If you’ve ever had to book an airline ticket at the last minute, you’ve probably discovered the skies aren’t always so friendly to your bank account. While waiting until the last minute to book a flight is not the most cost-efficient way to travel, it sometimes is necessary, be it for an emergency, a cross-country relationship, or simply choosing to get away on a whim. Whatever the reason, don’t expect a break from airlines, which are known for jacking up their prices in the days just before flight departures.
However, when it comes to the dent that last-minute bookings can put in your wallet, all airlines are not created equal. A new study from Upgraded Points recently ranked the five major U.S. airlines — Spirit, United, American, Southwest, and Delta — from most to least affordable for last-minute ticket purchases. Rankings were based on the cost of one-way tickets on the top 10 most popular domestic flight routes in the U.S., based on Google Flights data of average ticket costs over a 10-day period in February 2023. The average cost of a last-minute, one-way ticket for each of the five airlines was then calculated based on each airline and route combination.
The winners (and losers) as determined by the study:
Although the butt of many a late-night comedy joke, Spirit Airlines tops the charts when it comes to the lowest average last-minute ticket prices, with an average fare of $170.09. Spirit had the cheapest flight from Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas to Los Angeles International Airport at $101.78. The carrier also offered the lowest-cost option from Denver International Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, at $151.14, well under the average of $290.
However, it’s good to keep in mind that when it comes to Spirit, it’s not just about the fare. The airline is known for up-charging on nearly everything from bags and pre-boarding seat selection to in-flight wifi, snacks, and beverages.
Southwest Airlines, likely glad to have some good publicity after a recent string of cancellations due to outdated scheduling systems left thousands of flyers stranded, comes in second with an average ticket price of $233.72. The plus with Southwest: Unless you’re lugging heavy baggage, you won’t pay much beyond the fare you see. That’s because fares on the carrier include a carry-on and up to two checked bags, complimentary snacks and drinks, in-flight entertainment, and the option to change or cancel flights without fees, a rarity in the airline industry.
The one downside of Southwest is that choosing your seat in advance is not an option—you’ll be assigned a boarding group based on your check-in time (you can pay extra for an earlier boarding group), and have to grab an empty seat once you get on the plane.
Taking third place with an average last-minute ticket price of $272.80 is United Airlines, popular for offering a wide array of destinations in the U.S. On the Los Angeles International Airport to San Francisco International Airport route — a favorite among leisure and business travelers because it’s a quick 90-minute flight between Southern and Northern California —United came in tops with the cheapest last-minute ticket at $147.
If you travel any class other than Basic Economy on United, you’ll also be able to bring on a carry-on and select your seat for no additional charge. Flights also include complimentary snacks and beverages, and a wide selection of in-flight entertainment, such as free DirecTV channels and movies on select Boeing 737 aircraft.
Coming in fourth on the list, just a notch below United, is American Airlines with an average last-minute ticket price of $282.61. Although both United and American are popular for offering flights between many popular U.S. destinations, you can expect to pay a bit more on average if you wait until the zero hour to book on American.
If you fly any class other than Basic Economy on American, your carry-on bag, seat selection, snacks and drinks, in-flight entertainment, and seat selection are also included.
Coming in last place for the least expensive last-minute ticket—or first place for most expensive last-minute ticket, depending on how you look at it —is Delta. If you wait until close to departure to book on Delta, you’ll pay an average of $369.12 for a ticket. Delta took the prize for the most expensive last-minute fight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles at more than $200, and from Denver to Phoenix, which could set you back a whopping $450 for a last-minute fare.
While usually not the cheapest option, the survey did note Delta is known for punctuality and remains one of the most reliable choices for last-minute flyers. Fares (other than Basic Economy) on Delta also include one carry-on item, seat selection, complimentary snacks and drinks, and in-flight entertainment.
Remember, if you need to take a last-minute flight, you can look beyond the big five airlines. There are other airlines that may offer cheaper fares between your destinations. And, because you might not have time to shop around much, tools like Google Flights or Kayak can be helpful because they do the comparison shopping for you (although some airlines, such as Southwest, don’t generally have fares that appear in outside comparison search engine results). In the end, knowing there are options and which airlines typically offer the best fares for last-minute travel can take some stress out of plans made on the fly (pun intended).
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