Perhaps the city smog is clogging your brain, or you came home to find your roommate sleeping in your bed again, or the fuzz finally found those plants you’ve been cultivating behind the old graveyard. Either way, last-minute travel for the unprepared can be a costly endeavor. As you know, airfares increase exponentially the closer you get to your date of departure, and hotels tend to fill up fast during holidays and tourist season. Plus, both are particularly adept at bilking the desperate. They know the excitement and anticipation of an impromptu vacation can overcome a customer’s usual thriftiness.
But don’t despair – there are ways of avoiding the savage gouging that generally comes along with the decision to embark upon a last-minute trip. In fact, procrastinating can save you so much money, you may never plan ahead again.
Last-Minute Travel Sites
Every time a plane takes off with empty seats, the airlines have forfeited the opportunity to maximize their profit on that flight. That’s why airlines try to fill flights as early as possible by offering low prices for tickets booked at least 21 days before departure – and jacking prices to astronomical levels as the flight date approaches.
This practice is meant to discourage you from booking at the last-minute. However, the airlines would still rather sell those seats for a low price than for no price – enter last-minute ticket consolidators like priceline.com and Hotwire, who contract with the airlines to offer you the cheapest prices on last-minute tickets.
Some online travel agents of good repute:
The best-known of last-minute travel sites, priceline allows you to bid on airfare (as well as hotel rooms and rental cars). If priceline can find a ticket priced lower than your bid on the date you want to fly, it will automatically purchase it for you. However, you won’t know which airline or the exact flight time, so this service is only appealing if you have some flexibility in your schedule.
The folks at last-minute travel site Hotwire recommend taking the following steps to make your trip cheap and pleasant:
Even when traveling on a whim, decide on a travel itinerary and book flights as early as possible in order to avoid stress and confusion.
When making last minute travel arrangements, be flexible when it comes to departure dates and times. Flying mid-week or at off-peak times of the day can often save travelers a great deal of money and ensures less hassle and shorter lines at the airport.
A new entrant on the last-minute travel scene, hotwire has a similar concept to priceline. However, you don’t have to bid on a flight – the site searches out the lowest fares for your itinerary, and you have 30 minutes to decide if you want to purchase a ticket. Again, you won’t know the exact flight or airline (though Hotwire, like priceline, works only with the major, established carriers) until after you’ve purchased
This site allows you to bid on hotel, airfare and vacation packages, using an eBay-like auction model. If you have a specific destination in mind, this isn’t the most efficient service, but it’s worth surfing around to see if anything catches your fancy. Especially good for planning group trips, as you can rent condos and ski chalets for a fraction of the usual price.
Will these services save you substantial money? Absolutely, if you’re willing to be a little spontaneous. For example, a recent search showed that a next-day flight from Boston to Seattle would cost between $1000 and $2200 if purchased direct from an airline – but only $516 through hotwire.com. You might not have control over the time of the flight, but for a $500 savings, who cares?
Airlines have also clued into the advantages of offering last-minute fares. Many of the major carriers offer Internet-only fares; however, most are good for the coming weekend only and carry special restrictions. You’ll typically have to leave on a Friday or Saturday and return at some point on Monday or Tuesday.
Sometimes the destinations are obscure (when’s the last-time you needed to go to Presque Isle, Maine?), but often the airlines have major sales on major routes. The easiest way to keep abreast of these super savers is to sign up for the Internet-Only Airfare Newsletter published via e-mail by SmarterLiving.com, which consolidates the best weekend fares leaving from your home airport on a weekly. Alternatively, check out the site of your favorite airlines and sign up for their Internet-only e-mail newsletters.
Unless you’re camping, you’re going to have to find a place to stay. If you can’t find a great room rate through one of the last-minute travel sites, the best way to cut hotel costs is to be very polite to the desk staff (this will work wonders), and ask if they offer any discounts. Often, if they like you, they will simply give you the discount, regardless of whether or not you belong to, say, AAA or NAARP. And again, call around before you set out, it will save time and frustration.
Also, depending on your destination, hostels may be an inexpensive, no-frills option.
And before you go…
Keep in mind that the key to a last minute trip is to maintain the degree of excitement that you set out with. Granted, you don’t have much time for preparation, but that doesn’t mean you have to be unprepared.
Finally, though packing must be kept to a minimum in order to avoid killing said impulsive spirit, make sure to pack the essentials. Nothing kills the mood like dropping $27 at the airport for a toothbrush and a travel-size deodorant that wouldn’t keep a mouse dry for more than an hour. The intrepid traveler is loath to spend precious funds on piddles like tampons and toothpaste.