Tips for planning your last-minute vacation

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 15, 2004. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Rebecca Johnson, vacation package.

When you find yourself in need of a last-minute escape, there's little reason to worry about lack of availability or exorbitant prices. Chances are, the airlines and hotels haven't reached capacity yet, either. This means a greater chance of finding a bargain, and if you're flexible with your vacation plans, your savings can be significant.

Site59 offers packages for departures within the next few weeks that include airfare and hotel, airfare and extras, or hotel and extras. Michelle Abril, an account executive at Site59, said more than 60 percent of customers book packages within three days of departure. Though Site59 does not claim to specialize in any one destination, the majority of their packages are for destinations in North America (including the Caribbean). A few Europe destinations may also be available, depending on your departure city.

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Site59 covers many departure cities, with packages leaving from Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and more. When you choose both the departure city and destination, Site59 will display a variety of prices for the upcoming two weeks. Yet if you are more flexible, you can simply enter your departure city and choose a vacation theme such as "offbeat retreats" or "under $250."

LastMinuteTravel.com also offers significant discounts for destination-specific getaway plans. We compared air-and-hotel prices to Orlando, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York City, from departure cities across the country. LastMinuteTravel.com offered the lowest prices on most routes when compared to packages offered by other travel agencies, including Expedia, Orbitz, Site59, and Travelocity.

Yet flexibility is also important when booking your last-minute vacation. Many airlines offer last-minute airfares at the beginning of each week for travel on one of the next two weekends. If you just want to get away, and aren't particular as to where, this might be the best option for you. Every week SmarterTravel.com compiles a list of last-minute airfares offered by up to 20 airlines. Also be sure to read our Airfare 101 series, which offers advice on finding and booking a last-minute fare.

You don't have to let airfare determine your destination, of course. Tour companies and cruise lines that are desperate to fill vacancies sell extra tickets to sites like 11thHour.com. This site offers a large variety of vacation options and can let you leave as early as 24 hours after purchase. One nice feature about 11thHour is its calendar page, which allows travelers to view the fluctuation of prices based on departure date.

Sites like Hotwire and priceline.com realize that for many Americans, long vacations are quickly being replaced by long weekends. Hotwire's Weekender Packages are valid for travel in the upcoming 14 days, and departures are for Thursdays, Fridays, or Saturdays, with returns on Sundays, Mondays, or Tuesdays. A minimum stay of two nights is required, and the maximum stay is four nights. Priceline's Weekend Getaway Deals are available for travel Thursdays through Mondays and offer similar air-and-hotel packages, or you can choose to book weekend airfare, hotels, car rentals, or cruises separately.

Finally, the major online travel agencies, including Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, all offer air-and-hotel packages. When you book more than one element of travel, such as air and hotel, you receive an opaque fare, meaning that you know the final cost of the trip but not the amount of each individual element. This allows booking agents to extend even more savings to the buyer. All three of these sites offer guides about what to see and do once you arrive at your destination, and allow you to avoid lines once you get there by booking entertainment online.

Although last-minute travel is more affordable than ever, there are a few common truths to finding good rates on travel no matter when you book. Be sure to include a Saturday-night stay, be flexible with travel dates and location—and when you find a good rate, book it. Also, be sure to consider what is included in the listed rates; some sites include taxes and fees while others do not.

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