NEW YORK — Fly to the Bahamas today for $10. Take a trip to Los Angeles tomorrow for $20. While airfares generally are higher these days, last-minute sales that ask you to fly at a moment's notice are popping up everywhere.
Why do airlines launch a sale that asks people to travel the next day or fly on off-days like a Monday or Tuesday? The biggest reason boils down to simple supply and demand: More people are flying, so the airlines don't need to launch big sales on more popular days. That's especially true with the summer travel season approaching.
But there's more to it. Here's a look at why the airlines offer last-minute sales and how best to take advantage.
First waves of last minute: Last-minute fare sales are here to stay, at least for summer, according to Rick Seaney of FareCompare.com. Here's why: Facebook and Twitter.
These "fly on a moment's notice" sales are geared toward the instant communication of social media sites, which are rapidly overshadowing e-mail as an alert system.
Eight to 10 months ago, last-minute sales were a rarity. Before that, airlines took weeks to review marketing and advertising plans before launching a sale. It's a much more organic process now that airlines have realized the potential free marketing social media provides.
Homework counts: What do more last-minute deals and fewer sales overall mean for travelers? More homework.
If you don't know the average price of a trip to Grandma's, you probably won't get the best deal. And if you're not flexible, you are likely pay a lot more than you did to take the same trip a year ago.
Overall, ticket prices are about average with fares before the recession. Still, some consumers may have sticker shock because they grew accustomed to cheap tickets and extended fare sales when travel demand was sluggish.
Sales in general are becoming more scarce. For example, discount carrier Southwest hasn't had an across-the-board fare sale since November of last year, Seaney said. At the height of the recession, it had nearly one sale per week.
The bottom line: It's going to take longer to spot deals this summer. And fares will probably be higher this fall, too, so you'll have to know how and when to find bargains.
The keys: Start looking at prices online three months before you want to travel. That's when airlines start to manage their seats. More than three months out, airlines haven't figured out which tickets are selling and which aren't, so they generally won't cut fares. Within that three month time frame, waiting too long might put you out of the running for the cheapest seats.
Seaney says consumers should be prepared for sales that last no more than 5 or 10 days during the summer months.
And remember the cardinal rules of fare shopping: The best time to shop is Monday or Tuesday, not on the weekends. Wednesdays, generally, are the cheapest days to fly.