Ah, the last precious weeks of summer. The kids may be getting ready to go back to school, but don't put away your suitcase just yet. If you never got around to taking a vacation this season -- or you're itching for one last getaway before Labor Day, there's still time to snag a sizzling deal. Now's a good time to brush up on your vacation-booking skills.
For this story, we define "last minute" as within two weeks of departure for most destinations or up to a month before a cruise sets sail. (The typical weekend vacation is booked seven weeks in advance.) You can save a bundle by following strategies for booking spur-of-the-moment trips for business and leisure.
Airlines hike fares a week or two before most weekday flights depart. They figure that many business travelers will pay through the nose to fly on short notice. But there is a way around the high prices: Buy a vacation package that includes a hotel and rental car along with your flights. Airlines discount unbooked seats at the last minute by bundling them into packages, which don't list the fare reduction separately.
For example, in late August, American Airlines was offering a round-trip Friday-to-Monday ticket between St. Louis and San Francisco. The fare on two days' notice was $788. But on Lastminute.com (formerly known as Site59.com), a Web site that tracks last-minute weekend packages, we found a round-trip ticket on the same American flights -- also on one days' notice -- as part of a vacation package that included a hotel, for $427 per person.
To get the price, you don't actually have to use the hotel -- although you won't save any more money by skipping it. Lastminute.com and many other companies that sell packages let you keep the plane ticket and ignore the hotel or any other part of the package without penalty. (If you need a car, check for a package that will offer a better deal than buying a flight and rental car a la carte.)
Lastminute.com advertises that it offers packages starting 14 days before departure (and as late as three hours before departure). If you want to book a package for a holiday weekend, you will often find deals up to 17 days ahead of your departure.
A hotel may lower its rate at the last minute if it is not fully booked. Capitalize on the hotel's bad luck with a two-step plan: First, reserve a room at an inexpensive chain hotel that permits cancellation up to the day you arrive. For example, Marriott hotels allow you to cancel standard bookings (as opposed to rooms reserved at special clearance rates, which have tighter rules) without penalty until 6 p.m. on the day of arrival.
Next, a day or two before you arrive, call the hotel you would prefer to stay at and ask for the lowest rate. If you score a great rate at your preferred hotel, cancel the first reservation. An alternate strategy is to check the hotel's Web site for special deals, such as a free third night. Hotels are offering free nights more often because they're under pressure to keep guests for longer stays without starting a price war by lowering daily rates, according to Nancy Dunnan, editor of the TravelSmart newsletter.
If the hotel is run independently or is part of a regional chain, call the front desk and ask the clerk for an extra night's stay free -- even if the hotel isn't currently advertising one. Independent and regional-chain hotels, which lack the marketing power of national chains such as Hyatt, may be more willing to bend to fill an unexpected vacancy. When you call, say something like, "I already have a reservation at another hotel at a cheaper rate, but I'll book with you if I can get a third night free." This strategy won't work with national chains because they discourage their hotels from negotiating directly with guests.
Another last-minute strategy may be the most fun of all: Try an inn or a bed-and-breakfast instead of a hotel. These mom-and-pop operations are often more flexible about discounting to fill vacancies than national hotel chains, says Dunnan.
To find 11th-hour bed-and-breakfast getaways, sign up for free weekly e-mails from Bedandbreakfast.com. Every Wednesday, you'll receive a list of places offering deals of 20% or more off regular rates for the upcoming weekend in the city, state or region you prefer to visit. For instance, on one days' notice you could have recently booked a stay at the Country Victorian B&B in Charleston, S.C., for $99 a night, versus the regular rate of $185 a night.
Rental-car companies put unreserved cars on fire sale at the last minute, but they prefer not to advertise these low rates. Their solution is to offer discounts via blind-booking Web sites, such as Hotwire.com and Priceline.com.
At Hotwire.com, you can specify dates, car type and pick-up location. The site then fetches rates. Select the rate you're willing to pay, and Hotwire will book you with the company of their choice. Hotwire rents cars from Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz and National, but you won't know which company is offering your nonrefundable rate until you've paid.
For example, in late August, we looked for a spur-of-the-moment weekend car rental in Chicago with two days' notice. The cheapest offering from any of Hotwire's providers was $34 a day. On Orbitz.com, the best offer from the five companies was also $34. But on Hotwire.com, we found a car for $18 a day.
Priceline.com brokers cars from the same five car companies. The auction service lets you specify dates, type of car, pick-up location and the price you're willing to pay. If a car-rental company accepts your bid, Priceline will reserve the car. The site also lets you pick a rental-car provider and pay the listed rate, but its name-your-own-price deals usually save you more money.
Cruise trips are best booked many months in advance. Demand for top itineraries is high, and you need to book a few months ahead to nab the best deals. But if you're planning a trip for late summer or early fall, all is not lost. Sometimes, early birds -- people who book a year in advance -- cancel at the last minute, making bargain-priced cruise cabins available. To find these deals, stop at discount travel site SkyAuction.com.
For example, SkyAuction recently put up for bid an inside cabin for an eight-night roundtrip Mexican Riviera cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines from Los Angeles, sailing September 29. Just one month before the departure date, the winning bid was $756 per person, double occupancy, including all taxes and service charges. The cheapest cabin available for the same cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line's Web site started at $2,099.
Another agency that excels at last-minute cruise offerings is Moment's Notice. Search for cruises that meet your criteria for length, itinerary and amenities. The site will fetch cruises with different prices. (The site sells a variety of other travel products, too.)
Recently on less than three week's notice, you could have scooped up a seven-day Alaskan cruise on Carnival Cruise Lines, departing from Wittier, Alaska, on August 29. An interior cabin cost $962 per person, double occupancy (including taxes and fees).
Moments-notice.com stands out for offering vouchers for free second trips. These spiffs are usually hotel stays, not cruises. Recently, one such free trip was an seven-night stay for four people in a condo. (Taxes on the free trip are typically $50.)
European vacations are also best booked months in advance, but if your heart is set on taking a last-minute jaunt to Europe, you can still catch a good deal. One of your best bets is to head directly to LastMinute.com. Enter your departure point, destination city and target departure date (such as a specific day or "next weekend"). The site will retrieve a list of deals by price and length of stay.
Recently, on one week's notice, we found an offer for a five-night Belgian getaway over Labor Day weekend at the four-star Crown Plaza hotel in Antwerp. The package included flights on Continental Airlines departing from New York City. The cost was $943 per person, and that included all taxes and fees.
For last-minute hotel rooms in Western Europe in general, we recommend Laterooms.com, a British-based site that seems to have a broader selection of hotel rooms than Expedia and its rivals. For rooms in Italy in particular, we recommend Venere.com, an Italian-based Web site that lists rooms for several countries but boasts especially deep coverage of Italy.
For more advanced-level tactics for booking at the last-minute, we recommend HotelChatter.com, which gleans intelligence about the best and worst hotels from readers' missives and articles from top travel publications. (At the site, enter the search terms "last minute" to fetch relevant tidbits.)
Next: See 25 Best Travel Sites for more help in snagging a good deal online.