Should you buy flights at the last minute?

Are last-minute deals all they’re cracked up to be or simply a myth from a bygone era? Here’s everything you need to know to beat the airlines.

Peter Iantorno December 21, 2014

Here at EDGAR, we like to travel in style, and in an ideal world, all our flights would be on a private jet. However, we know that chartering our own craft isn't always practical, and sometimes it's just much more commercially viable to go through the normal channels and book a ticket with one of the big international carriers.

We so often hear that it's best to wait until the last minute to book flights, but is that really the case? The short answer to that question, which has existed for as long as passenger aviation itself, is, well, it kind of depends really.

You'll have to excuse us for being so vague, but there are a whole load of factors in play when it comes to the airlines deciding their pricing structure, so it really does depend on lots of things. This may sound complicated, but if we take a look at the basic reasoning that airlines apply to their prices, then the whole thing becomes a lot easier to understand. Based on research from sector specialists Skyscanner, Kayak and Farecast, here's everything you need to consider:

Holiday periods

If you're reading this article a few days before Christmas thinking we're going to tell you that it's actually a great time to grab a last-minute bargain on a flight home for the holidays, sadly, that ain't gonna happen. Unfortunately around festive periods – Christmas, Eid, any big holiday really – the prices for flights are pretty set, and as it gets closer to the event, the only way they're going to go is up.

The airlines aren't stupid – far from it – and they know that people want to travel around those busy holiday periods, and when the holiday draws closer and they've still not secured flights, passengers are just going to get more and more desperate and willing to pay more and more for that ticket. Maho beach. Too late or too soon

Thankfully, the merciless pricing structure detailed above is reserved only for the busy holiday periods, and during other times when demand is slightly less predictable, there's far more room for manoeuvre.

The bad news for any disorganised last-minute flyers is that even during normal periods, the most expensive time to book flights is between one and 11 days before take-off. The reasoning behind this is quite simple: if you're looking to book a flight within the next week or so, your need is obviously fairly pressing – perhaps you have an unexpected emergency or a leave request you've been waiting on has just been approved – so the airlines figure that you're more likely to pay whatever it takes to get yourself on that flight.

The only time when a last-minute flight might pay off is if you're willing to fly at a strange time of day (the red-eye flight usually); on an unpopular day of the week (flying out on a Wednesday and returning on a Tuesday, perhaps); and to an awkward airport – usually an out-of-town option that requires a transfer back into the city.

All that is fairly expected, but what you might not have been aware of, is that the second priciest time to book a flight is generally any time more than seven months in advance. While this may seem like an unfair system that punishes the organised early-adopters (which, in fact, it does), it makes perfect sense for the airline to have a premium on any tickets so far in advance, because anyone willing to book such a specific date so far in advance must be pretty rigid in terms of when they can travel and, again, willing to pay more for the privilege. dubai airport The best time to book

According to the research, the average best time to book international flights is 81 days (between 11 and 12 weeks) in advance. Why? Well, around this period, all the inflexible early bookers will have already booked, and the airlines will have a decent idea about how many last-minute bookers they can expect. If these two totals still leave quite a few empty seats, the airlines begin to worry about the money they will lose from a half-empty plane, so prices will start to drop.

But if airlines are so worried about half-empty planes, why don't they sell their empty seats for massively discounted prices right at the last minute to claw back a bit of money? Quite simply, it would destroy their business model.

Just think about it: if airlines always held last-minute fire sales to clear empty seats at rock-bottom prices, more people would be conditioned not to book their flights until the last possible moment, when they'd be able to get an incredible deal.

The whole exercise is a game of chicken between the airline and the passenger, with both parties waiting for the right time to make their move. But the unfortunate fact is that the airlines would actually rather see the plane take off half empty than cave in and be held to ransom by the consumer. last-minute flights Dirty tricks

Although it might not seem possible with the prices being charged for flights nowadays, according to projections from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in 2014 the average profit airlines made per passenger was under $6. With such tight margins, the airlines will try every trick in the book to eke out as much money as possible.

One such trick involves the use of cookies and browsing history on our computers. Many booking sites will store your history, so the airlines know which tickets you're interested in. If you check the availability of a ticket, then return a day later to book it, often the price will have jumped up, and you're forced to get it at the higher price, worried that it might increase again.

However, if you delete your browsing history and cookies, or check flights using your browser's private mode, the site will be presented to you as though you're a first-time visitor, and often the prices will drop back down to their original level.

Of course, this doesn't always work, and while all of these tips and tricks will certainly help a little, unfortunately, as the demand for air travel is so high, the airlines are still very much in charge. So all you can really do is make the most of the hand you've been dealt, and make your move at the right time - or just go for that private jet instead...