, our brand-new event for independent entrepreneurs is happening in less than three weeks—and there are still a few tickets left! Now that you’ve read this post, you know how to book your airfare to come.

Sign up now and grow your business!

Whether there or elsewhere, I hope this post helps you the next time you need to travel on short notice.

Happy travels!

– Chris


Image: Bastien

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