Reader AJ writes:
Hi, I’m wondering if you have any tips on where to find cheap last-minute plane tickets. There is a family emergency in Madrid and I need to get over there ASAP. The fares are astronomical. Iberia wants over $3300 for economy. Any ideas on how to find a cheaper fare? Thanks in advance.
First off, AJ, I hope everything works out for you and your family. This is the worst kind of travel planning: Last minute, high priced, must-go travel.
Last minute fares tend to be very high, as you experienced.. You’re probably looking at full-fare economy pricing with that $3300 Iberia fare. I have a few suggestions — most of which may be useful advice for people doing general airfare searches, by the way, especially for international flights:
1) Consolidator fares
Don’t just rely on the airlines and the big travel booking sites for a fare. Sure, search Kayak, Travelocity, Expedia, etc. But don’t leave it there. Consolidator fares don’t often appear on the big sites (though Kayak does catch a few). These are wholesale fares bought in bulk and then doled out by travel agencies. They are “unpublished” fares according to most airlines’ rules, since the fares aren’t publicly available: if you buy one, you’ll know what you pay, of course, but the transaction will be between you and the agent, not you and the airline. (The price the consolidator paid to the airline remains a secret, and your ticket will very likely simply say “BULK” in the base fare section.)
All consolidator fares offer a trade-off. In return for lower prices, the fares are even more restricted than regular published discount fares. Costs to change tickets are high, and vary by the provider. Some airlines frown on consolidators, and don’t give full mileage for flights. So ask questions before you buy.
The way I see it, there are four kinds of consolidators out there:
- all-purpose: These consolidators carry fares to everywhere, and aren’t necessarily wed to particular airlines or alliances. Big online consolidators include Airfare.com, AirlineConsolidator.com, CheapoAir, and TFI Tours. Many have a web presence, but the search engines are still somewhat primitive. Try the web first, but don’t hesitate to pick up the phone.
- region-specific: These agencies often emerge from a local ethnic community, such as a Chinatown travel agency that specializes in fares to China. Check local newspapers, especially the Sunday paper travel section.
- student/educator: Sellers such as StudentUniverse and STA Travel are consolidators specializing in sales to the educational set. If you can demonstrate eligibility for their fares (having a .edu e-mail address may do the trick if you’re in the US) you can often get substantial savings over regular fares.
- opaque: Priceline and Hotwire will sell you discounted air tickets, either through regular channels (where you see the flights, schedule, etc.) or “opaquely,” meaning that you won’t see the times or provider until you’ve committed to the purchase. (No refunds.) When it comes to airfare, I like knowing what I’m buying, so I’ve never bought a plane ticket this way, but if forced to give an opinion, I’d prefer Hotwire. Unlike Priceline, Hotwire offers two tiers of opaque fares: “FlexSaver fares” with some parameters made explicit (e.g., morning departure), and “Clearance fares” with no information about the flight at all (any departure time between 6am and midnight is fair game). Note that neither of these fare types are eligible to earn miles with the airline you fly. Caveat emptor.
2) Package fares
Another option is to try to book an air+car or air+hotel package, in lieu of airfare alone. I’ve seen (and bought!) packages for less than the cost of the flight alone. Be sure to check Site59.com, Lastminute.com, and the usual suspects like Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz, which each offer package and last-minute options. Also consider the airlines’ own package options on their websites. For international flights, these packaged fares tend to not be upgradable.
3) Bereavement fares
While bereavement fares are getting rarer and rarer for domestic U.S. travel, international travel (and non-US airlines) tend to still offer discounts for family members attending a funeral. Some airlines, such as Lufthansa, are fairly generous, and will waive some advance purchase requirements for family emergencies less than death, too. You may be required to provide some documentation, such as a doctor’s note or a death certificate. And it may not be the cheapest deal around: it may be cheaper still to use a consolidator fare, but it is worth asking and putting a reservation on hold while you research the options. Note that this must be done over the phone with an agent.
4) Discounted Business Class
If you just can’t find a cheap fare in economy, and that $3300 fare is all you can get, try doing a search for business class. It may cost the same, or even less than coach. You may be too late to buy a Z fare, some of which require 50 or 60 days advance purchase, but it’s worth checking. Some second-tier carriers, like LOT Polish or TAP Air Portugal occasionally offer biz class deals. Depending on where you live, you might also try checking Maxjet’s fare to London, and look into a connecting flight to Spain. (See Wegolo or WhichBudget to find a discount carrier on the connection, or search SkyScanner or Opodo for intra-European flights from major carriers.)
Finally, consider using your miles for the flight. Many carriers open up their inventory to fairly easy mileage redemption at the last minute, if they have empty seats. Depending on your program, you may need to pay a “rush fee” for short notice ticketing, but this is small change in this circumstance. And while you won’t be spending your miles on that great vacation you’ve been thinking about, you’re likely getting a lot of cents-per-mile.
Best of luck to you and your family.