5 tools for finding cheap last-minute flights

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The Best Day to Book Cheap Flights

We've all faced this situation: An emergency comes up. Perhaps someone in the family died or is very sick, or maybe you suddenly have a week off and want to visit an old friend or take a vacation. You want to leave today or tomorrow ... but you don't have a plane ticket in hand. What do you do?

All hope is not lost. There are a number of really smart ways to find a ticket that meets your needs, often at a great price.

One big caveat: You must be at least a little bit flexible. When you're looking for discounted flights at the last minute, you're going to have to accept that the flight might be late at night or really early in the morning – or have a five-hour layover in East Overshoe.

Still, last-minute flights at a discount can be real lifesavers. Here are five tools to help you find them.

Independent searches. It's no secret there are many websites designed to help you simultaneously search a bunch of airlines for the best rates on flights, and that's always a good place to start if you're looking for last-minute tickets. Sites like Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline and many others provide airline comparison shopping at your fingertips.

However, it's worth noting that such comparison sites won't always show you great discounts on last-minute flights. While the tickets might be available on those sites, there are several paths to bigger discounts.

Airline miles. The best use for your frequent-flier miles is to keep them until you're actually facing an emergency, then cash them in. Many people don't do this – they cash in their miles for planned trips, then find themselves really stuck when they need a last-minute flight.

If you discover you need a last-minute flight, contact the airline to see if you can use your miles to cover the flight. Airlines are surprisingly good at filling last-minute seats on flights with customers using frequent-flier miles.

Phone calls. Even if you don't have frequent-flier miles, it's still a good idea to simply call the airlines and see what they can do to help. If you are in a genuine emergency situation, airlines will often help you find a way to get home.

Many airlines, such as Delta, have special bereavement fees as well, which can help blunt the financial sting of an emergency flight home. They'll also work to find you a slot on a flight that will get you to your destination as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Vacation packages. These often come coupled with airline flights that have already been purchased by the travel agency. Late-in-the-game-vacation-package sellers are often eager to get somereturn for their packages, so they'll sometimes sell them at a discounted rate.

If you can find a travel agency or other group selling vacation packages to your destination, contact them directly to inquire about last-minute deals. Not only could this take care of both your flight and housing all at once, but it could also save you a surprising amount of money.

Some families even use this strategy to plan their vacations. They'll call a travel agency and ask what kind of last-minute packages agents are trying to get rid of at a steep discount. That then becomes their family vacation.

Airline newsletters. A final tactic is to subscribe to airline newsletters, something you can do even if you're not looking for an emergency flight at this moment.

Airline newsletters are issued very frequently – sometimes even multiple times per day. These newsletters often show exceptional discounts on a handful of flights that, for some reason or another, are really undersold that day. Airlines want to send full flights; it's far better for them to sell a cheap last-minute ticket than to allow planes to take off with empty seats. So, they often use their newsletters to share information about such last-minute flights.

Subscribe to some of these email newsletters, particularly for airlines associated with the airports that are most convenient for you. You might just discover a big discount for a flight right at the moment you need it.

Inexpensive last-minute flights areout there. You just have to know where to look and what tools to use to find them.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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