8 Tips for Last-Minute Travel

Today’s Your Money section in the New York Daily News includes an article by a former TravelMuse writer Jason R. Rich about how to find last-minute travel savings. I was happy to help Rich out as a resource for the piece, but there are some tips that didn’t make it into the article that I’d like to share here, along with some others that deserve repeating. These eight tips are by no means comprehensive, and I welcome your additional tips in the comments section.

I tend to do a lot of last-minute travel, not least because I have a difficult time making up my mind on where to go next, but also because there are some great deals to be had if you can be a little flexible with your dates and destinations. Which brings me to the most important tip:

General Tips:

1. Be flexible.
Letting go of preferred airlines, hotels and car rental brands can save you a bundle, whether traveling for leisure or business. Also when you travel too makes a big different. Pick destinations that in the midst of their off-season period—the cheapest deals are found when the crowds are at their thinnest.

2. Sign up for last-minute deal newsletters.
Just about every supplier has one, including airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and third-party online resources. They’re particularly handy if you just want to get away for a few days and are open on the destination. Over the years, thanks to deals found midweek, I could be in London, Miami, the Bahamas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Madrid or Southern California by Friday (or the following Friday for international destinations), all for less than $300 RT.

3. Book directly with vendors.
Often, you’ll find the same deals, or even better, plus they offer more favorable change and cancellation policies.

4. Use convention and visitors bureau Web sites.
These resources often get overlooked but shouldn’t as you can find deals not listed elsewhere for the bureau’s hotel and attraction members. For a list, check out Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI).

Airline Tip:

5. Again, be flexible. Changing your flight plans by a day or even a couple of hours can save hundreds of dollars.

I needed to pull an Up in the Air move when I found out on Dec. 27 that I was only 4,000 miles shy of platinum elite status on American Airlines but had only four days left to make the goal. My airline clearly was set, but destination wasn’t. I picked Los Angeles to ensure meeting my goal, plus it cost just $350 RT. I would have preferred the Bay Area, where I lived recently for the better part of two years and which I miss, but tickets started at $500 RT. (Ironically, my LAX flight changed planes at SFO.)

As for timing, I could have paid about $50 less had I been willing to get to the airport by 5:30 a.m. Ideally, I also would have like to have spent a few days in the LA sun, but flying out anytime before Dec. 30 would have added at least $150 to the fare, so I ended up taking a 24-hour trip, but it was worth it.

Hotel Tips:

6. Check the specials sections on hotel Web sites.

Provided there isn’t a big meeting or event going on in the destination, or the hotel isn’t trendy, I’ve been able to save up to 50 percent off regular room rates when booking a room within three days of my arrival. In addition to lower rates, you can find accompanying deals, such as free tickets to a limited-run museum exhibit or restaurant discounts.

7. Ask for a better price—all they can say is no.

Hotels have fixed inventory, and their goal is to get heads in beds. If that doesn’t happen, that opportunity for revenue is forever lost. So, better a discounted rate than nothing, right?

Last April, when I was still had a place in the Bay Area (and a car, which I also miss), I decided on Saturday afternoon to spend the rest of the weekend in Big Sur, about a two-hour drive south on the Pacific Coast Highway. I pulled into a lodge located in one of the state parks at about 6:30 p.m. The only room left was a cabin suite with two bedrooms. Regular rate was $300 per night. Because the desk manager knew the odds were slim anyone else would be calling or stopping in after me, he agreed to let me have the room, which came with a large fireplace and porch facing one of the mountains, for $150. Bliss.

Car Rental Tip:

8. Use opaque sites, like Hotwire or Priceline.

Yes, you can also get great deals for flights and hotels using these services, but I prefer to know which airline and hotel I’m booking ahead of time. However, car rentals are less important to me. I had to return to San Francisco last summer about a month after my car lease expired. Through Hotwire I landed an Avis rental for $23 per day, 50 percent off the $46 price had I booked with the agency directly. I then used the savings to upgrade to a convertible for just $15 a day more. Hey, even when working a girl’s gotta have fun too!

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