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Travel

Five Ways to a Cheap Last-Minute Vacation

Procrastinator? No matter. You can pull off a fun and memorable summer getaway on a moment\'s notice -- without breaking the bank.

Still no plans for your summer vacation? The weather may have turned warmer and the kids may already be out of school, but it's not too late to make your getaway. But doesn't traveling at the last minute mean paying through the nose? Not so, if you choose the right vacation spot and know where to look for 11th-hour bargains. We outline five tips to help you plan a budget-friendly adventure on the fly. Then, we take the advice and show you ten fun and affordable getaways -- check out our slideshow for inspiration.

1. Travel in the off-season. We're not suggesting you put your summer vacation dreams on hold. Rather, consider visiting locales where tourist traffic is highest in winter, spring or fall -- not summer. By traveling in the off-season, not only will you save money off peak-season rates, but also you will avoid the crowds and have a greater chance of finding accommodations at the last minute. For example, summer is a prime time to relax at a posh ski resort, cruise the Caribbean or unwind poolside in the Mexican Riviera for a fraction of winter prices.

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2. Book a package deal. Airlines typically raise fares a week or two before departure, reasoning that business travelers will pony up the cash to fly on short notice. But you can get around the sky-high prices with a vacation package that includes a hotel or rental car with your flights. Airlines discount unbooked seats at the last minute by rolling them into packages, which don't list the fare reduction separately. You can find these bundled bargains at Site59.com, which specializes in last-minute getaways. We recently searched the site for a trip (with departure in a week) to Orlando from St. Louis. We found a package that included a four-night hotel stay plus non-stop round-trip airfare on American Airlines for only $307 per person, based on double occupancy. The fare for the same flights on American's Web site cost $366 per person, and that didn't include a hotel. You don't have to use all the elements of a package. So even if you didn't need a hotel, buying the package and using only the airfare would still save you money off buying a plane ticket directly from the airline. Site59.com offers packages starting 14 days before departure -- and as late as three hours before departure.

3. Vacation close to home. The steep cost of airfare this summer is enough to eat up any vacation budget -- especially if you're planning a trip on the fly. Instead of taking to the skies, consider destinations to which you can drive. Even with rising gas prices, you could save a bundle. Seek out day-trip possibilities and return home each night to forgo lodging expenses. Or you can look for destinations within a day's drive and book an affordable hotel using one of our favorite travel Web sites. For a trove of ideas and itineraries in dozens of cities, check out the Day Trips series and Quick Escapes series from Globe Pequot Press.

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If your budget is particularly tight this summer, or if members of your family have scheduling conflicts, try being a tourist in your hometown. Perhaps you live in San Francisco and have never walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, taken the tour at Alcatraz or had dim sum in China Town. Check out a tour guide book for your city, grab your camera and go explore. Or you can use your modest vacation budget to live it up for a few days at home -- go to a concert, eat at a ritzy restaurant or unwind at a local spa. After all, you've got a free place to stay. Just tell everyone you're on vacation. Put a hold on your mail and don't answer your cell phone to minimize distractions and feel like you're actually getting away.

4. Consider camping or hostelling. It may not be the Ritz, but if you're up for an adventure, staying at a campsite or hostel can save you oodles of money. Plus, you may stand a better chance at finding last-minute accommodations. Many campsites now take reservations, so hop online to check availability and secure your spot, even at a moment's notice. ReserveUSA.com handles reservations for the USDA Forest Service, National Park Service and others. You'll find plenty of camps for less than $20 a night that range from mountain settings to beach-front sites.

If you prefer sleeping in a bed to sleeping under the stars, consider a budget-friendly hostel. Dorm-style rooms typically cost $15 to $35 a night, depending on the locale and are typically available for drop-in travelers, or you can book a reservation online through Hostels.com. And hostels aren't just for solo vacationers. Many offer private rooms for couples and families at a higher price that's still less than the rate at nearby hotels. In Seattle, for example, the hostel offers a private room with six beds for large families or groups, for $159 -- a mere $26 per bed. And hostels provide more than just a place to sleep. Most come with communal kitchens and laundries, and some even offer perks such as high-speed Internet access, game rooms, TV rooms, hot tubs and organized activities for kids.

5. Get in touch with nature. Entertaining the family on a vacation doesn't have to break the bank. For budget-friendly activities, you can count on Mother Nature. For starters, consider the offerings of national parks, forests and state parks. Miles of hiking trails, beautiful vistas, biking trails, fishing holes and rafting runs await -- all without requiring advance notice. Park entrance fees typically cost less than $10, or are free. And if you plan to visit several national parks this summer, spring for the National Parks Pass ($50) which gets you and your party in free to any park for a year. And don't overlook our neighbor to the north: Canada offers a bevy of beautiful parks and outdoor adventures, too, often without the overcrowding that's become common at U.S. parks. You might find it easier to snag a campsite or a nearby hotel on a moment's notice without the crowds.

Next: See our slide show of Ten Cheap Last-Minute Getaways