How to Take a Last-Minute Trip (Without Spending a Ton)
Any avid traveler knows the key to saving money when booking travel: Do it early. Fail to plan ahead, and you’ll be stuck overpaying — or taking the dreaded “staycation.”
But there are last-minute planning strategies that can help put you on the road without socking you with a massive credit card bill. We reached out to some of our favorite travel experts to find out how to pull off a last-minute vacation.
Keep an open mind: At this point in the game, you have to be equally willing to go to Borneo as the Bahamas, and flexible enough to leave mid-week from an airport that’s not necessarily the most convenient. “When it comes to last-minute planning, the more flexible you are, the easier the process and the more money you're likely to save,” says TravelZoo senior editor Gabe Saglie. If you want to see a new city, don’t just search one, search five. The same is true of beach destinations or mountaintops.
Compare them to see what flight and hotel rates look like. It’s also key to be flexible with your travel dates. For some destinations like New York, flights can be cheaper during the week, while other cities tend to have cheaper flights on the weekends. Sites like Google Flights let you compare flying on different days of the week to search around for the best price. Hotels have special booking days as well.
Be different: Want to gamble and see a show? Consider skipping Vegas and going somewhere more affordable, like Reno. Beach destination? Skip Cancun and find a beach less popular with travelers. It’s all about supply and demand, says Isar Meitis, president of Last Minute Travel.
Another strategy is to travel off-season. The number one driver of vacation costs is seasonality says Saglie, which means tropical destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean — pricy over the winter holidays — are going to be more affordable in August. Play your cards right, and you could score a five-star hotel room for a three-star price. If you want to stay domestic, you can get great hotel deals in big financial hubs like New York, Chicago, and D.C., since business travel declines in the late summer, he adds.
Find package deals: Package deals that bundle together airfare with hotels and activities are a great starting point for any travel research, because they can show you what areas are on sale and what types of deals you’re likely to score, says Saglie. And they make it easy to stay within your budget because you can see flight and hotel deals all at once. George Hobica, founder of AirFare Watchdog, suggests using Upside.com to search for bundled hotel and flight deals. “They almost always save you money,” he says.
He does note, though, that before you pull the trigger you’ll still want to read independent reviews on the hotels/resorts to be sure they pass muster. And be warned: Occasionally those great hotel deals are happening because there is construction going on. If you see a deal that seems too good to be true, Mietis suggests calling the hotel directly to see if there’s a catch.
Road trip it: Airfare is where booking last-minute is most likely to trip you up, says Saglie, especially for bigger parties or families. In contrast, hotel prices often go down the closer you get to the date, since rooms may free up. This is why procrastinators are sometimes better roadtripping. Upgrade to a slightly nicer hotel instead of overpaying for flights, then put the rest of the money toward activities and great food.
...Or go international: The prices of last-minute international flights can be astronomical — but you never know when a good deal might pop up, says Hobica. Fuel prices, airline competition, and other factors can cause unpredictable price changes. In fact, someone who booked summer travel to Europe in January is likely to have paid more than someone who booked it in July, he says. Keep email notifications for international destinations on from sites like Google Flights and Airfare Watch Dog.
Be realistic about your budget: It can be tempting to splurge on a last-minute vacation. Spending your hard-earned money on travel isn’t a bad thing, but when booking last-minute it's easy to get out of your price range quickly. If you’re a notorious last-minute planner, it can help to create a contingent budget in advance, says Jackie Nourse, founder of The Budget Minded Traveler. That way you can “splurge” when the urge to take a last-minute trip strikes you — consider it an emergency fund for your own spontanaeity.
“I love doing things last-minute, because it feels spontaneous,” Nourse says. “If you allow yourself that luxury, you can make magic happen.”
With Ellie Schroeder