You may have fantasized about heading to the airport and buying an airline ticket on a whim to whatever destination comes to mind.
Or you might be wondering if you can save some money by simply heading to the airport to purchase your ticket.
Buying your plane ticket at the airport may be doable but it comes with some challenges. In this article, I’ll take a look at whether or not you can you buy plane tickets at the airport.
I’ll also cover some of the pros and cons of doing so and give you some tips on alternatives you may want to take.
Table of Contents
Can you buy plane tickets at the airport?
Yes, you can buy plane tickets at some airports although it is often not a good idea because ticket prices may surge for last minute flights. You may also have additional challenges that I’ll talk about below.
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Why would you NOT buy tickets at the airport?
Let’s take a look at why it would not be a good idea to buy your tickets at the airport.
Note: When we are talking about buying tickets at the airport we are talking about buying last minute tickets and not advance purchase tickets (which would be tickets for flights several days, weeks, or months out).
It’s not cheaper
The biggest reason why you probably would not want to buy airline tickets when you arrive at the airport is because you probably will be paying more than you would had you booked in advance.
The best time to purchase your airline ticket will range depending on the time of year but generally you’re better off buying your ticket about 45 to 90 days prior to travel.
It’s possible that you could come upon a good deal when purchasing a ticket at the airport but the consensus seems to be that most airlines will increase the price at the very last minute (especially the day of travel).
In my personal experience, prices can sometimes drop a week or a few days before departure but more commonly they seem to spike the closer you get to departure.
This pricing scheme really makes sense when you consider a few factors.
First, the demographic of people purchasing last minute travel mostly consists of business travelers and those non-business travelers who have had unexpected events take place.
For example, 56 percent of business travelers in the United States book at the last minute
Business travelers are known for not being very price sensitive because the company is usually footing the bill. For that reason, they will still buy tickets even if they are more expensive than they were a few days/weeks ago.
Then there are people dealing with some kind of unexpected circumstance. These people basically need to get from point A to point B no matter what and so they are less likely to be price-sensitive because they have no choice.
The airlines know this and are thus likely to drive up the price.
Also, if airlines routinely dropped the prices the day of travel, the news of this would spread like wildfire.
Consumers would then wait until the last minute to book which would drive down revenue and also probably make logistics a lot more difficult for the airlines.
It could get you hit with SSSS…
One of the unexpected outcomes of purchasing a last minute airfare ticket is that you could be subject to secondary screening also known as SSSS.
This will require you to undergo a more thorough screening of your person and also all of your belongings. For example, you could get a pat down and have everything inside your bags swabbed for traces of explosives.
It’s not always that bad but sometimes it can slow you down a good deal and just be kind of an uncomfortable experience all around with people looking at you like you are up to no good.
It could also potentially make you miss your flight if you were cutting things close.
Getting SSSS on your boarding pass can be completely random but it’s also known that there are some factors that could contribute to you getting it.
One of those factors is some type of irregular travel activity and booking a flight last minute could definitely fall under that, especially if it is just a one-way ticket.
Also, it’s reported that agents for the airline have discretion and can flag a passenger which could result in them getting SSSS.
One reason why an agent might flag you is if they sense something is off and booking a last-minute ticket could potentially trigger that.
Dealing with one SSSS experience may not be that bad.
But if you show a pattern of irregular travel, that might land you on a watch list that will cause you to experience SSSS repeatedly. It might even get so bad that you need to apply for a redress number.
For a lot of people, making a trip to the airport is not very cheap. You have to pay for gas or public transportation to get you to the airport and you may also have to pay for parking.
Paying for all of that only to find out that all of the potential airline tickets are out of your price range or just ridiculously expensive could be an easy way to waste money (and time).
If you’re traveling with a partner you could always have them drop you off at the departures terminal and then they could wait somewhere like the cell phone waiting lot which is usually free while you find some good route options.
Some airports may not even allow you to purchase a ticket in-person.
I’ve never personally encountered this but presumably they would just refer you to the airline’s website or to the app for you to make your airline ticket purchase.
Also, if you were hoping to pay cash for your airline ticket, a lot of airlines have now moved to completely cashless payments.
Therefore, they may only accept credit cards and debit cards for payment for tickets and for all miscellaneous purchases like upgrades, baggage fees, etc.
And remember the SSSS? Trying to pay for an airline ticket with cash could also raise red flags….
Why would you buy tickets at the airport?
One of the most common reasons why someone might buy a ticket at the airport is for the sake of adventure.
There is something thrilling about taking a last-minute trip and some might even take it to the extreme and choose their destination at the airport.
This type of travel is obviously not for everyone but it can be quite the adventure when things go right.
I once booked a solo around the world trip about 48 hours before I departed and it was an experience of a lifetime. I hit up places like Taiwan, Thailand, and Germany.
Having so little time to prepare made it a challenge to get out and see everything but it also made the trip that much more rewarding.
Learning subway systems on the fly, discovering an amazing museum you’ve never heard about while strolling around… These are things that only last minute adventures allow you to do.
But just remember that it’s not always easy to be properly packed for any random destination not to mention potential visa requirements, pandemic related restrictions, etc.
You also might find yourself venturing into sketchy areas without adequate preparation.
Flat tire rule
Something a lot of travelers don’t know about is that if they miss a flight they may have up to two hours to work with the airlines to get on another flight sometimes free of charge.
This is known as the “flat tire rule” and it is a rule that is not usually published to the public but is on the books within the airlines.
If there are no open seats for you to get placed on and you are not able or willing to get on the standby list then your next option would be to purchase a walk-up fare.
So purchasing a ticket at the airport is essentially a last resort when missing your flight.
Online booking fee
Some airlines, especially those ultra low cost carriers may impose online booking fees.
For example, Spirit Airlines as of the summer of 2022 stated in the fine print:
Passenger Usage Charge: A non-refundable Passenger Usage Charge of $22.99 per segment per traveling customer applies to most reservations. A lower fee may apply to certain discount fares. No fee applies to bookings completed at Spirit Airlines’ domestic airport locations.
So they are essentially charging you $23 just to book online.
By going to the airport to book your flight you may be able to avoid the online booking fees and save money. Depending on how high those fees are, it could be worth it to book at the airport.
Biggest tip for finding cheaper last minute airfare
Beyond getting lucky, the best way to find a cheap last minute airline ticket at the airport would be to be extremely flexible.
If you are truly open to flying to just about any destination and also don’t mind dealing with sometimes long connections, you’ll greatly increase your odds of finding some type of decent deal.
If you have some type of airport lounge membership, long layovers may not be a big deal and might even be welcomed so that can help a lot with these type of bookings.
Also, if you’re comfortable with leaving the airport you might be able to explore a new city for a few hours and pass time until your layover is over.
Just be aware that some of the cheapest flights might involve overnight layovers which can be problematic and not the funnest to experience.
Also, you got to think about what you’re going to ask of an airline agent.
Showing up to an airline desk and asking them to find the best last minute deal for you to whichever destination may not go over well with some agents, especially if they are busy.
However, if you found an agent who had the right spirit they might be really into helping you with your adventure.
My personal recommendation
My personal recommendation for those interested in a last-minute adventure would be to just check out Google Flights. You can find last-minute deals to just about anywhere and it’s a very efficient process for searching.
For example, you can select your departure city and then see all of the different prices to different destinations in one view. (And you can do this from the comfort of your living room.)
Just hit the “explore” tab, select your timeframe, and then you can see prices from your origin, as shown in the image below.
Other online travel agencies may have certain features where you can do something similar. For example, you might be able to submit your total budget and then see what type of options get populated.
For most travelers, you are going to be better off booking your airline tickets a few weeks in advance (at least).
If you wait until the day of your travel to purchase your ticket at the airport, chances are you will not be saving money although last second deals do occasionally happen.
Buying a ticket at the airport does mean that you might be able to have an adventure like no other.
You just need to be mindful that you’re not pushing things too far and getting yourself into a situation that might have difficult consequences to sort out.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.