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We had a question here earlier on booking flight tickets in the weeks running up to holiday season, which covered ground on what happens to flight prices over the period.

What I'm interested to know is if I had to fly out at short notice, say within 1-2 days, then am I better off booking within that 1-2 day gap online, or am I better off trying my luck directly at the airport (as long as I'm willing to wait at the airport) for a cheaper price? Is there any truth to rumours that airlines sell tickets at cheaper prices at the airport right before flights to fill empty seats or is that a myth?

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I might contribute some inside knowledge since I am working for a company which contributed the software for a major cheap-flight company.

Generally the prices are determined by offer and the demand BUT there is another major variable (in fact several) in the game for short-booking. Statistics show that most (80%) last-minute bookers are in an important need for the short booking and therefore willing to pay more. So the function which generates the price for short-bookings is not a complete function of offer and demand any more like it was years ago.

If you want to know what's the deal do the following: Go to your online bookers homepage. Search for a flight which is taking off today and try to book that ticket. With this you firstly know how short you can book online and secondly if the prices are acceptable for you.

Your question is also highly location dependant. In the country I live (Switzerland) I get the cheapest flights through a friend who works at the airport and calls me when a certain flight is available. I can only recommend trying both the online and physical approach.

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The theory behind this is called Revenue Management. A survey: combinatoria.fceia.unr.edu.ar/pdf/SeminarioRosario2011/… and slides: combinatoria.fceia.unr.edu.ar/pdf/SeminarioRosario2011/… –  Diego Dec 29 '11 at 16:47
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For last minute bookings buy opaque tickets online! There are a few sites for this like hotwire.com and priceline.com

For what I know, airlines don't sell tickets at cheaper prices at the airport right before flights as they did years ago, because that would encourage the passengers to have this behavior. But selling opaque is a win-win situation: it fills the empty seats while somehow avoids this problem!

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I thought such opaque tickets are only for hotel bookings, not flights. –  Ankur Banerjee Dec 20 '11 at 8:44
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some good advice: smartertravel.com/airfare/… –  Diego Dec 20 '11 at 20:47
    
This sounds cool, but I haven't had any luck in finding opaque tickets that I can buy. Any tips on searching for them? –  Josiah Sprague Jul 8 '13 at 2:26
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Oh online! I mean, it depends how much time you have, but even when I flew into Dusseldorf last year, I trained to Cologne, hopped on a net cafe terminal and found a cheap flight from Cologne to London for that evening.

I've heard of upgrades at the airport, and certainly you can buy and change tickets, but I've yet to hear of anyone claim that they're cheaper. I do wish that The Amazing Race would show the prices they get when competitors manage to buy tickets at the counter, however :/

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